Two Vowels and Four Consonants
The word nigger sometimes plays a role in my art.
It was a complicated and difficult decision.
Several years ago, I read a memoir called Kaffir Boy: The True Story of a Black Youth’s Coming of Age in Apartheid South Africa, by Mark Mathabane. Mr. Mathabane overcame poverty and racial oppression by educating himself and winning a scholarship to an American university. The word kaffir is a derogatory term used for black South Africans, similar to the way nigger is used to describe African Americans. The two words are also similar in structure: double consonants in the middle, flanked by two vowels, flanked by two consonants; to my mind a very weird coincidence.
The particulars are fuzzy but there is one scene I remember from the book: A white policeman wielding a baton attacks Mathabane and screams kaffir repeatedly as he swings. Later Mathabane recounts that the humiliation of being called a kaffir was far more painful than the blows from the baton. I understood where he was coming from; racist slurs had also been a part of my life. But something felt off kilter. Kaffir? KAFFIR. It stuck to my lips like a gooey piece of candy. To my ears it sounded flat and hollow, however who was I to question and diminish his experience because kaffir sounded, well, silly? Then it occurred to me that as an African American, kaffir was outside the scope of my experience and not a part my cultural DNA. I had no references for it. I had not been conditioned to engage or react to it—to fear it.
That word, that particular set of six letters, led to an epiphany about another set of six letters.
The more I thought about nigger and its power, the more I thought about how I was so easily victimized and perhaps even defined by it. Did it have any value beyond my sense of how I’d experienced it my entire life? Perhaps it’s meaning could be questioned, reduced, or changed. As an artist I could play with it, maybe even annihilate it. I wasn’t sure I was brave enough to try, but I knew that I needed to challenge my beliefs about it.
I used nigger as an art form for a long time and not only learned about its power but also my relationship to that power: Nigger taught me to see myself through the eyes of other people. My sense of self , my value, was filtered through corrupted descriptions people believed to be true about me simply because they heard it somewhere. If I react to nigger, I am simply affirming the assumptions held by those invested in my being demoralized by it, or more succinctly—remembering that I am not a human being. In the words of writer James Baldwin, "As long as I complain about being oppressed, the oppressor is in consolation of knowing that I know my place, so to speak.” Therefore, creating work helped me rewire some troubling realizations and place nigger in a more benign place, a space filled with empowerment. I learned that power is choosing to dismantle societal conditioning. Power can be defined by the individual on their own terms.
Obviously, using nigger and benign in the same sentence is disconcerting. I’ve had several awkward conversations with people wanting to understand why I used such an ugly word, something that was hard to explain because for a very long time I really didn’t know. I eventually became more interested in questions rather than answers and stopped trying explain or assuage people's discomfort. I hope that my art startles people into an experience they don’t expect, something new, something that points them toward a different reality. I feel that it can help individuals realize the truth of who they are by stripping away stories which don't belong to them.
During one of my exhibitions, I saw a man laugh out loud at a piece, then look around nervously, not sure that he had permission to do so. For a split second, he had experienced liberation. That moment validated my work and purpose as an artist.
Image: Koan, Fine Art Archival Print, 2015
I recently read that the Dada art movement was an “irreverent, rowdy revolution.” There are plenty of thick, overly intellectualized
tomes devoted to all things DADA, however, rowdy and irreverent will do just fine when describing the work of funk music legend and in my opinion, Dadaist, George Clinton. The problem is that the art world doesn't have a clue.
For more than forty years, Clinton and his fraternal twins, Parliament-Funkadelic, or PFUNK, have served up a Dadaist stew that obliterated ideas not only about music, but about the meaning of art. There's no determining how many people have danced to their mashups of psychedelic rock, jazz, r&b, and gospel, but PFUNK wasn't only about making music to shake our tails to. Dadaist poet Hugo Ball said, “For us, art is not an end in itself, but it is an opportunity for the true perception and criticism of the times we live in.” The grooves in PFUNKS music are not the end in so much as that they can overshadow a more serious subtext, and song titles like Cosmic Slop bely the intelligence behind Clinton's lyrics: He had a great deal to say about societal problems, race, and politics. According to French artist Jean (Hans) Arp, Dadaism was not an approach or a style, but a wish to “destroy the hoaxes of reason and to discover an unreasoned order.” Clinton's art illustrates just how insane this world is, as reflected in the lyrics of Eulogy and Light, from the Free Your Mind...and Your Ass Will Follow album:
Which art on Wall Street
Honored be thy buck
Thy kingdom came
This be thy year
From sea to shining sea
Thou givest me false pride
Funked down by the riverside
From every head and ass, may dollars flow
Give us this pay
Our daily bread
Forgive us our goofs
As we rob each other
He maketh me to sell dope to small children
For thou art evil
And we adore thee
Thy destruction and thy power
They comfort me
My Cadillac and my pinky ring
They restoreth me in thee
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of poverty
I must feel their envy
For I am loaded, high and all those other goodies
That go along with the good god big buck
Do you really want to understand a society or culture? George points us straight towards the rabbit hole. Dive on in and forget about anything making sense. Contradiction and absurdity is our friend. This perspective pulsates throughout his satirical masterpiece Chocolate City, or CC, a song whose thesis imposes a more "authentic" perspective onto Washington D.C., a ludicrous, yet, so ridiculous rendering of who is actually in control of the government and the city. Black people didn't get their forty acres and a mule, but remember, you don't need the bullet when you've got the ballot. Go on ahead, he urges. Dream! Reach!! This is what power really looks like. It's all good because fiction is really the truth.
PFUNK say they are “dealers of uncut funk, funk that’s The Bomb.” The BOMB detonated when they took to the stage. Their live performances, especially during the 70's, are unparalleled. No one, except for fellow shapeshifter David Bowie matched Clinton's theatricality and outrageousness. Yes, the music was spectacular, but just as significant was PFUNK's farcical blueprint on how black performers behaved and dressed. No more matching tailored suits and choreographed routines a la the Temptations, a template Clinton embraced early in his career. Why the radical change? Who knows, but his decision may align with this quote from Marcel Duchamp, "I forced myself to contradict myself in order to avoid conforming to my own taste." Clinton certainly contradicted himself into several astounding transformations. The most memorable appeared in the mid 70s. Adorned in 6-inch silver platform boots, bikini bottoms over glittered tights, and a long blond wig, he morphed into a debauched ringmaster directing his circus of glamazons, extraterrestrial clowns, and pseudo sheiks into a vortex of anarchy, a dimension where sartorial choices ran the gamut of diapers, Pinocchio noses, and massive sombreros made of fur. There were often as many as 20 people on stage, roaming about in various states of gyration through a marihuana fog so thick that the audience got a contact high. Have some fun for fuck's sake! Don't take yourselves so seriously! Deranged was the new norm just because. And let’s not forget the Mothership (now housed within the hallowed halls of the Smithsonian), a faux flying saucer lowered from the rafters carrying a race of Black “aliens” cloned by Dr. Funkenstein, another Clinton alter ego, who symbolized a new species untethered from anything reeking of convention. Black, White, Red or Green: All subversives welcome. Everything is everything and please memorize this mantra: Logic be damned. That my friends is what DADA was all about.
Clinton has graced us with a scatalogical (see the Urban Dictionary) manifesto that will forever influence those looking to write one of their own. He broke all the rules. That's what artists do. They break shit in order to reframe our inner solar systems, shift our realities. They pry our middle finger upward toward the sky. PFUNK is art. PFUNK is Dada. George Clinton is a visionary who deserves a place within the pantheon of Duchamp and Ray. He should be acknowledged as a Dada revolutionary and recognized by the art world.
They just need to free their minds and their asses will follow.
The Forgotten Art of Discourse
In October of 2014, The Metropolitan Opera in New York City staged a 1991 opera entitled The Death of Klinghoffer, which explored the murder of Leon Klinghoffer, a Jewish passenger in a wheelchair, who was killed during the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro by members of the Palestine Liberation Front. The critically acclaimed work has been staged globally to little controversy, yet, in one of the most culturally sophisticated cities in the world, the shit hit the fan.
Many people wanted the opera cancelled. According to a New York Times article, “one protester labeled the baritone a fascist. Another called for the set to be burned to the ground.” Peter Gelb, the Mets general manager, received death threats. Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-defamation League, a prominent Jewish organization, praised the Met and felt the opera was not anti-Semitic. He received vitriolic emails, one labeling him a “kapo,” an insult referring to a Jewish inmate who oversaw fellow Jews in concentration camps. Protests occurred opening night; most of the people picketing had not even seen the opera. Disgusted by all the drama I stopped paying attention.
The histrionics around the Met affair reminded me of the 1996 work of Polish artist Zbigniew Libera, whose LEGO Concentration Camp set was exhibited in 2002 by the Jewish Museum of New York City in a show entitled Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art. Given that the exhibit occurred before the omnipresence of social media and its influence, the work nonetheless received a great deal of press and seen as extremely controversial. Lego Group tried to convince him to withdraw it from public view but eventually backed down. He was invited to participate in the 1997 Venice Biennale, but was asked by the Polish officials not to participate. "This is censorship all over again," the artist told the Los Angeles Times in 1997. "I created this work to inspire discussion, not to suppress it." The art continued to be shown in galleries and museums, some people loved it, many hated it, screamed bloody hell about it, and nobody died. There was a heated debate, just as Libera had intended, and then it was over. At the time I personally felt that the work was exciting and immensely thought provoking. I still do. Libera took on one of the most sacred and taboo subjects, the Holocaust, and pushed boundaries into a realm that was inconceivable: Toys and play. What's not to love?
It seems that the era of “we’ll agree to disagree” is over. I feel the hypersensitivity around the opera metaphorically represents a growing inability within our society to tolerate differing points of view or a deep exploration of ideas. There’s indignation, a new type of oxygen that feeds into a reactivity that makes discourse too scary, where many of us second-guess everything we say for fear of offending someone. Our present culture has lost sense of what dialogue means and art is what is needed to light the way to rediscovery.
The purpose of art is not to identify right or wrong. Art turns the tables on despair by lampooning it. It breaks taboos by
destroying their power.
Art helps us to make meaning of why we exist. As Terry Gross, host of NPR's Fresh Air, eloquently stated in an interview, "...art helps with the personal, the societal, all the things that trouble us, all the things we’re ashamed by and don’t want to, or can’t talk about."
And because art doesn’t tell us how to think or feel, there’s space to observe what scares us if we dare to look. Someone once told me that we must turn and run toward our fears in order to break free of them. Perhaps then we can create a new perspective, a different type of conversation, one that leads to harmony, acceptance and healing. The only way to find out is to talk and listen to one another openly and honestly. We need art to help us with our journey along the path of the human condition because it provides a means from which to speak our truths and is the doorway to the singular component vital to our very existence—freedom.
Image: Zbigniew Libera, Lego Concentration Camp, 1996
(g)race reminds us that people who project fear and ignorance are spiritually asleep. It is not our job to wake them up.
(g)race is choosing to love ourselves unconditionally and realizing that no one can imprison our spirit.
(g)race is understanding that who we are is bigger than anything that happens to us.
(g)race is realizing that we are not a character in someone else’s story.
(g)race help us unearth the beauty to be found within the midst of horror.
(g)race is accepting that we can’t run from suffering.
(g)race is the doorway to exploring the complicated mystery of the human condition.
Experiencing (g)race soothes our wounds by healing our hearts so that we may join in the universal dance of love and compassion.
Image: Two Buddhas Me Not I, Fine Art Archival Print, 2015