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 queer Black 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 the 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 internalized 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.”