Formed from a multitude of changing internal and external forces, identity is constantly in flux. However, there is often the contradictory urge to define identity, which fixes the fluid. This confinement presents a difficult conundrum which can be harmful, to oneself and others. Art often attempts to provide an antidote to these limiting conceptions and definitions through deconstruction. In his article “Hip Sensibility in an Age of Mass Counterculture,” Phil Ford discusses what he dubs double vision—the ability to perceive perspective—and its application in music in the 1950s. Jazz musicians during this era were able to lure listeners into thinking they could anticipate what would happen next in the music and then subsequently perform something different. In this moment, the listener simultaneously becomes aware of his own perspective and another point-of-view (Ford, 13). Double vision is not only applicable in the realm of music, but in the visual arts world as well. The artwork of Mickalene Thomas and Kara Walker employ double vision in their manipulation of fantasies in order to subvert assumptions about identity.
(Mickalene Thomas, Hotter than July, 2005, Rubell Family Collection)
As discussed in Derek Conrad Murray’s article “Afro-Kitsch and the Queering of Blackness,” Thomas exploits traditional poses of sexual fantasies to reposition black women as the locus of power. In Hotter than July, a woman is posed suggestively—short skirt bunched up, legs spread, with her shirt unbuttoned, revealing her bare breasts—in a manner that is reminiscent of soft-core pornography, yet defiant of objectification. In her direct gaze, the woman is inaccessible to the viewer. There is the acknowledgement of her sexual positioning, but it is clearly not for the gratification of the viewer. In this moment, the viewers understand that they have been conditioned to identify black, female bodies with subservience while simultaneously understanding black, female bodies are not bodies at all but rather people. The viewer becomes acutely aware that Hotter Than July was created by a black, female artist and constructed from her perspective. In this manner the work “[exposes] the hypocrisies of racial fetishism and [liberates] the work from identity politics that have become outdated” (Murray, 12). Thus, Thomas uses her knowledge of white sexual fantasies of the black body to subvert the confines that others have placed on people of color.
(Andrea Dezsö, The Godfather, 2014, Brain Pickings)
Kara Walker constructs double vision through her use of fantastical silhouettes. Walker’s artwork draws parallels with the work of Andrea Dezsö, featured in the 2014 anthology The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Like Walker, Dezsö employs silhouettes to produce vignettes to accompany each fairy tale. Although Walker predates Dezsö, Dezsö’s artwork emphasizes existing connection between silhouettes, shadow puppetry, and the fantastical world. As both Walker and Dezsö understand, silhouettes necessitate, to some degree simplification, of form and story. Historically, these stories have often been distilled to more palatable versions. Little Red Riding Hood is a metaphor for rape, however, in modern retellings this unsavory connotation is often not depicted or referenced. Like Dezsö, Walker challenges these simplifications. However, in opposition to Thomas, Walker effects not her own identity but that of her country, and the simplified perceptions of race relations. In her employment of silhouettes in works such as Slaughter of the innocents (“They Might Be Guilty of Something”), Walker lures the viewer into a seemingly innocent vignettes at first glance. The viewer is then confronted with the horrors of slavery and the viewer’s limited perception of the United States is deconstructed and reformed in the eyes of black individuals. As silhouettes force the viewer’s imagination to complete the representations given, presented with these disturbing images, the viewers cannot fantasize about American history in they anticipated. Thus, through the temptation of fantasy, both Thomas and Walker confront the viewer with reality and double vision, and deconstruction limited notions of identity.
(Kara Walker, Slaughter of the innocents (“They Might Be Guilty of Something”), 2017,