Tiffany Barber talks Dark Humor
March 3, 2017
Filed under Living Arts
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Excitement filled Higgins Lounge on Thursday, the room brimming with students, faculty, and everyday art enthusiasts conversing in anticipation for the event to take place that night. All sound died down as Amy Richter introduced the guest for the evening: scholar, curator, and writer Tiffany E. Barber, who then took to the lectern to begin her lecture on art and performance that emphasized black diaspora.
After opening her dialogue by thanking her associates and the audience, Barber explained that she would focus on an exhibition that she herself curated, “Dark Humor” at the Delaware Art Museum, and would weave pieces of her scholarly work into the talk as well. Its title originates from the subgenre of comedy making light of serious topics otherwise considered taboo.
After offering some background info on choosing the pieces that would be exhibited, Barber then presented three questions on the screen to her right: “How do artists of African-descent navigate the conditions of being black in the Twenty-First Century in light of conversations about whether or not race and ethnicity still matter?,” “What do we expect from artworks that take blackness & black bodies as their subjects now?,” and “Are there ways we talk about & historicize artworks equal to the challenges of the art of our time?”
With these questions in mind, she brought up how art from artists of African-descendent is always expected to maintain an ethical relationship to the past by treating blackness with reverence in the nineteen-sixties and seventies.
“The politicalization of black artistic production was used to counteract the racist thinkings of black inferiority,” she explained, “which found new justification in the new Jim Crow era of policies after the constitutional abolition of slavery in the U.S.” Describing the social responsibility African-descended artists feel to “represent” themselves and counter black stereotypes in their contemporary artwork, Barber then presented such examples from her exhibit.
These included Peter Williams’ painting “Absolutely Hilarious” (1997), Barkley L. Hendricks’ painting “Sacrifice of the Watermelon Virgin or Shirt Off Her Back” (1987), Joyce J. Scott’s sculpture “Birth of the Mammy I” (1999), Lori Crawford’s painting “The Sista Descending the Staircase” (2003), Renée Stout’s “The Trickster on his Throne, With Henchmen” (1996), as well as a piece not featured in the exhibit, Kara Walker’s sugar-made sculpture “Mammy” (2008). It was during this point that Barber asked attendees to point out striking visual details in Hendricks’ piece, articulating her own thoughts as to what they could mean from the ones pointed out. These included watermelon, jagged high heels, chains, nipples, a checkerboard floor, hairy stockings, and a monster to the side.
Concluding her talk by describing the subversive nature of these pieces, Barber stated, “the works in ‘Dark Humor’ contest this [white] history in showing how humor makes possible a countercultural critique of dominant progress narratives.”
She concluded by referencing the artwork as integral pieces of history, affirming, “the use of humor in contemporary art by artists of African-descent in particular, keys us to the ways in which play illuminates persistent reasons of representations that are in part or parcel of America’s story, a story frequently told in terms of industrial development, conceptualism, and progress.”
The talk’s end brought opportunity for questions, and after deliberation on the audience’s part, Barber was flooded with them. They range from her personal thoughts on particular pieces, the variety of art galleries today, and the kinds of reactions people have when seeing artwork and performances by African-descended artists