Retracing the contours of her figure … slippages begin to appear: Reckoning the limits of the archive with Senam Okudzeto’s Large Reclining Nude | Olivia K. Young (27.1)
Olivia K. Young, Department of African Diaspora Studies, University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA, USA
Large Reclining Nude (2004) by transnational artist and scholar Senam Okudzeto is an 86-inch by 63-inch acrylic drawing of a nude, black female body released into a bare milieu (Figure 1). At first glance, the figure is grounded as shadows cast across her body hint at the presence of a foundation. The weight of her hips and slight pointing of her toes intimates a touching–the bordering of ground and body. However, Okudzeto provides no vanishing horizon or relational elements to neatly settle the figure in time or place. Outside the bounds of the body, Okudzeto resists three-dimensional perspective, calling into question the necessity of mediational signifiers for the orientation of the figure. How are we to read this solitary body after Scenes of Subjection (Hartman 1997), after Saidiya Hartman recontextualizes black corporeality as social relationality, throwing the “autonomous individual...into crisis?” (Aranke and Sparks 2015). How do we ground a black body unmoored from both evidentiary signifiers and practices of everyday life (Hartman 1997; de Certeau 2011)?
It is easier to relate Hartman to Okudzeto’s more acclaimed multi-medium piece, Long Distance Lover, a bibliographic work known for its presence in the 2001 Freestyle exhibition at The Studio Museum in Harlem (Golden 2001). In this work the female form ascends as the dominant feature, as multicolored figures swing semi-transparent limbs across a 84-inch by 94-inch canvas comprised of phone-bill receipts, “itemizing nightly calls to farflung places: Uganda, Israel and Seychelles” (Cotter 2001). In Long Distance Lover, each female body is paired with another. Arms and legs twist and tangle, forming distinct scenes of fervid love and vibrant battle, on top of a ground riddled with contextual clues, relationally orienting the floating figures. By contrast, in Large Reclining Nude, the off-white tinge of the Somerset paper offers little comparable spatial or temporal evidence, suggesting a state of irretrievability and conjuring motifs of fugitivity and placelessness (Copeland 2013; Hartman 2007; Hartman 2016). However, despite the spatiotemporal ambiguity, the tension in her hands and the stretch of her legs seem to suspend her in a state of groundedness. For this article, I read the lone, floating body of Okudzeto’s 2004 Large Reclining Nude for new openings into Hartman’s (1997) archival reckoning in Scenes of Subjection. Instead of searching for seamless incarnations of Hartman’s theories of the archive, I offer a meditation on the aesthetic techniques evident through the visual aporia of the drawing – irresolvable contradictions in the field of the visible – suggesting Okudzeto offers alternative reading practices that afford reengagement with Hartman’s work. In Large Reclining Nude, Okudzeto offers the methodological reading practice I call aesthetic ruses – aesthetic techniques that performatively yield multiple, veiled layers of meaning, which continuously unravel with extended care or attention. Her use of ink is an aesthetic ruse that invokes the irresolvability of the aporia, while simultaneously calling attention to slippages of the drawing – slippages that perhaps draw us no closer to a definite or ceremonious spatiotemporal grounding. My contention is that if we trace the ink as it runs down the figure’s toes and into the seemingly invisible ground beneath her, we may uncover something new about our reading practices, our attention to detail, our tendency toward the body.
Hartman (2008, 9) writes in search of “aesthetic modes” that relinquish constraints on the archive but avoid subjective romance, hyperbolized imaginings. From Scenes of Subjection to “Venus in Two Acts,” Hartman describes archival sources as incomplete and at best partial recitations of the dominated, tinged with silences and erasures and “boundaries” that cannot be trespassed (Hartman 2008, 9). She reckons the slippages of the archive, moments that the subaltern surfaces and becomes evidentiary, while also contending with steadfast silences, moments when bodies evade “disaster,” avoiding “an act of chance” which “produce[s]...the expected and usual course of invisibility” (2). However, “writing at the limits of the unspeakable and the unknown,” Hartman’s labyrinthine relation with these sources remains intentionally tangled (1997, 10). “The effort to ‘brush history against the grain’” she writes, “requires excavation at the margins of monumental history in order that the ruins of the dismembered past be retrieved, turning to forms of knowledge and practices not generally considered legitimate objects of historical inquiry” (11). Attuned to disfigurations and evasions, Hartman’s practice of reading sources “against the grain” releases into play previously static accounts of black subjects (10).
However, these critical excavations also engender practices of representation reliant on mediational evidence. While Hartman combs through the past for veiled acts of resistance, she binds her analysis to the visibilities of the archive, searching within historical records for traces of the subaltern. In the introduction of Scenes (1997), after citing Gayatri Spivak’s (1988) well-known edict, “The ‘subaltern’ cannot appear without the thought of the elite,” Hartman continues on to contend, “there is no access to the subaltern consciousness outside dominant representations or elite documents” (Hartman 1997, 10). In order to touch or be in touch with the historic black body, we must settle within the knotty ground of archival landscape.
Thinking of the aporia, however, means succumbing to slippages and educing obscurity in place of clarity. The word enters the fields of visual culture and performance studies by way of Jacques Derrida’s (1993, 16) repeated invocation of the term to consider what we might call theoretical or linguistic paradoxes (English 2007, 135). However, “[r]ather than antinomy,” Derrida (1993) writes, aporia better serves to circumvent inclinations of transcendence and the “dialectizable contradiction in the Hegelian or Marxist sense;” instead, it invokes “fissure itself,” instances of rupture and openings in place of presumed foreclosures (16).1 Although Hartman does not rely on aporia as a central framework, her scholarship offers the intricacy of contradictions – warning against apolitical and transcendent interpretations – and remaining steadfast in the evocation of visible and invisible boundary lines. In contrast, for Okudzeto, aporia offers a purposive engagement with the unknown and the unseen, exploring blackness as relationally defined without the traditional, contextual elements of the archive (Hartman 2008, 9). I turn to the visual aporia of Large Reclining Nude because it unsettles practices of grounding the body. Placing Large Reclining Nude in dialogue with Hartman intimates other aesthetic modes of representation and introduces alternative practices of archival engagement. By reading the aporia of the drawing and discerning the aesthetic ruses visible between the figure and unmarked, ambiguous milieu, we assume Hartman’s (1997, 11) request to turn from “legitimate objects of historical inquiry” and instead explore unconventional practices of reckoning the past.
The black female nude is too frequently missing from formalist scholarship of Western aesthetics. As visual culture theorist Nicole Fleetwood (2011, 15) reminds us, we cannot contend with aesthetic representations of the black female nude without also negotiating the spectatorial imagination of modernity, an imagination that renders the “field of vision itself as a crucial realm for structuring and enforcing race.” In the context of Western art, the nude black female body bespeaks a history of effacement, aesthetically reduced to the “stand-in, the double” for the white-female-self-possession of the counter-gaze, as dialectically trapped and positioned as “Other,” as “always already vanished,” as “symbolically fallen” and therefore invisible (Collins 2002; Schneider 1997; Phelan 1993; Wilson 1992). Art historian Lisa Gail Collins (2002, 42) writes: “[t]he fact that the [black female body] evokes a racialized, sexualized, and exploitative history, is evident in the few nineteenth-century artistic depictions of the black female nude.” Large Reclining Nude draws on the lineage of formalist renditions of the female nude – the horizontal positionality of the body, the extension of the arms, the twisting of the legs – except where the viewer might expect to see an assemblage of cushions and crisp, white cloth, Okudzeto offers instead the visual aporia.
Tracing the edges of her body...
At first glance, the rich browns and bleeding bronzes drip inside a clearly delineated form. The contours of her figure emerge crisp, poignant, striking a contrast between the edges of her body and the monotony of the ground. Her face bears witness to the sharpness of her silhouette, where a clear-cut line persists along her outline.
In Large Reclining Nude, the viewer is induced by the severity of the lines to imagine hermeneutically a contrast, to map a variance between the figure’s body and the space she inhabits. Thin black shadows or golden-brown highlights foreground the figure on the paper. However, upon retracing the contours of her body, slippages begin to appear – the excess skin distended from her elbow, piercing the space above her body. A speckle of rich, brown ink, “accidentally” gracing the outside curve of her left inner thigh; a shadow cast across her left leg, dripping into the softness of her right, bent limb.
Meanwhile, the watery, acrylic ink moves and bleeds inside the stark silhouette, obscuring boundaries between body parts and jumping over conventions of the human form. The same line that bleeds across the figure’s stomach, hedges the inner hip and drips directly into her upper thigh, while ink runs from the contour of her calf into her upper leg, fusing the two and offering only a slight indication of departure.2
These slippages challenge the distinction between the figure’s body and the ground that surrounds her. As an aesthetic technique, the liquidity of the ink upsets perceived practices of division as it seeps and spills over boundary markers and into the spaces around it.3 However, Okudzeto plays with the performativity of this aesthetic ruse, as she probes the viewer’s ability to distinguish the extent of obscurity. Ink, as a liquid substance, begins to run the moment it touches surface; even after it settles, producing an appearance of motionlessness, it continues to move within the fibers of the paper. In the drawing, the sharpness of the silhouette tricks the viewer into mapping boundaries and borderlines onto the figure’s body, missing the subtle forms of movement for the more affected. Okudzeto’s use of ink confuses the easy distinction between body and ground, fusing the two and upsetting strict divisions between surfaces. As the ink slips between being body and being ink, the viewer vacillates between seeing the body and seeing the ground, or seeing both all at once.
Okudzeto simulates decisive limits along the exterior frame of the figure’s body in order to accentuate the performative slippage between body and ground – intimating reading practices where ground is irreducible. While Hartman (2008, 10) abstained from “[trespassing] the boundaries of the archive,” Okudzeto strains the practice of reading boundary markers. This aesthetic ruse disintegrates presumed ontological distinctions and generates a set of questions about the bounds of limitations. How do we determine the definite rim of archival logics, the threshold between evidentiary testament and imaginative conjecture? I argue Okudzeto’s preoccupation with visual margins moves past Hartman’s disciplinary allegiance to archival limits. While Hartman reminds her reader in Scenes of the partial and prejudiced character of dominant historical sources, she also holds manifest the hollowed bounds of archival narration. By playing with the limits, edges, margins of the figure’s body, Okudzeto questions the viewer’s ability to distinguish irrefutably the periphery of these bounds.
What does black corporality look like unmoored from evidentiary signifiers? After Scenes of Subjection, the isolated, autonomous body is mediated through a new set of reading practices. The unmarked ground of Large Reclining Nude refuses to corroborate specifics of the everyday while also resisting theories of “transcendence” (Derrida 1993, 257).4 While both Hartman and Okudzeto imply such solitude is not a return to humanist renditions of the body, grounding the black figure via aporia requires an imaginative set of methodologies. Ink as an aesthetic ruse makes visible new slippages of the body – instances that make palpable the mercurial basis of periphery. While Hartman’s scholarship is dedicated to educing slippages within the archive, Large Reclining Nude offers a new framework for detecting layers of meaning within a practice already “raiding for fragments” (Hartman 1997, 11). What if we tread up to the lines, the boundary markers Hartman held and intentionally refused to trespass and employ a similar reading practice? What subtle impress is unveiled, what opens and unravels further? And, as Okudzeto seems to probe, what if our tracing and retracing only evince slippages that take us further into the irresolvability of the aporia? How can we find meaning in the slippages that refuse reconciliation?
Olivia K. Young is a doctoral student in the Department of African Diaspora Studies at University of California, Berkeley, with a designated emphasis in Women, Gender and Sexuality. In May 2010, she earned her Bachelor of Arts in African American Studies and Sociology from Emory University. She researches in the areas of visual culture, performance studies, contemporary art, gender theory, and queer theory. Olivia is interested in exploring contemporary visual art movements and how black female artists rely on narratives of hypervisibility, erasure, and distortion to negotiate concepts of blackness.
1. Also see Michelle Wright’s (2004) Becoming Black for an extended analysis on the dialectic structure of African diasporic theoretical tradition.
2. Further analysis of this drawing might consider the touching of different body parts and the bleeding of the ink over “conventions” of the human form as a representation of the haptic smooth space theorized by Petra Kuppers (2009). Also it is important to consider the gender of the floating body. Is this figure gendered female, as I ascribe in this reading, or are their breasts, their thighs, their hands, and the baldness of their head visual symbols of masculinity or gender nonconforming identity?
3. For further reading on blackness and liquidity see Tinsley (2008).
4. Also see Hartman’s engagement with the apolitical in Hartman (1997, 61–5).
.Aranke, Sampada, and Nikolas Oscar Sparks. 2015. “Call for Papers for ‘Sentiment and Sentience: Black Performance since Scenes of Subjection.’” Accessed December 2016. https://networks.h-net.org/node/GROUP_NID/announcements/82241/cfp-sentiment-and-sentience-black-performance-scenes-subjection.
.de Certeau, Michel. 2011. The Practice of Everyday Life. Translated by Steven F. Rendall. 3rd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press.
.Collins, Lisa Gail. 2002. The Art of History: African American Women Artists Engage the Past. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
.Copeland, Huey. 2013. Bound to Appear: Art, Slavery, and the Site of Blackness in Multicultural America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
.Cotter, Holland. 2001. “A Full Studio Museum Show Starts With 28 Young Artists and a Shoehorn.” The New York Times, May 11.
.Derrida, Jacques. 1993. Aporias: Dying–Awaiting (one Another At) the “Limits of Truth.” Translated by Thomas Dutoit. Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
.English, Darby. 2007. How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.
.Fleetwood, Nicole R. 2011. Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
.Golden, Thelma, ed. 2001. Freestyle. New York: The Studio Museum in Harlem.
.Hartman, Saidiya. 1997. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press.
.Hartman, Saidiya. 2007. Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
.Hartman,Saidiya. 2008. “Venus in Two Acts.” Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism 12(2): 1–14.
.Hartman, Saidiya. 2016. “The Belly of the World: A Note on Black Women’s Labors.” Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society 18 (1): 166–173.
.Kuppers, Petra. 2009. “Toward a Rhizomatic Model of Disability: Poetry, Performance, and Touch.” Journal of Literary & Cultural Studies 3 (3): 221–240.
.Phelan, Peggy. 1993. Unmarked: The Politics of Performance. New York: Routledge.
.Schneider, Rebecca. 1997. The Explicit Body in Performance. New York: Routledge.
.Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. 1988. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” In Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, edited by Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
.Tinsley, Omise’eke Natasha. 2008. “Black Atlantic, Queer Atlantic: Queer Imaginings of the Middle Passage.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 14 (2): 191–215.
.Wilson, Judith. 1992. “Getting Down to Get Over: Romare Bearden’s Use of Pornography and the Problem of the Black Female Body in Afro-U.S. Art.” In Black Popular Culture, edited by Gina Dent. Seattle: Washington, 1992.
.Wright, Michelle M. 2004. Becoming Black: Creating Identity in the African Diaspora. Durham: Duke University Press.