One of the best books I read in 2016 was Kindred by Octavia Butler and one of the most powerful essays I read in 2016 was “Broken Defaced and Unseen: the Hidden Black Female Figures of Western Art”, by Robin Coste Lewis. One work explored time travel, slavery and the black female body while the other takes the reader on a metaphorical journey through art history in search of the black female body cataloguing the times it has been used as a device, a vessel, or supporting figure. In describing a chair whose legs were fabricated from carved images of black women literally holding up the seat base, Lewis attempts to unravel the psychological pathology behind creating the chair and someone subsequently using it.
“What kind of sensation did it create to place the backside of one’s body upon a seat supported by light minature wooden brown femaile hands?” Lewis’ passage struck me as I came across a photo of a former creative director of a French fashion house kneeling on one of Bjarne Melgaard’s bondage chairs. Melgaard, who recreated Allen Jones’ work from 1969 is a provocateur who occupies the artistic space between commodification and critique.
Motives are often unknown with artists who chose to provocate. Are they inspiring change, action and thought or are they merely trying to elicit an immediate emotional response for shock value? Melgaard amplified the controversy surrounding Jones’ original work by turning the chair into a black woman and each time the chair was photographed and shared, the context behind the original image became figuratively hazier. For me as a black woman, seeing this chair triggered history; as Robin Coste Lewis describes, “our whole artistic history crawling with the decorative bodies of black women.”
In 2016, six aritsts were invited to the Huntington Library’s archives by the non profit group Clockshop to research the records of science fiction author Octavia Butler. The Library has been the steward of Butler’s manuscripts, notebooks and other ephemera and includes over 8,000 catalogued items that were gifted to the Huntington after Butler’s death in 2006. As part of a year long celebration of the life and work of Butler including her contributions to the genre of science fiction, these artists were asked to create re-imagined works using Butler’s collection at the Huntington as a springboard.
Radio Imagination: Artists in the Archive of Octavia E. Butler at the Armory Center is a group exhibition that showcases these works and includes illustrations, videos, photography, musical compositions and installations. Cauleen Smith’s video contribution synthesized my thoughts surrounding Kindred and Lewis’ essay, particularly when I overlaid the problematic social subtext of Melgaard’s work in my analysis.
In the video Smith talks to the camera sharing her thoughts on Kindred and Butler’s use of characters that travel through space and time to alter history. Smith challenges Butler’s widely known contention that Kindred is NOT science fiction and does so convincingly. The body is a vessel that moves through time and later in the artist’s video where she cinematically recreates the climatic end of the novel, Smith demonstrates that time travel (specifically the body as a time travel machine) is inherently within the purview of science fiction. Furthermore, Butler’s book and Smith’s video rendition deftly tackle the idea that we can successfully move past history, but we cannot fully escape it. There will always be emotional and physical scars that can be triggered upon provocation.
Radio Imagination: Artists in the Archive of Octavia E. Butler is at the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena.
The show closes this Sunday, January 8, 2017.