Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Orokie: a critical view.


In 1980, Robert Mapplethorpe produced his infamous “Man in Polyester Suit.” This is the photograph that sits on the easel in Orokie’s image. Mapplethorpe’s image produced mixed reactions (if not erections) in the 1980s. For some, it was the prime example of aesthetics and sexuality combined: sex was art and art was sex. For others, it was pornography: the fetishism of the Black male body. The semi-erect penis of Milton Moore (who had the most beautiful penis ever, for Mapplethorpe!) was both upgrading and degrading.

Mapplethorpe’s view of the Black male body in “Man in Polyester Suit” shows much of how Mapplethorpe looked at Black African men. The penis is their authenticity. The cheap, badly tailored suit (the pun in tailor, tail=penis would not have escaped the photographer) represents the fake veneer of Mapplethorpe’s Black men. The Black male touched civilisation in a distinctly shoddy manner, for him.

More recently, critics have claimed a more ambiguous role for Mapplethorpe’s photograph. Yes, it was a glorious sex hole for White males, but it was also a space in which Black men could gaze. An object of offence could also be an object of defence, allowing the Black male gaze to exist. The image allowed, in the words of critics like Mercer and Smalls, a double desire to co-exist. But the image in “Man in Polyester Suit” might be even more problematic than this. For it assumes that the Black male gaze has candour, honesty, and the fetishistic photograph might be turned into an agent of liberation. (Such might be as accurate as the belief that White men invariably look upon the Black male body like Mapplethorpe). In truth, the Black male gaze might be identical to Mapplethorpe’s view: candid, nothing more than an eye for sex-candy.

The photograph below is clearly a descendent of Mapplethorpe’s image. Of course, the Black male now wears a tuxedo, is given more status than an imported suit, non-American suit, but the message is no different. Beneath the trappings of dress, the Black male (the model Melshawn) is little more than his great penis. That Mapplethorpe’s image can be re-worked in this way (20 years later) does not show a development of the intelligence of feeling. It rather shows that nothing has changed for the better, indeed, has worsened, because Black men now consume the Black male image like White men. There is little difference. All that has happened is that Mapplethorpe’s high art pornography has become joking poornography. Still the same game: erect porn stars to celebrity status (as in Mapplethorpe’s photographs of Tom as a Da Vinci Renaissance Man). Little time is given to seeing the spiritual star within the common Black man.


Orokie’s painting casts an eye on these important issues. Who we are is implied by how we see. So, a Black male hand is guided by popping out eyes. A typical Orokie touch and hieroglyph for desire. Then, the artifice of Mapplethorpe’s work is stood against a natural horizon. In Orokie’s Black male, the image of Mapplethorpe is visually reversed (shirt tail from the right). Orokie’s African male exposes the sexuality within the model image and offers that sexuality as human, as natural. Much like Basquiat (in Armani), it plays with the image of the Black male artist and what kind of Black male aesthetic might result.
Orokie’s painting, here, questions the anaesthetic that is given daily to Black men who love other Black men. It suggests that human feeling is more than feeling a penis.

5 comments:

HOMBRESPARAHOMBRES said...

First, the person, after, the always beautiful black color.

Congratulations for your campaign for Kenya.

Afriboy said...

hombresparahombres, that order is good. Thank you for your support with Kenya.

BronzeBuckaroo said...

Orokie’s painting, here, questions the anaesthetic that is given daily to Black men who love other Black men. It suggests that human feeling is more than feeling a penis.

This is a pie in the face to Mapplethorpe!

Afriboy said...

bronzebuckaroo, yes, a large custard pie.

Anton Åström said...

Thank you for a very insightful blog post. I have always thought Mapplethorpes photography interesting - and after discussing art and sex with friends at dinner yesterday I had reason to look it up again. Orokie was previously unknown to me.