What is a black portrait? What does it mean to make and circulate a black portrait at a moment when visibility online can be both a means of survival and an existential threat? To what extent do representations of blackness on the internet build on or break with the historical function of the portrait as a paradoxical site of repression and liberation?
Presented by Rhizome and the New Museum in 2017 as part of the First Look online exhibition program, “New Black Portraitures” explores the changing status of black portraiture in relation to strategies for visibility, concealment, and self-representation online. The exhibition brought together eight artists—Manuel Arturo Abreu, Hamishi Farah, Juliana Huxtable, Rindon Johnson, Pastiche Lumumba, N-Prolenta (Brandon Covington), Sondra Perry, and Redeem Pettaway—whose works represent varying positions in relation to these questions. All explore definitions of this genre that go beyond simply portraying black individuals, and instead interrogate the relationship between “blackness” and “portraiture.”
Portraiture has historically been bound up with attempts to assert relationships between bodies and property. Blackness plays an outsize role in the long history of the commodification and regulation of bodies. In our digitally networked moment this has only become more acute, as black self-representation is often repurposed for ad campaigns, sold to surveillance outfits, and subjected to account suspension, even as black users rely on online visibility for solidarity and survival.
“New Black Portraitures” examined how these structural violences emerge, while at the same time considering how the digital might give rise to a more atomized understanding of the self and to more opportunities for the exploitation of structures of distribution and accumulation. The artists included in the exhibition mobilize the internet and digital networks in diverse ways: social media performances exploring fragmentation of the self and identity as assemblage, audio-visual works that tap into the hypervisuality of blackness, and projects in which virtual reality is used to consider the failures of biometric technologies when faced with black bodies. In doing so, they negotiate the meaning of black portraiture, extending into our networked moment the ongoing inquiry of black artists, critics, and scholars into the relationship between blackness, the body, and the image.1
Established in 2012 and co-organized by the New Museum and Rhizome, First Look is a digital art commissioning and exhibition program representing the breadth of art online—from interactive documentary, to custom-built participatory applications, to moving image-based works, and art for mobile VR. Encompassing a substantial array of work that continues to expand, First Look explores the formal, social, and aesthetic possibilities of emerging technologies on the web.