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Critiquing “Question Bridge”: Representing Black Male Identity in America

By Christopher Hutchinson

Every year during Black History Month, there are lists of galleries offering up a redefined, reclaimed, and rethought interpretation of the Black image in art. Most of these offerings fail to live up to these promises, and Question Bridge: Black males -represent & redefine, like most, is the latest exhibition to fail.  Question Bridge was on view at the Chastain Arts Center in Atlanta until March17 2012, part of a multi-exhibition event that included simultaneous showings of the Question Bridge project at the Brooklyn Museum, Oakland museum of California, Utah museum of Contemporary Art, and Sundance Film Festival 12. In 2013 the project has shown or will be showing at the Zora! Festival, Exploratorium, Missouri History Museum, Amistad Center for Art and Culture, Milwaukee Art Museum, Birmingham Museum of Art and the Gantt Center for African American Arts and Culture, among others. The Question Bridge (film) project intends to quell the remaining divisive practices still present amongst black men for many reasons, such as age, sex, economics, and many innate boundaries in the Black community.  The format is simple and direct. One African American male asks a question then three or four different African American males attempt to Answer.  Questions range from serious to funny and celebrities, prisoners, old, young, urban, and the well to do answer the questions of Black male identity.  While this is a very important dialogue to have, the Iconic Black image gets in the way of the film’s intent to represent & redefine.  The black male image is a sign that has become the signifier for: the primitive, violence, and evil—the binary opposite of White.

Upon entrance into the Chastain Arts Center gallery, the viewer is confronted immediately by the Black Male image.  On the left, a 5 monitor video installation of the Question Bridge film, a collaborative effort by the artists Chris Johnson and Hank Willis Thomas, who co-directed the film, and Bayete Ross Smith a co-producer. On the right, 7 large-scale prints, which are dreamy, highly digitized, and romantically charged with African American imagery. A large quote is written on the wall: “ The history of the American Negro is the history of strife-This longing to attain self conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and true self” from W.E.B Du Bois’ Souls of Black folks 1903.  The quote references Du Bois’ theory of double consciousness.  Double consciousness conceptualizes the effect of the Black image in relation to its binary White counterpart; the awareness of that Black becomes exotic to the norm. Du Bois engaged this problem in hopes that Blacks would not see themselves as exotic, but rather the norm.

Beyete Ross Smith’s 3 large-scale photographs are not a redefinition of the Black Icon; it is the reuse of the already defined, illustrating the literal depiction of Du Bois’s double consciousness.  Smith’s interpretation is more like a regurgitation of a 2-minute skim of Du Bois, a less than cliffs notes version.  The first image Shih is a mirrored digitized profile of an Asian man looking at himself, where the only significant difference between the two is the difference of dress. The next image Nomadic Rahn is an African American man with the same format, profile and different dress. Finally the third image Shih Two is the same Asian man from before in the same format, different clothes sandwiching/ bookending the African American.  Smith’s statement claims that he is exploring the “the new gaze…that make up our entire selves”.  At best Smith achieves the illustration of duality. This is not the exotic “gaze” Du bois referenced.  Du bois pronounced the differences of hair, skin, and bone as signifiers of difference of the African American-paper bag tests, pencil tests, and facial angle skull diagrams are used to define these differences for Whites.

Hank Willis Thomas’ photograph is filled with pity and contempt- contempt wrapped in the contrived iconography of the Black male.  Thomas’s Priceless photograph is a shining example of this “pity” Du Bois does not want us to engage.  Thomas uses the very familiar Master Card commercial as the base context of this piece. The large photograph of an African American funeral at its end, by the gravesite. The photograph is covered with text “3 piece suit $250…new socks $2…9mm pistol $79… gold chain $400…bullet $0.60…Picking the perfect casket for your son…Priceless”.  This work is conceptually lazy, not because of its appropriation, but because of the way Black image functions. It fits within binary perfectly, in the defined violence already signified within the American construct of Blackness.

The Question Bridge film plays the same tune, as the rest of the work presented, an emotional invitation to further diagnose the problems with the Black mentality. Looking at those faces, some incarcerated, some tearing up, invites that pity and contempt to a project based on honest dialogue. This honest dialogue is important; it should not be on display, where you may donate to save Black men.  It becomes a plea to America to solve this African American issue that African Americans cannot solve for themselves.

The main drawback in this exhibition is the reliance on the image to adequately challenge the context of the Black male identity.  Black identity is made up of a lot of things.  Glenn Ligon Tackles it with dialectic texts.  Terry Adkins tackles it with performance.  Renee Cox with undisputed strength.  The Black male icon represented here in America, cannot be used to redefine the systemic results of the image of the Black male.  The original structure is still fully in tact, racial profiling being one of the most direct.  To tackle the issues related to Blackness, one must redefine, reimagine, rethink, and reinterpret Whiteness.  To deal with blackness alone will not change this binary structure, they are forever tied in the semiotics of race.

Christopher Hutchinson

Christopher Hutchinson is an Assistant Professor of Art at Atlanta Metropolitan College and Archetype Art Gallery Owner in Atlanta, Ga. He received his Master of Fine Arts Degree in Painting from Savannah College of art & Design, Atlanta and his Bachelor of Arts Degree from the University of Alabama in Huntsville, Alabama. He lived in Alabama for 10 years before moving to Atlanta in 2008. His installations mostly consist of black folded paper airplanes.

Learn more about Christopher and his work at Black Flight 144.

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