“To some, having a book that is focused on black male artists might be seen as a limitation. For me, it opens onto the fullness of the world and the universe like any other set of artists would.” Huey Copeland has just been presented with the Absolut Art Award for art writing.

Huey Copeland 2017, Absolut Art Award Winner for Art Writing, Venice 2017 Courtesy Absolut

The Absolut Art Award was presented last weekend in Stockholm to 2017’s winners: Anne Imhof for artwork and Huey Copeland for art writing. Copeland is an associate professor in Art History at Northwestern University, Chicago and is the third writer to receive the award (following Mark Godfrey and Coco Fusco), which biennially presents a budget of twenty-five thousand euros for the development of a new art-focused publication in collaboration with a leading publishing house.

Copeland’s book will be published in 2019. It is a compendium of texts, titled Touched by the Mother: On Black Men and Artistic Practice, 1966-2016, which will offer “a multi-faceted perspective on the modes and methods of American art and discourse of the last fifty years; a personal meditation on what it means to navigate the global contemporary art world as a black gay male and a fresh consideration of the dynamics that continue to produce African and African diasporic men as vital sites of violence, creativity and contestation in the cultural imaginary.”

Can you talk through the structure of the book in relation to its multifariousness–for example, the range of writing styles or the range of artistic mediums discussed? Is that related to your desire to convey a non-essentialist approach to black masculinity?

It’s structured chronologically. There is a real range of forms of writing and a huge number of artists. Some of the pieces are occasional. The piece on Robert Colescott was originally written as an obituary. The piece on Barkley L Hendricks was a cover piece for ArtForum in relation to his retrospective in 2008. The majority of the essays focus on a single artist or a single kind of practice, ranging from everybody from Noah Purifoy to Kader Attia. There are a set of structural concerns and methodological approaches that continue throughout and my voice is what holds everything together. To some, having a book that is focused on black male artists might be seen as a limitation. For me, it opens onto the fullness of the world and the universe like any other set of artists would. Many of the artists I’m engaging with aren’t black men–they’re women of colour or white artists dealing with issues of black masculinity. The focus allows for depth, range and multiplicity.

Can you expand on your intention to annotate your original texts, adding scholarly citations, footnotes and personal narrations? What are your thoughts on the first person as a form of critical engagement?

Citations give power to advocate for and reclaim voices that have been lost. The engagement with other discourses, such as gender studies or African American studies, is also productive because it allows me to think about my work as networking and creating dialogue between and across these fields, through reiterations and rewritings. There will be some elements of personal annotation in those footnotes but most of my writing in the book already has a sense of a personal voice. The “objective” third person is itself a kind of fiction. I’m always trying to think about theories of subject formation and the kind of subject that different works of art are trying to solicit us to be. Everyone who has a pair of eyes can have something to say about a work of visual art. I like that immediacy.

“Touched by the Mother” is a quote from an essay by Hortense Spillers. This creates a dialogue between your book and previous scholarship, connecting it to a wider conversation and extended critical history.

It’s from Spillers’s canonical 1987 critical essay Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe, which considers the effects of slavery on African American constructions of family. Slavery is a practice that radically ungenders people, reducing them to the flesh, as bodies that can be bought and sold, and so within the American context this means that enslaved fathers had no claim over their sons or daughters and that enslaved mothers had a particularly close bond with them. The child’s condition followed the condition of the mother’s–if the mothers were enslaved then the child would be too. For Spillers, that means African American males are touched and handed by the mother, perhaps more than any other community. I’ve always been struck by that claim. As I was putting together this proposal, it seemed incredibly apt. I’m engaging with black, male artistic practices and constructions of masculinity, but doing so from a queer and feminist perspective that is about tending to the flesh and honouring the legacy of those mothers.

It’s also interesting to consider notions of masculinity through the lens of feminism. Patriarchy has negatively shaped and informed male identity as much as women’s. 

Exactly. One of the pieces in the book is an essay called Outtakes, which is about me posing for Lorna Simpson. Simpson’s work on the black male figure has a tremendous amount to teach us about the visual construction of black masculinity and was also important for her own understanding of herself as a feminist artist. There is this tendency to pigeonhole people, to delimit them in their bodies and say that their politics should only extend that far. That’s exactly what my project is pushing against. There is something similar happening with how we tend to think or not think about race. Black artists, black issues, black folks. No–we are all invested, affected and participating in a construction of these things called blackness and whiteness, however, we might be positioned on the colour line.

“There is this tendency to pigeonhole people, to delimit them in their bodies and say that their politics should only extend that far.”

The book covers fifty years of artistic practice, how do the themes of the book intersect with present sociopolitics? In this fraught political moment, it’s often hard to believe that there has been much progression. In your proposal you touch on the increasing visibility of the murders of black males at the hands of the police as being predicated on the spectacular destruction of black life with its roots in the transatlantic slave trade. 

My work is subtended by a kind of structural analysis–an analysis of how race, gendered oppression, sexism, homophobia are structural conditions. They change, modulate and take on different appearances over time, but they are part and parcel of the structural logic of Western culture, Imperialism and Colonialism. This goes back to the lessons I have learned from the Afro-pessimist perspective on the unfolding of historical time, which is not necessarily invested in some notion of progress. Have things got better? In certain senses, yes they have, but have the structural conditions shifted? Not so much. For some, it might seem incongruous that we have this kind of racial violence in the US, but these are just the particular visual appearances of the despotism and control that has always been part of the maintenance and reproduction of white supremacy. It’s built into the structural fabric. With regard to the numerous video recordings of violence, I would want to ask, how do the ways in which these images are circulated reproduce the logic through which lynching photographs were shared, produced as souvenirs, circulated in the mail, given as gifts? Or how are they different. What are the ethics of witnessing these images? What kind of responsibility does that place on us? How do we move to cut the tie between vision and justice? What is it that will be required in the visual field to enact a political transformation of political will, to lead towards that structural shift which is so desperately needed?

Anne Imhof and Huey Copeland 2017 Absolut Art Award Winners for Art Work and Art Writing Venice 2017 Courtesy Absolut
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