Brief: This issue of MICE enters into a conversation between scholars, artists, poets, and curators about opacity as a primary aesthetic form in which contemporary notions of Blackness are encountered. As theorized by the late Martinican poet and cultural theorist Édouard Glissant, the opaque is not the obscure; rather, it is that which cannot be reduced. The idea of opacity emerges both as a strategy of active resistance and as an alterity working against the logic of recognition and the ocular bias of Eurocentrism. How does visual culture reveal or conceal cultural difference in an increasingly globalized world? What happens if we leverage, rather than condemn, a decidedly veiled stance? Opacity allows us to explore how artists negotiate the politics of visibility in this age of pervasive surveillance, to consider it not as an end, but rather on its own terms.
This Witting Refusal: The Right to Opacity
Sa ou pa konnen pi gran pase’w (That which you don’t know is greater than you).
For Afrodiasporic individuals, the act of creation—in the form of song, story, or image—can be read as an action of denial, a dismissal of a dehumanizing hegemony foundational to the formation of the Western world. This refusal of the objectifying gaze or encounter is a moment of rich possibility for self-making, for creative empowerment, for survival. This resistance is a consequence of intentional opacity—an attempt to live a more human existence within postcolonial frameworks—while building on new imaginaries.
In his last collection of essays, Philosophie de la relation (2009), Glissant defined opacity as a right to not have to be understood on others’ terms, and to be misunderstood if one so chooses. He defined it as an intentional positioning against certain expectations of transparency within a racialized relationality. Glissant sought to defend a sense of inscrutability relative to Caribbean culture and identity, which he defined as diverse, partial, creolized—its unknowability conveying a cross-cultural poetics transcending categories of identifiable difference.
For Black life and art in the Black diaspora, the reductive objectifying logic of the West is an omnipresent stifling presence that demands of us subversive creative modalities. Glissant’s “demand [for] the right to opacity”Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997), 189.has been and continues to be a generative topic for artists and thinkers across fields ranging from surveillance studies to Caribbean philosophy. One such Caribbean philosopher, and practicing visual artist, Clinton Hutton, is instructive, as he thinks through the various ways in which Afrodiasporic individuals trapped within chattel slavery engaged in the creative arts. Hutton’s conceptualization of a creative ethos alongside his continuing art practice is a refusal to disentangle Black life from the arts, reading creative practices as forms of art and more. Glissant’s insistence on opacity as a strategy for the survival of Black life, operationalized by Hutton and others, lays out what is at stake in Black artists’ work as sites of both being and refusal. The beauty in such a refusal—that is, to deny the objectifying practices of Western European thought, their measurement schemas, and encyclopedic demand to know and categorize all—provides directions for vibrant Black life.
The collective texts, videos, and poetic writings within this issue were selected for their sensitive, innovative, and exploratory responses to opacity read through the changing positioning and practice of contemporary African diasporic art. They engage the power dynamics of class, gender, race, and sexuality, addressing their impact on categories of the visible and un-visible, while clamouring for different approaches to seeing, recognizing, identifying, and being.
In Glissant’s push beyond transparency lay the tools to resist a Western hegemonic desire to “understand” difference. For Black artists living and working in the West, their very existence and sustainability hovers between the transparent, allowing galleries, festivals, and funding agencies to grasp the work while also employing strategies of opacity that nourish, resuscitate, and celebrate Black diasporic expressive cultures. The works in this Opacities issue gesture, nudge, and urge us in the direction of living a Blackness vibrantly, without transparency or apology.
We would like thank the authors and artists for their generous contributions as well as those who took the time to submit proposals. We are grateful to the MICE collective for giving us the opportunity to share and explore these ideas on this broad platform, and appreciate the work of all those who helped to make this issue a reality.
In “We Solicit the Darkness,” Liz Ikiriko and Anique Jordan utilize social media and digital technologies to design a correspondence imbued with a sense of errantry as protective strategy. In this move, audiences are emptied of their participatory power and their consumptive gaze. Similarly, Anaïs Duplan, in discussing the works of Ulysses Jenkins, Sondra Perry, and Deanna Bowen, uncovers and explores how the artists’ avant-garde artworks re-narrate Black life beyond the tendencies of the dominant media, ensuring depoliticization and exploitation do not occur. Duplan is concerned with decentralizing “a socio-racial meaning-making framework,” reminding us of the continuing strategies of negotiating and renegotiating our ontology. Delving deeper into the Black avant-garde, Nehal El-Hadi’s interview of Black radical thinker Fred Moten opens up his book Black and Blur (2017) to it own strategies of opacity. Moten relays to El-Hadi his notion of opacity as being both unavoidable and desirable. He is careful to distinguish between obscurity and opacity, suggesting a lack of transparency as a modality to work and think through that makes more complex a thinking through an object in question.
Corinn Gerber explores this modality in her essay “‘because we cannot manage what we cannot measure, nor can we deny what we have not documented’: The Queen’s English, Dark Sousveillance, and Black Feminist Opacity.” This piece dives into surveillance studies and Simone Browne’s notion of dark sousveillance as a strategy of opacity that allows Black lives to explore the thinking and living that complicates biometric technologies. Gerber is invested in a Black feminist opacity that relates and interweaves—refusing to simply establish an order and evidencing a Black knowledge formation irreducible to the biologic. Relying on the photographic work of Martine Syms, Gerber puts into action Moten’s working through and with the ways in which opacity can be a productive blurring or making more complex an object of thought.
Focusing on the tension between the visible and the knowability that is inherent to the medium of photography, Julie Crooks examines work by artists Sandra Brewster and Ming Smith. Here opacity is proposed as a practice of resistance in relation to their lens-based image-making practices, exploring how it is used as a subversive visual tactic against the objectification of the Black figure in order to reimagine subjectivity.
Esery Mondesir’s short video work, Nocturne, is a hypnotic ode to darkness. Drawing upon experimental approaches to cinema and photography, Mondesir’s hand-processed, digitally coloured film pans erratically across an assortment of barely perceptible forms presented in hues of brown and violet, disparate objects which never quite come into focus. He shifts from lush to sparse landscapes, while the video’s audio track intensifies, playing sounds of drumming over voices singing a Haitian Vodou song, “Oba, Oba Lamiye” (Friends, what we've lost is what we are looking for). Blurring the limitations of existing boundaries, this hybrid work evokes the ongoing construction and destruction of disparate realms.
Joiri Minaya’s video, Siboney, diverts the notion of a “tropical” or exoticized identity, addressing how the female subject represented in nature and landscape is shaped by a foreign or colonial gaze. Through strategies of performance, mimicry, and masquerade, Minaya uses her own body and her experience as a Dominican immigrant to America to refute the visual regimes that have shaped the Caribbean and island culture with its expectations of leisure and pleasure through the tourist industry. We are introduced to her image, dressed to imply a domestic or maid, hair pulled back, meticulously painting vibrant tropical palms and flowers onto a large gallery wall. The video progresses to her washing and eventually obscuring this “natural” domesticated scene, rubbing her own body against the mural to obliterate and blur its patterns, marking her body with the painted remnants. Aptly titled, the work refers to a Cuban folk song describing homesickness originally recorded in the 1920s. The version heard in the video is a 1960s cover by American singer Connie Francis.