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A Grammar for Black Interior Art

A Grammar for Black Interior Art

a coupling of drawings that are pinned to a wall. they are oval shaped with the bottom half completely covered in black so that you cannot see the bottom half of the oval.

Black Interior Art

[ Black – always with a capital “B”]

[Interior – the inner, internal]

[Art – manifestations of Black cultural production]

              

The Interior

a. The interior is the inner life and imaginary; an inwardness; deep thought, affect, and resonance. It is of its own making and conditioning. Interiority is open and willful, transformative and unfolding. Self-reflexive. Holding an intimacy and capacity for self-possession, self-awareness, and self-fullness; like when Gil Scott Heron recites, “I did not become someone different/ That I did not want to be.” 1Gil Scott Heron, “I’m New Here,” written by Bill Calahann, released February 8, 2010, track 3 on I’m New Here, XL Recordings.

b. The interior is not neutral or universal; representative or inclusive. It is not of resistance or corrective practices; neither an alternative state nor one of retreat.

c. Blackness is not an implied or privileged idiom within the interior. In the context of this text, Black interiority speaks to the inner aliveness of a people and the expressive cultural production they shape.

d. The interior is sovereign, autonomous, and, as described by Kevin Quashie, quiet and apart from the scope of public life. “The inner life is not apolitical or without social value, but neither is it determined entirely by publicness. In fact, the interior—dynamic and ravishing—is a stay against the dominance of the social world; it has its own sovereignty. It is hard to see, even harder to describe, but no less potent in its ineffability. Quiet.”2Kevin Quashie, The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2012), 6.

e. Although the interior is not for public consumption, it is not withholding either. We must consider ascension and the underground as they relate to Black interior life and design. Interiority is not of the underground but advances the underground as a strategy of radical self-making and placekeeping. A way of seeing in the darkness and through the blues; the blue of Black. The underground as interior sight, grip, and creation in the blue of Black. The deep space of multiplicity, plurality, possibility, and hope; a modality of experimentation.


Interior Time

f. The interior is of real time. Black aliveness in real time; the inner making and expressiveness of being; to be real (come alive) in time. Black interior time is in the (process of) becoming; it can be constant, durational, or entered into.

g. Interior time is of a circular futurity, cultural (re)production in the round. The Black interior is in overtime and takes place over time. Holding the terror of the never-ending measure of violence, alongside the ever-expanding measures of survival, spirituality, and pleasure.

h. Worldmaking is a conditional practice of the Black interior. The speculative labor of worlding and unworlding is shaped from what is deeply seen, unseen, and made to appear. Not of fixed truth, realness, or evidence, but of the relentless necessity to conjure and imagine the unthinkable, the unknown (new reaches of both the interior and exterior realms). Worldmaking is a critical practice of assemblage; stretching the value bounds of the known world. It is a polemic against what Saidiya Hartman deems the precarity of Black life. 3 Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe 12, no. 2 (June 2008): 1-14.

This conceptual frame of worlding takes shape in artist Sondra Perry’s immersive avatars, gaming simulations, and workstation installations. Perry makes correlations between color technologies and Black spatiality as expressed in her explorations of chroma key blue post-production and hyper-modulated renderings of her skin which achieve new effects around Black internet imaging. Her works, Wet and Wavy—Typhoon coming on for a Three-Monitor Workstation (2016) and Typhoon Coming On (2018) envelop viewers in the animated looping of purple waves or currents that are depictions of the 1840 J. M. W. Turner painting of the Zong massacre. The residual timing of the loop and the ultra-bright purpling of the water are magnetizing, keeping the viewer in the pulse of the waves.

These works are in conversation with what Christina Sharpe defines as residence time and the wake. “This is what we know about those Africans thrown, jumped, dumped overboard in the Middle Passage; they are with us still, in the time of the wake, known as residence time.”4Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), 19. Worldmaking occurs in residence time. We are held in (or return to) the conscious presence of the ship, the overboard, and the Atlantic. Perry is creating in the surreal glow of this holding.


The Atlantic

i. The interior is concerned with the environment; both haptic and imagined relationships to landscapes. 

j. The Atlantic is the shared locale within the Black interior. Aligning the Atlantic is not forging a fantastical collectivity of a people but naming a socio-political-racial-geographical connection. It is present alongside the multiple locales and timelines that are operating simultaneously within the Black interior; it is local within Black contemporaneity. Black interiority leaves (or requires) an opening for the Atlantic to enter and flow, as it does, into its time and becoming.

three identically designed shelters stand in Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem USA
A particularly elaborate imba yokubikira, or kitchen house, stands locked up while its owners live in diaspora (installation view), 2016. © Simone Leigh; Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York.

Self-Historicization

k. Self-historicization is a formal marker of interiority. It advances the relationship between Black contemporaneity and interiority; both are of the past, the now, and always emerging.

l. Within the interior, historicization is the mapping of imaginative and archived realities, both lived or learned.

m. Self-historicization is forward cultural mobility. It anticipates Black futurity and the production of new relationships. Self-historicization is also a groundedness, a context for which cultural art is produced. A context that is not given but developed, asserted, and pronounced.

Artist Simone Leigh engages the interiority of self-historicization through a practice of care that both highlights the archival matter and annotates the intellectual, labor, and resistance traditions of Black women where tradition operates as material, form, and critical ideation. Self-historicization is also amplified in the way she overlaps design and aesthetic technologies, referencing pre-Atlantic and contemporary modes of cultural production.

Her public work A particularly elaborate imba yokubikira, or kitchen house, stands locked up while its owners live in diaspora (2016), the sculpture Sentinel (2019), and the mixed-media work Loophole of Retreat I (2019) all reveal their blended cultural and historical contexts. However, Leigh’s work is operating beyond the frame of compositional references. It is the marking of an inner dialogue and studied resolution around a heritage of survival and being. On her work, Hartman writes, “Simone Leigh’s hands have created a world, have disrupted and evaded the dominant economy of the gaze, not by opposition or protest, not by explaining anything, but by looking otherwise, by retreating within, by a radical withholding that makes visible and palpable all that is held in reserve—all that power, love, brilliance, labor, and care. All that beauty.” 5 Saidiya Hartman, “Extended Notes on the Riot,” e-flux Journal #105 (December 2019): 1-3.

a young black woman is captured in profile. she is wearing a white bandana and is staring up toward the sky. in the background is an abandoned warehouse of sorts and detritus is visible.
Be Alarmed: The Black Americana Epic, Movement I, Scene IV: Vulnerability (Still), 2019, Tiona Nekkia McClodden. Courtesy of the artist.

Spiritual Markings

n. Beliefs, values, and how one knows what one knows to be true are the pith of the interior.

o. Spiritual markings of the interior include error. Life and the living. Death and the dead. Remembrance and urgency. The intimacy of what we inherit and that which we create.

p. Deep interiority is about the habitual remaking of recovery and return to instinct.

q. The interior is the innate meta; the interconnectedness of objects and object-making. Developed in the account of the personal, or the personal and the collective, or the personal for the collective. Not as a mode of hi-subjectivity, but a value of center and offering. Think of offering acts like Black familial performances or queer spacemaking, happenings in the living room or on the dance floor. Think of the role of processions in commemoration, from how we bury our dead to celebrations of love, birth, Gods, and days off work. Think of all the Black linguistic traditions. Think of prayer.

See Also
Two Black women stand in the street. One, filmmaker Ja'Tovia Gary, wears a red scarf as she holds a micrphone in front of the woman wearing a yellow coat. The woman wearing the yellow coat is preparing to answer a question.

r. The Black interior does not exist behind the veil; it is the veil. It is a rigorous and intentional practice of opacity. The work of artist Tiona Nekkia McClodden illustrates this method of creating from the interior of spiritual and cultural matter—where the complex making is in collaboration, ritual, and documentation—forming conjectures between the ancestral and the artistic. In her series Be Alarmed: The Black Americana Epic (2014–) and the installation I prayed to the wrong god for you (2019), McClodden’s work echoes the labor of journeying through the interior and reveals (or makes visible) the parts that rise to the surface.

As an overture to projects on artists Julius Eastman, Essex Hemphill, and Brad Johnson, McClodden writes, “I didn’t want to make another AIDS quilt for an audience that is more invested in the colors of the fabric than in the depth of the subject or the people behind the panels. I wanted to make something brutal and leveling. I wanted to learn how to create work that is about living, that is sacred and profane, that is fugitive, that does not look wild and unruly but is wild and unruly. I wanted to learn to create work that defies the form and expectations of the body that produces it. “6 Tiona Nekkia McClodden, “My Existential Limits to the Rectification of Past Wrongs, Or, So If You See Me Crying, It’s Just a Sign That I’m Still Alive,” Triple Canopy, April 25, 2019, https://www.canopycanopycanopy.com/contents/my-existential-limits-to-the-rectification-of-past-wrongs.

Her works around these artists, like Af-fixing Ceremony: Four Movements for Essex (2015) and in The Brad Johnson Tape (2017), offer new tools for commemoration and ceremony. These works are ceremoniously visceral, poetic, vulnerable, and self-determined. Creating a new compositional frame for a Black posthumous sociality through archival conceptions (or conceptions with the archive).

a coupling of drawings that are pinned to a wall. they are oval shaped with the bottom half completely covered in black so that you cannot see the bottom half of the oval.
The Terror of Black Interdetemincy, 2, 2019, Torkwase Dyson. Courtesy of Rhona Hoffman Gallery

Form and Codification

s. The interior is not singular or modular, but malleable and generative. Elasticity is a part of its form.

t. Black interior art is improvisational. Emphemeratic. Always listening. The work of the seer and the seen.

u. In thinking about the relationship between the Black interior and art, one must understand the awareness the interior holds for power relationships between public observation and market absorption of the visual production of Black thought, design, and collective making.

v. Black interior design is found in the hybrid technologies employed by the Black homemakers artist Xenobia Bailey references within her work; the underground life-making of Black American maroons as researched by Dr. Sylvian Diouf; The Great Migration (and most Black migratory movements) as a spatial and economic imaginary; the liberatory architecture of bush arbors that are as Mario Gooden writes, “…perhaps one of the earliest examples of the subversive space-making of African [enslaved] slaves.”7 Mario Gooden, Dark Space: Architecture, Representation, Black Identity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 22. The interior is beautiful. It does not present the impression or volume of beauty but the actualization of it as free thought.

w. So much of Black interior form is shaped through tools and systems of codification, improvisation, and repetition. It is mark-making, the essence of residual occupancy or hyper-presence. This is manifested in Torkwase Dyson’s work The Terror of Black Interdetemincy, 2 (2019). The composition features a coupling of drawings that are resonant mappings of the illogic of anti-blackness. “The shape makes the Black,”8“Christina Sharpe and Torkwase Dyson in Conversation,” June 14, 2018, Graham Foundation, Chicago, video, 1:27:03, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BmmVQxz2HEg. states Dyson in reference to imaging radicality, stretching her technique of imbuing the somatic with abstraction.

“Abstract drawing can lend itself to the intellectual and psychological pursuit of pulling black compositional thought close. Really close, inside close. From the black-inside-black position, I stand in front of a surface with my mind in complete awareness of form as power. As I begin to convey shape, line, movement, weight, scale, proximity, and perspective, representations of subjects oscillate between scaled diagrammatic images and expressive drawings. In the act of making I understand that it is the integration of forms folded into the conditions of black spatial justice where I begin to develop compositions and designs that respond to materials. Here I open up the power of abstract representation while engaging with the emotional implications of design space itself.” 9Torkwase Dyson, “Black Interiority: Notes on Architecture, Infrastructure, Environmental Justice, and Abstract Drawing,” Pelican Bomb, January 9, 2017, http://pelicanbomb.com/art-review/2017/black-interiority-notes-on-architecture-infrastructure-environmental-justice-and-abstract-drawing.

Dyson’s approach to making and her construction of Black compositional thought and political abstraction are throughways to understanding the conditions (ripple effects, impact) of artistic interiority as unified with an awareness of spatial exteriority in relationship to the Black body.

x. The interior is of opaque matter and construction. Opacity is a potent allegorical form of interiority; it is a part of its sovereignty. Unlike modes of cultural production, the West is unable to absorb the Black interior because of its inability to fully codify it. The colonial project encompasses the codification of knowledge and history, where commodification is a major tool of its capitalist enterprising. However, its structural need for racial and cultural others reinforces its distance from Blackness. It is unable to deeply see, read, understand, or even believe in the Black interior, even when didactically presented. In many ways, this opacity serves as a protector for the cultural technologies of Black thought and practice. Opacity is not merely a cover but a critical practice. Within this frame, abstraction is a condition of or movement within interior artistic forms.

y. Opacity is the reckoning between the interior and public life, surfacing questions around audience and access. Even when public, opacity creates an intimacy with the audience through the legibility of interior art forms. Constructing an ever-shifting audience from its own making in proximity.

z. Part of Elizabeth Alexander’s writing on the Black interior aligns with this exploration of Black interior art. “The black interior is a metaphysical space beyond the black public everyday toward power and wild imagination that black people ourselves need to be reminded of. It is a space that black people ourselves have policed at various historical moments. Tapping into this black imaginary helps us envision what we are not meant to envision: complex black selves, real and enactable black power, rampant, and unfetishized black beauty.” 10 Elizabeth Alexander, The Black Interior: Essays (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2004), x.

The interior is not concerned with representation, a counter-realness, or counter-imaginary. It’s art is dissident; an active, energetic, and responsive compositional space. Black interior art is full presence. It echoes, amplifies, and guides. It never forgets.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ladi’Sasha Jones is a writer and arts administrator based in Harlem. She has written for Aperture, Avery Review, Houston Center for Photography, Art X Lagos, Temporary Art Review, and Recess among others. Currently, Ladi’Sasha is the Artist Engagement Manager for the Laundromat Project. She held prior appointments at the Norton Museum of Art, the New Museum’s IdeasCity platform, and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. As a founding board member of the I, Too, Arts Collective, Ladi’Sasha is a part of a group working to transform the historic landmark brownstone of American poet James Mercer Langston Hughes into a residency for Black writers. She holds a B.A. in African American Studies from Temple University and a M.A. in Arts Politics from NYU, Tisch School of the Arts.

References   [ + ]

1.Gil Scott Heron, “I’m New Here,” written by Bill Calahann, released February 8, 2010, track 3 on I’m New Here, XL Recordings.
2.Kevin Quashie, The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2012), 6.
3. Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe 12, no. 2 (June 2008): 1-14.
4.Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), 19.
5. Saidiya Hartman, “Extended Notes on the Riot,” e-flux Journal #105 (December 2019): 1-3.
6. Tiona Nekkia McClodden, “My Existential Limits to the Rectification of Past Wrongs, Or, So If You See Me Crying, It’s Just a Sign That I’m Still Alive,” Triple Canopy, April 25, 2019, https://www.canopycanopycanopy.com/contents/my-existential-limits-to-the-rectification-of-past-wrongs.
7. Mario Gooden, Dark Space: Architecture, Representation, Black Identity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 22.
8.“Christina Sharpe and Torkwase Dyson in Conversation,” June 14, 2018, Graham Foundation, Chicago, video, 1:27:03, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BmmVQxz2HEg.
9.Torkwase Dyson, “Black Interiority: Notes on Architecture, Infrastructure, Environmental Justice, and Abstract Drawing,” Pelican Bomb, January 9, 2017, http://pelicanbomb.com/art-review/2017/black-interiority-notes-on-architecture-infrastructure-environmental-justice-and-abstract-drawing.
10. Elizabeth Alexander, The Black Interior: Essays (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2004), x.
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