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When and Where I (Don’t) Enter: Afro-Pessimism, The Fungible Object, and Black Queer Representations of Medusa

Stefani Echeverria-Fenn

UC Berkeley

Classicists are well familiar with how the figure of Medusa has been mapped on to Black womanhood by scholars such as Martin Bernal[1]; a nexus of connections mirrored in contemporary iconography of Black female celebrities.[2] In this paper I hope to resist what has become a sometimes facile and problematically naturalized set of associations between the Black feminine body and Medusa[3] by analyzing, through the lens of Black-Pessimism, four contemporary Black artistic representations of Medusa that refuse such identifications and instead portray Medusa as white and/or not human at all. The first half of this paper will focus on Bri Williams’ Medusa (2018) and Mark Bradford’s Medusa (2016); the second half will analyze Azealia Banks’ music video “Ice Princess” (2015) and Alexis Peskine’s multimedia installation The Raft of Medusa (2016).

The first two works are pieces of mixed-medium abstract sculpture—William’s piece features a beheaded carousel horse with soap and bricks, while Bradford’s is a conglomeration of rope, bleach, and construction paper. The second set of works features Medusa in portraiture explicitly racialized as white—Banks dons white-face for her self-styling as Medusa in “Ice Princess,” while Peskine riffs off the name of the Géricault painting to represent Europe itself as Medusa, turning Black immigrants to the continent into statues whose spirits and energy have been robbed.

I hope to connect these two moves in representing Medusa—towards abstract materialism and towards portraiture of whiteness—through Afro-pessimistic theorizing on the Freudian death drive and the associated psychoanalytic thought of Fanon. In particular, I will read all four works as ones that gesture at Black subjectivity as “social death” and “the fungible object” in accordance with thinkers such as Frank Wilderson III and Calvin Warren.[4] Simultaneously, these artists harness the specificities of the Medusa myth—the mirror, monstrosity, rape, and stone, to not only visually represent the psychoanalytic projections and racist fantasies of white individuals and systems that underlay such constructs, but to in fact materially locate these critical terms of Afro-pessimistic theorizing within the white body; whiteness as a social death and fungibility seeking to escape itself through a projection of the same onto Blackness.

Finally, I will conclude this analysis by considering the fact that all of these artists identify as queer; and how the above theorists of Afro-Pessimism (especially Warren) grapple with Black queerness as a particularly thick site of potential for thinking through anti-Black violence and Black ontology; and how each artist’s statement on their own work and on the Medusa myth might exemplify this claim

[1] E.g. Bernal, Martin. Black Athena: The Linguistic Evidence. Rutgers University Press, 2006. P. 541-561.
[2] E.g: Rihanna’s 2013 GQ cover, Nicki Minaj’s 2017 Charbel Zoe shoot, Zendaya Coleman’s 2015 People shoot, to name just a few.
[3] C.f. for example, Inge Boar’s critique of Medusa being associated with WOC through racist assumptions of “horrifying physiognomy” on p. 67-79 of Disorienting Vision.
[4] As defined in Calvin Warren’s 2017 Onticide: Afropessimism, Queer Theory, & Ethics and Frank Wilderson’s 2008 edition of Afro-Pessimism.

Session/Panel Title

Black Classicism in the Visual Arts

Session/Paper Number

29.3

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