Gallery MOMO, Johannesburg
31.08 – 07.10.2017
“Look, without our stories, without the true nature and reality of who we are as People of Color, nothing about fan-boy or fan-girl culture would make sense. What I mean by that is: if it wasn’t for race, X-Men doesn’t make sense. If it wasn’t for the history of breeding human beings in the New World through chattel slavery, Dune doesn’t make sense. If it wasn’t for the history of colonialism and imperialism, Star Wars doesn’t make sense. If it wasn’t for the extermination of so many Indigenous First Nations, most of what we call science fiction’s contact stories doesn’t make sense. Without us as the secret sauce, none of this works, and it is about time that we understood that we are the Force that holds the Star Wars universe together. We’re the Prime Directive that makes Star Trek possible, yeah. In the Green Lantern Corps, we are the oath. We are all of these things — erased, and yet without us — we are essential.”
I first came across this quote in an article by Huffington Post spotlighting writer Janani Balasubramanian. Attributed to Junot Diaz, It was the first piece of writing that began to articulate ideas that had been orbiting in my headspace for some time: The idea of blackness as a kind of futurism, a post-humanism that Afrofuturist artists such as Sun-Ra and Janelle Monae infuse into and extrapolate upon in their sonic oeuvres (Space is the Place and The ArchAndroid are respective examples from each artist). In Todd Gray’s ‘Pluralities of Being’ I find a visual addition to add to this Afrofuturist canon.
Gray’s exhibition depicts the intimate photographic work he did with Michael Jackson in the 1980’s and juxtaposes this work with photographs and drawings created in residency at NIROX in Johannesburg alongside images of constellations and tableaus of forests and greenery. All this held together in frames both found and gifted to the artist over time. The result is a body of work that exists in the universe of post-human nostalgia. As though the human race had experienced its pending apocalypse and these are the historical vestments left for the extra-terrestrial equivalent of archaeologists and anthropologists to piece together a semblance of what human life might have looked like on earth. The experience is similar to the beginning sequence of Terence Malik’s Tree of Life in which we observe the birth of a galaxy. Gray has managed to capture one solar system in the vast universe of blackness.
Blackness as Integer
Most striking, for me, in Gray’s exhibition is a depiction of blackness that is not characterized by its opposition to whiteness, nor qualified by its struggle under white supremacy, but blackness as an integer. That is to say: blackness as a conceptual whole in and of itself. This is both exciting and urgently necessessary, particularly in a contemporary political climate where identity politics is utilized to reduce black artists to their socio-political categories. This reduction is another form of dehumanization where black artists are continually relegated to expositing the elements most accessible and indicative of blackness to the white gaze and imaginary: a neo-exoticization that is too often displayed by many white-owned galleries in South Africa and further afield. Gray deftly evades this “distraction”, as Toni Morrison puts it, by pluralizing the associations of blackness. By utilizing the image of Michael Jackson, a figure recognized for his celebrity and iconic status, and juxtaposing and collaging these images with those of the natural world, both the heavenly and earthen, Gray makes a statement on blackness as organism- a small and necessary galaxy within the infinite universe of black possibility. Here Jackson’s image is not utilized for the notoriety attached to his legacy- that idea is already in the room by association. Instead Gray subverts our expectation for Jackson to become an element of scrutinization for our amusement (much like in the human zoos found in much of Northern Europe and America from the late 1800s through to the mid-1900s) and is instead humanized by his intimate relation to the organic world. Jackson’s notoriety, artistic prowess, iconic status and blackness all collide in a quiet supernova of infinite post-humanity: a post-humanity that is not bound by its socio-political associations nor qualified by its contradictions but unbounded by its ever expanding nature; an integer limitless in its potential permutations.
Blackness as proxy
The juxtaposition of portraits of Jackson spliced with images of space and forest tableaus hints at the theme of blackness becoming a metaphor for the natural world or “nature”. I struggled with this concept at first as there is a history of blackness being likened to a kind of primitivist naturalism. This makes me think of how the Aboriginal peoples of Australia were legally categorised as fauna and flora well into the mid-1900s until a referendum in 1967 won them the right to be classified as Australian citizens and allowed them to vote. I wondered as I strolled through Gray’s exhibition whether this juxtaposition played into the discourse of blackness being akin to beast. I think with the addition of interstellar imagery and portraiture of other black people makes it clear that the discourse that Gray is engaging with is more post-humanist than primitivist. The strongest analogy that was manifest for me in the portraits counterposing black people, Jackson and various iterations of the natural world was that of blackness as a post-human category: a category that does not circumscribe to the hierarchical categorizations of human but appeals to a much more horizontal, multispecies spectrum of sentience. When contextualised alongside how the category of “human” has been socio-historically been constructed (white, male and able-bodied) this allegory sits quite well with me. However, the potential implication of the dehumanizing primivist discourse still sits at the back of my mind. Perhaps, merely as a result of my innate scepticism of the politics of the art world.
What I am certain of is that Gray manages to deftly, deeply and poignantly interrogate really complex ideas about blackness that do not relent to the reduction of blackness by the white imaginary and challenges my own ability to imagine blackness in ways that are neither oppositional nor hierarchical. An experience that is immensely galvanizing and inspiring as a young art maker who is trying to imagine alternative trajectories for my own expressions of blackness.
 The title is a play on words of Sun-Ra’s Space is the Place that was inspired by writer Lindiwe Mngxitama.
 “The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”