In a February 2018 interview with Emma Brockes at The Guardian, Hilton Als spoke of how his early sensitivities as a young, Black gay man led to a deep-seated need to confess:
“[Confession is] a bid to be loved, in some way. And to be really loved; the immense difficulty of intimacy. I used to think that the feeling of alienation that I would have was just me, but I realize that it’s also a symptom of the modern world. I hate to sound like Auden, but I think there are a lot of things that I like to take into consideration for a person, where it’s societal but it’s also emotional but it’s also circumstance. I think that’s the kind of writing that I’m interested in; how did we end up here? How did we become these people?”
In his confessional writing, he says, “lets the mess come in” instead of attempting the control of normal narrative nonfiction structures. That confessional mess exists beyond the strictness of “fact” or a linear truth: it is felt, it is disorganized, it is the honesty of fiction.
The work of Ralph Arnold, the 1960s-’70s Chicago artist and community leader, visualizes a similar “mess.” His confession, though, arrives through the form of collage. His pieces illustrate the ways in which Black gay men in the mid-20th century salvaged, from disillusioning white print and television media, representations of what their being could mean.
The Museum of Contemporary Photography’s exhibition The Many Hats of Ralph Arnold: Art, Identity, & Politics, curated by Columbia College Associate Professor in the History of Photography Greg Foster-Rice, explores Arnold’s work. Though “representation” has become a buzzword recently, it held a potent political meaning for Black queer artists and activists of the 1960s and ’70s as they struggled to visualize themselves among the dominant cisgender, heterosexual Civil Rights and Black Arts Movements. As a collagist of the era, questions of where Blackness and queerness fit into what the media chose to represent became paramount to Arnold.
In “Lucas T.V.” (1971), for example, Arnold creates a tableau using the visual margin material of 1970s news broadcasts and game shows. The piece emphasizes these often overlooked aspects of television, highlighting what mainstream TV, as a reflection of mainstream America, displays and what it wishes to hide, namely differently gendered and racialized bodies. In this work, artist Lucas Samaras’s photo of his obscure and “ambiguous” (borrowing the exhibit’s term) genitals parallel an unidentifiable body above.
“The Never to be Forgotten” (1971), another part of the TV series, furthers Arnold’s project of centering cultural marginalia. Among the references present is Stephanie St. Clair, a mob boss during the Harlem Renaissance, alongside various portrayals of femininity from the dawn of television. Such a persona of feminine strength, separated in time from Arnold’s own by roughly 30 years, emphasizes the preservatory effect of television and its subsidiary media. Images of St. Clair — an atypical Black femme racketeer mafiosa with power on the fringes of 1920’s New York society — contribute to a transgressive collective of representations of femme masculinity (where Blackness is always already ungendered and Prohibition-era organized crime is not).
Arnold creates a Black iconography by integrating Blackness into mainstream white imagery. “Want to Pick-Nick?” or “Any Day?” (ca. 1969) takes the famous Seurat painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” (1884) and inserts photographs of counterculture protests, including an image of what appears to be a naked Black man walking past white onlookers. The collage counters canonical Western visuals with the discontent of unseen and unheard people, underscoring how various forms of oppression (colonial, racial, sexual, etc.) are inherently tied to the leisure of the ruling classes.
Based on Arnold’s writings and artworks, his politics were in line with that of the Black Arts Movement, marked by its defiance to the white art establishment. As a gay Black veteran, he addressed, moreover, the art world’s refusal to acknowledge any Black work about the artist’s oppression; such work did not conform to the white establishment’s definition of what a Negro artist should make. In response, Arnold’s collages of Black visuals and experiences amid white media illustrate how racial, gender, and sexual differences permeated mainstream society.
Collage utilizes the affective histories of disparate images by putting these histories into conversation with one another and creating visual associations. Arnold’s work (and the work of predecessors like Richard Bruce Nugent) responded to the absence of a vocabulary for Black gay men regarding who we are, what we experience, and who we might become. Arnold and others contributed to a visual glossary reflecting our potential. These artists’ confessions paved the way for the likes of Marlon Riggs, whose now-famous essay film Tongues Untied undertook a similar confessional through poetry, performance, and both textual and visual narration. The Many Hats of Ralph Arnold, and its subsection, Echoes, illustrate how this confessional lineage has become a signature of Black, queer collage–making.
Echoes features contemporary artists, including Krista Franklin and Derrick Adams, whose work draws on Arnold’s confessional model of collage and meaning-making. Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s “Studio (OX5A0202)” and “Studio (OX5A0173)” (both 2017) assemble images of Sepuya and nude white figures together with sketches by Richard Bruce Nugent. Nugent’s sketches play with exoticism and queerness, depicting nude bodies engaging in camp poses and same-sex sex acts. The images are placed atop what appears to be a mirror photograph. These images collide into a composite of the art studio, alluding to the overlaps and interconnections between work by different generations of artists. Likewise, Wardell Milan’s “Early Spring, The Charming Evening” (2014) pairs representations of gender and sex norms with those of queer sex acts and intimacy. Milan emphasizes the place of women in his confessional. Women are adored by male figures; in addition, Black female figures celebrate one another, literally giving each other awards. The greens and pinks of the landscape are accentuated by the yellow hue of the photograph, imbuing it with a fantastical quality.
These works, in conversation with Arnold’s, demonstrate how the desire for representation evolves across generations. There is a trajectory of self-seeing which moves from our placement within a white, masculine canon of homo-eroticism to a localized understanding of how whiteness influences what queerness means to Black gay men. What Black gay men need to speak, through confession or by any other means, changes as our community debates and builds upon the progress of our preceding generations. Collage continues to communicate messages that are difficult to articulate by other means and to center the media of the margins. Ralph Arnold’s firm belief in the versatility of his and other Black gay men’s existences remains politically potent in 2018, while it speaks to a greater Black queer aesthetic of assemblage within the ever-expanding long Black song.
The Many Hats of Ralph Arnold: Art, Identity, & Politics continues at the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College Chicago (600 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago, IL) through December 21, 2018. The exhibition was curated by Greg Foster-Rice, Columbia College Associate Professor in the History of Photography.