work 1

by Sheila Petty

Click on images to view the archive of the artwork

When we think of Africa or the African diaspora, history is often a constant mediator:  can one speak of Africa, for example, without referring to colonialism?  Or speak of the black diaspora without reference to slavery or other exiles that connect the present to the past?  And, do specificially eurocentric histories of technology force non-eurocentric cultures and their technologies into positions of “otherness”?  Africa, as a marker of identity, is frequently construed from the outside as “an object apart from the world,” and often portrayed in a fashion that “perpetually underplays the embeddedness in multiple elsewheres of which the continent actually speaks 1”.  In short, the African and African diasporic “imaginations of the self” that derive from the continent “are born out of disparate but often intersecting practices, the goal of which is not only to settle factual and moral disputes about the world but also to open the way for self-styling 2”.  Hence, digital technologies and their histories interact with pre-existing technological histories, establishing convergences where African and African diasporic art and theory are created as “insurgent act[s] of cultural translation. 3” 

Courtesy of Keith + Mendi Obadike

Keith Townsend Obadike’s web project, Blackness for Sale, is probably one of his most well-known works and offers up an “insurgent act,” demonstrating how discourses on race can be used as an affirmation of contemporary African disaporic identity.  A new media artist focusing on music, sound art and text-based internet works that have been exhibited in the United States and Europe, Obadike offered his “blackness” for sale on the internet auction site, eBay in August 2001.  Although eBay shut down the auction after ten days, “Blackness for Sale” succeeded in creating an effective commentary on the relationship between black identity and consumer society while simultaneously affirming that cyberspace is not “raceless”.

As a visual experience, the project is presented within the framework of eBay’s standard auction form, foregrounding the consumerist critique.  For example, the ironic juxtaposition between the key words “Black Americana” and “Fine Art,” used to describe Obadike’s offering, posit black identity as a fine collectable that can be acquired if the right price is offered.  This is reinforced by form entries describing shipping restrictions, specifying payment options and identifying the highest bid ($152.50) currently on offer.  By linking blackness to commodification, Obadike is critiquing the same dehumanizing modes of production initiated by slavery that rendered African-Americans as mere products to be purchased and sold.  Furthermore, the irony of the eBay form’s narrative and aesthetic structure lies in the reduction of something as complicated as blackness to the simplistic form categories in an act reminiscent of imposing Eurocentric museum collection criteria on works from non-western cultures. 

“Blackness for Sale” is predominantly text-based (ie/ words), which raises the issue of how text functions as an image system in web art.  There is a strong tradition of orality in black diasporic works where the word plays a powerful role as an instrument of signification of identity.  Obadike plays with this process in the description portion of the eBay form in which he elucidates the “benefits” and “warnings” associated with possession of blackness.  For example, in benefit seven he suggests, “this Blackness may be used for securing the right to use the terms 'sista', 'brotha', or 'nigga' in reference to black people. (Be sure to have certificate of authenticity on hand when using option 7)”.  The use of “nigga” in this context, and the warning to have the certificate of authenticity, alludes to the double-consciousness of the word which can have a positive meaning in a black context and a racist meaning in a dominant mainstream context. 

A similar commentary is expressed in this work through the question of permission and refusal:  for example, benefit one gives the buyer permission to use blackness to create black art, but in warning three recommends against using it to make and sell “serious” art.  Here Obadike is playing with the mainstream dominant culture’s perspective that “black” art cannot be “serious” art by virtue of its race and its perceived “failure” to meet eurocentric standards.  This suggests that black identity can only be inscribed in an artistic ghetto consigned to a narrow category.  Thus, coupling art with race results in exclusion from mainsteam society.  A similar structure is evident in terms of access to social rights:  benefit four argues, “This blackness may be used for accessing some affirmative action benefits. (Limited time offer. May already be prohibited in some areas),” while in warning seven, “the Seller does not recommend that this Blackness be used while demanding fairness.”  Thus, the contrast between limited social mechanisms available for redress and their futility in all practicality demonstrates the profound dislocation experienced in black identity formation.  This dislocation, however, is not an expression of victimhood, nor indeed an expression of the self as “other,” but a self-styling of blackness that poses identity as a process of becoming, exploding boundaries and evoking larger definitions of what “self” can and should be 4.

1  Achille Mbembe and Sarah Nuttall, “Writing the World from an African Metropolis.” Public Culture 16 (3), 2004 :347-372, p.348.

2 Achille Mbembe, “African Modes of Self-Writing.”Public Culture, 14 (1), 2002: 239-273, p.242.

3 Homi K Bhabha,  The Location of Culture,  London and New York, Routledge, 1994, p.7.

4 Achille Mbembe, “African Modes of Self-Writing.”Public Culture, 14 (1), 2002: 239-273, p.245.











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