African-American Artists and Performers between Camp Aesthetics and Racial Identity: Black Camp as a Critical Category

This article presents a blog version of Anna Pochmara and Justyna Wierzchowska’s panoramic introduction to “Notes on the Uses of Black Camp”: A special issue of Open Cultural Studies published in its inaugural, first issue in 2017.

A Guest Article by Anna Pochmara and Justyna Wierzchowska.

On Uses of Black Camp, a special issue edited by Anna Pochmara and Justyna Wierzchowska, also contributing an article on the “Masquerade of Mourning in the Early 1980s Artistic Productions of Michael Jackson and Prince,” makes a redress for an almost complete lack of scrutiny devoted to race in the aesthetics of camp. A few critics have pointed out to this omission. Pamela Robertson, writing about the drag culture documentary Paris Is Burning (1990), argued that scholars do not sufficiently examine “how inextricably race and sex are intertwined” and “how race discourse operates in camp generally” (393). Andrew Ross’s classic “Uses of Camp,” which argued for a political significance of camp, did not directly discuss race either, even though the author mentioned Little Richard, Grace Jones, Prince, and Michael Jackson. In his later text, “The Gangsta and the Diva,” published in a volume on black masculinity, Ross more explicitly commented on the significance of cross-dressing and mannerism of black male performers such as Rue Paul or Little Richard and multi-ethnic cross-dressers from Paris Is Burning. Taking Robertson’s and Ross’s analyses as a starting point, On Uses of Black Camp further develops critical discourses on camp and blackness.

We argue that the unwillingness to use black camp as a critical tool in contemporary academic discourse stands in contrast to the plethora of camp performances in black culture. Already in the early twentieth century, Zora Neale Hurston pointed out the “will to adorn” as a key characteristic of black expression. She claimed that what white people may find as grotesquely bad taste stems from black people’s radical “desire for beauty” (53). “Decorating a decoration” (Hurston 53) represents an early-twentieth-century black camp intervention.

The critical neglect of the “will to adorn” comes from the notions of essentialism and racial authenticity which  were  the cornerstone of the Black Arts Movement. Black Studies that came to being in the wake of BAM privileged texts embedded in historical discourses of resistance and marginalised the ones representing allegedly inauthentic, that is non-black, white-looking, or racially indefinite characters (Fabi 1-6). As Jarrett contends, Black Studies have constrained black authors to “racial realism, which supposedly portrays the black race in accurate or truthful ways” (1). This approach, according to Jarret, “shackled the creative decisions and objectives of many African American authors to ‘the chain of reality’” (1).

This blinkered vision has been problematised in numerous, mostly feminist, studies such as Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens (1983), Hazel Carby’s Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist (1987), Ann duCille’s The Coupling Convention: Sex, Text, And Tradition In Black Women’s Fiction (1993), Deborah McDowell’s “The Changing Same”: Black Women’s Literature, Criticism, and Theory (1995), and Claudia Tate’s Domestic Allegories of Political Desire: The Black Heroine’s Text at the Turn of the Century (1996). It has also been challenged by African American art that questioned “a particular regime of representation: specifically, the history of images depicting black men in the throes of collective resistance” (Murray 4). Through the notion of post-blackness, black visual culture resisted the essentialist and nostalgic “heteropatriarchal expressions of blackness” (Murray 3) that represented black men exclusively “as the defiant leaders of their beleaguered communities” (Murray 4). Like feminist studies, the concept of post-blackness highlighted the need for inclusion of non-normative sexualities, whose enunciation is historically connected with the tradition of camp.

A further explanation of the scarcity of academic discourse on black camp stems from its relation to pleasure. As Sontag stated, camp is “a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation – not judgment. Camp is generous. It wants to enjoy” (65). The assumption that camp aesthetics provides uncritical pleasure, sometimes drawing dangerously close to the politically-charged tradition of blackface, has made camp too sensitive for academics to address. Nonetheless, a few black cultural productions—such as Kara Walker’s art, Wondaland’s music, or most relevantly, a black queer comic character in the mainstream sit-com Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt—used the camp strategies of theatricalisation and excess to both confer pleasure and confront political issues head-on.  These cultural texts represented a mode of enjoyment that had a critical potential.  They denaturalised the essentialist categories of gender, sexuality, and race to deflect the racial stereotypes in a theatrical way. Akin to the Bakhtinian carnivalesque, their camp aesthetics facilitated intimacy between the artist and the beholder, no longer a reverent onlooker but an active participant in a subversive and sensual act.

In the second half of the twentieth century, this love of self-stylization and glamour visible in pre-war black urban community became widely visible in American culture. It deeply saturated the aesthetics of the disco scene, stylizations of hip-hop, and became the trademark of the black superstars: Michael Jackson, Prince, and Beyoncé, all of whom are discussed by the authors in this issue. It has also been a key element in the tradition of Afrofuturism, popularised by Sun Ra and George Clinton and recast in the productions of artists from the Wondaland label. Contemporary black visual artists also creatively and mindfully engage with a camp aesthetic. Yinka Shonibare, a Nigerian-British artist, in one of his projects, Diary of a Victorian Dandy (1999), explores the potential of camp. The artist-photographer Renee Cox uses the political potential of camp to defy the traditional representations of the black female body. She appropriates the stylistic masquerade of the affluent white female (The Discreet Charm of the Bougies) and employs imagery connotative of the slave experience. Finally, as this issue demonstrates, Barkley Hendricks’s portraits and Kara Walker’s silhouettes also generate a strong political message concerning the discourse of black camp.

Although black camp has a long and complex history, there have been significant shifts in its political salience and reception. In the 1980s, Prince and Michael Jackson could be nationally celebrated because their engagement in a camp aesthetics was excitingly “off the wall” rather than explicitly engaged in representational problems when it comes to the black male body. The late 1990s controversy surrounding Walker’s The Means to an End: A Shadow Drama in Five Acts illustrates the initial public distance towards the growing political explicitness of black camp. Today, Walker is one of the most influential African American artists, and even mainstream musicians such as Beyoncé employ an aesthetic of excess to address the heritage of racial oppression.

On Uses of Black Camp discusses these shifts in the history of black camp since the 1970s. The issue examines musical performances, fashion, and art, which are most compatible with the excessive stylistics, theatricalisation, and glamorous artifice of camp. In “Love is the Message: Barkley Hendricks’s MFSB Portrait Aesthetics,” Genevieve Hyacinthe argues that the camp stylistics that Hendricks uses in his 1970s portraits parallel the popular culture movement of MFSB in that both evoke a powerful affective reaction from their audiences and help build an inclusive, intersectional, diverse black community that has the potential to become cosmopolitan and multicultural.

Our own article analyses the 1980s performances of Michael Jackson and Prince to demonstrate that camp aesthetics enabled the artists to disperse the limiting representational regime of black masculinities in a way that did not reproduce the hetero-patriarchal paradigm. We also refer to the artistic output of twenty-first-century African American performers of Queercore and Afrofuturist scenes to discuss the changes in black representation that were made possible by Jackson and Prince.

In “‘If You Don’t Bring No Grits, Don’t Come’: Critiquing a Critique of Patrick Kelly, Golliwogs, and Camp as a Technique of Black Queer Expression,” Sequoia Barnes reads the fashion designer Patrick Kelly’s use of controversial black memorabilia as a camp gesture that subverts the racist imagery and endows it with queer coding, thus deflecting both racial and sexual oppression. Carmen Dexl and Katrin Horn, in “‘Beef Jerky in a Ball Gown’: The Camp Excesses of Titus Andromedon in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” examine the ways in which the camp performance of Titus Andromedon, an African American queer sit-com character, challenges the expectations of both black and gay TV presence.  Brian Stephens in “Prissy’s Quittin’ Time: The Black Camp Aesthetics of Kara Walker” shows how Walker’s art challenges white supremacist discourses but at the same time defies the limitations of black uplift discourse and thus opens up the possibilities of new discourses of blackness. Constantine Chatzipapatheodoridis’s “Beyoncé’s Slay Trick: The Performance of Black Camp and Its Intersectional Politics” investigates the black queer traditions in Beyoncé’s musical output.

All the cultural productions examined in this issue dispute the regimes of authenticity and militancy and widen the range of possible representations of blackness. The authors of On Uses of Black Camp show how instrumental these works are in resisting hegemonic gender and sexuality politic and argue that black camp can help forge a more inclusive and diverse, politically astute, black community.

Written by Anna Pochmara and Justyna Wierzchowska

 Edited by Izabella Penier and Pablo Markin

Works Cited

Barnes, Sequoia. “‘If You Don’t Bring No Grits, Don’t Come’: Critiquing A Critique of Patrick Kelly, Golliwogs, and Camp as a Technique of Black Queer Expression.” Open Cultural Studies, vol. 1, 2017, pp. 678-689.

Carby, Hazel V. Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist. Oxford University Press, 1987.

Chatzipapatheodoridis, Constantine. “Beyoncé’s Slay Trick: The Performance of Black Camp and its Intersectional Politics.” Open Cultural Studies, vol. 1, 2017, pp. 406-416.

Cleto, Fabio, editor. Camp: Queer Aesthetics and the Performing Subject: A Reader. Edinburgh University Press, 1999. Dexl, Carmen,

Katrin Horn. “‘Beef Jerky in a Ball Gown’—The Camp Excesses of Titus Andromedon in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.Open Cultural Studies, vol. 1, 2017, pp. 442-453.

duCille, Ann. The Coupling Convention: Sex, Text, and Tradition in Black Women’s Fiction. Oxford University Press, 1993.

Fabi, Maria Giulia. Passing and the Rise of the African American Novel. University of Illinois Press, 2001.

Hurston, Zora Neale. “The Characteristics of Negro Expression.” Sweat, edited by Cheryl Wall, Rutgers, 1997, pp. 55-71.

Hyacinthe, Genevieve. “Love is the Message: Barkley Hendricks’ MFSB Portrait Aesthetics.” Open Cultural Studies, vol. 1, 2017, pp. 604-627.

Hynes, Nancy. “Re-Dressing History.” African Arts, vol. 34, no. 3, 2001, pp. 60-65, pp. 93-95.

Jarrett, Gene Andrew. Deans and Truants: Race and Realism in African American Literature. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.

McDowell, Deborah E. “The Changing Same”: Black Women’s Literature, Criticism, and Theory. Indiana University Press, 1995.

Miller, Monica L. Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and the Styling of Black Diasporic Identity. Duke University Press, 2010.

Murray, Derek Conrad. Queering Post-Black Art: Artists Transforming African-American Identity after Civil Rights. I. B. Tauris, 2015.

Pochmara Anna, Justyna Wierzchowska. “Nobody Knows My Name: The Masquerade of Mourning in the Early 1980s Artistic Productions of Michael Jackson and Prince.” Open Cultural Studies, vol. 1, 2017, pp. 628-645.

Robertson, Pamela. “Mae West’s Maids: Race, ‘Authenticity’ and the Discourse of ‘Camp.’” Camp: Queer Aesthetics and the Performing Subject: A Reader, edited by Fabio Cleto, pp. 393-408.

Ross, Andrew. “The Gangsta and the Diva.” Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art, edited by Thelma Golden, Whitney Museum of Art, 1994, pp. 159-160.

Ross, Andrew. “Uses of Camp.” No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture. Routledge, 1989, pp. 135-170. Smith, David Lionel. “The Black Arts Movement and Its Critics.” American Literary History, vol. 3, no. 1, 1991, pp. 93-110,

Sontag, Susan. “Notes on ‘Camp.’” Camp: Queer Aesthetics and the Performing Subject: A Reader, edited by Fabio Cleto, pp. 53-65.

Stephens, Brian. “Prissy’s Quittin’ Time: The Black Camp Aesthetic of Kara Walker.” Open Cultural Studies, vol. 1, 2017, pp. 646-659.

Tate, Claudia. Domestic Allegories of Political Desire: The Black Heroine’s Text at the Turn of the Century. Oxford University Press, 1996.

Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Prose. Harcourt, 1983.

Featured Image Credits: Hernan Bas, Florida Living Exhibition, Feb. 14 – Aug. 20, Returning to the SCAD Museum in Savannah, Georgia, USA, April 7, 2017 | © Courtesy of JR P/Flickr.

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