Dennis Broe continues his presentation of the work of Robert Colescott. Above: The Wreckage of the Medusa (1978) and the wreckage of capitalism
Robert Colescott’s satire of Americana George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware has now become the centrepiece of L.A.’s new Lucas Museum of American Art. Colescott’s best known work though only begins to touch his four major themes and concerns. These are: expanding Black representation in art while calling attention to the way the culture has been stereotyped in the past; a sharp critique of how the consumer products which shaped and defined him have been adapted and altered by Black experience; bringing the Black female body to the foreground while commenting on the exploitation of the female body in art-historical ideals of beauty; and, finally, a lampooning of the colonial legacy and a sharp analysis of how that legacy functions in the contemporary neo-colonial world.
In the 1970s Colescott broke free from the de-politicized abstract tradition, the establishment of which is described in my book Cold War Expressionism: Perverting the Politics of Perception. His goal was, as he put it, “to interject blacks into art history.” Initially he did this by creating his own versions of classic works. Thus, his George Washington Carver, in satirizing one of the most famous images of Americana, has a black chef, a barefoot fisherman, a banjo strummer, a moonshiner and a black female performing a sex act on the flag-bearer at the centre of a boat which may be about to spring a leak. The painting was called “the most gleeful and unbridled attack on racist ideology in his oeuvre” but it is also a celebration of various forms of Black working-class and underclass activity.
His Eat Dem Taters, a parody of Van Gogh’s Potato Eaters is likewise filled with grotesque images of a black family, seemingly happy with little, a racist stereotype but also as well commemorating black sharecropper life, finding the humanity behind the caricature, as Van Gogh’s original celebrated the Dutch peasantry with whom he sided at the beginning of his career.
Instant Chicken! is a gathering of the racist stereotypes behind the Southern kitchen in a culinary scene dominated by Colonel Sanders with Aunt Jemima applauding Sanders and black cooks framing the composition. The painting reminds us of the southern plantation paternalism which is behind the supposedly benevolent figure of “The Colonel.” The image, rather than being superseded, couldn’t be more relevant as a Christmas ad, with people trapped in their homes as part of the coronavirus confinement, had a Sanders snowman delivering chicken to a mixed family and then sacrificing himself as he melted away after securing the delivery.
Expanding the representation of Black people
The word the art world used to describe Colescott’s antics was “appropriation,” which somewhat denies the originality of what he was doing, presenting it as a form of theft with the term itself falling into a kind of discriminatory and derogatory label. He partially disdained this label and did not want to be known as a creator who “paints art history in blackface.” A far better way of looking at what he accomplished would be to say that what he was doing was expanding the possibilities of Black representation.
His project is renewed today in a variety of places. In the art world, for example in Kara Walker’s recent piece at the Tate London Fons Americanus, a water fountain, recalling that trope in Western sculpture, which instead of nymphs and sea creatures, displays images, using the water motif, of the African, European, American transatlantic slave trade in a piece on display in the heart of London, historical centre of that trade. Likewise, Lovecraft Country, the HBO series, ín one episode, “appropriates” the Wolfman theme from the segregationist period of Hollywood history where African-Americans were locked out of the horror genre. A black woman, who is refused a job at a Chicago department store in the 1950s, makes the horror transformation to a white woman who is then offered a job as a manager at the store. Horror transmutes into the horror of racial inequality.
Colescott came to prominence at a time when American consumer goods were circling the globe, defining our experience of fashion, leisure and entertainment. The artist’s variegated and complex view of this culture aligns him with earlier observers like Walter Benjamin, who was a collector himself of the detritus of capitalist production. He treated its castoffs as signals from far-off lands, and kalso was attuned, as Fredric Jameson says in his book on Benjamin, to the way these products, which define “capitalism’s rituals,” dominate not only our consciousness but also our sense of time. People think of (capitalist) crisis as an event, Jameson explains, but for Benjamin “the catastrophe is that it just goes on like this.”
In 1978’s The Wreckage of the Medusa, a sly borrowing from Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa, a modern-day ocean liner, like the Titanic, has crashed and in the sea are the detritus of society, both humans and objects. They are all cut into their individual parts – used underwear, trash, beer cans and body parts, all fragmented in the way consumer society fragments experience. One critic wrote that while Colescott “knows that the ship of civilization is sinking” “he remains on board.” Another way of seeing the gesture, related to the patch over the leaky George Washington Carver boat, is that he is doing his part to ensure a society weighted down with its own consumerist garbage rightfully collapses and sinks.
Two works from 1983 with the same subtitle, Down in the Dumps, provide diametrically opposed views of this culture. The first So Long Sweetheart, takes up the motif of depression as Colescott himself at far right, his head in his hands in the tortured image of “The Thinker,” is being left by a naked woman wandering off left. What he is left with are all the objects piled up as if at a dump that may have defined their relationship. The Dump is both his depression as well as the collection of objects; bicycles, tyres, straw hats, tennis rackets, which are now also defunct.
Down in the Dumps II it titled Christina’s Day Off. In it a proud black woman fashions her existence out of a similar pile of objects (hotdogs, cakes, a teapot), but smiles with satisfaction at how she is able to create a persona from these castoffs. Colescott was well aware of the way capitalism discards its useless artifacts, be they workers or objects: “Sometimes people when they get to be about 30 years old find it’s time for them to be knocked down, just like buildings.”
Capitalism’s exploitation of the female body
Another of Colescott’s preoccupations was the often-exploitative presentation in the art world of female bodies in general and the black female body in particular, including an awareness of his own participation in that process. Colescott, with his thorough grounding in art history was very aware of how a concentration on the white female body necessitated a lack of representation of the black female body. In one work, he has an African woman gazing into a river, like Narcissus, and seeing her reflection as a blond pin-up queen.
Later, in Les Demoiselles d’Alabama, he presents all the colours of the spectrum of black and Native American women from beige to brown to umbers to dark brown, with various hairstyles and styles of dress, yet all being registered through the knowing gaze of the blonde woman sitting comfortably in the corner who addresses the audience directly.
The artist’s own theory of skin colour was that there was no pure black or white but rather infinite shades of colour, with the peoples of the Earth in close proximity to each other. “The closer you are to Africa, the darker the people are in Southern Europe. The closer North Africa is to Europe, the more European people appear.” This blending of races was for him the actual reality, rather than the rigid distinctions codified in racist and apartheid societies.
He was also keen to put official presentations of pulchritude under the spotlight. In 1976’s American Beauty, the colorful blonde pageant winner in the foreground with her trophy smiles, but the smile is belied by a background of black and white “movie stills,” a sort of R. Crumb version of a pornographic film showing the sexual abuse the contest winner had to put up with to ensure her victory.
Colescott also pointed to his own engagement as a Western artist in this process in his version of Susanna and the Elders (1983) which has a black and white worker gazing at the blonde Susanna as she is about to exit the shower. In a window in the upper corner of the work, Colescott himself appears, a Peeping Tom who is part of this leering. His placement in the painting suggests Max Ernst’s surrealist masterpiece The Virgin Spanking the Christ Child where Ernst appears as one of three “gentlemen” in a peephole watching a highly sexualized spanking of the bare bottom of the child by Mary. Both point to the way art in general and religious art in particular, while claiming to be sacred, often simply legitimates voyeurism.
Art that eats away at empire
Colescott came to prominence at a time when colonial empires not only in Africa and the Middle East were being overthrown, and conflicts were growing in the remnants of the colonial slave system in the U.S. His work has been described as “art that eats away at empire.”
His 1992 Arabs: The Emir of Iswid (How Wide the Gulf?) in the wake of the U.S. Desert Storm operation against Iraq, has a Haille Selassie figure in the top half of the painting, a memory of the one African ruler who was not conquered as the Europeans carved up Africa, with the title referring to an archaeological site which unearthed ancient Egyptian culture. In the middle are Arab nationalists struggling to overthrow the colonial U.S. and European oppressor, and below sit two women chained atop oil cans and a pile of bananas, both items coveted by the continual devastation of Arab lands in the region.
Colescott’s critique is of course largely ignored in the West as can be seen in the mid-point “adventure” sequence in Wonder Woman 84 where the Israeli Gail Godot as Wonder Woman and the American Chris Pine team up to lay waste to an Egyptian caravan, an almost too blatant enactment of the last half decade of power relations in the region.
In Some Afterthoughts on Discovery, part of a series titled Knowledge of the Past is the Key to the Future, Colescott laid bare North American colonialism as on the left a “heroic” Christopher Columbus gazes off into history, oblivious to the lynchings, skeletons, and main figure of a black worker hobbled by the burden of carrying bales of cotton that make up the center of the work. On the left a black woman in a dress with a brilliant floral pattern, seeming to have absorbed this history, strides with pride into her own alternative future.
Finally, in Rejected Idea for a Drostes Chocolate Advertisement, Colescott mocks the Dutch fairy tale Hans Christian Anderson trope, as two skaters in typical Dutch dress enjoy the frozen river, with only two elements out of kilter. The woman is black, surely an indication of the Dutch wealth which came largely from its exploitation of Indonesia and its other overseas colonies, and the man is exposing himself, which suggests, or rather accuses, the Dutch of a history of not only pillage but also of rape in their laying waste to their colonies, referred to also in the title as we recall that Dutch chocolate is not grown but only processed in the Netherlands which therefore profits from its final production while exploiting its growers in the colonies.
Colescott’s career and concerns show him to be an artist who contested the injunction to put aside all political content in art while greatly expanding the range of expression of Black representation. In the end he helped allow us to reimagine art history and to realign art with its persistent earlier links to an engaged political modernism. In the 1970s and ’80s, artists like Colescott restored both formally and narratively the social content to an art which had seen that content outlawed during the conservative 1950s.
For more on Colescott listen to my talk from the American University at Cairo here.
Dennis Broe's latest book is Diary of a Digital Plague Year: Coronavirus, Serial TV and The Rise of The Streaming Services. He is also the author of Birth of the Binge: Serial TV and The End of Leisure. His TV series blog is Bro on The Global Television Beat. His radio commentary can be heard on his show Breaking Glass on Art District Radio in Paris and on Arts Express on the Pacifica Network in the U.S. He is the author of two novels: Left of Eden, about the Hollywood blacklist and A Hello to Arms, about the postwar buildup of the weapons industry. He is currently teaching in the Masters' Program at the Ecole Superieure de Journalisme. He is an arts critic and correspondent for the Morning Star and for Crime Time, People’s World and Culture Matters, where he is an Associate Editor.
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