Freedom In The Fragment
Written for G.R. N'namdi Gallery's (Chicago) College Collector Magazine in May 2010
Richard J. Powell is an artist-turned-professor of African American and African art at Duke University. Powell is an authority on Black visual culture and has produced several important books, essays, texts, and exhibitions on the subject—many of which have acted as study materials or references to be cited in my own investigation into this genre of art. His body of work falls in line with a list of today’s significant historians such as David Driskell, Deborah Willis, Kellie Jones, Sharon Patton, Lisa Farrington and so many others that would make the late James A. Porter proud. It’s safe to say that Powell is at least partially responsible for my own commitment to art history and documentation of artists of color working in all mediums of the visual arts. Therefore, when Dr. Amy Mooney, a professor at Columbia College Chicago, extended to me the invitation to attend a seminar with Dr. Powell, I jumped at the opportunity.
Traditionally, during this kind of seminar, attendees are asked to read a selection of essays, articles or chapters from a book that would be discussed later during a scheduled roundtable session. We were asked to read two articles. The first was the chapter The Aesthetics of the Fragment from Sappho is Burning, a book by Page duBois, a scholar of Greek, Feminist Theory, Psychoanalysis and Cultural Studies at the University of California, San Diego. The second was the chapter Luna Obscura from Powell’s latest book Cutting a Figure: Fashioning Black Portraiture.
When first reading the texts, I couldn’t make a solid connection and entered the seminar curious as to why Dr. Powell chose them. duBois’s text explored the writings of Sappho, an Ancient Greek poet whose fragmented work is thoroughly studied and analyzed in this chapter. By doing this, duBois asks us not to make attempts to create a whole out of the parts we are given, but to look more thoughtfully at these fragments and our relationship to them. She suggests that “rather than focusing on the restoration of lost wholes, or even on the tragic impossibility of the reconstitution, rather than looking exclusively at the real, the past to which we must always have a fleeting and receding relationship, perhaps we should look also at our own desires, our investments in these lost objects, these shattered fragments of the past.”
This effort to construct a whole and pursue a complete narrative is the underlying and exhausting task that comes with the title of art historian—at least that was my understanding going into the seminar. As duBois pointed out, and Powell strongly agreed, as art historians it can be more productive and even groundbreaking to investigate what we do have as if it is a whole–at least all of the whole we are going to get on this day, at this moment. As historians and investigators of material culture, past and present, Powell and duBois suggested that we acknowledge and accept that we will never know it all. We will never have a whole. I unknowingly let out a mental sigh of relief at this thought. It was a liberation of sorts for me as a future art historian. The attempt to construct a whole in relation to any kind of art is an impossibility that weighs heavily. Powell even spoke of his attempt to find every available bit of information he could possibly find on supermodel Donyale Luna (1946-1979) as he was putting together Cutting a Figure: Fashioning Black Portraiture. In this seminar setting, sitting across from such a major figure in Black diasporic art history, I got to hear Powell tell of his “A-ha!” moment when he realized that finding out and writing on every detail about the magnificent and statuesque Donyale Luna was not the most important part of his investigation. Like duBois expresses in her reading, when writing on Luna, Powell made the decision to “attempt a reading that accepts some very broken lines…as they stand.” In other words, he released himself (and consequently released me) from the daunting task of constructing an illusionary whole view in favor of a an exploration that works with the bits that remain through his research into a profound figure in the history of Black portraiture.
Cutting a Figure: Fashioning Black Portraiture, cover image.
Donyale Luna, Photo by Bddy Brofferio. Paris Vogue, December 1966.