As participants in Build-A-Brother Workshop, the public inhabited a certain privileged space. They were aware of their physical involvement with the space, and they had clear choices of how far, if at all, they were willing to engage. The doll skins hung in a cluster for them to select as directed and then to stuff, give a heart, accessorize and then take away. They were invited to peel layers away from the piece, to consider their own frames of reference and how they were able access the content I presented. While they played along, they were simultaneously implicated in the exploitation of black maleness by building their "Brother" as well as taking responsibility in creating new expectation for that same black maleness. In this illusion of control and care I want to look at how power relations around race and around gender are hidden in today’s society and often overshadowed or dismissed.
“And after man has made everything, everything he can
You know that man makes money to buy from other man
This is a man's world
But it wouldn't be nothing, nothing without a woman or a girl
He's lost in the wilderness
He's lost in bitterness”
“Brother” James Brown released this song by his empowered girlfriend, Betty Jean Newsome in 1966. Like this song, I want to reflect on the sociological stereotypes of strong black women supporting weak black men with the duality of my authoring ideas of black masculinity, creating a catalyst for conversation about race, roles and gender. How do we inherit these roles?
Forms and spaces that are passed from generation to generation recur in much of my work. Through play, humor, interaction, and medium, I want to open a conversation. A participant finishes the workshop and resumes viewing the other pieces in the gallery while holding their “free” new “Brother.” Regardless of the identity of the viewer- black, white, brown, woman or man- they then must deal with the fact that they made and own a black doll. Even in form, the dolls refer to this inherited space- Golly dolls, rag dolls, voodoo dolls, all with their own set of problematics.
"[In art after 1990, there is a] return to humble material as a critique of the art market."
(Enwezor, Okwui. Untitled lecture. Whitney ISP, New York, 4 May 2009.)
In any age of advancing technology, there coexists in the social imagination, an age of nostalgia. We search for our identity by looking to the past. We define ourselves through a fine balance of imagination and history, through outside and inside influences. There are physical forms that evoke a primal response from us as humans regardless of our having had direct engagement with that form first hand. White columns will always evoke imagery of plantations for me, though I’ve never been to The South, and I am perfectly aware of columns in Greek and Egyptian architecture. Like a black rag doll, these forms have an identity. This imagery is passed down from generation to generation, possibly through culture and stories, but the inheritance may not even exist in words, maybe it exists intuitively.
“But when you ask ‘what things are for a given society’ (noticing, by the way, how societies have taken the place of things as the given), surely the inquiry should include attention to those artistic and philosophical texts that would become sources, then, for discovering not epistemological or phenomenological truth but the truth about what force things or the question of things might have in each society.”
(Brown, Bill. Critical Inquiry, Vol. 28, No. 1 “Things.” Autumn, 2001. 10)
“My Brother,” “a brother,” “brother,” “biological brother,” “adopted brother,” “brotha.” The narratives of the Build-A-Brother Workshop changes with each frame of reference of every participant. The statement, “We got to build our brothers up!” positions the speaker in a complicated web of social relations.
“The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced.”
(Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1936.)
Not only may a thing have an actual history of its own, but what may be more apparent is the content that a viewer brings to a thing. Its specific narrative may transform and change depending on who experiences it. There may be no logical relationship between a viewer and an image, but because each person holds inherited associations that should be considered, with every form, an image creates a story that is relative and depends wholly on the viewer’s act of reading to give the image, and the experience of reading them in a re-contextualized space, value.
I want to encourage viewers to relate with my work not only through physical interaction or personal associations, but also through a dialogue that depends on their perception. I want to create a space for conversation in which to understand the world’s territories. The Workshop was, most of all, fun. Fun is disarming. As we begin interacting with and learning about each other, a silent and maybe even subconscious stage of judgment is diffused. I believe people listen better with humor and play and when they are actually involved in the process of discovery.