“This [is a] racist and fascist administrative government with its superman notions and comic book politics,” said political activist Bobby Seale. “We’re hip to the fact that Superman never saved no black people.”
Seale’s words to presiding Judge Julius Hoffman following the Democratic National Convention of 1968 not only got him bound and gagged in court, it eventually landed him four years in prison for contempt. It was, at the time, the longest sentence ever handed down for the offense and prompted further protest from the American left. But though silenced in court, Bobby Seale’s political influence could not be stifled as easily.
Philadelphia-based artist Barkley L. Hendricks recycled Seale’s words in his 1969 self-portrait Icon For My Man Superman (Superman never saved any black people—Bobby Seale). When I first saw the painting, Icon hung in the American Contemporary Art Gallery of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Modern Wing, opposite (but alike in dignity) to Alex Katz’s Vincent and Tony.
The painted Hendricks confronts the viewer just above eyelevel, standing against a flat gray background framed in white, red, and blue stripes. He wears dark sunglasses and a fitted Superman t-shirt; his Afro is neatly picked out, the creases between his hips vee down to the top of his exposed groin, a suggestive nudge, a play on the myth of African genital superiority for the mostly white museum audience and art world at large.
There’s a cool mastery of self here, a calm smugness. He crosses his arms, not to protect himself but as a gesture of assured self-containment. This figure is aware of his position, his power; there is no fear present, no sense of apology or discomfort. The übermensch is young, Black and disrupting the status quo. When Superman isn’t saving black people, the black people save themselves.
The Civil Rights Movement laid the ground for a wave of empowering images of black Americans by black Americans for black Americans throughout the 1960s. Evolving out of earlier work from the Harlem Renaissance and post-Depression era, the shift in politics also triggered a shift in artistic practice, moving the focus from everyday scenes of African American life to larger-than-life portraits and sculptures celebrating the beauty and nuance of the black community.
Work by Hendricks and other artists like David Hammons and Elizabeth Catlett bolstered both Black Power and the allied Black is Beautiful cultural movement, aimed at shattering the institutional rejection of non-European standards of culture and beauty. Despite earlier advocacy for racial separation between blacks and whites by groups such as the Black Panthers and the Nation of Islam, the public visibility of these two movements pushed African American culture into the mainstream with little ethno-cultural division, evidenced by the popularity of Afros, Kente cloth, and the Black Power salute throughout the late 60s and 70s.
Yet the System was only shaken, not stirred. Black Power [quickly? eventually?] became a commodity to appropriate and profit from. Blaxploitation films produced black protagonists for black dollars in white pockets. Was this part of the inclusiveness for which the Civil Rights movement had sacrificed its leaders? Was this what Martin Luther King Jr. had dreamt about, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners sitting together at the table of corporate exploitation and cultural capitalism?
Black Power atrophied, dissolved into clichés of impotent radicals and hypocrites, and fell out of fashion. But what Barkley L. Hendricks had tapped into, like Elizabeth Catlett and David Hammons, like earlier painters Walter Ellison and Alfred J. Motley, like contemporary visual artists Kara Walker, Steve McQueen, and Kehinde Wiley, even like New York Magazine’s “Post-Black” artists Theaster Gates and Rashid Johnson, was not Black Power but the power and potency of Blackness: Blackness as a medium (a force through which impressions are conveyed), as an art form (an activity of artistic expression), and as a state and quality of being (the nature or essence of existence).
Blackness is more than a projection, more than a category or container, more than an arbitrarily assigned identity. It cannot be commoditized or exploited, in its essence, any more than can the color blue. Hendricks’ painting Icon for My Man Superman is not an example of Blackness, it is a by-product. Hendricks himself is Blackness, his aesthetic impulses generated from experiencing, living, creating, becoming.
Blackness is immaterial and cannot be replicated, and because it cannot exist except in existing, African Americans and other historically marginalized groups need stories told in their own words and platforms through which to tell them. They need visibility in those institutions of culture—in museums, in history books, on television—where they are written off as mythic creatures or else mechanized into the service of white male protagonists. Otherwise they risk being rendered invisible.
I went to visit Icon for My Man Superman a couple of months ago, but it wasn’t there. A couple photographed themselves against Tony and Vincent and didn’t look at the empty wall on their way through.
But I stood there. I took a picture. Forgive me, Reader, I won’t show it to you.
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This is part of “Radical Storytelling,” originally submitted to the SAIC Collections on 14 Dec 2013.