Black Life: Drawings

Acts of freedom can seem impromptu and volatile. And those of us who seek that freedom can appear rash or reflexive and violent. When expressed, that desire comes as a kind of surprise: an irrational act committed by an irrational people. But we—the “irrational,” the unwillingly unfree—know better than that. We are not “missed” in error. The silence to our suffering is not natural. The inaction is deliberate, designed. We know that “surprise” is the consequence of privilege.1 We know, too, that cloaked in the strategy of “hiding in plain sight” is a barefaced refusal of the invisibility that “hiding” appears to offer. For us, the mythos of “plain sight” is an apologia used to rationalize the refusal to see Blackness. Blackness is not camouflage, not some passive backdrop to the abstract orchestrations of injustice and hatred played out on our skins. We are not shades. Our spirits are elusive, and though light will sometimes lose itself in us, we do not mask our skins. For us, “hiding” is not hiding, but witness interrupted. We are more than equipped to understand that witness, for both the seer and the seen, is not just the obvious acceptance of Black presence, but also the concomitant refusal to consider the Black body in absentia. It is the refusal of the absurdity and violence of “invisibility” as a theme, and of Blackness merely as a thing to be studied. This is an embrace, an intimate conspiracy. A revelation.

A Visual Reading of “The Drawings,” by KB

Taking the physical space of the No Words Exhibition as a critical framework, the Black Life Drawings recall the artistic tradition of drawing the human body from live models. The session took participants—artists and models—through six poses that interpreted the shape, form, and presence of Black human life in terms of Joy, Love, Leisure, Meditation, Resistance, and Power. This was not just a collaboration between the seen and the seers, responding to the curator’s own response to the essay. It was also the deliberative claiming of a “space within a space,” enabling the practice of, and subsequent reflection on, Blackness as Life.

The session produced three iterations, as distinct as they are interrelated: the Drawings by four local artists, an Interpretation by curator Marsha Pearce, and a Reflection by model Mel Gabriel.

Between “subjection” and “subjectivity,” and in defiance of a society that continues to objectify, hypersexualize, and demonize Blackness, four artists—Simone Jacelon, Sabrina Charran, Sundiata, and Maya Cross-Lovelace—were invited to engage the ways it is seen and consumed, and, using their chosen medium, to make original work in a moment of mutual witness.

“I am mindful that imagination and meditation are closely allied and that together they can work in service of my freedom, in seeing and composing my Black self in its full range, sprawling in all directions, linked to an enduring history and unfolding future.”

— Marsha Pearce, PhD

“At this point, I’d been steadily picking at the idea of what a cancer patient is supposed to look like, how one is supposed to behave. I think about my newfound clinic friends. The one who stuffed her bra with socks when she came for her appointment…”

— Mel Gabriel

Figuring Abstraction:

Drawing [from] Black Life

Marsha Pearce, PhD, Curator of The No Words Exhibition

At a young age we learn about abstract nouns. Intangible things—words that name what we cannot discern with our five senses. Faith, courage, hope, peace. Yet, in the grammar of life, we know all too well how some abstractions can reside in the realm of sensation. We know the taste of fear. For us, trauma is a steady, continuous sound, a low-frequency hum. There. Always there, whether we choose to confront it or not. Pain is a petrified weight—something we touch every time we put our hands against the flesh of our midsection: that thing felt in the pit of the stomach. And death—our death—is seen everywhere. For us, these nouns: fear, trauma, pain, death, are not theoretical. They take on physical, concrete form. They take up space. And yet, they do not define the full spatial depth of Black experiences.

Joy, leisure, meditation, love,
resistance, and power—they exist, too.

Though, arguably, not always having equal volume in a world characterized by anti-Blackness—being more prone to a lapse into concepts, moving easily from the tangible to the abstract. But how do we give shape to Black resistance? How to acknowledge the physical proportions of Black love? How to hold space for the sensorial dimensions of Black joy? How to witness the height, length and breadth of Black power? These questions are at the heart of the life drawing session I designed to coincide with the ongoing Exhibition.

With Black Life in mind, I was not only interested in image production—life or figure drawing sessions invite picture-making with live models as references—I also wanted to invoke “drawing” as inhalation, as a life-giving effort, as drawing breath. However, I did not want that breath to be a shallow one, limited to clichéd notions of Blackness (Black only in terms of suffering and upheaval, for example), but rather a deep breathing that would expand what is known and understood about ways of being for Black people. Both the models and the participating artists were therefore encouraged “to draw” in their own way. To breathe and, by breathing, give life, form and presence to a series of abstractions that define Black existence. 

It was a conspiracy…

  1. After all, who can reasonably expect us to be passive in our desire to be free, let alone in our eventual expression of it? History teaches us that these acts are also the result of planning, a matter of design that may have been too easily overlooked.
  2. A vision for the future is no different in this regard. But that future is left to be seen, like the words to which this note will eventually refer.