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With the objective of freeing the art of British artists of African, Asian, and Caribbean descent, known as “black British artists,” from its historically racialized silo, Leon Wainwright’s new book, Phenomenal Difference: A Philosophy of Black British Art, sets out the author’s ambitious project: to bring the philosophy of phenomenology to bear upon these artworks. This book is theoretically well-grounded, and Wainwright has clearly spent a great deal of time contemplating Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, as well as Roland Barthes, Mikhail Bakhtin, and Jacques Derrida, among others. However, he has also been in dialogue with scholars and critics deeply involved with black British cultural production, including Stuart Hall, Kobena Mercer, and Paul Gilroy.
Wainwright’s primary contention is that the critical reception of black British art has been dominated by a poststructuralist interest in reading artworks as texts, which has had the effect of “minimizing the role of art to that of messaging and visual communication alone” (16). In his introduction, the author recognizes the usefulness of such an approach, but contends that its discursive dominance comes at the expense of “a vividly corporeal understanding” of the artworks in question (10). According to Wainwright, “Focusing on the phenomenal gives way to an understanding that is not permitted by critical attitudes and helps in grasping the dynamic perceptual concerns of diaspora artists” (12). Notably, in undertaking a “strategic” phenomenal and formal analysis, Wainwright does not seek to overthrow “textual” reading of black British art, but to explain how these interact in the artworks in question in order to deepen our understanding of the specific social, political, and cultural contexts in which black British artists work (17). Without denying or delimiting “its embodiment of values, its social agency and cultural politics,” Wainwright seeks to more fully illuminate black British art’s “sensual and affective power” with an approach he compares to the “new materialism” (17).
Wainwright spends chapters 1 and 2 analyzing previous black British art-historical scholarship for its emphasis on identity, in which the interpretation of the works’ aesthetics has been based upon their expression of “diaspora subjectivities” (25). In chapter 1, Wainwright describes how theorists such as Hall, Mercer, and Gilroy have searched for and conjectured a “diaspora (or black) aesthetics” through the implementation of cultural semiotics, and contends that even they betray an understanding of the limitations of such an analytical model. He presents the sharply contrasting aesthetics of two contemporaneous works of British Asian artists, both entitled Arrival: Manjeet Lamba’s 1992 watercolor and Permindar Kaur’s 1991 installation of glass and steel, in order to graphically demonstrate the lack of a “single or unified aesthetic” within the practices of black British artists generally (29). In fact, Wainwright repeatedly cautions against any inclination to identify or describe such an aesthetic. In this chapter, he explains the political dimension of focusing on commonalities between black British artists as an expression of solidarity under circumstances of their marginalization and exclusion, but contends that the critical framework that emerged, while acknowledging the diversity among them, glossed over their specific differences. As a result, Wainwright observes the tendency within art-focused disciplines to “isolate black British art as a special topic, disconnected from the mainland of their interests” (30). He goes on to describe the weariness of black British artists who felt, by 1990, “encumbered with matters of cultural identity and its politics” (32), contending that the Turner Prize–level success enjoyed by some who were appreciated for just such art making masked continued institutional discrimination and misunderstandings of the artists’ unique creative practices. Cultural difference became a marketable quality, fetishized and presented in a tokenistic manner.
Chapter 2 focuses on answering the question of why philosophy, phenomenology in particular, offers a solution to the problems outlined in chapter 1. In seeking an understanding of the physical experiences of artworks, Wainwright urges readers to set aside a binary approach that separates content from form and semiotic analysis from the artworks’ material, affective presence. Instead, he proposes to “interrelate” these two (40). In this way, considering the visual and tactile experiences of black British art within their political and cultural context will elucidate their “phenomenal difference” (44). Wainwright cites the influence of two studies of African American art: Darby English’s How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007), which sought to redress similar inattention to materiality in the work, and Paul C. Taylor’s Black Is Beautiful: A Philosophy of Black Aesthetics (Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2016), which applied a phenomenological approach. Notwithstanding these American cases, Wainwright carefully situates his own methodology within the discourse of black British art with reference to prominent debates among members of that artistic and intellectual community.
Wainwright’s subsequent chapters put his method into art-historical practice, beginning with art that focuses on both personal and collective histories (chapter 3) and continuing to art concerning bodily experiences (chapters 4 and 5), to art that involves both the visual and textual as “equivalences” (chapter 5), to art that evinces “reversibility,” that is, art objects that have agency equivalent to the artists themselves (chapter 6), and finally, to art that engages concepts of “intertwining,” that is, of the physical body’s being “‘enmeshed’ in the ‘flesh of the world’” (159). Equivalence, reversibility, and intertwining are specifically Merleau-Pontian concepts, and Wainwright explains their functioning as an underlying organizational structure to Phenomenal Difference (15). Chapter 8 provides an analysis of state art sponsorship of black British art and the confluence of art and media in such, while the book’s conclusion speculates on the potential impact that Wainwright’s method and analysis might have on scholarship and the political climate in which black British artists live and work.
As to the efficacy and fruitfulness of the art history in these chapters, its practical application seems somewhat relative. There are insights to be had, if not revelations. For example, analysis of Sonia Boyce’s 1980s pastels and Keith Piper’s A Ship Called Jesus (1991) in chapter 3 did not seem radically new, although certainly enhanced by the reminder that the way the bodies are placed within the compositions are evocative of both actual and imagined (or dreamed) bodily experiences, whether of Boyce on her mother’s lap or enslaved people bound in a ship. In chapter 4, Wainwright describes the ways in which black British artists visualize their subjective, embodied experiences, using for example Mona Hatoum’s Corps étranger (1994) to describe how art making creates an awareness of the body in its pre-objective state. It prompts the question: Is this possible to do, as a minority artist working in Britain? Just ten pages earlier, in his analysis of Said Adrus and Bhajan Hunjan’s Trespassing (1993), Wainwright suggests the artists’ work is meant as an incursion into modernist painting as a province of the white European male, which by this definition is forever closed to them. In a way, the artists of both works are challenging the “othering” of their nonwhite bodies.
However, this reading is fairly similar to one in which identity and politics are foregrounded. Chapter 5 contains an analysis of artworks that include the ethnic signifiers of non-English text and “exotic” food. In the former, Wainwright sees a text that is purposefully unreadable to its intended audience in order to thwart stereotyping its maker, and in the latter, an exploration of food as medium that sensitizes “racialized looking” in formal, material terms (122). It was admittedly difficult for this reader to see beyond the signification of foreign words and culturally specific foods as ethnic, even through Merleau-Ponty’s lens of “equivalence.” The investigation in chapter 6 of the agency of artworks themselves, as objects that can “‘look back at us’ in some way through the ‘reversibility’ of perceptual encounters” is a striking concept (132). This certainly communicates the material presence of artworks. However, most of the chapter focuses on the videos of Sonia Khurana, and while I understand how a screen may be the best medium to describe such “looking back” at the viewer, it is difficult to imagine that its affective presence is akin to that of more physically present works, despite Wainwright’s contention that in the videos, Khurana’s body “is not represented by artworks, but enacted through them” (157; emphasis in the original).
Over the course of these chapters, Wainwright carefully elucidates his philosophical and critical thought processes, and repeatedly asserts the need for his philosophical approach. While allowing for phenomenology’s art historical limitations, in that it “urgently demands to be qualified by precisely the sort of interpretive work that black British art has attracted,” Wainwright explains that we can do both, “by seeking out the tactile and optical perceptions experienced by black artists and evidenced in their works, and allowing their ‘codified’ aspects to remain accounted for in their existing signifying analysis” (152–53). It is a reasonable compromise. Admittedly, some of the theoretical application feels excessive: the description of a “construction within a construction nexus” in which we acknowledge that worded descriptions of visual experiences of artworks are themselves translated from objects “constructed out of their artists’ realities” (48) seems fairly obvious. Overall Wainwright’s contribution is a welcome one, and he is to be commended for putting the “art” back into black British art history. He might, however, be exaggerating the perceived lack of any such considerations heretofore. Surely it is an overstatement to assert that “Black British art has textures and colors that no scheme of discursive inquiry has yet felt the need to fully apprehend” (42).
Ultimately, this is a useful text for art historians troubled by the predominance of racial and ethnic difference in the critical analysis of black British artists. It is careful and responsible art history in a philosophical form. I came away from Phenomenal Difference with a refreshed perspective, having been reminded of how to appreciate artworks’ material and affective presence in my (physical) experience of them and the artists’ (physical, embodied) experience in making them.
Assistant Professor, Art and Art History Department, Western Washington University