“We will not compromise who we are to be accepted by the crowd. We want substance in the place of popularity. We want to think our own thoughts. We want love, not lies. We want knowledge, understanding, and peace. We will not lose, because we are not losers. We are lasers.” – Lupe Fiasco, Lasers Manifesto
Quoting a 29-year-old emcee is uncommon when reviewing a mid-career retrospective of a visual artist with a career spanning twenty years whose work is currently exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art. However, today it is fully appropriate, and I believe that Glenn Ligon would see not only a kindred spirit in Lupe Fiasaco, but he would also recognize his influence. With Fiasco’s new LP, Lasers blaring in my headphones, I approached the Whitney’s Madison Avenue entrance and was greeted by a 22-foot-long neon relief that read “negro sunshine”. Upon entering the exhibit on the 3rd floor, I realized that “negro sunshine” and Fiasco’s Lasers cover art shared a common trait—painted neon reliefs artistically situated to make a cultural statement.
If you turn on TV all you see is a bunch of what-the-f*cks/dude is dating so and so, blabbering about such and such/and that ain’t Jersey Shore, homie that’s the news/and these the people supposedly telling us the truth– Lupe Fiasco, “Words I Never Said”
Glenn Ligon’s work it is an unapologetic glimpse at the world through a variety of lenses. Very few artists are capable of producing a prolific amount of exceptional work within one format. Ligon’s work is truly diverse, ranging from his recent neon reliefs to photographs, paintings and drawings. I began with the familiar – the neon relief, America, which runs parallel to Fiasco’s visual and musical musings on current American politics. In a U-shaped presentation, three neon reliefs hang with the word “America” spelled out in all capital letters. One relief shines brightly in white light, with its letters positioned backwards. The center relief blinks between white and black, and the last presents no light and is all black. The bright and dark reliefs present two polar, inverse images of America – as a shinning prominent beacon and as an extinguished light, with the middle perspective flashing. It is this flash, this blinking grey area in which Ligon situates the remainder of his exhibition, a vacillation between the radical and the mainstream, a conversation between personal expression and public perception, between racialized and sexualized subjects and human beings.
Stayed in Africa, we ain’t never leave, so there were no slaves in our history/were no slave ships or misery/call me crazy, or isn’t he?/see I feel asleep and I had a dream/it was all black, everything— Lupe Fiasco, “All Black Everything”
In his series, “When Black Wasn’t Beautiful”, Ligon features written excerpts of Richard Pryor’s legendary stand up routines expressed on canvass with stencil and paint. The Whitney, a gallery situated on Manhattan’s Upper East Side provided an interesting juxtaposition for Pryor’s diatribe on the pathos of black self-hatred, and frequent use of the word “nigger”. In these pieces, Ligon uses paint and Pryor’s words to present contrasting examples of the rise of black pride and its simultaneous dismissal within the same space.
In my neighborhood there used to be some beautiful black men that would come through the neighborhood dressed in some beautiful African shit, you know, really nice shit, you know, and they’d be “Peace. Love. Black is Beautiful. Remember the essence of life. We are people of the universe. Life is beautiful.
My parents go “that nigger’s crazy”. –Richard Pryor
The white people reading these quotes truly intrigued me, trying to figure out the artistic significance and explain this “rhetoric”, while apparently missing the essence of each piece while attempting to mask their discomfort with intellectual gibber jabber. These elderly white women attempted to view Ligon, a black homosexual artist whose work is not pigeonholed in either of those identities, without either in context to preserve their poise and pass quickly to the next room.
There is a consciousness we all have that he is a black American artist, but I think that his work is really superior and stands on its own. – unnamed critic quoted discussing Glenn Ligon
This quote (taken from one of his paintings) can be read as a post-racial edification of Ligon’s work, however I believe it to be a perception which he has presented for us to consider. Glenn Ligon through this quote leaves visitors the opportunity to reflect on the trope of the model minority/token Negro, a backhanded compliment soaked in absurdity. Nothing about Ligon’s work is presented at face value, and I find this statement to be in harmony with his Runaways prints, which are presented in a visual style resembling antebellum fugitive slave ads. What is striking about these ads is that they are written from the point of view of the slavemaster, describing Glenn’s physical features, mannerisms, and demeanor in a way that would indicate a more intimate connection than simply master and slave.
Somebody tell Malcolm X that I’m tryin’ to steal his style/and tell Cornel West that I’m tryin’ to steal his fro’/go back in time take the slaves’ plows, shovels and hoes/their masters get the “It Was Written” intro – Lupe Fiasco, “SLR”
The Runaways prints are presented in a room along with box sculptures inspired by the story of Henry Box Brown, a runaway slave who mailed himself to freedom in a wooden crate. Four boxes sit in the center of the room, providing a mosaic soundtrack containing Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song”, Billie Holiday’s lynching blues narrative “Strange Fruit”, and KRS-One’s incendiary “Sound of the Police”. These prints appear opposite a wall presenting Ligon’s identity through the title page of fictitious slave narratives.
The most populated section of Ligon’s exhibit was the photographic gallery featuring a variety of nude black homosexual men, a presentation of the work of Robert Mapplethorpe through a racial context, as provided by quotes from Mapplethorpe, bell hooks, and others. These quotes bring Mapplethorpe’s racism to light, although the exhibit text states that his racism is in question, although the answer to stated question is very obvious.
I could barely pass between the multitudes of lily white patrons examining this grand display of black masculinity, complete with a photo of a black man standing with his dick laid flat on a white tablecloth. A mix of homophobic discomfort and the feeling of being in close proximity to a metaphorical auction block influenced me to leave the room as fast as the older white women that I judged earlier.
It is in this moment that I gained insight into both Ligon, and developed an interpretation of the title work of the exhibit. America is a broken neon sign preoccupied with the moments of light that we rarely recognize the darkness within ourselves. We are aware of how others perceive us and how we view ourselves, but rarely do we consider both simultaneously in the same space in a moment of self-reflection and observation. We seek transcendence while enabling the status quo, pride amidst self-hatred, acceptance and defiance within moments as indelible as Zora Neale Hurston’s quoted words from “How it Feels to be Colored Me”, as presented by Ligon: “I am somebody… I was somebody… I lost my voice. I found my voice.”