Even Morehouse College, one of the nation’s most iconic black institutions, isn’t immune to the overreaching influence of mainstream (read: white) culture.
At least it seems that’s what visual artist Sanford Biggers wants us to consider in a recent untitled work depicting a gleeful blond woman wearing a T-shirt bearing the name of the historically black, all-male college.
The photograph was displayed in New York City’s “Black Eye” art exhibition, curated by Nicola Vassell, alongside the works of artists like Kehinde Wiley, Steve McQueen, Wangechi Mutu, Hank Willis Thomas and others who explore notions of black identity in the 21st century.
For those familiar with HBCUs, the image is jarring, and it’s safe to assume that that’s intentional. Biggers, himself a Morehouse graduate, uses his work to provoke. He’s a self-proclaimed creator of art that “intentionally complicates issues such as hip hop, Buddhism, politics, identity and art history in order to offer new perspectives and associations for established symbols.”
Here, by juxtaposing Morehouse, an institution that embodies powerful associations for so many, with a model who seems to contradict all of those associations, he’s done it again.
The image itself is bright and, on the surface, simple, with the look of a shot captured in a shopping mall portrait studio. But what is its deeper meaning? The answer, of course, is open to interpretation.
The photograph could be a comment on the future of Morehouse, which has seen its enrollment decline precipitously. It could serve as a reminder of Morehouse’s past—after all, the institution was founded by a white man. It could reference its present student body, which now includes a number of white students, one of whom recently became Morehouse’s first white valedictorian. Even more salacious, it could speak to the white woman’s mythological fawning over the black male body.
A Spelman alumna with whom I shared the images asked if it was photoshopped. A Morehouse grad quipped that women of all shades love Morehouse men. Others viewed it through the lens of the complicated racial heritage of African Americans. What’s clear—as it is with the analysis of any piece of art—is that the possibilities for meaning are endless, and it goes without saying that no response is more valid than another.
Each opinion, in a way, responds to the core question that the photograph seems to pose: What does it mean to be black?
Because blackness is neither static nor easily defined, any number of volumes could be written to address this question, and they would still fall. African-American identity and culture have always been fluid, and this image represents their continuing evolution.
But at this particular moment in history, the photo is notably defined by who isn’t in it: the black woman. Does her erasure signify the demise of the black family? Does it represent a stereotypical, pathological dreamscape—the hoped-for outcome of an educated black man’s fortune and the associated elimination of the black woman from his life?
At this particular moment in history, the photo is notably defined by who isn’t in it: the black woman.
Even further, Biggers’ model appears jubilant. Is that an allusion to her willingness to literally don the shirt of a black man and emotionally support him in friendship or sexual intimacy? And if so, what are we to make of this? Perhaps this image is symbolic of what some would deem “the new black,” the aspirational identity that characterizes the wished-for world of those who yearn to transcend race, or convince themselves that they’ve done so already.
By inserting the name of one of the black community’s most hallowed schools and then corrupting it with the unexpected, Biggers’ piece offers us an opportunity to reconsider who we are. It inspires the kind of discomfort that encourages examination of both our prejudices and our priorities. That’s what art—and this controversial photograph in particular—asks of us.
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Irvin Weathersby is a writer and adjunct professor living in Brooklyn, N.Y. Follow him on Twitter.