Black Faces White Masks

  • Sea of Tranquility, The New Exodus, 100x100cm, mixed media, 2015

  • Prosperity Preacher, mixed media, 120x100cm, 2015

  • My Nude Photos Were Stolen, mixed media, 50x40cm, 2015

  • Fashion Dead, mixed media, 70x70cm, 2015

  • Black Hat, mixed media, 100x80cm, 2015

  • Black Face White Masks, mixed media, 90x90cm, 2015

  • Aesthetic Hegemons, The Fates, mixed media, 96x96cm, 2015

Eria Nsubuga was in the Netherlands last year for PRICCAPractice #3 exhibition and Expert Meeting. It was November. The time of the year that the Dutch Sinterklaas celebrations start. Eria was, as many others, impressed and disturbed by the role of ‘Black Pete’. It added up to themes he already was exploring in his work, leading up to a recent exhibition at Kampala based Afri-Art Gallery. He wrote this text to accompany the exhibition and the works in it.

SANE’s recent work delves into the murky world of the politics of aggressive racialism (racism), and addresses ‘Africanity’ against the backdrop of post-nationalism.
The title of the show is drawn directly from the first book of Martiniquais critical theorist Frantz Fanon (Black Skins, White Masks, 1952) which looks at negritude (originality) and whiteness (the imposed mask) as signifiers of a wider colonial construct. In an increasingly marginalized and polarized geopolitical global setting, encryptions of inferiority (colonized people) and superiority (colonizers) are inevitable tools for empires of capital, neoliberalism and so on.

“Every colonized people– in other words every colonized people in whose soul an inferiority complex has been created by the death and burial of its cultural originality—finds itself face to face with the language of the civilizing nation; that is, with the culture of the mother language.” Fanon, Black Skins, White Masks (1952)

SANE also addresses coloniality and the politics of black aesthetics where he questions the Western definitions of beauty and the conflicts that globalism presents to beauty in the black context. The Western aesthetic presents our blackness as being too black, and it must therefore be whitened in order for us (blacks) to gain acceptability in the postindustrial age. ‘Commands’ like these from the mass and printed media of ‘mother countries’ are making black women bleach their skins to whiten them and causing them to wear synthetic blonde and red hair pieces, in the process gaining new market opportunities for Western beauty products whilst at the same time furthering the loss of ‘cultural authenticity’ on the continent.

“The colonized is elevated above his jungle status in proportion to his adoption of the mother country’s cultural standards. He becomes whiter as he renounces his blackness, his jungle.” Fanon, Black Skins, White Masks (1952)

In light of this aggressive ‘disafricanization’, SANE is aware of the calls from outside to re-decolonize art spaces in Uganda and the need to seek an embrace with our tribal indigenous identities as forms of push back against colonial agencies. Furthermore there are attempts being made to recapture indigenousness in terms of languages and trials to make them parts of the circuits of communication in academic and intellectual fields including the visual arts. This however appears to be the second wave of decolonization after the aggressive re-colonization that Africa has suffered in the last quarter of the 20th century and into the 21st century due to global ‘market forces’ that have brought in huge waves of Americanized Westernization, Coca Cola, Walmart, and the supermarkets. It would seem that corporate business empires are the new forms of global hegemony replacing governments.
All the above notwithstanding, SANE’s work invites us to remember that blackness is no longer simply an identity issue of continental Africanness, and neither is whiteness an issue of Europeanness or Americanity. Just as blackness is now part of the Euro-American cultural equation, we must accept that whiteness is also very much part of the African cultural context too. What then happens to the idea of ‘cultural originality’ in the face of the global hybridization of culture brought about by human movement and settlement, re-movement and re-settlement? Culture however is not static and originality cannot be looked at only in terms of ‘how things used to be’. Contact with the colonizers for us the colonized has created cultural hybridization which also is to be looked at as authentic. We are black faces, white masks and white faces, black masks! Black masculinity is becoming more feminized and we also will have to deal with the automation of emotionality brought about by interaction with Western made technological products and machines according to Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe.

The black face has had to continually change the white masks, Fanon’s masks (Ghassan Hage) like clothing, oscillating from such phenomons as poverty, to migrancy, to involuntary slavery, to voluntary servitude, to colonial education and back to globalized inequalities, ‘underdevelopment’, hybridity, etc.

“Actually, it was poverty that was being artificially masked; and a part of the population was being really suppressed, wealth being always constant.”
Michel Foucault: Madness And Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, page 231

The dilemmatic oscillation of the black face from one form of hegemony to another is exemplified by this Western writer Ian Birrell who assumes a beneficent stance which pretends that globalization is a universal good that is separate from the evil of colonialism. What Birrell willfully ignores is the fact that capitalism and globalization are the new alternative forms of colonization of not only Africa but the whole world.

“But there is a new Africa emerging, powered by capitalism, embracing globalisation and finally shaking off the shackles of colonialism and the cold war that proved so crippling to development. Just look at the land of Live Aid: one of the world’s fastest-growing nations, a sub-Saharan success story like six more of the 10 most expanding economies. Poverty is far from banished – it’s a grinding way of life for millions – but their numbers are falling fast.”
Ian Birrell: Our image of Africa is hopelessly obsolete, The Observer, Sunday 26 August 2012

We assume even from the philosophers’ views on beauty as a whole that it is good. Taste is looked at as a virtue and those that lack it are ‘uncultured’. Aesthetes rule the politics of identity, sexual politics; politics of race and of human power itself. Beauty is looked at as a good thing while the vanity that it projects is ignored. Beauty has been used in conquests of men.
White beauty in particular continues to drive an extremely aggressive conquest of all human views on beauty as a whole. Western aesthetics have forced the agenda of beauty of the human body, skin colour and have dictated the modi of classification of modernity and tastes of culture. What hair type or colour or body shape (body mass index) all seem to follow a globalist (read: Europeanized) way of judging acceptability and desirability. The Western media; internet, Hollywood, and a plethora of print houses have continued to appropriate a lopsided image type of whiteness.

Beauty is now looked at all over the world from a white perspective. This form of imperialism has affected the way that women and men from all over the world look at themselves.

The white aesthetic paradigms obviously do not judge the conquered people fairly. In fact the ‘beautiful’ people in Africa largely refer to their beauty in terms of how much one looks like a white person. Among groups all over Uganda, beauty is attributed to skin ‘brownness’, long thin noses, high cheek bones, and so on.
Big bottoms are looked at as un-white, probably an excess of Africanness thus saying such as these abound in local dialects: “Omubi nga mweru kale” (One’s ugliness can be offset by lighter skin complexion), and “Enyindo y’ekilalo” (a nose like that of the hamite herdsmen).

Ethiopic features are attributed not to authentic African ugliness or beauty but to white exoticism. Some Amharic speakers do not identify themselves as Africans.
‘Beautiful’ people like Bahima consider themselves as superior to other vicinitous people. ‘Ugly like a Muganda’ is one kind of insult intended to portray the ‘ugliness’ of the wide, flat noses among Bantu speakers and some clans in particular (Mbogo-Buffalo clan?). Again the idea of ‘oversized’ bottoms all over the African continent and South Africa in particular is another identity mask.

The Sarajtile Baartman debacle is a clear example of white cultural hegemony based on debunking the black identity and attempting to forcefully separate the way we relate to our natural physiology and the way that foreign ideology impacts our identity. Baartman (Black Venus) epitomizes the vanity of white aestheticism and the de-humanization of Africans that European colonization necessitated to justify their incursions into Africa.

Was therefore the cultural imperative of the first colonial push in Africa to redefine African physiology? Was it the intention of Europe to make African Blacks white? If this ‘civilization’ was intended to make us whiter, was it expected to remain merely cosmetic or did they foresee the drama that we see today where black skins are bleached to make them look more Caucasian. People who bleach cannot only be those with ‘very’ dark skins only. It is clear that even among the lighter skinned hamitic peoples, bleaching is common.
How does the context of physical blackness impact the context of geography? If black people want to be whiter, as per the ‘White Mother Countries’, why would anyone fault these ‘whitened’ Blacks of black Whites for trying to correct the contradiction dictated by geography?

If one has been made white in the way that one thinks of oneself through skin bleaching, and ‘coca colonization’, then one’s home can no longer be the African village or town or dusty city. Whitened Africans or black Whites have their right therefore to seek the correct geographical context to their altered identity. If one feels white, thinks white, speaks white (language), look white and dress white, then they surely white. Ultimately people must live where they want to live. Anything else becomes a prison. Blackness or whiteness in this case is not only a matter of physicality or ‘epidermalization’, it is a question of context; ideological, mental (psycho-social) as well as polarithmic (relating to 2 or more conflicting or complementary loci of cultural reference)

So how do Artists buy into the identity questions of black whiteness (white blackness)? Are there no middle grounds that accommodate ‘hybridity’?

“There is no culture that is not diasporic. The diasporic condition is becoming more and more the global condition.” (Ghassan Hage: 2015)

Another question for the new colonization of Africa (Neoliberal Empire of Capital) lies in what the fate of those Africans who refuse to become genetically modified in order to reduce or even remove their blackness?

Another vital aspect of aesthetic hegemony lies in the question of language. Language and contextualization are mutually inclusive. Cultural incongruity demands intervention. If I speak French, then I must have a French identity, even if only in part. The contradiction therefore becomes what we see on television (globalized media) talking up a ‘migrant crisis’. Migrancy denotes ‘alienation’. The ‘migrants’ being talked about are not aliens to Europeanization. They are products of cultural Europeanization of the world. Therefore, the Europeans have to deal with their own rejection of black skinned yet white people who in the quest for solutions to incongruity are trying to find their new contexts or homelands in Europe.
Simply trying to stop people from moving (by building ‘apartheid’ walls) will not stop migrations.

“If people realize that people will always move then the language being used will change.” (George Shire: 2015)

Europe has another option: to stop feeding Africa the ‘development’ agenda, which is really another white mask (Europeanization). If physical/ geographical migrations are to be slowed down, surely the psycho-socio migration issue should be addressed first. When black Africans reject or resist their own blackness, the issue cannot be looked at only conscious disafricanization but also as conscious Europeanization. Migrants speaking English, French, and so on who want to move to Europe are simply obeying the Mother Countries’s commands to end their alienation. If Africans speak French, English or Spanish, and consume cultural products of the West, much to the detriment of their own African products, languages or culture; then these Africans’ identify more with their ‘mother countries’ and therefore these Africans are Europeans as well. Even if they are zombified Europeans, they are no longer useful in Africa.

We could try to allow the middle ground to thrive where African-ness or European-ness are mutually inclusive paradigms where Whites and Blacks accept the geographic and psycho-social proliferations and abstractions of contextuality. In other words, nationalism seems like a step back in time. The nation states have already been made irrelevant by centuries of world Europeanization. Europe is Africa, and America is Europe, thus AFRICA IS THE WORLD! Hence migrants are not migrants at all. Neither are they aliens in the correct sense.
Being de-westernized / de-colonized allows me to appropriate different hierarchies of cultures and use them all. De-westernization is not the same thing according to George Shire (2015) as anti-westernization. We can form part of a new modernism but of a different kind, of the global south. We owe it to ourselves to write our own stories, do our own art.