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Self as Substrate

Jason Bulluck


Yanique Norman, Do Not Hand Me Over to the Impure Whiteness of Noon: A Hemings Elegy, at the Albany Museum of Art, January 9 - June 27, 2020

I-95, I-85, and Such

I TEACH AND MAKE ART in Washington, DC, where schools have, of course, been shut down in order to encourage and practice the social distancing necessary to flatten the curve of infection enough not to overwhelm our health care system. What timing! So much recent discourse—almost twelve years of agonizing and acrimony here in the nation’s capital—has been about national health care. While not ironic, we are stilled and cowed by a global health crisis.

And here I found myself during the last weekend in March of 2020, ostensibly months free of urban commutes, in-person meetings, and coffee runs and moving toward a long summer, but full of angst. So I called the Albany Museum of Art in southwest Georgia and asked Director of Education and Public Programming Annie Vanoteghem if it might be opened for me during the pandemic. I needed to write about Yanique Norman’s solo exhibition, Do Not Hand Me Over to the Impure Whiteness of Noon: A Hemings Elegy, before travel and access might become too difficult.

I drove south on I-95, I-85, and finally routes south of Atlanta the designations of which I’ve now forgotten. I completed the last leg of the trip—through southwest Georgia’s piney hollows and explosive moments of crepe myrtle—to reach Albany by midday. It was warm relative to the Up South; even Atlanta had been in the fifties and rainy, but in Albany I could wear shorts, if just for a while. I would learn four or five days later in a New York Times article titled “Some U.S. Cities Could Have Coronavirus Outbreaks Worse Than Wuhan’s” that as of the last week of March, Albany, Georgia, had the fourth-highest infection rate in the world.

I had been traveling the interstates carefully, diligently cleaning gas station pumps, door handles, sinks, Starbucks cups, my credit cards and wallet, the interior of my car as if to rid it of forensic evidence, and of course my hands with fidelity and dedication to our collective health. I napped in my SUV and generally behaved as if I understood the nature of the threat we face during this pandemic.

On arrival at the Albany Museum of Art, the four of us, Executive Director Andrew James Wulf, Director of Marketing and Public Relations Jim Hendricks, Yanique Norman, and I, attended faithfully to CDC protocols, staying six feet apart and disinfecting hands and hard surfaces. These attempts at reinforcing personal biological borders were uncanny given the beauty of the Deep South spring and an exhibit of monumentally scaled work that operates so effectively at dissolving borders of identity, anecdotal history, theory, and form.


The Albany Museum of Art’s website offers this didactic for visitors to Yanique Norman’s first solo museum exhibition:

Norman’s work primarily deals with privilege and nationalistic ideologies all the while pondering a decolonial future. In an ongoing series that predominantly features collage on paper, video, and sculpture, Norman reworks official portraits of presidential wives in allusion to a troubled past. Her work serves as a reclamation project by reimagining iconic images to both reflect and institute a fungible counter-narrative regarding blackness.

I have been following Yanique’s work for the past few years, which emerges for this exhibit as a fantastic allegory of Black fungibility, that is, the exchangeability, objectification, and commoditization of a range of notions of Blackness. This fungibility extends to Black bodies, Black labor, and Black identities made complex by any combination of gender, nationality, language, and sexual orientation. Norman invokes the fungal in her read of Black fungibility. And for Norman, the near homonym is critical.

Black fungibility is fungal in nature. The fungus can exchange and transform. Norman’s work lenses this fungibility, its notions of exchange, taking-up and loss, social death, and ubiquitous iconographies of Blackness, as fungal.

For Norman, the literal and problematic res fungibles of Blackness and their agents operate much the way the fungi do, taking up and emerging from a range of substratum and nutrients altering and resembling both, decomposing/recomposing. She indexes many ways Black bodies and identities are nurtured, parasitized, and/or corrupted and decomposed in the American North, South, and Midwest or South America, the Antilles, and Africa. Norman also sees these mycological behaviors in the historic and contemporary commodification and trade in Black persons, Black identities, Black cultural production, and so on. The substrates here are the geographies where we find colonized and otherwise exploited Black lives, the Black lives themselves; the “nutrients” of uneven power relations across race, gender, sexuality, and ability, the commoditization of culture, love, and what emerges, whether symbiotically or parasitically (the two modes of production possible in the fungi kingdom).

I attended to my fears of COVID-19 viral infection, another parasitic mode of production, with real discipline. I partially funded three years of undergrad as a microbiology major working in a molecular biology lab at the National Cancer Institute and later ran a retroviral lab at Howard University’s Cancer Center. There had also been a sophomore-year mycology lecture, accompanied by an abject slideshow of fungal infections in humans, the present memory of which certainly added to my microbiotic angst.

But I was struck, in conversation with Norman, and more profoundly having arrived at the exhibit, by the irony that I might attempt to block the smallest of genetic code from joining with mine while going to see work seemingly concerned with just this sort of infection.

Entering the gallery, the ruminations I’d been enjoying, of viral spread and fungal growth, were reflected formally, given the monumental scale of the work and its self-assertion, climbing and covering walls, literally echoing through the cavernous gallery.

Norman’s work, curated by Didi Dunphy, unfolds in the museum’s rather remarkable West Gallery space in three movements titled Noon Suites, composed of sculptural drawings, paintings, collages, and a sound installation.

A Towering Surround

Architecturally, the Albany Museum’s West Gallery offers a theatrical and, at times, chapel-like experience of Norman’s exhibit. Entering the museum through its glass entrance, ceilings of modest height block much of the light from outside. Beams at unexpected angles overhead upset any quick sense of layout or what the museum might offer as gallery spaces. And just past a fairly low beam, the ceiling rises to reveal a tall glass exit, its windows splashing the West Gallery with light and offering the sense that it might not be easily understood from outside. The gallery’s entrance was dark compared to the sunlight-flooded bit of atrium, setting up a dramatic entrance to the exhibit.

Do Not Hand Me Over to the Impure Whiteness of Noon: A Hemings Elegy regales the viewer on entering the gallery with a vast number of images on both blood-red and metallic paper, each shaped and worked over with graphite, ink, folds, rolls, and scallops. The work marches, swoops, parades, grows, and emerges from the museum’s West Gallery walls. There are undulations and doubling upon doubling of countenances encountered and visages imagined.

A first step into the space offers boundaries. To the right, two walls painted a pale blue (the gallery’s other four are painted white), positioned at roughly right angles to one another, feature Norman’s Noon Suite I: The Hemings-Jefferson Heirlooms, two triangular arrangements of forty-nine photographic prints. The surfaces of these images are resplendent with shiny silver ink and ore-red collages of the same face, adult but youthful, African descendant and nonbinary, at times too large for the prints to fit atop the bodies of former US presidents. This face returns at smaller scales most often in place of the faces of first ladies, children, and other first family members. Some, especially the most recent head of state and family, find their familiar hairstyles and expressions worked over in silver ink in a sort of inversion of contre-jour photography.

Norman removes norms of legibility, asserting the power of invisibility and a politics of fugitivity. We learn the face we see repeatedly in place of first family members glibly enjoying summer gatherings, official sittings, and swimming pools in absurdly idyllic settings is that of an incarcerated African American woman. Her ferruginous face, flat affect, and relative anonymity are pasted loosely enough to cast literal shadows on her companions, asserting provocations and notions of the political relativity of Black and marginalized identities in the context of elite, private life.

These are alarming harmonies of fugitivity and power. Norman’s dynamically composed and visually insistent subjects escape recognition and demand a reworking of ideals we might harbor of the powerful man, president, first family, and especially first lady. This stranger’s ruddy-brown face is repeated dozens of times as replacement, new countenance, surfeit, counterfeit, counter, photographic vagrancy, and perhaps even criminality—given race, gender, and social relations of power—both on the wall and for the viewer in elegiac response. And remembering title and context, we consider Sally Hemings in the plural, denied and anonymous, attached to, even defining power.

Noon Suite II: I’m Tired of Talking about Myself (An Anthem) is a thirty-seven-minute, single audio channel sound piece that was designed in collaboration with Beau Thigpen and Joey Molina. The work floods the space, and there is finally a sense that perhaps this fairly grand gallery can barely hold the fullness of the three suites. At least three voices rise up in reproductions of the formal moves of the visual work in the room. There are repetitions, calls-and-responses, and the viewer-listener is left with the clear awareness of bearing witness to a lamentation.

The libretto for the second suite is poetic and beautiful. Over and again the refrain, “Ahuu dat red gyal deh? A weh sh[e] cum fram? How sh[e] su foofool so? Everyweh sh[e] tun makka juk her up. Shi cyaah duh nutten right. Jeezam.” Slowly a second voice emerges and offers itself a call-and-response, materializing Sally Hemings in imaginary conversation with Thomas Jefferson, “. . . he’s an intellect, me a dummy; he’s righteous, me sinning; he’s working, count on me coveting . . .” Another voice, still belonging to Hemings, joins the chorus and declares her womb, among many things, bitter, overgrown, homeless, brown, prey, caned, and shaped like a horseshoe. A final voice implores her to run over and over.

The aural imperative to flee, to enact some fugitive and historic response in Hemings, is, of course, eerie and moving. It is too late, except that Jefferson and Hemings have descendants. And of course we are those descendants of a time of grotesque trade in Black bodies and labor. The material changes to Hemings’s womb, to the institutions of the US presidency and any notion of a first lady (alongside, of course, changes to language, cultural production, ad infinitum) cannot be outrun at the same time that we are long overdue to take up history and inherited material circumstances toward new and liberated identities. This is the threnodial thesis Norman’s work would have us understand and that echoes again in the final suite.

Moving again to the right, Noon Suite III: Last Lady Bird-Monit II-III (Black to Red) spreads itself across the gallery’s last two walls and mostly overhead with what must be thousands of small works on paper, individually cut while flat, each now curling at their edges to introduce a play of shadow and surface. The first thirty feet of these nearly countless surfaces are darker-hued versions of the same two-by-two-inch face encountered in the ore-red of the Heirlooms Suite. These bloodier collages are constructed from hand-colored xerographic prints.

Closer looking reveals tremendous labor, each small surface—no matter the layer of collage it occupies—worked with graphite, iridescent medium, and ink. While most of the work winds and moves across two of the last four walls of the gallery, high overhead, the penultimate wall features a grand vertical gesture, in turn descending to the widest arrangement of the collaged faces and narrowing down to sit atop the shoulders, an absurd, mycologic hydra, of an eleven-by-fourteen-inch image of Lady Bird Johnson’s yellow ball gown.

Continuing around to the end of the installation, the arrangements of these many hundreds of faces are at times roughly circular, scalloped, or fanned, like cards strewn across a dealer’s table, or the many overlapping frames of a stalled computer animation. There is the sense of a great and only partially visible biomass crowning from the wall, fungal, parasitic, and transmogrifying.

Blackness and Black Fungibility

Considering Norman’s grand expression of fungus-shaped-Black fungibility, I thought over and again of the Black outdoors and the scholarship of Saidiya Hartman, Fred Moten, and Tiffany King that asks us to consider the moments of fugitivity—the range of behaviors and relations our common ancestors, enslaved Africans, performed in defiance of absolute anti-Blackness, just by knowing pines, flowers, the red dirt, water, and people high and low. Norman’s fungal Black fungibility offers futurity in its moves against containment and toward a lofty, recumbent, fractal growth and ideas of facing and entangling self and other.

I had to drive through South Carolina twice. Each time I was grateful for empty roads while deep in thought about the recent Democratic primary in the state and our possible futures on the eve of a second presidential election. Recent American presidential politics especially have reinvigorated the long-smoldering discourse of anti-Blackness, xenophobia, anti-queerness, and misogyny.

A broad range of contemporary Black artists, artists of color, and white-identifying artists take up these and related themes, perhaps since more space has been produced for work bringing attention to the crises of identity and politics that seem in aggregate as surface, topology, and geography of art and cultural production. And for many artists, Norman and myself among them, reconsidering Blackness has become a central concern.

In “The Case of Blackness,” Fred Moten reproduces and reconsiders Frantz Fanon’s assertion that the condition of Blackness, as conferred on human beings, constitutes a nonbeing, specifically a being only in relation to and of course against the non-case of whiteness. Moten goes on to offer that, “Perhaps this is the flaw that attends essential, anoriginal impurity—the flaw that accompanies impossible origins and deviant translations.” Norman’s work seems redolent of “impossible origins and deviant translations” in sweeping moves that force the viewer to confront what seems to be countless visages of warping, reproduced/reproducing Black women. And yet these forms attach to bases or substrates for fungi via stalk, cap, and spore. Norman’s fungal forms see a white cultural substrate changed, transmogrified by defiant, fugitive, denied, and prosecuted Blackness, each of them in a manner that might also reify in a sort of call-and-response to Moten’s provocation, “What is it to be an irreducible disordering, deformational force while at the same time being absolutely indispensable to normative order, normative form?” Norman’s visual dirge answers through critique of the nation’s highest office, its trappings and histories, and the interpolation of the hidden, if imagined, narratives of Sally Hemings and other first ladies, alongside the stories of Black women’s labor and of the land.

Norman’s critical fabulations of Hemings’s elegies offer a response to the problem posed by Saidiya Hartman in her influential essay “Venus in Two Acts.” Hartman writes, “We stumble upon her in exorbitant circumstances that yield no picture of the everyday life, no pathway to her thoughts, no glimpse of the vulnerability of her face or of what looking at such a face might demand.” Norman’s work will not countenance such.

Leaving the gallery, we realize we have confronted Hemings as first lady and first ladies as Black long before Michelle Obama, and we have entangled impossibly with the stories of women, in varying degrees of proximity to Blackness, subject to a range of problematic American institutions.

And here is Yanique Norman’s sixty-foot bent, broken, and nearly uncontainable form reaching down to us from three gallery walls, formally disrupting an array of architectural moves, sometimes blood-red and at times shiny, different faces morphing, extending impossibly from the lovely yellow ball gown of Lady Bird Johnson. The forms dominate the space, calling in response to sounds of wailed imperatives, facing down, reflecting, affirming in swirls and slides a visage at least in part its own. Fugitive in the gallery space, in Norman’s labor, and in the viewer’s attempts to reconstruct a narrative of so many exchanges, morphings, it reminds us that both histories of, and contemporary conditions for, Black bodies are fungible.

As we trade and exchange our old and new notions of the politics of identity, truer and more urgent notions of both Black freedom and anti-Black violence, we begin to realize our agency in producing virulent, parasitic, and possibly symbiotic notions of self and other.

Self-Absorbed as Other

According to the Vimalakirti Scripture, Shariputra says to a goddess, “Why don’t you change your female body?” The goddess says to Shariputra, “I have been looking for the specific marks of ‘woman’ for twelve years but after all can’t find any—what should I change?” As another woman said to Shariputra, “Your maleness makes my femaleness.” You should know myriad things are fundamentally “thus”—what can be changed?

—The Flower Ornament Scripture, trans. Thomas Cleary

What strikes me both by Do Not Hand Me Over to the Impure Whiteness of Noon: A Hemings Elegy and Norman’s notions of the fungal and fungible are the insistence on a kind of recursive self-absorption that understands self as all substrates, surfaces, and geographies. Taking this a bit further, many fungi resemble the substrate from which they grow, or as decomposers make the great diversity of substrates into one, as dirt.

I am uncertain whether the allegory Norman’s work has been fabulating offers a politics to mend fences in the contemporary discourse of race, gender, or critical theory, but it leaves us to contend with both borderlessness and an awareness of a great and essential experience of suffering burdening our history.


Jason Bulluck is a conceptual artist, writer and teacher living in Washington, DC, and working in both DC and Chicago. His work explores possibilities for liberatory discourse emerging from encounters of critical geography, critical race studies, and Buddhist dialectics. Recent projects include sculpture and installation that invite audiences to interrogate dominant narratives and generate liberatory discourse through material engagements, digital provocations, performance, and writing.


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