By Darnell L. Moore
Art is a tool necessary for new world creating and self-remaking. When conjured in the imaginative expanse of the black creative mind, art has the capacity to transgress:
Art can move us toward black queer futures. Art can aid in liberating our personhoods.
Art can help us dream news ways of relating, resisting, believing, learning, fucking, and being. Art can decolonize our minds and lead us into unafraid and uninhibited expressions of blackness. Art can also heal.
The enchanted energy imparted through art is necessary because it fuels the black imagination as Robin D.G. Kelley has argued in his mind-dazzling work, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination. But what of art that pushes us beyond the bounds of a black imagination caged in by so-called normative understandings of sex, sexuality, gender, ability, and many other ways we identify one another? We need black queer art that maroons. The works of Shikeith and Jamal Lewis are but two examples.
Shikeith is a mixed media visual artist who lives in Philadelphia. He is presently creating works, which as he notes, explores “the cultural determinants of the imago or the fantasy affixed to black manhood.” His recent photographic and video installation examines the complexities of black manhood beyond heteronormative and gender conforming imaginings. He plays with black male bodies, literally placing them in communion with the earth, with flowers, with dirt, with the horizon, with the afterlife, with other bodies.
“The Moment You Doubt You Can Fly, You Cease Forever to Be Able to Do It” Shikeith, 2014
The subjects and characters in the works are both sensual and haunting, habituated and liberated.
“Why Do They Forget the Way?” Shikeith, 2013
Shikeith’s work imagines queer time or what José Muñoz names the “not yet here”: the black naked male bodied unrestricted in this space and time as it is lifted, almost magically, by balloons (a returning figure in his works), into worlds and ways of being not yet imagined. His work sets the once captive free. Black male-identified bodies are liberated from gender, a prison for some of us. When speaking with Shikeith, he described the process he used to stimulate the production of subjects’ tears and affect. He photographed black males nude, but during one series he used ethanol to produce the effect of synthetic tears.
“Where Troubles Melt Like Lemon Drops” Shikeith, 2013
Naked subjects were then asked to respond to a series of probes regarding their memories of crying or the inability to express emotion. They were invited to reflect on the ways normative ideas of black masculinity limited their ability to fully express their emotions. During the conversation, many of the subjects began to emote and cry authentic tears. Shikeith cried, too, creating in that moment new modes of expression unleashed by an artistic process shaped by a liberated black imagination. Powerfully, Shikeith’s present work was presaged by drawings he scribbled as a child—drawings he didn’t even remember creating.
Below is a drawing given to him by his father that Shikeith created as a youth. Note the presence of balloons, of a horizon, of characters situated in what seems to be a scenic ode to freedom.
Another drawing from Shikeith’s childhood depicts images of human bodies with diverse anatomical features.
When I asked Shikeith if he felt inhibited when dreaming bodies as a child he said he did not. He went on to say, “I just find it interesting how something as beautifully innate as a creative vision can be disfigured and restricted by interaction with the world.” What these earlier works reveal is the fact that the black imagination can be a site of freedom and imprisonment. Societal expectations, being socialized to use state-sanctioned gender labels and bias can, in fact, diminish the queer potential present in the black imagination. Shikeith’s imagination was hampered as he matured, but he has rediscovered the source that is now (and always has been) animating his art making, and he had to free his imagination to do so. He writes, “There are both structural and cultural inequalities that have formulated barriers that dictate our psychological perception of the world, each other, and ourselves… I aim to question, and reveal the bigoted, historical influences that control the ways contemporary Black males psychologically view themselves and each other.” Through art, Shikeith is allowing his imagination to maroon.
Like Shikeith, Brooklyn-based media maker, Jamal Lewis (who can be found @FatFemme on Twitter, Instagram and Soundcloud), uses art to explore gender fluidity, blackness, fatness, ugliness and beauty. Jamal’s work, in many ways, asks “which of the blacks are present and in our imagination and, as a consequence, which will be present or alive in our black futures?” What might it take to dream new social and political formations? Lewis sees the interpolation of black queer femme practices and black gender nonconforming bodies in normative formations and movement practices as a route to liberation. His imaginary is one inclusive of those on the edges of the margins. His black future consists of the undesirables running amok, to use his words, saying “fuck you” to establishment politics and respectability freeing themselves and others in the process.
Because of Jamal’s work, the centers in black movement spaces are being undone. His work is forwarding us into a black future where the leaders are no longer male or masculine identified cisgender able bodied heterosexual appeasing black folk in suits, but is inclusive of bristas, femme boys, brown bois, aggressives, trans people, gender queer, sisters and brothers. His is the “not yet here” we must claim and imagine into being. His is the black queer future that we need a liberated black imagination to conceive and build. His is an invitation to maroon and be freed.
Darnell L. Moore is a senior editor at Mic and co-managing editor at The Feminist Wire. He writes and talks shit from his stoop in Bedstuy, Brooklyn, NY. And organizes with Black Lives Matter.
This piece is composed of portions of talks given at Columbia and Northwestern Universities in 2015.