Alive Someplace Better: EJ Hill's Horizontal Poetics by Amber Officer- Narvasa
EJ Hill lays, prone, on a rectangular, wooden platform in the second-floor gallery space of The Studio Museum. The platform is at the end of a long model roller-coaster, topped with playful, beckoning lines of purple neon lights. Hill is a Resident Artist at the Studio Museum in Harlem, and “A Monumental Offering of Potential Energy” is his most recent work in a performance practice that has often focused on testing the physical and conceptual limits of the body. For the next three months, he will lie here, silent and nearly motionless, during the hours that the museum is open. As I look down at him, illuminated with the purple glow of the lights, I can’t help but think of this as an acutely haunted performance. He will get up at the end of the day, rise, and go home to ready himself for another day. But in this moment, the image of him calls to mind all the other prostrate bodies, the bodies of my Black brothers and sisters, who will never rise.
When I saw Hill speak at a gallery tour in July, he referenced those others. “This work isn’t about seeing a Black man lying motionless,” he said. “It’s about seeing him get up.”
Too often, the images of Black men that we encounter in the media are images of those who have been victims of police brutality and the myriad violences of racism. These viral videos and photographs are circulated precisely because their subjects have been violently taken away from us, suspended in the act of living. We will not have the chance to see them get up. In her book Violence, Visual Culture, and the Black Male Body, Cassandra Jackson discusses the long history of images of the Black male body in the American visual landscape. Jackson describes “the figure of the wounded Black man as a cultural construction that equates suffering with blackness." From lynching photographs to images of victims of police violence, these images have often been associated with wounds, with physical suffering, and with death. Jackson argues that even when this imagery has been used to stir outrage at injustices, much of it “visually rehearses the victimization of Black male bodies.”
Although Hill isn’t visibly wounded, he evokes a long lineage of the way that images of wounded or prone Black men have been consumed and commodified. Rather than simply evoke these painful legacies, Hill’s work also challenges us to imagine new possibilities for the Black male body. The swooping form of the roller coaster behind him evokes a concept of motion and adrenaline that boldly rejects death. He is performing passivity, but as the artist, he is also actively constructing what we see before us.
Hill’s work encourages us to think about how to represent Black pain in a way that doesn’t compromise Black humanity, how to understand own our wounds without having them define us. In this work, he embraces prostration, laying himself down beneath the viewers’ watchful eyes, but at the end of each day, he does what Michael Brown, and Philando Castile, and Sandra Bland, and all the others cannot-- he gets up and walks out into the streets, alive and still breathing. In this way, what at first may look like a representation of death, becomes a celebration of life.
The luminescent model behind him, the intentional placement of his body, the electricity of his gaze, all speak to the active, engaged, and perhaps even polemic thought processes behind this work. There is a way in which his body--as both individual and proxy for a larger issue-- forces the viewer into a direct confrontation with the truth of Black mortality and the endless possibilities of Black existence. Through his performance, Hill challenges the viewer to remedy society’s failure of imagination: to imagine a new visual paradigm in which his horizontal body doesn’t have to be dead or wounded, and his identity as a Black man isn’t shorthand for “victim.” This is stillness as moral judgment, prostration as a call to action.
Through this contrast of mourning and celebration, Hill encourages us to consider what unheard narratives might dwell within the voluntarily horizontal Black body. What are the erotic, social, and cultural possibilities physically embodied in Hill’s work?
Jackson writes that imagery of Black mens’ bodies has always been connected to desire and voyeurism. “The wound frees the viewer to examine bodies," she writes, "including bodies previously off limits.” In this piece, Hill is presenting his body for us to examine, to make it a part of our personal imaginaries. Through the visual image of his performance, he moves from a space of perceived victimization to one of control, invoking a horizontal posture that has long signified objectification, and owning that posture as part of his artistic practice.
In “Young Ladies on the Brink of the Supine,” Charlene Francois writes about becoming comfortable with the supine posture as a Black woman. “Must I refuse supine as a position that will always be too close to prostration, too simply its flipside, for comfort?” she asks. Although Francois speaks from a very different set of experiences than Hill, she is similarly wrestling with the issue of how to embody Black vulnerability in a world in which horizontal or reclining Black bodies are seen as belonging only to a legacy of victimization and death. As Francois relates, throughout the history of Western art, the supine figure has almost always been a white woman. It is white subjects who have had the privilege of being represented as both horizontal and alive. By presenting himself as he does, Hill provides a new vision of Black male subjectivity, offering his body up for our contemplation and consumption. He doesn't refuse prostration, but instead seeks to transform its meaning.
It was evening, and the museum was closing in a few minutes. There were few visitors in the gallery where Hill had stayed all day. Soon, he would rise and ready himself for another day. In that moment, his body seemed to speak of new possibilities of what it meant to be alive and Black, to not only avoid death, but to resist it. And as I thought of him walking away into a Harlem dusk, I was reminded of lines from a poem by Danez Smith. “here, there is no language/for officer or law, no color to call white./if snow fell, it’d fall black. please, don’t call/us dead, call us alive someplace better.”
Jackson, Cassandra. Violence, visual culture, and the black male body. Routledge, 2011.
Francois, Charlene. “Young Ladies on the Brink of the Supine.” Adult Mag. 25 August 2015. Web.
Smith, Danez. “From ‘summer, somewhere’” January 2016. Poetry Foundation. January 2016. Web.
Amber Officer-Narvasa is a student and writer living in New York City. She is currently attending Columbia University and has interned at arts organizations such as No Longer Empty and The Studio Museum in Harlem. Her work has appeared in Cleaver Magazine, Quarto, and Feministing.