Johns Hopkins University Press
  • Beautifully Incomplete, Abject Objects: Studies of Racialized Gender, Desire, and the Power of the Aesthetic
Abject Performances: Aesthetic Strategies in Latino Cultural Production. By Leticia Alvarado. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018. 232 pages. $99.95 (cloth). $25.95 (paper).
Ornamentalism. By Anne Anlin Cheng. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. 224 pages. $31.95 (cloth).
Ricanness: Enduring Time in Anticolonial Performance. By Sandra Ruiz. New York: New York University Press, 2019. 256 pages. $89.00 (cloth). $30.00 (paper).
Sensual Excess: Queer Femininity and Brown Jouissance. By Amber Jamila Musser. New York: New York University Press, 2018. 240 pages. $89.00 (cloth). $27.00 (paper).
Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval. By Saidiya Hartman. New York: W. W. Norton, 2019. 464 pages. $28.95 (cloth). $17.95 (paper).

I’ve had the books featured in this review stacked over one another like a curated assemblage on my writing table. The titles and graphics speak closely to each other, and their collective weight marks a ground-shifting engagement with aesthetics across ethnic studies, gender studies, and American studies. With Saidiya Hartman, Anne Cheng, and Amber Musser we have new studies by scholars who offer powerful analytics for thinking about racial being, subjection, and autonomy. Their books account for the contradiction and complexity in dynamics of power that work on the psyche and in the flesh. Sandra Ruiz’s and Leticia Alvarado’s works further the study of the aesthetic lives of racialized gender through performance studies meditations on the loops of time [End Page 169] and embodied acts that mark Latinx refusals of colonial legibility and erasure. Throughout, these texts emphasize the promise of relation, to deviance, to objects, to opacity, and to each other, as a politic.

The process of preparing for and writing this review has spanned the beginnings of the COVID-19 pandemic and Black rebellion following the white supremacist killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, and too many others. I also painfully witnessed the search for Vanessa Guillen, a missing Latina solider stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, whose dismembered body was eventually found on base. The questions of racialized enfleshment, gendering, respectability, and citizenship addressed in these recent studies resonated and were felt. These books tell stories and generate archives that not only provide critical contexts for the violence and upheaval we are witnessing but they also make mappings toward liberation in and through the aesthetic possible.

Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval performs a literary engagement with archives of late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century Black life in Philadelphia and New York amid the Great Migration. Building on the methodology of critical fabulation that she developed in “Venus in Two Acts,” Hartman eschews the voice of the knowing analyst and embraces instead an inspired prose that emerges from an intoxication with and love for the misfits who appear in the diary entries of white women researchers and landlords, newspaper accounts, and the studies of figures like the sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois as problems to be solved.1 Rather than attempt to fill in the gaps to theorize the absence of Black women and queers, or to “correct” these framings, she instead conjures the fullness of their lives through evocative storytelling and artistic, conceptual use of newspaper clippings and photographs.

Images of Black pleasure and subjection emerge unexpectedly and interrupt the narrative; sometimes a picture may fill out a story or take the reader down a back way. For example, the chapter on the queer erotics and body presentation of the legendary blues performer Gladys Bentley includes an almost full-page reproduction of a voluptuous photograph of the dancer Paul Meeres taken by Carl Van Vechten in 1931. Lying shirtless atop a spread of society newspapers with a soft smile and playful side glance, he appears fully immersed in the pleasure of his own embodiment, with his right hand cushioning his head and left hand resting on his chest. The camera frames his body in an angle that highlights his upper chest and muscled, tattooed arms. The photo, like most of the others included in the book, is unanalyzed. Here, it leaves the reader with a visual taste of Black masculinity. Including Meeres’s image in a chapter [End Page 170] on Bentley invites a broader meditation on Black masculinity as multiple, beautiful, and whimsical. Self-making and performative stardom was the stuff of the street and the stage. Hartman’s curation of the photographic archive shows how the art of Black life was/is an aesthetic, and often sensual, project.

The project of Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments is to frame the lived experience of Black girls, women, and queers as aesthetic formations. The relations engendered by these subjects, in their indifference to colonial and heteronormative ideals of marriage and family, are positioned by Hartman as acts of radical possibility, foundational blueprints for ways of being otherwise beyond survival and beyond a sacrifice of passion or pleasure: to be Black and live fully on one’s own terms, and always in community. In the brief note on method that opens the book, Hartman writes: “For the most part, the history and the potentiality of their life-world has remained unthought because no one could conceive of young black women as social visionaries and innovators in the world in which these acts took place. The decades between 1890 and 1935 were decisive in determining the course of black futures. A revolution in a minor key unfolded in the city and young black women were the vehicle” (xv). The book lovingly follows the movements of nameless women and girls whose traces emerge in sociological graphs and voyeuristic photos, and engages the lives of public figures and entertainers such as Bentley and Edna Thomas. Hartman attends to the delights of their everyday practices of body crafting, lovemaking, and performance, which Black scholars and activists invested in respectability have viewed as social liabilities. For example, Hartman notes that in his observations of Black girls’ aesthetic tastes, Du Bois “bemoaned this tendency to excess, the too much, the love of the baroque; the double-descriptive: down-low, Negro-brown, more great and more better; the frenzy and passion; the shine and fabulousness of ghetto girls” (117). With some chapters named for specific places in New York, Hartman’s prose takes the viewer into narrow streets where lovers engage in impassioned quarrels and where desire sometimes crosses racial lines. The book is a poem to the city as a site of Black possibility. As the title of one chapter puts it, “In a moment of tenderness the future seems possible.”

The possibilities offered by the erotic lifeworlds that Hartman tells of further reverberate in Musser’s Sensual Excess: Queer Femininity and Brown Jouissance. Musser crafts a queer feminist of color engagement with psychoanalytic theory to chronicle the overlooked figure of the mother—and specifically the racialized mother—in theories of erotic becoming. In noting the colonial histories that have severed racialized people from the mother as “the first provider of care (regardless of gender)” (168) and introduces the child into sociality, Musser [End Page 171] probes “black and brown maternal absence and traces of attachment [that] emerge from this lacuna in the multiple permutations of relational selfhood that we find in brown jouissance. Thinking the black and brown m/Other requires that we attend to sensuality, aesthetics, and embodiment” (172). Musser offers an understanding of brown jouissance as a racialized pleasure that emerges from but also exceeds the pornotropic social and political positioning of Black and Brown people. Musser links the racializations of Blackness and Brownness to understand “race and gender as produced by affective and sensational exchanges” (7). Like Hartman, the archive through which these exchanges are studied include aesthetic representations and relations that traffic in “shine and fabulousness” (Hartman 117).

The book’s chapters are organized around readings of contemporary art, from Mickalene Thomas’s bedazzled portraits of Black femmes to the performative practices of Patty Chang and Xandra Ibarra. The chapter on surface play in Thomas’s work is particularly inspired and invites us to read what could be understood as a revealing nude self-portrait of the artist in the style of Gustave Courbet’s 1866 The Origin of the World as a play with opacity instead. The rhinestones that bedazzle Thomas’s splayed vulva, positioned centrally in the frame, at once amplify the ascribed sexual otherness of Black women while generating opacity by screening the body with ornament and arousing a tactile relationship to the representation that complicates racialized gendered visuality. Musser reads Thomas’s Origin of the Universe 1 (2012) as “a continuation of feminist projects to use tactile explorations of one’s body as a technology for subverting the scientific/pornographic gaze’s will to know and empowering the self” (65). Musser’s book engages intimately with artworks to center jouissance as a radical elsewhere that can be accessed by Black and Brown people through remembering our mothers and feeling ourselves through each other.

The ways in which shine and self-display can trouble the racializing gaze are also explored in Cheng’s Ornamentalism. This study extends the line of inquiry Cheng introduced in her last book, Second Skin: Josephine Baker and the Modern Surface, which explored how spectacularized embodiments of racial and gender difference both shaped and troubled modern constructs of style, difference, and personhood. In Ornamentalism, Cheng traces how the personage of the “yellow woman” comes into being through the articulation of aestheticized objectness in film, legal and literary narratives of personhood, embodied performances, and museum displays. In addressing how this figure is absent in feminist theory, ethnic studies, and aesthetic theory, Cheng insists on the term yellow woman [End Page 172]

rather than Asian woman in the West, or Asian American woman, because these more ameliorative, politically acceptable terms do not conjure the queasiness of this inescapably racialized and gendered figure. . . . What makes the yellow woman the exception in the larger category of WOC [women of color] is precisely the precariousness of her injury, a fact at once taken for granted and questionable. This figure is so suffused with representation that she is invisible, so encrusted by aesthetic expectations that she need not be present to generate affect, and so well known that she has vanished from the zone of contact.

(xi)

Like the other authors discussed here, Cheng’s project is more invested in attending to the effects these minoritized figures have on colonial epistemologies rather than bringing them into redemptive visibility. Thus, the book engages visual archives and textual representations that investigate how the yellow woman both haunts and shapes Western understandings of organic and inorganic being,2 and what considering her place in the history of racialized gendering can teach us about how attempts of knowing through representational capture are beset with contradictions that can be mined for anticolonial trouble.

The chapters of Cheng’s study engage the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s fashion exhibition China: Through the Looking Glass of 2015, the 2017 film Ghost in the Shell, and late nineteenth-century photography, among other representations. Cheng’s close readings engage deeply with and depart from Black feminism and theories of Black ontology to offer an understanding of the yellow woman’s racialized gendering. Where Hortense Spillers has demonstrated how Black women were ungendered and made flesh through the transatlantic slave trade (a process of turning a person into a thing), Cheng argues that ornamentalism is a mode of racial visuality that turns things into persons. The aesthetic production of the ornamental yellow woman as object, perhaps most dramatically staged in the tableau vivant of the “Chinese Lady” (Afong Moy) who toured the US in the mid-1800s, reveals how notions of the human are intimately intertwined with and stem from relations with the inorganic. In mobilizing the term yellow rather than Asian or Asian/American woman, Cheng aims to generate productive discomfort and revive the specter of a figure whose colonial afterlife appears to be “a theoretical black hole, a residue of critical fatigue” (ix).

In the opening chapter, “Borders and Embroidery,” Cheng sets the stage by reading the 1875 US Supreme Court case Chy Lung v. Freeman, which stemmed from a group of Chinese women immigrants being detained due to appearing “lewd” to an immigration officer who was inspecting them on board a ship as they arrived in San Francisco. Cheng notes how the deliberations centered on “the question of what the twenty-two young women were wearing and, [End Page 173] in particular, the ornaments said to adorn them” (32). Testimony on sartorial style was mobilized to determine whether these women were respectable wives or prostitutes. In the eyes of the white men mediating these deliberations, the two social standings were difficult to parse. At one point the women were called forward by the prosecutor for an inspection, the men examined their hemlines and hair, and “there was even a heated debate about just how wide a sleeve could be before tipping into licentiousness” (34). While the case could be read through a lens of orientalism that would critique the construction of otherness that subjected the women to their detention and subsequent legal harassment, Cheng stresses that ornamentalism, as a theory of being, allows for an understanding of how “to think about law and the ornament is therefore to confront a set of political dilemmas that structure personhood and, by implication, racial materiality. The Case of the Twenty-two Lewd Chinese Women reminds us that being seen is not a condition of the visible but of the law and that how a body matters is less a function of flesh than of ornament” (45).

Like Hartman and Musser, Cheng does not propose a response to this racialization through an appeal to legibility, which here would entail a claiming of organic personhood. Instead, through lyric readings of performances such as that of Anna May Wong in a gleaming gold headdress in the 1929 film Piccadilly that reflects so much light it blurs her body, Cheng proposes that “the euphoric politics of redemptive personhood and recognition requires more rigorous engagements with the dysphoric alternatives. If we consider Wong’s disappearance into appearance in this film not as abjection or reification but as a recourse to celebrated skin’s potential to be transformed, to obtain a new material objectness, we begin to grasp that her glamor is not a denial of racial injury or lack . . . but instead a reminder of and insistence on subjecthood’s fundamental indeterminacy” (85). Like Musser’s and Hartman’s interlocutors, the women in Cheng’s study trouble racialized tropes of deviance by performing them to excess, redoubling them, not only to reveal their construction but, more importantly, to inhabit modernist points of slippage and thereby generate new formations that can potentially offer alternative visualities that enable freedom, pleasure, and relation.

Alvarado’s study takes us from the object to the abject. Abject Performances: Aesthetic Strategies in Latino Cultural Production lingers on moments of discord, rupture, and disunity among Latinx cultural producers and picks at the wounds to find what political possibilities might emerge in them. Through reading projects by the Cuban American artist Ana Mendieta, the Chicanx art collective ASCO, and popular culture representations like the television [End Page 174] series Ugly Betty, Alvarado calls for a shift in Latinx imaging politics from what she terms the “aesthetics of respectability” to an embrace of the abject “as a resource geared toward an ungraspable alternative social organization, a not-yet-here illuminated by the aesthetic” (11) that is unbound to desires for normative inclusion. For example, Alvarado discusses how public performances by the ASCO collective in the 1970s eschewed the aspirational politics and cis-heteromasculinities of Chicanx political mural making to instead activate participatory street performances and institutional interventions. Alvarado reads ASCO projects such as Stations of the Cross of 1971, where the collective enacted a procession along Whittier Boulevard in Los Angeles on Christmas Eve. In raising the specter of death on the eve of the celebration of Jesus’s birth, and donning outfits and makeup that blended theatrical costume, vaudeville, Chicanx calavera art, and punk aesthetics, the group burlesqued the passion play, generating both “hostility and amusement” as they moved through the city (79). The performance ended at a US Marine Corps recruiting station, where they propped up the cross and anointed the site with popcorn.

Carried out in the wake of actions such as the Chicano Moratorium and student Blowouts, Alvarado notes that in the backdrop of the holiday season, the action “presented a scene that surely provoked questions about the relationship between Christ’s sacrifice and the young men of the processional, as well as between a prostrate cross at the door of the Marine Corps recruiting station and the young Chicano men abroad in Vietnam” (80). In Spray Paint LACMA (1972), members of ASCO spray-painted their names over the entrances to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in response to a curator’s claim that the reason Chicanx are underrepresented by the museum is because they are in gangs and not making art. Through garish makeup, visceral performances that presented flesh and erotic exchanges, and experimental strategies, Alvarado notes that ASCO “embraced the ephemerality of performance over the permanence of murals, and the abstract and conceptual over the accessibility of journalistic representation within an affective vortex taut with tension and a form of collectivity alive to disagreement” (78).

The book’s second chapter offers an important intervention that situates Mendieta’s work within a framework of Blackness and coalitional racial politics. Alvarado importantly reminds us that while Mendieta is primarily recognized as an artist, she was a curator as well. The author reads race in Mendieta’s practice through the theoretical lens that the artist presented as the organizing principle of Dialectics of Isolation: An Exhibition of Third World Women Artists of the United States, which she curated at the feminist Artists in Residence Gallery [End Page 175] in New York in 1980. The show was a radical project that featured work by racialized women with diverse identities, but it disidentified with the project of institutional inclusion to instead propose “a personal will to continue being ‘other’” (25). The exhibition featured works such as Howardena Pindell’s contentious video Free, White and 21 (1980) that stirred the ire of some audiences who were disturbed by its callout of white women’s complicity with anti-Black racism through a performative avatar. Dialectics of Isolation was uninterested in presenting digestible images of difference, and centered coalition building between BIPOC women through aesthetics of refusal and discord with the white middle-class feminisms that A.I.R. represented.3

The popularity of Mendieta’s Silueta series of works in which she merges her body with natural landscapes has eclipsed the critical consideration of projects such as Dialectics of Isolation and the performative threads of her practice that tackle the collisions of race and gender. Thus, while the critique of Mendieta’s practice has often centered on analyzing its alleged gender essentialisms, the question of how the artist has engaged race and ethnicity has been little explored. Alvarado reminds us that upon arriving in the United States through the Operación Pedro Pan program that placed exile children in foster homes in the early 1960s, Mendieta was harassed, with anti-Black epithets, by white people in the midwestern communities where she was sent. Through embracing corporeal abjection, Blackness, and relational coalitions among racialized women as an aesthetic and political strategy through her performance and curatorial work, Alvarado argues that Mendieta’s practice offers strategies for engaging the politics of difference without ceding to a desire for legibility. Alvarado notes that Mendieta “negotiates her Latinidad in relationship not to Chicanidad but to blackness, and insists that Latinidad consider not just its indigenous past but also its relationship to black bodies as well as the push and pull of the border. She challenges the redemptive mestiza consciousness to resist completion or resolution with her Butlerian trouble in favor of inhabiting sites of rupture and indeterminacy as productive openings for new collectivity” (40). Mendieta’s aesthetic move resounds in that of Nao Bustamante, whose work America, the Beautiful (1995–98) performs racialized feminine excess in blonde voluptuous drag in a beauty makeover gone wrong, showing how belonging for the Latinx subject is always out of reach. Both Alvarado and Hartman remind us that the cloak of respectability never protects Black and Latina femmes. I recall the image of Vanessa Guillen in her soldiers’ uniform, and am haunted by the thought of her dismembered body.

In Ricanness: Enduring Time in Anticolonial Performance, Ruiz poetically meditates on the violence endured by the Puerto Rican subject by offering a [End Page 176] theory of Ricanness as an intervention on colonial time through readings of durational performances by Latinx activists and artists spanning several decades. Ruiz engages Dolores “Lolita” Lebrón Sotomayor’s firing of gunshots at the US House of Representatives in 1954, the artist Papo Colo’s Superman 51 performance of 1977, Pedro Pietri’s play The Masses Are Asses (1974), and a series of performative video works created by Ryan Rivera in the early 2000s. Ricanness names an ontological position in which Puerto Ricans are perpetually behind and never capable of catching up with colonial time. Through mobilizing continental philosophies of time and being alongside performance studies frameworks, Ruiz offers a deep theoretical engagement with the stakes of life and death for the Puerto Rican subject. The book was published before the Verano Intenso demonstrations of 2019 that ousted the corrupt Puerto Rican governor Ricardo Rosselló, whose administration mocked the death of Puerto Ricans due to Hurricane Maria, and who oversaw the closure of public schools throughout the island. Thus, the genealogy of Rican performance Ruiz stages in the text offers a critical context for the waves of violence and autonomous movement that continue to mark the politics of the archipelago.

The story Ruiz tells is one of creative survival and endurance. But this tactic is not indebted to normative routes of hard work, legibility, and loyalty to the United States. Instead, the Ricans in Ruiz’s archive push their bodies to the limit through acts of physical stamina that take place on New York streets, in bathrooms, and at other subterranean sites. This is physical labor undertaken as a form of philosophical inquiry, radical struggle, and protest—not as a task obligated under a colonial-capitalist demand. These performances display the corporeal toll of countering the colonial current, but the struggle itself is channeled as an aesthetic of power, survivance, or sometimes a reckoning with death as an anticolonial act of refusal. Ruiz writes, “Interested in how disorder, revulsion, incompletion, and violence spur the subject forward into action, I disclose what moves the Rican subject, accessing a form of perceived completion through endurance, sometimes at the expense of death” (170). For example, Ruiz reads artworks in which Puerto Rican artists hold their breath or submerge themselves under water for extended periods, run with fifty-one heavy wooden panels attached to their bodies to represent the United States and frustrated desires for statehood, and lock themselves in stifling windowless bathrooms to wait out colonial time.

While many of the performances read by Ruiz rehearse an aesthetics of cis male physical endurance à la Vito Acconci and Chris Burden, the chapter on Lebrón situates the femme aesthetics of the “lipstick revolutionary” as central to her power. Ruiz writes, “Lebrón walked into the Capitol building wearing [End Page 177] the desire to die as fervently as the glamorous attire, lipstick, and gun that have since become her signature accessories. For Lebrón, politics and aesthetics are inseparable, all of her aesthetic choices are inherently political ones, and she alone retains the pleasure of performance, at the extremity of her own horizon” (38). Ruiz acknowledges that she reads “concerns of gender and sexuality through the trope and trajectory of impotence: whether through an unrealized and exhausted hypermasculinity collapsing on the highway; the beaten-up and sweaty face without bodily organs; the constant execution of gender violence . . . the construction of ‘barrenness’ situates the call to existence in this book. To feel ‘impotent inside of your own condition,’ as [the artist] ADÁL himself explains, is one of the deepest concerns of both endurance and Ricanness. This impotence, however, does not minimize life, but rather is used to propel one forward through the mired maze of colonial existence” (34). Ruiz thereby complicates the conventional gendered connotations of masculinized impotence and/or endurance by reading these states through the framework of colonial/national personhood. Throughout the book, Ruiz underscores how many performances of Ricanness entail a reckoning with gendered violence and a confrontation with the unfulfilled and violent promises of redemptive masculinities. As she notes, “The colonial enterprise is always already set to a certain sexualized tempo at the expense of the racialized subject bound to the nation” (34).

In inviting us to appreciate the aesthetic as a politic, and to understand Rican survival as an artful and embodied working upon an unending loop in colonial time, Ruiz invigorates Latinx studies engagements with performance and provides us with theories we can use to situate further performances of Ricanness like the Colectiva Feminista en Construcción’s durational street protests against femicide, Bad Bunny’s femme figuration in “Yo Perreo Sola” (2020), and the perreo combativo that marked the site of protest in the archipelago in 2019 as one of collective embodied practice that shifted the sexualized tempo of colonial time against itself. As a Rican subject, this book also provided me with a way to work through the mourning that attends my meditations on history and the continued violence endured by my people with a radical affirmation that we will outlive the loop and change the world in the process.

These books will provoke much dialogue in courses on race in relation to sexuality, visuality, performance, cultural production, embodiment, and girl-hood at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, in addition to courses on transdisciplinary ethnic and gender studies methods. Collectively, they ask: What does it mean to let the archive lead you and to listen to its voices in minor key? What language is necessary to artful truth telling? What form is [End Page 178] needed to write about people you love? These studies also displace art history as the privileged site for knowledge production on the image, as the field has continued to ignore issues of racialized gender with a few notable exceptions. A critical contribution made by these works is an emphasis on the relational contours of racial, gender, and sexual formations, as they invite us to think Blackness, Brownness, and Yellowness together.

For those of us living at the crossroads of enfleshment and objectification, feeling the pull of respectability and pleasure in abjection, these books shift archives and create new ones in the process. I am fortified and inspired that such work is now possible, and to see what directions the next generation of scholars will take us as we continue to explore those beautifully messy landscapes of racialized flesh turned art.

Jillian Hernandez

Jillian Hernandez is assistant professor in the Center for Gender, Sexualities, and Women’s Studies Research at the University of Florida. She studies the autonomous aesthetics and sexualities of Black and Latinx people. Her book Aesthetics of Excess: The Art and Politics of Black and Latina Embodiment (Duke University Press, 2020) traces how the body practices and art making of Black and Latinx women and girls are intertwined, and how they complicate conventional notions of cultural value and sexual respectability.

Notes

Many thanks to Britt Rusert for her feedback on this essay.

1. Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe 12.2 (2008): 1–14, muse.jhu.edu/article/241115.

2. My use of haunting and shaping here are informed by Avery Gordon’s meditations on haunting as a methodology for engaging minoritized histories in Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997).

3. Uri McMillan provides an important analysis of this work in the context of race and art world feminisms in the book Embodied Avatars: Genealogies of Black Feminist Art and Performance (New York: New York University Press, 2015).

Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6490
Print ISSN
0003-0678
Pages
169-179
Launched on MUSE
2021-03-31
Open Access
No
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