A guide through the history, mythologies and implementations of Whiteness, exposing its shadowy enterprise in becoming the neutral standard.
By Lisa Andrine Bernhoft-Sjødin, ArtConstructs
Whiteness as an image works on two levels: both the instrumental picturing of whiteness – the attempt to find its physicality so to speak – and whiteness as an imaginary, an elusive, imagined power hierarchy that guides and penetrate our social and physical spaces. The editor of the recently launched anthology, The Image of Whiteness, Daniel Blight, calls it an anthropological image which separates the image from the picture. The picture of Whiteness is largely a physical object like a photograph, Whiteness, on the other hand, was invented by white skinned people and this imagining continues to transform and perpetuate the myth of white supremacy.
The Image of Whiteness is a concrete tool to make visible Whiteness as a phenomenon, a backdrop with an urge for heteronormativity and commodity culture. The personalised introduction by Blight sites white people, himself included, as silent cohorts to Whiteness culture if they don’t start speaking up on the injustices. He writes that to be an ally demands continuous work in terms of self-interrogation and a politics of humility. The images dwells on a willingness for introspection through works that challenges exotic consumption side by side with protectionism and xenophobia rather than the tropes of skin and surface.
The book’s constructed on four key themes derived from the symposium What Should White Culture Do? - organised in 2017 by Daniel Blight and Art on the Underground at the Royal College of Art in London. The four themes; Fragments of the white body, The white gaze, The borders of whiteness and The symbols of whiteness; reads like a comprehensive on the invention of Whiteness, engaging praxises that exposes white consumerism of black and brown bodies, the desire for the exotic Other, the frontier logic of white supremacy and the instrumentation of white symbolism.
Its image plates start off with the Kodak original colour cards for normal lighting from the 1960s. The images are appropriated by the artists Broomberg & Chanarin, published in 2012 as part of the series How to Photograph the Details of a Dark Horse in Low Light. Their work’s employed throughout the plates section, underlining photography's instrumental role in perpetuating whiteness as standard, of which we are extremely and overly saturated, simultaneously exposing the shadowy enterprise of the inventive nature of Whiteness, even as we practice it today.
Carefully curated, the images ranges from how Whiteness presents itself through Buck Ellison’s images via Libita Clayton’s play with light and fragmentation in her Quantum Ghost (2019) series, and the somewhat surrealist images Sophie Gabrielle has created in her BL_NK SP_CE (2015) series. The latter images designates how elusive a subject we’re dealing with, and challenges us to look closer and see the blank spaces within what seems like a tight- knitted enterprise. To Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s Mirror Study (2018). The images explores not only the photographic, but the camera and the black body as instrumental for the white body to appear. Sepuya creates his images in concert with other photographers, and literally bring things that are outside of the frame into the frame, i.e. into space. His images plays with the tension between subjective and objective positions, and calls attention to how individuals depend on each other to move through space. The creation of power structures and selfhoods are questioned as visual culture seems to cement them.
Claudia Rankine and John Lucas’ work Stamped (2018), also frames and manipulates assumption through a series of close-ups of dyed blond hair framed by the valuation of first class stamp patterns. A fetishised commodity, blondness is weighted, qualified and packaged as a perpetual centerford of beauty and value. In what ways do we reiterate white symbolism and supremacy? Stamped seems to answer trough an intricate language, both internal and socialised, surfacing through blondness. And to articulate that this form of valuation is not just external, but by way of being gazed as the Other, is also internal.
White protectionism is addressed in the images of Nate Lewis and Ken Gonsalez-Day. They expose the inherent nature of fear and spectatorship in the construction of Whiteness. Lewis' series Social Patterns (2017) and Latest Tensions (2018) show black and white images from Trump rallies; Trump supporters raging against non-white Trump protesters. The protesters are obscured by a texture similar to tv static, a form of protection from the aggravated Trump supporters or as an erasure of their bodies through that same rage. They expose the fear from which white supremacy and far-right forces derives their power in today's political landscapes. Gonsalez-Day's series Erased Lynchings (2013) pinpoints the spectatorship that lies inherent in whiteness in prescribing objectivity to the Other. Once the lynched body is erased from the image, all you see is the striking whiteness on a black background, rejecting whiteness as a neutral notion, but sustained by blackness to be visible, at all. A reverse notion Zora Neale Hurston «I feel most coloured when I’m thrown against a sharp white background» restated on Glenn Ligon’s work by the same name from 1990.
The image plates ends with the series Our Present Invention (2012-2014) and All My Gone Life (2014-ongoing) by Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa. Collectively they address the entanglement of white heteronormativity with violence. Here the white spectators and perpetrators are erased, only their gestures remain. They gesture to something palpable though invisible. The lone bucket-o-soldiers on the pavement, the deteriorating office space with a desk and chair in the middle of debris, a spotlighted monumental buck deer its partial shadow enlarged on the wall behind it and a mural depicting a greek myth with empty cafè furniture in front of it, these are all gestures to a violence upon the very language in which we speak, be it visual, syntactical or normative. His practice gestures to a way of seeing the invisible, not by trying to find the subject, but study it through the tracks it leaves behind.
bell hooks coined the term the oppositional gaze in an essay by the same name in 1992, (black looks: race and representation, hooks, bell, Routledge: Boston), the gaze that looks back, and a site of resistance. It’s a critical gaze, a gaze that looks to document. By collecting a critical mass of exposure, both through images and artists conversation, the book intercepts the ways that we view and speak of our surroundings, tagging along as an elusive hyphen to mainstream culture. Whiteness is monumental in its presence, like a historical public monument, though we’ve seen it so many times, we don’t really see it anymore. This not-seeing is both a choice and a response to the fact that these things are too familiar to be seen. Let’s stare it down.
The Image of Whiteness: Contemporary Photography and Racialization, ed. Daniel Blight, SPBH Editions, London, 2019.