BLACK ON WHITE: READING FANON AGAINST MAPPLETHORPE

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BLACK ON WHITE: READING FANON AGAINST MAPPLETHORPE

by Mishana Hosseinioun

What Robert Mapplethorpe plants in pictures, Frantz Fanon engraves in words. Once placed side-by-side, their respective works appear more radically similar in nature than complementary, and it soon becomes impossible to think of one without evoking the other. No longer will the photograph on the front cover of Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic Black Book1 be looked at under the same light than after Fanon’s shadow is cast upon it; and no sooner will visions of Mapplethorpe begin to permeate the margins of Fanon’s text on “The Fact of Blackness,” in Black Skin, White Masks (Peau Noire, Masques Blancs)2, than they will gain definitive residence in his words.

Both Mapplethorpe, with his cover shot, Philip 1982, and Fanon, in his book chapter, demonstrate a keen understanding of the dilemmas surrounding Black identity, just as they express a willingness to challenge the cultural tectonics that set these crises into motion. As a White, male, photographer of Black, male bodies, Mapplethorpe is in an ideal position to confirm Fanon’s claim that the fact of Blackness is only realized through the gaze of Whiteness. Mapplethorpe shows, however, that as a possessor of this privileged gaze, he is in an even better position to manipulate it through his artwork, and in effect, do with it everything short of doing away with it entirely.

The photograph, Philip 1982, is the posterior view of a Black, male body (or ‘backward’ man?) from the shoulder-blades up, his hands raised to ear-height (as though to mime the famous trio of maxims: “see no evil, hear no evil, talk no evil”), clutching overlapping segments of White translucent fabric, which hang before him like curtains and act like a screen, both shielding away from and leading to his identity. He holds these “curtains” open with his hands such that his head appears to be framed by the resulting dark opening. In lifting these curtains, which are twisted into an X-like form, he seems to be contesting/negating the White and only societal backdrop against which he is forced to define himself up until that point, as well as further supporting Fanon’s assertion that “consciousness of the body is solely a negating activity.”3

More than just severing the societal silkscreen onto which his identity is projected, the figure gives the impression of peering behind the [White] scenes, in order to better understand the fact of his Blackness. He, in a sense, actively searches for his Black identity in the Blackness that lies beyond this White film; only, in doing so, he effectively sentences himself to invisibility (Black on black leads to erasure), which is visually marked by the fading of the outline of his head in the photograph. In depicting literal negation through the crossing of the fabric and the fading of the contour of the figure’s area of consciousness [head], Mapplethorpe aesthetically symbolizes the negating activity to which Fanon refers in his text.

This photograph simultaneously appears to challenge the Black and White binary system, which deems that the former can only exist in relation to the latter, and vice versa. The figure, whose existence is an inverse function of Whiteness, and whose identity in society is not Black, but rather “not White,” (i.e, a negating activity), attempts what looks like the literal inversion of this mathematical equation- or Black/White division- by crossing out the White sheets, as if to sardonically signal:“(k)not White!” “My ‘speaking hands’ tore at the hysterical throat of the world,”4 echoes Fanon, demonstrating a similar contestation of the forced coexistence of Blackness in a White monopoly.

In truth, as the photograph tragically illustrates, the figure’s Black body can materialize only once placed against Whiteness, which confirms Fanon’s belief that “in the White world the man of color encounters difficulties in the development of his bodily schema.”5 The figure nevertheless tries to look beyond the White barrier to find another backdrop against which he can define himself; and while he only manages to get the tip of his head away from Whiteness, his broad and prominent shoulders, which stay behind, as if pinned down in stark contrast to the White fabric, are constant reminders of his bind within this binary web, his lower body cropped out of the picture, reinforcing his confinement and both literal and figurative de-basement. “In all truth I tell you, my shoulders slipped out of the framework of the world, my feet could no longer feel the touch of the ground […],”6 Fanon writes, as though describing this very photograph down to its corporal detail. “[…] Without a Negro-past, without a negro future, it was impossible for me to live my Negrohood,” Fanon continues, further illustrating the predicament in which the figure finds himself, where even in looking beyond the curtain, presumably in search of a Black future, he still straddles a past draped in Whiteness. Nevertheless, Mapplethorpe attempts to stage a sort of “negro-past” by placing the figure back-wards (with his back to the camera) in the photograph. It is interesting, as well, to note the hood-like shape that the White fabric makes above the figure’s head, as though to allegorize Fanon’s assertion of the impossibility of wearing a Negro-hood.

Furthermore, Fanon adds on,“[…] Not yet white, no longer wholly black, I was damned. Between the white man and me the connection was irrevocably one of transcendence.” In the photograph, Mapplethorpe similarly captures this moment in which the figure is neither fully Black nor White, as part of his head is in the darkness, and his broad shoulders rest on the side of the White. Even the peaks of his gleaming, Black back are highlighted in White, illustrating the way in which the Black body is mapped like terrain and stitched by White, cultural ideals—a view which Fanon attests to when he writes of “the white man who had woven me out of a thousand details, anecdotes, stories.”7

In this photograph, the hood-like form of the fabric over his head, which can also be said to double as a halo, seems to comment on the White, fetishistic aura or Freudian ‘shine on the nose’ (glanz auf der nase), that is projected onto the Black, male body, enshrining it, and rendering it into a hyper-sexualized object. May it be added that the figure’s hands, if not holding up the halo, make as if to tug on it, to dismantle it, demonstrating yet another instance in which Mapplethorpe manages to concurrently take apart as he assembles, contest as he confirms. Just then, it becomes increasingly questionable as to whether the figure’s hands even belong to him, given that there is no line of continuity between his body and his arms, as well as that they appear disfigured and much smaller relative to the rest of his body. This distortion of scale has the ability of emphasizing the figure’s relative powerlessness vis-à-vis the curtain, just as it suggests that his control is not exclusively in his hands.

As if such weren’t enough to fully represent the figure’s predicament, the eerie placement of his body—head low as if sulking in a prison cell, and hands gripping White bars—cannot lie about the reality of his entrapment. Only if and when he entirely removes his body from the system and loses himself in the darkness beyond, the photograph seems to prophesize, will he be free, free yet nonexistent. Such is a fact that Fanon mirrors perfectly when he states, “when one has taken it into one’s head to try to express existence, one runs the risk of finding only the nonexistent.”8 Until then, he is unable to escape, bereft of his legs and locked behind deceivingly sheer bars of luxurious silk, silk being the same lure used by spiders to trap prey in their web—in this case, a web being fittingly representative of societal-spun, White lies to which the Black body finds itself victim.

What is more, the figure’s placement behind bars sadly criminalizes him more than it victimizes him, as though condemning his act of looking through the “peephole” once reserved for the omnipotent, White gaze. Fanon reiterates the mapping of sin and guilt that takes place on the Black body, when he writes, “sin is Negro as virtue is white. All those white men in a group, guns in their hands, cannot be wrong. I am guilty. I do not know of what, but I know that I am no good.”9 In expressing how Black men are penalized and criminalized for exhibiting behavior otherwise deemed perfectly acceptable for White men, Fanon conveys a similar message as Mapplethorpe who shows how the virtuous, White gaze, once ceded to the Black, is nothing more than an act that calls for punishment. Nevertheless, this photograph marks a unique and revolutionary instance in which the obscure domain beyond a peephole is something to which only the Black gaze is privy.

For nabbing such a privilege, the Black figure must surely pay a price. He suddenly becomes a naughty, peeping tom, looking up a cultural skirt, his head placed as if between the legs of society, his hands parting the White labia-like folds of silk. He also resembles a black man contemplating the prospect of emerging ‘out of the closet,’ poised as he is to plunge head-first into what looks to be one gaping White orifice; only to risk getting himself into deep excrement for acting in blatant violation of unspoken racial and sexual taboos. In an almost comical spin on the White man’s burden, he is turned into one big, penetrating, sinful phallus, plotting to literally getting back at the White milieu that screwed him over for a living.

Mapplethorpe also leaves room for yet another reading of the photograph, wherein the figure might actually be peering through an emblematic vaginal canal, “analyzing his heredity, and making a complete audit of his ailment […],”10 as Fanon would put it. Given that his identity (his body) is birthed by a White-driven society, the figure could be attempting to ascend once again into the womb, to search for his umbilical cord, his origins, so to speak; and so to speak, given that the White “vaginal” folds stand as his only lips in this photograph and thus represent the sole avenue for his self-expression and self-realization. “[…] When I tried on the level of ideas and intellectual activity, to reclaim my negritude, it was snatched away from me,” Fanon continues, seemingly validating Mapplethorpe’s decision to try to reclaim this figure’s negritude on the not-as-yet ventured, aesthetic plane of photography.

As seen, given that the Black body relies on things beyond itself for definition (e.g. White cultural backdrop), and remains at the mercy of the changing cultural climate, it cannot achieve any fixed identity, unless of course Mapplethorpe steps in, as he does, to show the Black figure gripping the White fabric with his hands, in order to create for himself the stabilized backdrop that is necessary for forming an equally stable self-identity; or perhaps it is that the figure, out of desperation, resorts to dressing himself in Whiteness in an act that Fanon refers to as “denegrification”11 (negri-negation), an utter renunciation of Blackness, which is also suggested by the way in which the figure’s head bows down as if to put on a White cloak. Whatever it may be, Mapplethorpe manages simultaneously, in one frame, to capture the multiple ways in which a Black body copes with its position relative to the world around it.

It is noteworthy that this particular photograph occupies a privileged place on the cover of Mapplethorpe’s Black Book, given that its mere positioning “on top” of the book mimics the advantageous peephole-placement of the figure in the photograph. Such has the effect of doubly rendering the photograph into an allegory of power structures within a highly racialized and hierarchical society, and of attempting to subvert the traditionally White, entitlement to the “gaze” and to the spot on top.

In a manner that may be deemed just as self-defeating to the purpose of the photograph, the Black figure still stands with his back to the (presumably White) spectator, and apparently continues to reinforce White ownership of the gaze. However, it is possible that Mapplethorpe uses this instance where he cannot escape the fact of his own Whiteness, not to mention his Gayness, and supremacy over the subject of his photograph, to instead throw the Black and White gaze into a fighting ring, metaphorically speaking; in other words, the photograph, which due to technical confines, cannot be free of the external intervention of the photographer and the spectators’ gaze, makes up for its limitations by inviting the latter into competition. As a result, the photograph, does the impossible, and forges the coexistence of two privileged male gazes, which puts into question the supposed existence of a sole, supreme heterosexual gaze. By representing spectators with an anomalous photograph and thus inducing in them a state of imbalance for which they will have to mentally compensate, Mapplethorpe can be said to single-handedly set the stage for a paradigm shift in conservative, societal thinking. Thus paradoxically, reading Fanon against Mapplethorpe serves to reveal that the rules, which govern race relations are not all written in Black and White.

–Mishana Hosseinioun is a Drafter with the 2048 Project: Humanity’s Agreement to Live Together at the UC Berkeley Law School and a doctoral candidate in International Relations at the University of Oxford, England.


More writings by Mishana Hosseinioun:

Sex Pistols & the Polis: The Weapon of the Feminine in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata

Photography and Other Modes of Crying at Your Own Funeral

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: Phallocentric Economics, Triangular Trade & Other Shady Business


[1] Robert Mapplethorpe, Black Book (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986).

[2] Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (New York: Grove Press, 1969).

[3] Fanon (1969), p. 110.

[4] Ibid., p. 128.

[5] Ibid., p. 110.

[6] Ibid., p. 138.

[7] Ibid., p. 111.

[8] Ibid., p. 137.

[9] Ibid., p. 139.

[10] Ibid., p. 132.

[11] Ibid., p. 111.


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