Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art
at the College of Charleston
Colin Quashie creates images that comment on contemporary racial stereotypes. Combining historical relics and artifacts with icons from past and present popular culture, Quashie sharply critiques the way people of color are portrayed in modern visual culture. Using his signature caustic wit, he blends images to allow viewers to more fully explore how images of African Americans and Black culture are constructed today.
In his latest series, called Linked, Quashie juxtaposes images of well-known Black figures with other representations of artifacts to comment on stereotypes as they exist today. In Gabriel, Quashie tweaks an image of Louie Armstrong, updating his signature trumpet with a set of slave shackles. Similarly, in Rose Colored, he creates an image of Harriet Tubman donning a pair of rose-colored glasses, referencing the abolitionist’s view of slaveholders, for whom she still held a level of empathy. With these works, Quashie teases out underlying stereotypes, exposing them for all to see more plainly.
AUGUST 23 - DECEMBER 7, 2019
Photographs by Rick Rhodes Photography | Video by Hed Hi Media | Image tracts written by Colin Quashie
Object, Presence, & Reasoning:
Colin Quashie’s Linked Series as Conversational Implicatures
by Frank C. Martin II
Artists may convey meaning via the physical presence of the objects, events, or experiences they generate, as well as by the juxtaposition of images and imagery.[i] Through the intentional manipulation of their audiences, artists form works of art intended to guide spectators toward an idea or point of view. Existing within an artist’s communicative intentions are both ineffable and overt means for relaying messages, employing the application of signification, substitution, and symbolism, which may stimulate us as audience members to become aware of unique revelations, sociocultural epiphanies, and insights into our own humanity. The activity of concept manipulation, using art objects, is intended to shape us as receptors of information and to transform us, not merely as individuals, but also as a collective “audience.”
Colin Quashie’s Linked series supports his audience in achieving insight, greater self-awareness, and sociocultural epiphany regarding the synthesis of experience. Using a montage of recontextualized images juxtaposed in unexpected visual associations forming a visible, sociocultural “DNA”, Quashie coheres ideological connections that, as his audience, we might prefer not to see, not to consider, and not to discuss. But resisting such discussions in the presence of compelling visual puns, wit-infused associations, and topical, pop-culture allusions may prove difficult. As participants in our unique American culture, with its distaste for extended public discourse on controversial topics, and especially those subjects that seek to delve into unpleasant and difficult-to-articulate social issues, we may be Quashie-embarrassed into a reluctant colloquy on equity, honesty, transparency, and reasoning. What can be the value of challenging us with these sometimes wryly humorous, but often profoundly unpleasant social realities alluded to in Quashie’s artfully generated images?
The leitmotif of the LINKED series is the incorporation, in most of the images, of some form of “shackle,” the hobbling instrument intended to constrain and curtail the physical movements of an enslaved or imprisoned body in order to impose manageability by threat of force. This instrument of coercion serves as a signifier of the imposition of the enslaver, and of the initial levels of constraint imposed upon the enslaved (particularly the idea of physical restraint and constraint, but, also alluding to the ineffable aspects of emotional, spiritual, and psychological constraints, or “shackles,” that enslaved human beings were forced to accept because of the constant threat of violence). Thus, this first kind of “link” introduces a concatenation of interrelated constraints, which constitute a multidimensional means of imprisoning the human presence extending through time. Physical constraints of the past have morphed into psychological constraints in our shared present. The heritage-based experiences, as members of a group and as individuals, for many Americans of African descent, have been and continue to be a source of social dissonance. This “link” to many contemporary social ills, predicated in the after-effects of institutionalized enslavement, sustains its impact upon its various “victims.” The dual categories of victims include the enslaved and their descendants, upon whom inappropriate constraints were imposed, as well as their enslavers and their descendants, who accepted a required sacrifice of humanity, due to the inhumane social practices predicated upon economic gain, imposed by the willful insularity of enslavers, and of those who permitted, abetted, and sustained the immoral character of such deeply insidious, intrinsically corrupt, and self-destructive, institutionalized social constructs.
As an example of the outlandish character of institutionalized enslavement, the digital print image, Blacktose Tolerant (all works in Quashie’s exhibition were produced in 2018), shows an African American woman, who appears to be a care-giver—very likely a wet nurse—holding an infant. She is shown glowering intently at the camera with her small Caucasian charge. Since enslaved persons were considered “property,” the female figure would have been required literally to nurse her future oppressor at her breasts, sustaining not merely the likely source of her own future misery, but also the probable means for the disruption and destruction of her family. Quashie’s title offers a pun on the term “lactose-intolerance,” a medical condition, which causes many individuals, based on ancestry and heredity, to be incapable of digesting the carbohydrate lactose found in dairy products. Quashie’s witty image presents a disturbing social irony in visual form, an image that propels his audience toward a hideous realization: the enslaved were coerced into perpetuating their own miserable conditions due to providing nurture (even in their most helpless and defenseless state) for the individuals who would intentionally oppress and harm them. This deeply unpleasant social reality is encapsulated within this image, in which the shackles form a bra-like structure, emphasizing the life-giving breasts that nurture and sustain even as they assure their own destruction and antipathetic social status. Enslaved individuals, even as they performed the most intimate and personal services for their enslavers, had their own humanity trenchantly denied and disavowed.
What reward is offered to Quashie’s audience for gaining awareness of such a heinous reality? Is this a topic for discussion? In considering something that embodies social issues that are so very challenging, what value is provided for us, as audience, in responding to such an image? In confronting the contextual ugliness (made seductively attractive, even elegant by means of the use of technology mastering the incorporation and electronic manipulation of scanned photographic images, compelling graphic composition, employment of value, contrast, and digital manipulation), we inadvertently consider the comparable ugliness of aspects of our American social and cultural history and its slow, erratic evolution toward greater social equity and more highly developed conceptions of social justice. The Quashie images both remind us of an unfortunate past and represent to us the transformations, improvements, and technological advances of our own present moment. (These parallels convey the idea that although our culture has “changed,” those changes are as yet insufficient for achieving a goal of pervasive social justice.)
An artist with powerful connections to graphically expressed communications and allusions to varying aspects of popular culture, Quashie’s images are multilayered yet unambiguous, combining caustic wit, a sense of the ironic, and mischievousness in turn. The artist incorporates his wry sense of humor, employing a cleverness that is simultaneously acerbic and arid. His unexpected juxtapositions evoke equally both laughter and anger in their recognition of the absurdity, injustice, discrepancy, or antipathy imbedded in the imagery. Dual evocations are simultaneously operant within Quashie’s works, and significantly, these dualistic responses the images elicit from viewers are comparable, in part, to the supposed phenomenon of “double-consciousness” noted by scholar W. E. B. DuBois, wherein a divided “self” wars within the individual African American.[ii] The emotional and conceptual “split” Quashie creates concentrates the power of the image, per se, to evoke a dualistic psychological response.
A phenomenological assessment of Quashie’s images provides rich rewards for our understanding and awareness. For example, in Servant, a ghosted photograph of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. is presented. He is shown wearing a placard on which the numbers 7 and 0 and the base of an 8 are visible. Superimposed on the portrait of Dr. King is an image of a brass metal badge in the form of a diamond-shaped lozenge, positioned on one of its points and perforated at its zenith. The badge is inscribed with the word “Charleston” and the number “7089,” a repeat of the number partially hidden on the placard held by Dr. King. Circumscribed within a rectangle on the surface of the badge is the word “[SERVANT]” and, below that inscription, the numbers “1968” are discernable.
Quashie expects his audience to have a sufficient awareness of America’s civil rights history to be capable of realizing that the portrait is in fact a “mug shot” of Dr. King, taken in February of 1956, when the good doctor was arrested with other protestors for leading the Montgomery bus-boycott protests.[iii] The metal badge simulates the form of the “slave tag,” which designated an enslaved individual’s profession in an easily discernable form, worn by Africans enslaved in America, who were hired out by their enslavers. Enslaved Africans were required to wear these identifying badges, which indicated both an enslaved individual’s “legal” status and any special skills or training.[iv] Ironically, the badge designed by Quashie for Dr. King, specifies “Servant,” and the date of 1968 indicates the year of his assassination—the date of the “termination” of his “service.” Dr. King’s arrest for the cause of civil rights is obliquely juxtaposed with the idea of African American male incarceration, the outcome of legislation resulting in the disproportionate comparative imprisonment of Americans of African descent in contrast with the incarceration of other members of the general populace. This work is thus a critique of systemic discrimination, according to which, statistically, approximately 15 percent of all-American males of African descent may be incarcerated within their lifetimes.[v]
The Linked images render visible what has become invisible within our cultural consciousness. We are reminded of what has been forgotten, ignored, or disregarded as part of our cultural legacy. In this instance Dr. King’s role as a rebel, a jailed “criminal” (for violating segregation laws and community traditions) has been made invisible in contemporary public awareness by the homogenized mythology of his official narrative as a “great man.” Revisions of historic public memory forget his unpopularity as a revolutionary and law breaker, as well as how he was scorned by the younger generation of black power advocates as an “integrationist.” Comparably, in Blacktose Tolerant, the intimate relationships between enslaver and enslaved are rendered visible by allusions to the interdependencies inherent in such relations.
Quashie’s employment of substitutive communications symbols, metonymy, and metaphor to critique past and contemporary cultural realities, is an important part of his methodology. In summary form, below are a few insights into possible, even probable ideas suggested by the “links” in this series:
In Rose Colored, an image of freedom fighter Harriet Tubman wearing rose-colored glasses made of shackles, we see an allusion to resilient optimism, via which a woman who was born enslaved, was horrifically abused, yet managed to find, within herself, the internal strength not merely to facilitate her own freedom, but also to become a Civil War heroine, an espionage strategist, and the means by which hundreds if not thousands of enslaved individuals were guided to freedom or were rendered free due to information she provided to Union forces. Indeed, this heroine saw the world through lenses of “rose-colored glasses,” which served to sustain her never losing faith in herself or in humanity.
Gabriel, an image of jazz artist, Louis Armstrong, who played like an “angel” (here, the angel, “Gabriel” who was associated with the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary of the incipient birth of a savior, and who is associated with the tradition that he will blow a trumpet to indicate God’s return to Earth), alludes to the interrelationship between the misery of slavery and the creativity of African American musicians whose slave chants and spirituals would lead to the development of blues, jazz, rhythm and blues, rock ’n’ roll, funk, and hip hop, all powerful communicative structures of American popular culture.
From “Sell” to “Cell” is an implicit critique of the 13th Amendment, the change to the American Constitution that simultaneously abolished legal enslavement and reinstated it as a punishment for individuals convicted of crimes. African Americans merely shifted positions, from being sold under law as “chattel” to being re-enslaved by the discriminatory practices embedded within the American “justice” system.
Perhaps most poignant among the images is Cracked Rear View, which in its dependence upon a comparatively recent pop-culture event, demonstrates the ongoing damage of the aftermath of enslavement. This work alludes to a statement made by musical artist Kanye West, in which he suggested that four hundred years of enslavement of Africans in America seemed to him like a “choice.” The failure of reasoning, empathy, and context in grasping the coercive power of legalized enslavement enforced by governmental edict, contrasted with the limited experiences of a privileged contemporary musician, speaks volumes.[vi] The image shows West, wearing chains as personal adornment and shackles as sunglasses reflecting historic images of enslaved Africans in the cracked lenses, as if seen in a cracked rear-view mirror. Quashie cleverly refers to the trivialization of a traumatic experience by the talented musician, which could be understood as a legacy of transference trauma, itself based in the horrific experiences of the enslaved.[xiii]
Finally, SHHHHHHACKLED, presents the image of a shackle covering the face of athlete/activist Colin Kaepernick, representing a collective attempt to silence his protests countering the systemic violence of law enforcement against African Americans.[vii] Calls to prevent the athlete from advocating his opinions by kneeling in public during the performance of the National Anthem led to changes in guidelines of the National Football League’s owners, public criticism of Kaepernick by America’s 45th President, as well as expressions of support by millions of fans and fellow opponents of injustice. Enslaved Africans were expected to renounce their own wills, to relinquish their voices, to disregard their own sentience and accept their enslavement in obedient silence. Kaepernick and Quashie both seek to counter the isolating and dehumanizing effects of the psychological as well as the actual or physical shackling of contemporary African Americans.
Quashie’s disturbing “links” have made visible what had become hidden within American society. By visually imposing the presence of shackles, slave collars, slave tags, and related apparatuses within his images, he visually articulates the connections between oppression and a buoyant, self-assertive creativity, which made that oppression tolerable. He indicates the intricately intimate ways in which the enslaved were coerced into sustaining their enslavers; finally, with wry humor he shows us the significance of the invisible conceptual “links” and “shackles” imposed upon the minds not only of the descendants of the oppressed, but also upon the descendants of their oppressors, implying how such “links” continue to affect us collectively as they continue to have a myriad of effects upon our daily experiences. His open-ended images invite, presenting unanswered questions via juxtaposed elements and selective representations of “presence.” Quashie engages his viewers using the tools of conversational implicature. His visual exhortations to critical reflection on our society, and their impetus toward our “mental” freedom as spectators, assumes an analogous comparison to the role in freeing the enslaved, held in the past, by a heroine such as Harriet Tubman.
Quashie’s provocative art offers contemporary audiences opportunities to consider how we may seek to emerge from the convolutions of our own socially imposed collective conceptual quagmire of a metaphorical, cognitive “enslavement.” The images raise the question of whether we as a society are prepared to face the difficult truths Quashie’s potential “conversation” implies. Will we take the necessary actions toward attaining an enhanced, collective conceptual “freedom”? In offering us access to these insights, Quashie appears to believe we may indeed have such a capacity. These works of art demonstrate a resilient faith in our shared humanity; however, will we evolve, transform ourselves, and succeed in realizing our social “promise,” or will we remain dormant, in denial, and default to inadequacy in both self- and social actualization? Only time will tell. Grasping, understanding, and possibly freeing ourselves from the enslaving “links” is entirely up to us. - FM
© Copyright Frank C. Martin II. All rights reserved
[i] See Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, Production of Presence: What Meaning Cannot Convey (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007), regarding the ineffable communicative power of presence, which may defy verbal or written communications of meaning. In Quashie’s works, for example, the use of digital montage creates an intrinsic technological analogy based in the linguistic derivation of the word “technology.” Technology is wedded to his artistic praxis by means of the physical presence of the objects he creates, in that the term “art” derives from the Latin ars, a translation of the Greek τέχνη, transcribed into Latin letters as techne, which means “skill,” the root term for “technology” and the root conceptual association with works of art as a demonstration of manual and/or intellectual skill. Thus the medium, and its “presence,” is in fact a social commentary on the shifting ideas of what the term “art” may entail. Whether such associations are consciously engaged, subconsciously employed, or emerge from the unconscious is less relevant than the associative power of the conceptual reality of presence per se.
[ii] For Dr. W. E. B. DuBois’s noted discussion of “double consciousness,” see The Souls of Black Folk (Chicago: A. C. McClurg & Co, 1903), as well as “Strivings of the Negro People,” The Atlantic Monthly (1897); https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1897/08/strivings-of-the-negro-people/305446/ [accessed June 25, 2019].
[iii] Reproductions of Dr. King’s mug shot, as well as those of other African American protestors arrested on February 21, 1956, for their leadership roles during the Montgomery bus boycott, are available through The University of Georgia’s Civil Rights Digital Library website. The initial image was made by the Montgomery County (Ala.). Sheriff’s Dept. and labeled Martin Luther King, Jr., #7089; 1956 Feb. 21. It was recorded in one of the Montgomery County, Alabama, Sheriff Department’s mug-shot volumes, which were divided by race and gender. The Civil Rights Digital Library received support from a National Leadership Grant for Libraries awarded to the University of Georgia by the Institute of Museum and Library Services for the aggregation and enhancement of partner metadata. See http://crdl.usg.edu/export/html/smokinggun/hotcrm/crdl_smokinggun_hotcrm_mmugwork1.html?Welcome&Welcome.
[iv] Slave badges served as the physical proof regarding information on the legal status of slaves hired out by their enslavers. Laws controlling the double exploitation of hiring out enslaved laborers began early in the eighteenth century, and references to badges or “tickets” appeared in historical accounts by 1751; wearing them was mandated by 1764. The badges could be in round, diamond, or lozenge shapes. A perforation at the top facilitated their suspension on the person of those unfortunate enough to be required to wear such proclamations of their legal status. For more information, see Harlan Green, “Slave Badges,” in The South Carolina Encyclopedia, Walter Edgar, ed. (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press [Institute for Southern Studies], 2006); http://www.scencyclopedia.org/sce/entries/slave-badges/ [published online August 1, 2016, last updated May 22, 2018; accessed June 12, 2019].
[v] See Adam Tooze, “Quantifying Incarceration,” in Jacobin Magazine (November 1, 2017), which provides a compelling account of the social impact of mass-incarceration legislation; https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/11/mass-incarceration-statistics-united-states [accessed June 16, 2019].
[vi] See Benjamin Lee and Benjamin Beaumont-Thomas, “Kanye West on slavery: ‘For 400 years? That sounds like a choice’” The Guardian (May 2, 2018); https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/may/01/kanye-west-on-slavery-for-400-years-that-sounds-like-a-choice [accessed June 16, 2019].
[vii] Colin Kaepernick began his protests against the mistreatment of African Americans by law enforcement in 2016; see Nick Wagoner/ESPN staff writers, entitled “Colin Kaepernick Protests Anthem Over Treatment of Minorities,” in The Undefeated, published online(August 27, 2016); https://theundefeated.com/features/colin-kaepernick-protests-anthem-over-treatment-of-minorities/ [accessed June 25, 2019].
[xiii] Regarding the phenomenon of transference trauma, see Dionne R. Powell, “Race, African Americans, and Psychoanalysis: Collective Silence in the Therapeutic Situation”, Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, published online, first published January 8, 2019 Research Article, accessed July 26th 2019 at: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0003065118818447. Some theorists suggests that the traumatic experiences of enslavement may be transferred genetically to future generations.