The Provocation of Ambiguity and Agency by Colony Little

The Grace Jones Project, exhibition image. Courtesy of MoAD.

The Grace Jones Project, exhibition image. Courtesy of MoAD.

On a pitch-black stage, a single spotlight shines on a tall, thin woman clad in a sleek, black Armani suit. The wide shoulder pads on the woman’s suit are only outmatched by her beautifully chiseled jawline. The woman’s heels take clipped, hyper lapsed steps in a manic frenzy as a rapt crowd stares at the woman in silence.  A large staircase is flooded in amber light and she places her heel on the first step.  The woman slowly draws a trombone to her ox blood red lips. As she draws in her breath to play the first note, the entire stage erupts in a wailing explosion of crimson light.  The slow, menacing bass line for the song “Demolition Man” creeps in while Grace Jones, the Jamaican model turned singer mechanically surveys the audience.  Her intense gaze leaves you wondering if she will perform for the crowd or devour them.

This music video was my first introduction to the performer in 1981.  I was immediately captivated and terrified.

Such is the allure of Grace Jones.  Her ability to transfix audiences with her hard edged, self-assured beauty has endowed her with an unrelenting power that has fueled her career for decades.  Grace Jones' unabashed bravado challenged our preconceived notions of sexuality, femininity and blackness.  She used her shape-shifting prowess as a mirror and a shield, recognizing that there is power in ambiguity.

In African folklore, the mythological trickster is an unassuming character that uses their power of cunning to confuse and disarm their foes. The trickster lives in ambiguity as a habitual boundary crosser whose stories provide communities with tales of triumph and barometers for behavior. 

At the Musuem of African Diaspora in San Francisco, two exhibits explore how ambiguity and disruption are used by “the trickster” to create and critique power; one explores the artistic legacy of Grace Jones while the other offers a glimpse into the world of fashion for black men who use clothing as a subtle form of social commentary. 

The Grace Jones Project is an artistic tribute that explores Jones’ legacy through works inspired by the model, musician and actress.  As Mickalene Thomas' glimmering rhinestone cladded  "Ain't I a Woman" greets visitors in the exhibition space, its presence immediately sets the stage for the rest of the show.  Next to the wood paneled painting of a woman sporting a blue bob and a canary yellowblouse, a framed video monitor features a live action view of the painting's subject, striking a series of poses with her gaze focused directly at the viewer.  

Thomas' “Ain't I a Woman” was inspired by Eartha Kitt's playful flirtation with debauchery in the 1953 song "I Want to Be Evil"; both works create a space where broader ideas of behavior and beauty are celebrated. This can be a confusing space for those who have not been exposed to beauty ideals beyond European standards. It is a particularly challenging space for those who can only process the unfamiliar though labeling it. Grace Jones occupies this interstitial space between the unknown and the familiar and creates power for herself by eliminating society's need to label her.   She relishes in the act of being a walking contradiction. 

In “Ain't I a Woman”, Thomas explores contradictory themes of power and exploitation by accentuating her model's deep chocolate skin tones in the close cropped portrait and emphasizes her voluptuous figure in video.  The model’s power pose slowly morphs into something more provocative as quick blasts of flash bulbs explode in the distance to signify the concealed presence of another person in the room directing the model's movement.  This caused me to question the model’s behavior. Is she a bold, beautiful woman acting of her own accord, or is she a pawn in the photographer’s shoot?  This question of agency versus exploitation uncovers vulnerabilities in Grace Jones' career as she struggled with control over her archetype in Hollywood.

Mickalene Thomas, "Aint I a Woman?" (Keri), 2009

Mickalene Thomas, "Aint I a Woman?" (Keri), 2009

The exhibit provides ideas of authorship and agency as they relate to Jones' identity in the media.  In her book, "I'll Never Write My Memoirs", Grace Jones states that one of her biggest fears was exploitation, a concern that loomed over her creative and personal relationship with artist Jean Paul Goude.  

In Heather Hart's "The New Numinous Negro", the artist reveals the dichotomy between Grace Jones' sexy, savage persona and Hollywood's numerous attempts to exploit it in film.  Hart's mixed media collage features figurative silhouettes of Grace Jones' iconic arabesque on the cover of "Island Life".  

These images are layered among mirrored image movie stills of Jones as the character "May Day" in a View to a Kill.  Was her character an empowered action hero or a fetishized female?  Can Grace Jones claim agency over her persona or did Hollywood break down her image by reducing it to a stereotype?  As the viewer contemplates these questions, a box filled with gold leaf paper pieces is situated next to the collage.  Viewers are encouraged to press pieces of the gold onto the collage as a symbolic reclamation of her agency.  

The viewer placing the gold leaf onto Hart's collage reveals a trickster at work.  Grace Jones created a powerful, boundary-less archetype that became unraveled as Hollywood exploited and transformed her image into stereotypical roles as a hyper-sexualized, man-eating, exotic savage. Growing up watching Grace Jones I was oblivious to this complicated power play, because all I saw was a badass.  This confusing grey space between one's agency and exploitation is the place where the trickster thrives. In her collage of Grace Jones, Hart plays the role of the trickster by engaging the viewer in creating a new image of Jones' caricatures.  By encasing them in gold, a symbol of wealth and power, her characters are transformed back into powerful women, not exotic stereotypes. As I contemplated the symbolism contained in this piece, the synthesized drums and bass line from “I’m Not Perfect” loudly played in the gallery to blissfully shake me out of my feelings as the video played against a back wall.

Gerard Gaskin, "Backstage at the Erisa Ball, Manhattan", 2010.  Archival inkjet print. Courtesy of the artist.

Gerard Gaskin, "Backstage at the Erisa Ball, Manhattan", 2010.  Archival inkjet print. Courtesy of the artist.

Grace Jones engulfed New York's party scene as a performing staple in underground clubs.  Venues like the Loft and Paradise Garage were sensuously creative, hedonistic laboratories as much as they were safe havens for marginalized black, brown, gay and trans youth. The Grace Jones Project features photography by Gerard Gaskin highlighting the fantasy world of NYC Ballrooms and their ultra competitive houses. These beautiful photos reveal the important transformative power of fashion as a form of expression and fellowship.  Grace Jones created an archetype built on creative collaboration, a voracious appetite for adventure and penchant for being fabulously naughty.  She draws power from occupying the space where confusion thrives; a confusion that is prompted by her rejection of binaries in sex, race and gender politics.  Much like the trickster relishing in their mischief, Grace Jones finds pleasure in challenging authority.  The works on view in the Grace Jones Project capture the unique spirit of rebellion that Jones continues to inspire us today.

The museum’s second summer exhibition is Dandy Lion, a traveling curated project that makes its west coast debut at MoAD.  The exhibition explores the sartorial world of men across the diaspora in London, Paris and Soweto. These men share passion for fashion and are often referred to as Sapeurs, Smarties, Swenkas and Dandies.  You won't find clichéd fashion trends adorning these men.  Black Dandies stand out in a crowd with their impeccable tailored clothing. Much of it is vintage and artfully re-interpreted with a contemporary element. A beautifully folded pocket scarf adorns a soft-shouldered tweed blazer.  A silk tie with perfectly placed tie clip is paired with a patterned, folded pocket scarf tucked in the breast pocket of a suit jacket.  Stovepipe cuffed pants and brightly colored socks are topped off with polished, tassel topped leather loafers.  Sunglasses and hats always complete the look.  MoAD's Dandy Lion explores the sartorial aesthetics of men who have turned the tables on outmoded stereotypes of black male masculinity and racially coded bias.  

This photographic exploration of men's fashion features work by Sara Shamsavari, Arteh Odjidja, Kia Chenelle and Jody Ake.  The styles and their adaptation are as varied as the geographic regions where black Dandies reside.  Some adopt vintage styles from the 40's-60's while others take on an edgier punk or colorful 80's pop aesthetic.  Adapting to an ideal of Parisian elegance, the black Dandy portrays a quiet, regal elegance that's beautifully captured in photography, yet the stories behind these sartors transcend superficial adornments.  

Gerard Gaskin, "Backstage at the Erisa Ball, Manhattan", 2010.  Archival inkjet print. Courtesy of the artist.

Gerard Gaskin, "Backstage at the Erisa Ball, Manhattan", 2010.  Archival inkjet print. Courtesy of the artist.

Their clothing is a subtle commentary on power, authority and the ability to transform societal labels.  Bias lives in the binary and is perpetuated through stereotypes.  It's a comfortable space for those who are unwilling to confront or manage change.  With a style that embodies the elegance of a painful colonial past, the aesthetic of the black Dandy, particularly in the Congo and South Africa clashes with the economic realities that exist in these environments.

Radcliffe Roye, Untitled No. Two, 2011.  Archival pigment print. Courtesy of the artist. 

Radcliffe Roye, Untitled No. Two, 2011.  Archival pigment print. Courtesy of the artist. 

In the Congo, La SAPE (Le Société des Ambianceurs et Personnes Elégantes) evolved from adopting European aesthetics borne out of colonialism and transformed to a reverence for tailoring, suiting and civility that marked the end of the Congo's protracted civil wars between 1998 and 2008. The photojournalistic work of Radcliffe Roye features Sapeurs with crisp tailoring, ornate suiting and carefully curated accessories that are in stark contrast to their modest surroundings in the shantytowns of Brazzaville.  In Roye's photos we see traces of the New Numinous Negro, as the Sapeurs and their sartorial powers are believed to be the guardians of peace and stability in the Congo.

In the exhibition the street style photography of Kia Chenelle depticts casually cool subjects with a style that looks effortless, while the cinematic photography of Arteh Odjidja in "Stranger in Moscow" has a beautifully moodier, dramatic edge. 

Despite the various approaches to Black Dandyism, they all share a common rejection of stereotypes.  As black masculinity suffers from a narrowly prescribed definition that is perpetuated through popular culture as the coded "thug" trope, Black Dandies choose divergent stylistic paths that subvert narrow-minding thinking.  Dandies are rebels within their own communities that challenge us to re-define ideas of appropriation just as much as they are rebels against broader notions of who has agency over the aesthetics of style. 

The Grace Jones Project and Dandy Lion exhibitions both demonstrate the power of shape shifting as a form of rebellion to confront static dogma  In African folklore, the mythological trickster hero uses their cunning and cleverness to create confusion when confronting seemingly insurmountable odds, from abuse and exploitation to poverty and ignorance. Both exhibits stylishly demonstrate the strength and power that is achieved when one turns the tables on stereotypical notions of gender, sexuality, feminism and masculinity.  Grace Jones created a new identity that is singularly hers, while Black Dandies create identities that juxtapose colonial dressmaking – from a once imposing society – with that of indigenous textiles and fabrics.

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Colony Little is a Los Angeles based writer and founder of Culture Shock Art.  As a Bay Area native and long term Southern California resident, Colony covers emerging contemporary art in California, the aesthetic of urban culture and is a champion of African American art and media.  In 2015 she launched TONDI, a digital exhibition site dedicated to the interconnection between socio-political movements and their impact on creative expression.  

Twitter + Instagram: @CultureShockArt