30 Americans in New Orleans: Denise Frazier

Wangechi Mutu, The Evolution of Mud Mama from Beginning to Start, 2008. Six collages, watercolor, gold leaf, and collage on paper. Courtesy the artist and the Rubell Family Collection, Miami.

Editor's Note

The next response in our series “30 Americans in New Orleans” comes from Denise Frazier, who reflects on fractured narratives and feeling whole.

“I’m not African. I don’t share anything with Africa. Why should I go there? I’m American.” My mentee, a young New Orleanian woman of African descent, recently said this to me. Her words of detachment from an African diaspora understanding echoed my musings on the title “30 Americans.” In naming an exhibition of all black artists “30 Americans,” we are further detaching people of African descent born in this country from that elusive term “American.” The assumption is theirs is a belonging to be declared. This ironic declaration attempts to normalize the media-shaped contradictions of blackness, an identity struggle of Trayvons and Obamas, Oprahs and Sweet Browns, Ruby Dees and Rihannas. As I perused the exhibition, I pondered how the American experience for African Americans is one of disjointed storylines that are less post-black—as the exhibition wall text hints—and more post-modern -- fragmentary, malleable, circuitous. Kara Walker’s contemporary silhouette of a white man carrying a carrot stick while jockeying a black female protagonist presents a patchy antebellum nightmare akin to my own first childhood experiences with racism more than a century later. The exhibition is strewn with mishmash pieces of my history, of my blackness, and, at times my feminine-ness.

Wangechi Mutu’s The Evolution of Mud Mama from Beginning to Start, 2008, mixes collage with delicate watercolor and goldleaf. A nipple, a grasping hand, a high heel, a meaty leg, a fish, a parrot, a snake, a vagina are all noticeable at first, but when standing further away the dispersed pieces form shapes and figures that give the illusion of a woman, an amorphic idea, a self-portrait of natural elements and animal pieces.  Shinique Smith’s Menagerie, 2007, amasses scraps of brightly colored material--translucent violet silk, black-and-white polka dot, rose-colored fabrics, and spray-painted denim--to create a messy counterpoint to the Tupac t-shirt balls, sneakers, and a feathered boa that solemnly structure her a bull, a rose, a tempest, a hodge-podge homage to a complicated man. Mickalene Thomas’ Portraits of Quanikah, 2006, effectively presents such different emotions that I wasn’t sure if each square in the multi-paneled bedazzled work represented a different woman. Despite different make-up, wigs, and facial expression -- smiles, frowns, boisterous laughter, and furrowed brows with clenched teeth—the similarities were undeniable. There was a complete narrative, a whole person.

This question of wholeness stayed on my mind as Robert Colescott’s satirical and poignant Passing evoked both my disgust and sympathy about the divisive colorism that plagues the American experience. I wanted to know why the girl in the painting asked the question: “Mama! How come I’m a quadroon when papa was an octoroon?” Though Colescott’s 1982 work was among the oldest in the show, I wondered if this seemingly outdated quest for assuming a mistaken identity for assimilationist purposes was akin to assuming an adopted pan-Africanism. And if so, did my mentee have a point in eschewing the African in African American? Perhaps one of the most compelling questions is how to reconcile the fragmentation of a forced migratory history in a country where nationalism is synonymous with insiderism. For me, the post-modern experience of blackness in the United States of America lives in the unwillingness to reconcile this dichotomy.

Editor's Note

Denise Frazier is currently the Interim Services Manager for College Track New Orleans. Originally from Houston, Texas, she moved to New Orleans in 2002.

“30 Americans” was on view through June 15 at the Contemporary Arts Center (900 Camp Street) in New Orleans.