Life In A Box: drawings by Lorene Taurerewa. An essay by Warwick McLeod
Still Grinning After All These Years
Our society has set itself up with automatic mechanisms to divert, confuse and defuse discussions of race. These are so frequently set into motion, their wheels so well-greased, that they operate unnoticed by the majority, while those they disenfranchise can only look on in mute exasperation. An example of how such mechanisms work in the art world would be the reception given J.M. Basquiat’s paintings, whose grimacing skulls, spitting cyphers between clenched teeth, are still generally discussed in the terms, comfortable to the white-middle-class art world, of Primitivism and Neo-expressionism; summoned to lift Basquiat’s work out of social commentary, and render it meaningless and harmless within a discussion of aesthetics. When a discussion of race does manage to penetrate, fall-back positions of correctness stifle analysis and discussion. From these positions no analysis of the tangled world of America’s racial politics is possible, and white-middle-class liberalism, for which the art world is a flagship, gets to sail unburdened by self-doubt. The billing of Basquiat and Warhol’s collaborative paintings as a sparring-match showed an attempt to lift the lid on some of the potential levels of this interaction, but ultimately the paintings’ reception demonstrated only how completely White America fails to understand Black America, and how totally it is unwilling to try.
Indeed the colored man is a boxer, shadow-boxing with himself, until when he climbs into the white man’s world he finds a sparring partner who ducks and weaves like smoke, the genii state of the White Liberal. Because it is White before it is Liberal, it weaves in a realm of assumptions, the better to predict the future, in order to control it. But there is a personal cost to this mode of operation: namely constant preoccupation with what is not right in front of your eyes, constantly having to ignore the physically and temporally present. For the colored man to line up such a sparring-partner for an encounter, against all his designs, where against all his plans each one of you has the canvas gripped under your feet and you are looking each other square in the face, you have to somehow get one step ahead, you have to feign to the left and right, throw up an image of yourself so that, avoiding it, your sparring-partner runs into you. That image is a persona.
The most time-honored of these personas in Black/White relations is the pickanniny act. There’s nothing like the flash of white teeth from the depths of a black face to instantly re-ground everyone in the realities of history, power, status, privilege, and prejudice. This simple gesture, simultaneously a grin and frozen grimace, operates with greater density than maybe any other gesture in our culture. Immediately conveyed with perfect accuracy is a picture of the myriad strata and striations of history; revealed are how these levels and paths are navigated between the grinner and his audience. It’s all in how the grin/grimace is recognized: this ranges a wide and complex gamut from zero recognition at all - as when President Obama employs it towards the Republican seats in a State of the Union address - to recognition in the most deeply vulnerable uncharted corner of a person’s sense of self, as when Malcolm X flashes it to a black audience.
There are many, many personas at work in daily interaction beyond this. A persona guards the beginning and end of every sentence in the black/white conversation. To enter the conversation, you have to learn the grammar, and the grammar is difficult. That is a great job for art. Because it deals in personas and knows how subtly they operate, art can train us in the skills necessary for this social conversation. But artists first have to look at who they are. Each artist has to first acknowledge his or her personal history, and recognize his or her nuanced, but representative, social history. Art is a Socratic dialogue; it has to use the same means as the Sophist Dialogue, but to a different end. A majority of people who choose the education in smoke-and-mirrors that is art school come there to learn the skills of self-evasion and self-perpetuation. Enough of them get through to representation in galleries, who in about the same proportion are streamlined to the same ends on a social scale, to ensure the art world is a Sophist world. But that can be useful, because it provides on-ramps to society's larger beltways of self-justification; and so can be off-ramps, if society in turn learns in the conversation how to look for directions. Art can walk us through some of the complication that is the interweaving of the human mind with the historical strata that is society: a walk and a weave that at every twist will have necessitated the operation of persona. For its turn, and if it is to get anywhere, the discussion of race and social construct will have to become much more skillful at recognizing such personas; understanding why they are employed, and what might actually be the configuration of the grimace under the grin.
The Assumption of Guilt
The secret of the pickaninny grin is a part of the mystery of the golliwog. Banned from stores in America for decades, and censored from its art, the golliwog is a black-face cloth doll which was marketed in the late 1800s by a British woman who had attended vaudeville Minstrel shows as a child in America. It became popular in Britain alongside blackface performances in British vaudeville, which themselves were adapted from American Minstrel Shows. But whilst those American genres presented blacks in a class hierarchy that basically reflected that of American society outside the theatre, British vaudeville subverted the structures. In The Black and White Minstrel Show, a British TV show of the 1960s, the males appeared in costumes of blackface and white top-hat, coat & tails, to dance with ladies of the antebellum South; and sang with them love-songs which clearly implied they were fully sexual and conjugal partners.
Somewhere there’ll be a Ph.D thesis interpreting the weird significance this show had to its British working-class audience. If so, I hope it allows itself to guess: that would be the only way to pry into that particular psyche, its recesses squeezed tight by centuries of social repression, then obedient self-repression. It’s easy enough to figure how a repressed class could enjoy a fantasy tableau wherein slaves turn the tables on a social order. But there’s another resonance to be heard that implies a deeper chamber, requiring a longer crowbar to grope in the dark. To the extent that the psyche is socially constructed, so is the sexual psyche. From at least as long ago as the time the Ancient Greeks decided the god of debauchery had to be a black man, sexuality and blackness have been folded together in the closet of the white psyche; its laminations multiplying and tightening at every fold in European thought as it wound its way through Christianity, Protestantism, Colonialism, Slavery, Class. The golliwog is witness to this history, descendent of an ancient mythic line; and so worthy the respect of consideration.
The pantheon of children’s dolls and toys form a connection for a child’s imagination between the intimate world of a child’s scale, and the larger, looming, often frightening world for which a child’s mind is constantly somehow preparing. Like fairytales, this cuddly toy-world has a population of characters sometimes embodying in their cuddliness aspects of the scary and the cruel, along with other nameless emotions. As childhood becomes adulthood these aspects of psyche become a sexual psyche. Just why and just how dolls and toys operate with the child’s psyche is a realm for psychology to speculate, never to be known. But just like a folktale is formed through the generations in the ongoing consumer-test of a fireside audience, the surviving popularity of a doll must be some proof of its authentic connection with a child’s imagination. For the PC party, shaking our heads, tut-tutting, removing golliwogs from store shelves, there’s the rub.
For all that, children don’t make their own dolls: they are handed them by adults. With the handed-down image you are bequeathed a psychological inheritance; you inherit the whole package of thought, feeling, sexuality, and self-regard. As well, within this inheritance will apply the operations of Colonialism, by which rules the oppressed has to imagine through the images of the oppressor, the colored takes on the identity of the white. But you have to wear the clothes you are handed down; this is not a matter of choice. You are handed down the clothes of the imagination from the day you are born, and will imagine in them till the day you die.
A Touch of the Tar-Brush
If The Black and White Minstrel Show is an example of the bizarre angles at which working class and lower-middle-class Brits extracted for their utilization a stereotype-of-a-stereotype from an unfamiliar culture, it’s an even stranger translation again to consider the popularity of this Blackface TV show in the living rooms of suburban New Zealand: among families who had never ever seen a black person in the flesh, much less know anything of the history of the American South. For most of the 20th century New Zealand was still an isolated frontier society. But it was one where egalitarian social legislation had, until quite recently, enabled nearly all New Zealanders to own their own home; and this traditionally has been the paradigm by which New Zealanders measure progress on their Great Project: putting distance between themselves and their British working-class forebears. Families who could not afford a bed for each child would keep a well-painted fence, a neatly-trimmed front lawn, and an impeccable street-fronting room (wherein a TV streamed British and American TV programs on its only channel) as a shrine to middle-class status. For almost all, this has been an achievable ambition. But there was one unknown quantity that would imperil the whole project from within; namely, any suspicion of the taint of the tar-brush.
The living room of this home is strewn with dolls and toys, superheroes glowering, the Jack-in-the-Box popping and the Golliwog grinning, while the glowing TV makes a shimmering distant blue world where cowboys guard a far horizon, and Black and White Minstrels sing of love on a shining river. Into these toys project themselves the tangled feelings and hopes of brothers and sisters squabbling, fighting with the memory of that day’s schoolyard taunts and the ache of their parents' yearning for respectability, observing in one another the subtly different shades of brown, trying to squeeze out the dread that some unknown, deeply feared identity is present in the home.
Lorene Taurerewa lives in New York, where by her appearance she is often taken for Mexican, by her accent for British; and when people of her neighborhood associate the accent with the looks, they fantasize the Mediterranean and wealth. In fact she is a New Zealander, of Samoan and European parentage and working-class upbringing. She shares her surname with her two sons, from her marriage to a Maori New Zealander. Before ever coming to America she had a deep education in the daily politics of skin-color: as a child accompanying her Samoan mother to the local shops to try to defend her from customary ill-treatment; in her marriage learning the spider-web of racial tagging and trapping, where personal and familial relationships would knot themselves from the tangled struggle between Maori and Samoan New Zealanders for second-to-bottom status.
Her daily childhood experiences steeped her in the powers of thought: not of analysis, which may bring the ability to understand and climb out from conditioned, predictable behavior; but the inward-sinking thought of grievance and doubt, which locks itself in confinement with the deepest mental wounds. For her the mental business was a distorted telepathy not with society, but with members of her own family; where the focus is closer, from which distance the twists and turns of the tangle appear as a solitary road ever-bending into unknowable fear and anxiety. Her paintings and drawings are a stage for the drama of this mental world. This is not a cerebral world, but one where thoughts are impulses of perversity, motivated by frustration, forming in misunderstanding and bad feeling.
Her work presents a challenge to understand the psychology of profiling, as felt by the person subjected to it. Meeting this challenge requires more than an awareness campaign. This is a task that needs a very fine-tooth comb; and the patience to try to trace through the multi-faceted perversities of attitude and feeling, reflected back upon one another, that are the ongoing conversations between society’s mentality and the individual mind.
Warwick McLeod 2016