The ethical demands of seeing Black people are great; its implications are overwhelming. Whether they are alive-living, or dead-dying, seeing Blacks is demanding. The ethical demands of seeing Black people trouble not only ‘how’ we see, which is to say how we may approach seeing, but seeing itself, or what we may call the structural logics of visuality. The ethical demands of seeing Black people is the putting into practice of, on the one hand, the Fanonian dictum of “putting [the Settler/White/Human] out of the picture”,1Fanon, F. 1963. The Wretched of the Earth. Grove Press. pg 44 and, if you’ll permit me, inserting Black people. On the other hand, such Blackened pictorial practices attempt to cushion the Black from the “amused eye of the Settler”, or the “flaunting violen[t]”2ibid gaze (nothing, I must remind myself, and you the reader, protects Black people, not even representation,3Frank Wilderson III discusses this in his Afropessimisms (2020) and this is the dilemma productively taken up by the complementary pair of Black artists discussed below).
“Sit down and look.”4Marriott, D. 2007. Haunted Life: Visual Culture and Black Modernity. Rutgers University Press. pg xv
We must sit then, which is to say, wallow. With Black people. We must, as Moten implores us, find “ethical ways of looking at Black people.”5Remarks by Fred Moten in a discussion with R.A. Judy: https://youtu.be/tjapcDOfbFE This, I argue, is Sabelo Mlangeni’s primary vocation in ‘Isivumelwano’, a body of photographs showing at blank projects. This looking, I argue, is a blues performance. (Bare with me; we’ll get to this soon soon). It raises the stakes; its implications are profound and blue, as we witness in Khanyisile Mawhayi’s practice in Stevenson; as we look at Khanyisile, with Khanyisile (as she looks at and with Black people), looking at Black people through Khanyisile.
What I’m getting at is this: the blue we feel in Sabelo’s photographs is the blue we see in Khanyisile by way of her cyanotypes and most of the pastel compositions. Put differently, ‘Isivumelwano’ invokes blues (note: I’m thinking through and appropriating scholar and philosopher Lewis Gordon’s intervention and theorization of blues as philosophy,6Gordon, L. Is Philosophy Blue? The Salon: Volume Seven. Available here which is to say the relation between this structural and rhythmic phenomenon we may call Blackness and this medium that is blues music. Here, “blues emerge[s] out of blackness”, and Gordon argues, through Fanon, this situation demands that Black people ask, “What am I?”, “What are we?”.
In Khanyisile’s context, a Black woman context, we could say the pieces mark a “psychoanalytical melancholia,” a kind of identity formation “through a process of loss without the clear experience of ever having what is lost”. And for Sabelo, well, the rich complexities of Black syncretic social life are laid bare in black and white. Right? I am now thinking of his Men Only series and the piece Morning blues7Mlangeni, S. 2009. Men Only. Stevenson catalogue 46. Available here. ) that, interestingly, finds chromatic expression in Khanyisile’s The Ambivalent Blueprint.
“What did I do // to be so black and blue?” 8Louis Armstrong & his All Stars live in Berlin 1965, performing the standard, Black And Blue, a 1929 Fats Waller composition. Indebted to this song for the title of this ramble.
Peace to Armstrong, Louis. ya?!
What wild links is Louis making here? Between blues and Black life? Do we, Black people, look kind of blue? Is this hue (author pointing at his skin) linked to some dues? Black people, or Blackness to be precise, and blue? Suddenly, this blue in this Black woman’s hands (material that she wants to link to the “blueprint for the human being”9This statement is made by Khanyisile Mawhayi (2021) in a video at the bottom of the viewing room. Available here. ), which is to say in her compositions, takes on tragic proportions, ontologically speaking?
The leaps I make here are quite reckless; excuse me if I embarrass you. But who wouldn’t be seduced by these links? Sabelo in his super powers, care and commitment; Khanyisile, so much honesty, consideration and potential. Sabelo’s blues: Black exquisite love-loving, Black loss and sanctity. Khanyisile’s blues: Black “wounded kinship”,10Mackey, N. 2010. Bedouin Hornbook. New Directions Book. pg 34 or the crisis internal to Black filial relations, or “‘broken’ claim(s) to connection.”11ibid
Are we, Black people, Blackening blue?