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Kobena Mercer’s “Skin Head Sex Thing: Racial Difference and the Homoerotic Imaginary”

Kobena Mercer’s “Skin Head Sex Thing: Racial Difference and the Homoerotic Imagination” has had at least two metamorphoses since originally being published in How Do I Look? Queer Film and Video (1989).  The first transmutation (in recombination with another Mercer essay, “Imaging the Black Man’s Sex) was published in Emily Apter and William Pietz’s Fetishism as Cultural Discourse (1993).  Several years later, this latter version was republished in Mercer’s collected essays, Welcome to the Jungle: New Positions in Black Cultural Studies (1995).  The version of “Skin Head Sex Thing…” that appears in Fusco and Wallis’s Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions of the American Self (2003), while largely shaped by the 1995 version, is different, not only in terms of the images that Fusco and Wallis juxtaposed with the essay, but in textual and expositional ways as well.  I mention the developmental nature of this article because, in many respects, its evolving argumentation and critical points-of-view are fundamental to understanding Mercer’s fluid assessments about the photography of Robert Mapplethorpe and other artists.  Context is crucial, begins Mercer, not only vis-à-vis the images and artists under discussion, but in the ways that viewers and commentators have experienced these photographs.  Of major importance to Mercer is “the emergence of new aesthetic practices among black lesbian and gay artists in Britain and the United States.”  These image-makers and their fellow practitioners with vested interests in a fuller, more complex representation of LGBT women and men of color, Mercer argues, irrevocably alter how one sees and understands Robert Mapplethorpe’s images of black men.

For example, Renée Cox’s David = The African Origin of Civilization (1994) – which depicts a young, naked black man holding a dog-eared copy of Cheikh Anta Diop’s 1974 tome, African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality – mischievously volleys between Mapplethorpe and Michelangelo, challenging both artists’ classicizing (or Euro-centric) homoeroticism, while also making fun of Afro-centric machismo and dandy-ism.  David = The African Origin of Civilization refuses to be encumbered by “the burden of representative”: a denunciation of racial and/or cultural expectations to social conformity that Mercer also sees in the works of many black gay and lesbian artists.  I would argue that Cox, although a heterosexual black woman, envelops herself in a perspective here that operates between various spheres of desire and, thus, speaks to Mercer’s notion of “foregrounding the intersections of difference where race and gender cut across the representation of sexuality.”

In this latest version of “Skin Head Sex Thing” Mercer signals a shift in his original thinking about Mapplethorpe’s objectification of the black male subject (and his fetishization of the black phallus), arguing that these affects of Mapplethorpe’s photographs and the “articulation of ambivalence” on the part of many spectators is attributable to “a subversive deconstruction of the hidden racial and gendered axioms of the nude in dominant traditions of representations.”  Mercer contends that Mapplethorpe’s own marginality as a gay artist and the extant voices of many of his former black models (who gave Mapplethorpe credit for seeing and portraying them as beautiful and attractive) contribute to transforming what one might initially perceive as objectifying and pornographic and, instead, into something conceptually subversive and ultimately transcendent.

One of the illustrations for the Fusco/Wallis publication of Mercer’s article (which doesn’t appear in the 1995 version) is F. Holland Day’s Ebony and Ivory (1897).  This platinum print of a shadow-enveloped, nude black man – seated, head averted, and holding a gleaming, ivory statuette of an exultant male nude – perfectly intersects with Mercer’s notion of the shocking juxtaposition (in most viewers’ minds) of idealized beauty and carnal physicality.  That such a work of art operates in service to the “deconstruction of whiteness” is another salient point Mercer makes, especially in relationship to Mapplethorpe’s perfectly calibrated, hieratic images of black male bodies.

One of the most important dimensions of “Skin Head Sex Thing” is Mercer’s brilliant discussion surrounding viewers’ ambivalence towards Mapplethorpe’s black male imagery: the love/hate relationship many people have towards these photographs, and the art works’ capacity to engender far-ranging, radically different interpretations from spectators, some celebratory of their beautiful portrayals, some disparaging of their objectification and fetishization of black men.  Two photographs that “converse” with Mapplethorpe’s thematic interests (and that bookend his ascendancy in the 1980s) – George Dureau’s Roosevelt Singleton (1980) and Rotimi Fani-Kayode’s Bronze Head (1987) – offer audiences other black male images to consider within this murky territory of uncertainty and spectator’s self-doubt.  Fani-Kayode’s Bronze Head (which Mercer discusses in his essay) not only resonates with Mapplethorpe’s details of black physiognomy and body parts but, like Cox’s African Origin of Civilization, playfully provokes the more proprietary impulses and social mores of viewers, in a head-spinning, simultaneous meditation/musing on the profane, the beautiful, the scatological, the manufactured, etc.  And when (in his concluding remarks about the French novelist Jean Genet) Mercer suggests “the struggle for democratic agency and subjectivity always entails the negotiation of ambivalence,” one can look to George Dureau’s highly stylized portrait of Roosevelt Singleton, and ask how such images of non-idealized-yet-agency-filled black men, even more than Mapplethorpe’s classicizing models, spawn ambivalent feelings within viewers?  Dureau’s unabashed willingness to pair vulnerability with power, and raw physicality with homoeroticism may help explain his work’s ambiguous, yet oddly unalloyed allure.

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