Reveling in Nightmares
How Adrian Piper’s illustrative genius freed me to explore and identify ugliness without claiming it.
I studied art at a Historically Black University that was the Mecca of Black Art and Artists in the twentieth century. It was an experience and education that most contemporary artists will never receive nor fully understand. Art depends on context and Howard University’s College of Fine Arts was brimming with context and provenance.
All art students were required to take art theory and art history, I centered my courses on African American Art. Primarily because I was disinterested in European Art History. I wanted to learn things that the NYC Public Library couldn’t teach me but that the Moorland Spingarn center, resident University curator, and professors could swaddle me in.
And swaddle they did. I was enamored with the Jacob Lawrence and Elizabeth Catlett works that lived on campus. Catlett’s student drawings were casually encased in the drawing studio at that time. Lois Malliou Jones’ works adorned hallways — provenance, warmth, understanding of what the reverence of Black art could look like.
Then I had my first nightmare and I was even more enthralled.
You had me at hello
I am not sure if I first encountered Adrian Piper’s work in a class called Trends and Ideas in African American Art or in my African American Art History Class both of which were taught by amazing Black women art historians to whom I’m ever grateful — I’ll probably name and write about them at some point. Nevertheless, the first time I saw the Vanilla Nightmares series, I was rendered speechless.
As a mixed media artist majoring in painting, I was trying to figure out how to marry technique with sociopolitical relevancy without alienating my audience. I had not quite mastered subtlety. Yet, here were these simple and simply jarring works that utilized found images — fashion ads — and charcoal illustration to challenge the viewers perspective and perception of and/or on Blackness. She made these ugly perceptions both absurd and beautiful. This, I aspired to.
I am not entirely sure that I have ever accomplished it, even writing this some fifteen years later. Quiet as its kept, I am innately brash and in some regards crass. Piper’s work is about precision — methodical — and well thought-out. Take for example, her My Calling (Card) Performance pieces — a masterclass in subtlety. I lack all of that.
However, I internalized the lessons I learned from her work about confrontation, ugliness, understanding of perception versus reality and the weight of racial imagery.
Sometimes, ugly can be true… if you look hard enough
Somewhere around 2009, Essence magazine published an article about child brides in the Sudan and other parts of Sub Saharan Africa. I created a satirical mixed media series based on my interpretation of those young girls perceptions of their husbands and the larger mainstream society’s image of them — they were ugly. It was an overt, absurd, almost laughable ugliness of how such a black man would be perceived.
By this time, I was living and working in Brooklyn, NY. I was managing a gallery and interacting with up and coming curators, artists, and art patrons. As such, I found myself applying for a myriad of grants, residencies, exhibitions, etc. The rejections were plentiful.
Some of my work was not pretty and to some degree, still isn’t. There is an intentional ugliness to some of the subjects, rendering, and messaging. As such, I was elated to have this particular series accepted into a show by a hot new curator. It was to be a show about sex crimes.
This work was extreme and absurd — uncomfortable.
As the day grew nearer, the curator seemed more and more agitated by the work. She first called to discuss why the men were portrayed in such a grotesque manner. She seemed sated by my explanation but then she called again.
On the third call, a week or so before the exhibition she called to say “I cannot show your work in my show. I simply cannot promote the portrayal of any Black man to be this grotesque.”
I was devastated. I never did ask her if she was familiar with Vanilla Nightmares. Perhaps it was the crude nature of the rendering that really put her off and not necessarily the characters themselves. I will never know.
I reread that article after that phone call. I looked at the stories of those young Black girls and again, I thought of what these men might look like through their lens.
There was this underlying tone that we — Black people — are always perceived as a monolith and therefore, we must dismantle any stain of ugliness by 1. not acknowledging it and/or 2. polishing up all of our stories and buffing out the ugly. I have not published or printed those works up until now…
Maybe somewhere deep down, I thought that she was correct. They — the pieces — were too absurd, too ugly, too much.
Funnily, I have lived longer now and seen far more absurd, more grotesque work without the luxury of context or satire. Everything happens for a reason though. These works gave me the courage to play with the complexity of race and the depth of diasporan Africanness without fear of rejection. That nightmare has already occurred.
“There are many who don’t wish to sleep for fear of nightmares. Sadly, there are many who don’t wish to wake for the same fear.”
― Richelle Goodrich, Dandelions: The Disappearance of Annabelle Fancher
Diary of An Extra Black Art Chick is an experiment by Melissa A. Matthews chronicling her journey back to her art. If you loved this piece, follow this account and also check out her other writing here on Medium.