Jean Cocteau is perhaps best known for his films, in particular, his elegant, candlelit classic take on Beauty and the Beast. He was a kind of renaissance man, with achievements in literature as well as film and art. He was not a Surrealist, though that movement did influence some of his work. His work is deeply informed by myth and fairy tale; the figure of Orpheus shadows much of his cinematic work. Like the musician Orpheus explored the shadowy underworld, the artist Cocteau explored the subconscious and its language of myth and symbol.
As much as I like his films, it’s his highly idiosyncratic artwork that entices me. The drawings have a child-like simplicity but are deeply mischievous, and, in some cases, openly homoerotic.
The up and coming author James Champagne sent me a drawing of Mehitabel, the strange angel featured in this year’s weird Holiday story that I sent out last week. I plan to have the story available online in Christmas 2014. Thanks so much, James!
My forthcoming book (in 2014) is a collection of fantasy/weird tales with black/African American protagonists. Here are some of the images that inspired the tales.
Yesterday, I went to the Smithsonian’s Museum of African Art, and was entranced by the one piece in their collection by Kenyan artist Wangechi Mutu. I immediately went home to research her, and I was astounded.Her work mixes paint and collage and she has a darkly whimsical aesthetic. Myth and the grotesque mingle in fantastic ways in her work, that examines Race and Gender.
Last night I learned that my neighborhood library, the Mount Pleasant Branch of the DC Public Library system, has a mural in the children’s section painted by Aurelius Battaglia. He was an illustrator who went on to work for Disney. His animation can be seen in Dumbo, Pinocchio and Fantasia. The mural has been preserved, and the library is going to put some of his illustrations on one of the bridge-walkways in the building. Above are some pictures I took of his work.
My story “Conjuring Shadows” was inspired by the Harlem Renaissance writer and artist Richard Bruce Nugent. As a writer, Nugent’s work was strongly influenced by modernism. It was highly elliptical and poetic. His most famous piece, “Smoke, Lilies and Jade” is a stream of consciousness mediation on art, racial and sexual identity. “Smoke, Lilies and Jade” is also a pioneering work of black gay writing. Nugent was also a painter and illustrator. His illustration work has the sinister eroticism of Cocteau’s scribbles, and the wicked decadence of Aubrey Beardsley, while his paintings are influenced by the Romantics. Like Oscar Wilde, Nugent also penned retold Biblical tales and myths. Nugent was also born in Washington, DC, like yours truly.
Richard Bruce Nugent Website
Black and white are the primary colors artist Kara Walker uses. Shadow and light. Negative and positive space. Her tableaux are made of black paper, and they are silhouetted against a gallery’s white walls The archetypical imagery she uses–sordid scenes from slavery. The wild-haired pickaninny, the scheming Southern Belle, the oblivious Good Master, the slave’s body in chains… Referents are classic children’s books, the mythology of the Antebellum South, and black memorabilia. It’s work that is never kitsch or twee; it’s dangerous and graceful at the same time.
Walker’s work dismantles the Master’s House with the master’s tool, to borrow a quote from Audre Lorde.
Blackface, the act and art of caricaturing African skins and features, is a practice that won’t die. It lives on in the fashion industry and advertising, where outrageous imagery and shock are important selling points. The figure of Black Pete in the Netherlands—Santa Claus’ slave—persists in their Christmas traditions, though many people say that Pete is “black” because of soot. In Britian, Golliwogs are beloved toys and many people are unaware that ‘gollys’ are slightly altered minstrel figures. Blackface, dolls, mammy figures—all serve to send the message of the undesirability and the alieness of the black body. Are we even human?
There are now several artists who have attempted to reclaim these racially charged images. The most controversial of these is the Swedish artist Makode Linde. His most (in)famous work was performative. A red velvet cake was formed into the shape of the Hottentot Venus and decorated with black fondant icing. The artist served as the grotesque cake’s head, and every time someone took a piece of the blood-red cake, he screamed.
The purpose of this performance was to highlight the issue of female genital mutilation. It was lurid, and many critics thought it trivialized the plight of these young women, something I agree with. The piece was disturbing and problematic, but it was also confrontational. The cake was set up in an art gallery, and there are many pictures of well appointed white folk laughing at the horrific spectacle. I go back and forth about whether this work is the ultimate trollery or a multilayered thought-provoking piece.
I have checked out Linde’s other work, and it uses grotesque images of black faces and juxtaposes them in European settings. In one, Queen Elizabeth (the current one) stands next to a man defaced with Golliwog-like features. The same face appears on the head of a classical Greek statue. What draws me in also chases me away. Here, Linde’s work is more slightly nuanced. It is still very unsettling and has the subtlety of a Julie Traymor production.
I play with black grotesques and archetypes in my own work; I think what I do with them is less ambiguous than Linde’s work. For instance, my story “Catch Him By The Toe” riffs on the Sambo story. These horrible images, archetypes, tropes and stories are a part of our heritage. If the fashion industry can use them, we have a right to use them as well.