4. Refusal
Published: 24.07.2018
in the series Black Visual Frequency: A Glossary
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refusal: a rejection of the status quo as livable and the creation of possibility in the face of negation (i.e., a refusal to recognize a system that renders you fundamentally illegible and unintelligible); the decision to reject the terms of diminished subjecthood with which one is presented, using negation as a generative and creative source of disorderly power to embrace the possibility of living otherwise.

Much to my delight and relief, I’m finally home. After close to six weeks on the road, my travels have come to an end. But since returning to the welcoming embrace of my husband, friends, dog, cat, and assorted loved ones, I still find myself strangely unsettled. I’m sure this sense of restlessness is the leftover rumble in my head of encounters with so many new people, places, artworks, and perspectives that continue to reverberate in me. I described one of these encounters in my previous post, and the current entry offers an additional take on another of those scenes. It, too, transpired in the context of the Berlin Biennale and the rich, thoughtful, and engaging space it created for so many emerging artists of color. One piece, in particular, inspired me to articulate one of the most important terms in this glossary. And while it alone articulates this term in powerful ways, my encounter with it was intensified by the fact that it occurred almost stereophonically, in a context where I became the unwitting apex of a triangulated duet that required me to listen differently to what I was seeing, and to hear its images as part of a broader chorus of black visuality.

The first day I visited the exhibition can be encapsulated in one word: sweltering. The temperature was in the upper 90s and since most of the buildings in Berlin do not have air conditioning, I climbed the stairs to the top floor of the KW (Kunst-Werke Institute for Contemporary Art) preparing myself for the inevitability of the fact that warm air rises and with projectors in the room, I should expect the worst. I hate heat and have hated it all my life. Perhaps it’s because I grew up in the DC suburbs, a city built on swampland and well known for its ferociously hot and humid summers. Perhaps it’s because my father is from North Carolina and seems impervious to heat and relentlessly policed our use of air conditioning for most of my youth. Regardless, when I reached the gallery at the top of the stairs, it was as hot as I’d anticipated and I was not in a good mood.

What hit me first was a wave of heat that hung like a velvet curtain in the room. What hit me next was a wall of sound emanating from a massive projector at the center of the room. Its sizable scale dominated and intimidated visitors in the dark, cavernous space. Despite its imposing physical presence, its fullest impact was aural and sonic. Its aggressive and insistent drone was purposeful. It was a sound that amplified the silence of the image it projected and simultaneously engulfed. Yet either by intent or by accident, this dominating sonic presence had competition – competition that harmonized both awkwardly and beautifully in its adjacency and proximity.

Seeking to avoid the oppressive heat hanging like a cloud in the room, I instinctively felt myself move to the coolest part of the room: the floor; initially in an uncomfortable crouch, and then to a more comfortable seat against a side wall. It was a wall that led to another video installation – markedly different but utterly complementary. To access one required passing through the other; more importantly, the entry to the second, although shrouded by heavy black drapes, still allowed the sound of the film to filter into the quiet but fulsome sonic experience of its neighbor.

The image on the screen is a young black woman with long braids resting on shoulders clad in white by a tee shirt. Just below her cropped sleeve her arm provides the only hint of identification through the tattoo it reveals: ‘Philando.’ The grainy black and white of her celluloid figuration gives heightened definition to the sheen of her face, the texture of her skin, and the taut weave of her plaits. Her movements are minimal as her initial photographic stillness transforms slowly into subtle, gentle, and affecting motion. Chin held high looking upward; chin bowed with eyes cast downward; glasses skimming abundant eyelashes; absent glasses reveal soulful eyes. A wistful smile shifts to a mournful look. She mouths silent words, blinking regularly. Ebbing side to side, adjusting in her seat, nodding occasionally, followed by an effortful, exhausted in- and exhale. A prayer, a meditation or an internal monologue made manifest?

While the film itself is silent, its visuality is permeated by sound as the rhythmic monotone of the projector suffuses the space with a rapid mechanical clacking. Yet through the bleed of the soundtrack of the adjacent film into the space, this persistent clacking comingles with the hum of a black woman’s voice rising to the chorus of a gospel anthem, the swell of an organ, and the soundtrack of black feminist insurgency. As the figure on the screen lifts her head to cast eyes upward, I hear the refrain of “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black” in the background, challenging the relentless metronome of the projector.

Autoportrait (2017) by Luke Willis Thompson is a silent portrait of Diamond Reynolds, whose live Facebook broadcast of the senseless murder of her partner Philando Castile by officer Jeronimo Yanez in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, offered a chilling account of one of a seemingly endless series of brutal killings of innocent black men and women at the hands of US law enforcement. Comprised of two four-minute takes of Reynolds filmed in April 2017 in Minnesota and shot in 35mm Kodak Double-X black-and-white film, Autoportrait is irreproducible without consent, as it exists offline without a digital equivalent. It must be viewed in the context for which it was created: a darkened room that demands full, complete immersion and attentiveness. Bridging the gap between still and moving images, Autoportrait was awarded the 2018 Deutsche Börse Prize for photography.

Thompson’s sensuous piece has been celebrated and rebuked. Hailed, on the one hand, as an elegiac reclamation of its subject’s strength, dignity and humanity; on the other hand, it is has become the target of withering attack since Thompson’s nomination for the 2018 Turner Prize, by critics who view it as an aestheticization of black trauma, equating it with Dana Schutz’s controversial Open Casket citing Hannah Black’s warning in her response to the piece that “non-Black artists who sincerely wish to highlight the shameful nature of white violence should first of all stop treating Black pain as raw material.” As writer Nick Scammell on the photography website ASX contends, “Reynolds is known because she refused to be silenced. Yet Autoportrait sees her both speechless and distanced into black and white film … Detached. Disconnected. Inert.”

As a New Zealander of Fijian heritage, Thompson has described himself as a black artist, albeit not of the African Diaspora, an attribution I believe we must take seriously as positioning him in a place of adjacency rather than identity with the forms of anti-black violence his piece so poignantly evokes. It is the adjacency of indigeneity and diasporic formation linked by a vicious history of imperialism and colonization that tethers black subjects to Pacific Islanders. It is the adjacency of the sonic bleed I experienced in the sublime placement of Autoportrait in close proximity to the film screened behind the dark drapes: Simone Leigh’s ode to black feminist resistance and solidarity, Untitled (M*A*S*H) (2018), which visualizes a fictional order of black nurses operating on the frontlines of the Korean War. It is the adjacency of sitting next to your partner in a car and witnessing his murder, then attempting to talk down the officer who shot him, while capturing it on a cell phone, and broadcasting it live to the world to bear witness to both your loss and your refusal to silence his slaughter.

Autoportrait demands that we listen to the quiet image of Diamond Reynolds. As Scammell rightly asserts, Reynolds’ act of defiance was her refusal to remain silent. Autoportrait renders her neither speechless nor silent. In the carefully constructed, still-moving-image Thompson creates, he captures her articulating a devastating critique through a resounding frequency of quiet that wrests our undivided attention. This collaborative portrait of refusal – a refusal to be silenced or to accept the status of black disposability – is amplified by a refusal to accept words or speech as either adequate or commensurate to the gravity of her loss or the monumentality of the crime of devalued black life. Autoportrait forces us to engage with a black woman who overwhelms us through her reserve, control, and containment. We must reckon with the everyday labor that black women have mastered since captivity – carrying loss with dignity, mourning in plain sight, and at the same time, refusing to capitulate to the mundane regularity of black death.

Truth be told, a silent portrait of any black woman is categorically unbearable. Our refusal of words is inevitably embraced as an invitation to impose a narrative that we have neither authored nor authorized. Set against the backdrop of the story Diamond Reynolds refused not to tell – why do we demand to hear her tell it again? Why do we expect or demand her to repeat it or tell it differently? Why is this account of it, without words or speech, but in subtle gestures that have an affective power that exceeds words, not enough? Why is it so discomforting to have to listen to what we are seeing, and in doing so, to be accountable to the affective labor of connecting across her quiet to engage that which exceeds words? Might Thompson’s decision to strip down our quiet encounter with Diamond Reynolds (and by proxy, Philando Castile and the murder that Reynolds allowed us to witness in its wake) to a monochromatic, quiet encounter with black death and black refusal to embrace the precarity of black life – might it in fact be utterly appropriate? If not, what script, words, speech, text would have been commensurate? Ultimately, the quiet, still-moving-image of Diamond Reynolds’ refusal to embrace silence is, to me, a powerful modality of reckoning with the impact of the ongoing war currently being waged against black bodies. It is a still-moving-image of refusal – a refusal to explain, a refusal to capitulate, a refusal to be anything else than who we are, even at the cost of death.

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