Tina M. Campt Confronts Discomfort in Art to Dismantle the White Gaze and Introduce A Black Gaze

by Natasha Gural

Contemporary Black art mirrors, scrutinizes, and elucidates the complex issues and challenges that shape our evolving interpretation and exploration of Blackness. We cannot simply look at art that strives to dismantle the White gaze. We must examine it with an informed, open mind that confronts the often uncomfortable realities and uncertainties of the Black experience and identity. We must listen to it.

Tina M. Campt, a Black feminist theorist of visual culture and contemporary art, leads us on a scholarly yet accessible journey through the work of leading Black artists Deana Lawson, Arthur Jafa, Khalil Joseph, Dawoud Bey, Okwui Okpakwasili, Simone Leigh, and Luke Willis Thompson.

Campt’s new book, A Black Gaze: Artists Changing How We See (MIT Press), elevates the theoretical examination of visceral and unsettling art through a deeply personal and fresh perspective. By sharing her experiences, Campt brought me closer to my own relationship with disconcerting art, forcing me to reconsider how I gaze and how I use the term. 

The term Black gaze is “almost self-explanatory to so many people in (film theory and film criticism), but at the same time it’s kind of filtered through to a more popular audience so that when you say ‘oh that’s a racist’, or ‘that’s a colonial gaze,’ people kind of know what you mean,” Campt said in a phone interview. “They know that it’s a way of viewing certain populations as objects, or in a way that is denigrating to them.”

“So, when I was beginning to think through the impact of these works of art, I was trying to articulate the way in which they allow us to see Black life differently. I wanted to actually be able to describe that as a framework of seeing, of looking and seeing differently. When I talk about a Black gaze, and I don’t say the Black gaze, I’m doing that in order to make space for the multiplicity of looking practices that we have to embrace in being able to see Blackness differently.”

Luke Willis – Thompson Cemetery of Uniforms and Liveries (2016)

The book, divided into verses, explores intricacies of sound and rhythm as it pertains to visual art. The lyrical pace of her eloquent, persuasive writing helps to guide us on an urgent tour of Black art.

Campt’s description of how she sits cross-legged on the floor in galleries and studios while writing about art inspired me to take a similar approach. I fortuitously devoured her 208-page book while traveling to Chicago to meet Theaster Gates and view his colossal, provocative How to Sell Hardware at Gray Warehouse. I had the luxury of spending quiet time alone with 25 soft steel gabions installed in the massive 5,000 square-foot converted space, peering into every crevice from myriad angles and gazing up from the floor. I listened to the installation, as Campt tells us she listens to Lawson’s intimate staged photographic portraits.

“The Black gaze that emerges in Lawson’s work is a gaze that immerses us in a Black sociality that is simultaneously mundane and exquisite,” Campt writes.

Lawson’s portraits draw us into Blackness, history, and collective memory by depicting both real and imagined narratives. They are often hard to look at, but we cannot look away.

Kahlil Joseph – Until the Quiet Comes (2012)

We accompany Campt on her first visit with Jafa as part of her ongoing effort to “write about the frequency of images.” Throughout his vast career, Jafa vigorously yet seamlessly traverses film, music, and art to convey the intrinsic bond between beauty and alienation within Blackness.

“Jafa forces us to commit to the labor of positioning ourselves in relations of proximity, implication, and vulnerability to the full spectrum of Black joy, trauma, and precarity,” Campt writes.

Joseph’s films and large-scale video installations pull us away from linear narratives by employing sound and music to layer lyricism and storytelling.

“The discomforting labor produced by Joseph’s Black gaze in these films resides in their capacity to position white spectators as neither subject nor recipient of their gaze,” Campt writes.

Campt reinvigorated my recent cathartic experience of viewing and writing about Dawoud Bey: An American Project at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, which is on view through October 3rd. Accompanied by my husband and 11-year-old son, I took care with every chilling portrait and haunting landscape that chronicles his prolific career.

Dawoud Bey – The Birmingham Project (2012)

I stepped back to observe as other folks fiddled with their iPhones as if some life-changing event conveyed by text was more vital than awareness of  Bey’s essential visual dialogue. The magnitude of their discomfort was painfully evident, as some awkwardly wandered away after skimming the text accompanying The Birmingham Project or learning the harsh truth seeped in Night Coming Tenderly, Black.

Campt explains how the eerie landscapes “conjured” by Bey’s camera and borrowing their title from Langston Hughes “convey a very different tenor and a very different tone from those of The Birmingham Project.”

Tina M. Campt
Photo Credit: Dorothy Long (2021)

“Listening to these somber images, what we hear in them is not silence, it is the sound of quiet,” Campt writes. “It is an unmistakable sound that enfolds us in the hazy hum of nightfall, which we hear as much as we see.”

With every meticulous, sincere description and explanation, Campt reveals how and why we must dismantle the White gaze to uncover the profusion of a Black gaze. She forces us to embrace the sounds and vibrations of disconcerting art, a practice that is requisite for genuine study and appreciation.

“I’m completely fixated on quiet moments, and what we are trying not to say, and what we are suppressing in those moments, and sometimes very often we’re suppressing some kind of discomfort,” Campt said during our phone conversation. Our discomfort “might take us into a place where we become more accountable for that discomfort and how we are positioned, socially, around that discomfort…. It makes us vulnerable, but it’s a vulnerability that can do some good work in terms of thinking about our relationships to one another in society.”

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Natasha Gural is a multiple award-winning journalist, writer, and editor with 30 years of editorial experience, including executive roles at The Associated Press, Dow Jones, and Markets Media. A student of literature, art history, and studio art, Natasha has learned from leading scholars at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Oxford University, Clark University, and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Natasha has been writing about art since 2002, for multiple publications, including The Associated Press and Forbes. She has traveled extensively to cover major art fairs and events, interviewing a wide array of world-renowned and emerging artists, as well as curators, art historians, collectors, scholars, and aesthetes. Her last contact with the global art world was covering TEFAF Maastricht in 2020. Natasha enjoys observing every level of the creative process, from inception to installation, in studios, galleries, and various spaces. Passionate about the art world, Natasha embraces every opportunity to engage key players to better understand and explain the changing dynamic. She seeks to accurately portray the art ecosystem in an ongoing process that immerses her in the art world. A first-generation American, Natasha was raised bilingual and has always been drawn to the innovators, rebels, and outsiders who break down boundaries and strive to broaden the continuum of art history. Her goal is always to fairly and accurately represent the accomplishments of artists in an effort to collectively celebrate the arts.

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