Glenn Ligon, Self Portrait

Glenn Ligon, self portrait exaggerating my black features / self-portrait exaggerating my white features, 1998, silkscreen on canvas


Glenn Ligon is a New York based Conceptual artist.  He has been active since the late 1980s.  Ligon works across media, from sculpture to digital art.  His work examines the intricacies of racial, sexual and gender identity, as well as the social experience of those identities.  His work is highly citational. His first independent showing featured an untitled piece with the text “How it Feels to be Colored Me”, from Zora Neale Hurston.  His Self Portrait  piece featured in this post is in direct conversation/cites Adrian Piper’s own Self Portrait.  However, unlike Piper’s piece, Ligon chose to not exaggerate actual features and instead attempted to create identical photographs.

Glenn Ligon’s Self Portrait, 1998, is a diptych of two seemingly identical portraits of himself.  He is dressed in a button up light colored shirt, collar open, denim jeans, a belt, and a pair of tennis shoes. His arms relaxed at his side though his hands are cupped.  He looks directly at the camera, head slightly tilted to the right, with a neutral expression on his face.  The image is in black and white.  The caption on the left panel reads “Self-portrait exaggerating my black features” in contrast to the right panel’s “Self-portrait exaggerating my white features”.  He stands against a light colored background that meets a darker colored floor.  I start this out by saying that the images are seemingly identical because when I first saw them, I did read the black features image as darker than the white features image.  When I realized the images were supposed to be identical I found myself confused.  Perhaps I was haunted by Ligon’s words, in one of his untitled pieces, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background”.  In the version of this Diptych that I most often encounter (above), the flash on the panel exaggerating black features is brighter, so bright in fact, that it washes out the shirt he is wearing.

The intended meaning of this diptych seems to be to place the viewer in their own head. This seems to be a critique of Piper’s piece that creates an imagined visual difference.  Ligon asks us to contemplate what marks a body as having black features instead of white.  Additionally, the piece seems to be calling attention to the mixedness inherit to the American version of the black body.  The black body in America is the relationship between blackness and whiteness. The black  body that defines both, in as much as whiteness is defined against the black body, but also embodies both, as it is a body that contains both.  Going back to one of Ligon’s other citations, Zora Neale Hurston’s “How it Feels to be Colored Me”, she states “I am colored but I offer nothing in the way of extenuating circumstances except the fact that I am the only Negro in the United States whose grandfather on the mother’s side was not an Indian chief” [1].  It’s a little thing that marks the silliness of defining blackness in a US context even amongst black people.

One of the unintended messages that exists in this photograph for me goes back to that initial reaction to the photos, the place where I was asking, “why does the black features image appear darker?”.  The brightness of the light, and the shadows created by the variation in use of the flash speaks to Sekula’s shadow archive:

“We can speak then of a generalized, inclusive archive, a shadow archive that encompasses an entire social terrain while positioning individuals within that terrain.4″ This archive contains subordinate, territorialized archives: archives whose semantic interdependence is normally obscured by the “coherence” and “mutual exclusivity” of the social groups registered within each” [2].

By marking the two photographs with a textual racial signifier, Ligon places the viewer in a performative space where they are playing with their own view of race with his body as the stage.  He is taking away the obscureness the we normally associate with reading whiteness and bringing it front and center.  I cannot help but wonder how many people were taken aback upon viewing these two version of the photograph and seeing the darkness in the black image like I did, and, instead of looking past the features on his face, the place where we are compelled to look, simply walked away, not realizing the beautiful shadow play on his shirt, a shadow that highlights whiteness and blackness inasmuch as the photos are in black and white.  We are reading the image being about race, when it is a photograph,  a thing created by light.  The features of the light are heightened when displayed in black and white, where all differentiation in color exists on a gradient line between the two.

1. Hurston, Zora Neale. “How it feels to be colored me.” (1928): 152-55.
2. Sekula, Allan. “The body and the archive.” October 39 (1986): 3-64.

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