Louisville-born, New York-based Noel W Anderson is renowned for his hand-woven tapestries that entwine a complex web of references to American history. Through a complicated manual work, the artist stretches and stresses the woven fabrics, where images sway and bend, as in the flickering screens of old analog televisions. Different degrees of abstraction are achieved by dissolving figures in tangles of colored threads, painstakingly picked and extracted from the textiles.
In the new pieces at Mudima contemporary and archival images, mostly of African-American sport celebrities, are sourced from television and other media. Bodies appear flipped upside-down; shadows become the protagonists and conjure up new, mysterious presences, recalling the idea of magic and supernatural. Playing with shadows and reflections, Anderson denies an easy reading of representation, and instead attracts attention to what lies behind media’s portrayal of Black bodies.
Can you tell me what inspired your new body of work for the exhibition at Mudima?
Noel W Anderson: It’s Magic came out of my investigation of black bodies and athletics. I’m really interested in arenas, because those are the territories where black bodies seem to be most performative. It’s where the black body becomes superhuman, and the superhuman becomes supernatural. For me this gets linked into police violence, into why someone gets seventy-six gunshot wounds for crossing the streets illegally.
How does the idea of magic play out in the context of the shadows and reflections that appear in the work at Mudima? In an essay published in e-flux journal (1), you discuss the potential of obscurity or “Most Dark”, as a form of resistance, could you explain?
Noel W Anderson: For me, the obscurity that is darkness, especially in the e-flux essay, emerges out of black people, and people in general being on the margins. When you are on the margins you are not central to the cause. I think there’s a lot of power in being in the shadows because you can make moves that you couldn’t make in the light. An example, quite frankly, is what I’d call shadow economies, drug deals or people selling stolen property on the streets just to make it, to survive. Those people that exist in the folds would be in jail if they were in the light.
What the works in the show in Milan are trying to do, is realize the shadow as a physical object, more even as a subject. And that goes to flipping the world upside-down to focus on the shadow.
A mirror image.
Noel W Anderson: I would extend the idea of mirroring to parodying. I’d think of it in terms of things copying other things, and then inside the copy itself things get a little mixed up. An example of that would be: when you see the work on screen, it looks like a print on fabric. But when people come to the show, they think: oh shit! And they realize that what was in their minds was a copy of something totally different.
Yes, in fact you realise that the image is actually woven into the fabric when you see the pulled-out threads. Can you tell me when you started thinking of the technique of tapestry as the ancestor of contemporary screen culture?
Noel W Anderson: My interest in tapestry starts walking the Metropolitan Museum and looking at art, and finally finding the tapestries in the medieval section, and being mesmerized by them. In reading information about the history of weaving, I stumbled across Joseph Marie Jacquard, and his specific process of weaving based on a punch-card registration. I realized that that method of binary codes was how the English polymath Charles Babbage thirty years later developed what we now know as the grandfather of the computer.
All weavings are binary, so I thought to myself that every time I’m looking at a screen, I’m looking at Charles Babbage’s binary code, which means that I must be looking at a textile. So that kind of line worked for me, because it really liberated me with the image.
Let’s go back to the idea of ‘below the surface’ for a moment. Can you tell me about the social and historical references woven into your pieces?
Noel W Anderson: Materially, the reference is the screen, and that gets to my childhood, growing up in the 80’s and having a television where the image rolled or wobbled, it had no stability. I realised that holding the Tv’s rabbit ears, I could stabilise the image. At six-year-old, I already knew that the image wasn’t real. I imported that into weaving and made my textiles out of images I was pulling off of television, films, and FBI and CIA files.
Once I imported all that into textile weaving and made a connection between screen culture and the unreality of the image, I figured there must be something behind the thing. The image, say, of a police lineup had to have something deeper to it, and I literalized this in a very pop-culture way: I started pulling the threads of the tapestry. And because I was picking the threads, it started to resonate visually with me. Then I started reading about how George Seurat related painting to weaving, and I started seeing all these weird connections between weaving and painting.
In a talk on abstraction titled Beyond this Point, Abstraction is Promise at the Speed Art Museum you related the gesture of pulling threads out of your tapestries ‘to do black writing’. In what way does our gesture relate to black writing as opposed to, say, Pollock’s white writing?
Noel W Anderson: Mark Tobey does white writing. He goes to the far east to locate this method of spirituality and imports it back into the west, it’s a very interesting gesture, I would think. But in order to find a particular kind of abstraction he had to abstract himself from his whiteness. He called it white writing but he didn’t mean it racially. I could read it that way though, and ask: what’s my counter to that? What does it mean to be a writer whose black?
I thought that dismantling the images that are misrepresentations of black people is one way to do that. Pulling the threads out creates a line that itself mimics the line work of a Pollock or parodies Tobey’s white writing, but it does it on Pollock’s scale. Dismantling these images through this linear strategy, not only do I touch their version of abstraction, but because I’m a person of color I can claim it as a particular kind of black writing. Dismantling images is also a kind of resistance. “Black writing” as resistance.
Several cultural theorists have argued that the visual is the place where racial stereotypes get played, particularly in images of sports. Can you mention some of the theorists and writers who inspired you both as an artist and academic?
Noel W Anderson: bell hooks is in my thoughts; Fred Moten, he’s always in there, I love him, and Cedric Robinson with Black Marxism. Lately I’ve been into Audre Lorde, who was a black feminist writer and a brilliant scholar. She’s helped me to think about the opposite of violence which is love, and to work through what it means for a black man to try to love, because there is a particular kind of requirement of disarmament that we have to do, and her words have allowed me to take off one piece of armor at a time, if I can be poetic.
I think that the people who really get me to thinking about dismantling the image are the French philosophers Bernard Stiegler and Jacques Derrida. And thinking about black writing, I was reading Helene Cixous, the French feminist theorist who writes about female bodies writing themselves, and I thought: oh shit! Ok there’s a possibility that this epidermis, this skin that I have has the potential to write! That’s when it all kind of clicked.
On a lighter note, I read that your father was partly responsible for giving you the bug of art, giving you books on how to draw cartoon characters.
Noel W Anderson: Yes, he was a civil engineer, and during his trips he would take my brother and me along in the back of his station wagon, very American! He had things to do, so he’d buy these “how to draw cartoon characters” in steps, and he’d give us one packet of tracing paper and one of carbon paper: that’s how old I am! I would take Fred Flinston’s head and place it on Scooby-Doo’s body or something. It was my early version of cubism.
…and of dismantling images and putting them together again.
Noel W Anderson: Yeah, I guess I was displaying the Black Atlantic already in myself and didn’t even realize, hybridity you know.
What my father really gave me was an understanding of timing, of rhythm. He was my first professor on Jazz, he knew a lot of those guys. So, when we would take those long trips together, he would play a cassette over and over again and talk to me about it: he taught me syntax and structure.
You said that picking apart and brushing your tapestries is a form of erasure, because black people themselves are under a form of erasure. Can you tell me about your Ebony magazine works, that were literally erasures? I think there is a piece at Mudima that refers to those works.
Noel W Anderson: Yes, there is little work at Mudima of a reflection of two feet on a basketball court which is an erasure, because I bleached it. It gives the same kind of visual illusion and allusion to the erased Ebony pages, but the image is kind of coming out of a field of color, it tethers between abstraction and figuration, like Warhol meets Frankenthaler.
In the Ebony magazine works, I was taking beauty advertisements out of vintage black publications, specifically Ebony, and erasing them, pulling a kind of Robert Rauschenberg’s erased De Kooning gesture. Those pages were a sort of black archive. I was erasing the archive, and drawing things on top. That allowed me to realize that the image, on a material level, is just a series of dots, and then I moved to the weavings, that it is just a series of threads.
Images of hands recur in your work, and are both related to popular culture images of coercion and resistance. Could you comment on this?
Noel W Anderson: Hands are all of that, and they are also the edge of the world, because they are used to reach. In lots of the images you see at Mudima, hands are severed, cut off in a kind of ‘Belgian way’, can we say that? Violated. But the violation doesn’t read as such when contextualised in a certain way, which I think is always funny. Because a lot of the works have contradictions that people may think about, or maybe they don’t.
But the hands for me are also the element that did the labor. There’s a great book by Edward E. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told, that gives a biographical account of American capitalism by way of the cotton-picking industry, by which I mean slaves, and he sections off the chapters in body parts: this is what the feet did, that’s what the legs did and so on. And there’s a section about the hands, and I thought: yeah! The hands for black people are so important because they generated American capitalism. All of these realities can be true in those images.
Sectioning the body in parts is exemplary of sexual and racial stereotyping, that you seem to take issue with and try to turn it against itself. Is this so?
Noel W Anderson: Fragmenting the black body is a fetishizing practice that relates to the stereotyping by viewer, who is fetishizing the fragmentation, which is something we never talk about, I guess. It is also aligning the fragmentation, or the desire of it, to a deeper insidious power that existed hundreds of years ago, that people don’t want to say they remain part of.
Its complex because I too, desire the image of it. What I’m trying to get to, is that the fragmentation lets nobody out. While it is about sexualizing, fetishizing the black body, what is key is that every viewer does the same kind of fetishizing, because the material is so sexy (soft). We are all together in this desire that we may not even recognize that we have.
The ambiguous play of appearance and reality takes issue with stereotyping in a number of works. I was particularly drawn to Sleight of hand outside the gym, an attractive piece featuring two hands clinging to a window sill. You wrote that it may summon stereotyping of the black burglar, while in fact its source image is a police lineup during a black protest. The first thing coming to my mind though, was stalking. I guess my reading was context/gender specific as in Italy femicide is a huge social problem.
Noel W Anderson: That’s what that work is all about, that it requires the viewer, much like the shadow, to fill in the void. When you stare at a shadow, you can’t always determine what is there. When I abstract those hands, I know it’s a from a line-up. But everyone who comes to the show sees something different. To me, it looks like someone trying to break in, which is the same thing as stalking, it’s a violation. So, you see, the entry point to the work it’s the same, although we take different paths.
More the subject of shadows. Can you tell me about another striking piece, titled Kafka’s Roach? The shadow in this work reminded me of an inkblot Rorschach test.
Noel W Anderson: Kafka’s interesting, he’s always in my mind, a lot of theories I read seem to deploy him. It’s all is very psychological, revolving around his paternalistic problem.
Last year I was making images about visibility and invisibility for an exhibition previous to the Mudima show, Reflec/x/tion of a Black Cat Bone at JDJ Gallery NY. I was reading books about spiritualism and slavery and I became interested in what mirrors, reflections, and all those things can do on a broader scale, and how mirrors functioned during slavery as spiritual and supernatural objects to help one disappear.
I took an image from a 1964 race riot where a man is being chocked up by the police and I doubled it. I mirrored it on itself and I thought: that’s psychological! It’s a Rorschach, and when I stared at it, it looked like a roach, Kafka’s roach! It just happened like that.
In the show’s catalogue, you comment on a work titled Alligator Boy, saying that the primary shadow conjures up for you the image of a boy riding a crocodile, reminding you of racist stereotype of popular American culture, the black boy near the alligator. You write: “the message being, there is no escape from our negative roots, despite economic and social mobility.’ Do you really believe there’s no escape?
Noel W Anderson: Yes. I do personal therapy, I’m honest about this with everybody. Richard Pryor was right: black people need a hell of a lot of therapy! Somehow, they all get tied to racism, it feels that way. Even if it’s a problem with someone of the same race, the frustration and anger that are built into that disagreement, I feel that nine out of ten times stem from having been linked to racial destruction somewhere along the genealogical path. I can’t help to look at certain images and see what I see. The fact that those shadow are here, I just have to contend with them.
Its’ a rather pessimistic view.
Noel W Anderson: No, it’s not pessimistic at all, it’s beautiful! It liberates one, it does! Once you realise: ok, this stuff is here, how am I going to deal with it? You’ve got to have the realisation of it, because lots of people don’t see it’s there, it hasn’t touched them in a particular way, yet. I would hope that it does. You go through a dark path for a while thinking: oh man, this is disappointing. And then people who love you tell you that you’ll get through, and you do. From the other side, it’s not a death, it’s a spirit reborn.
So, what’s your view of the future? White society seems, partly, to be facing the colonial past, starting to decolonize monuments and museums for example, but we don’t seem to be able to come to terms with what is happening in the present. Is history endlessly repeating itself?
Noel W Anderson: That’s an interesting question, so what’s the move? If history is consistently repeating itself, who is going to show us it is repeating itself, is the artist the way out for us.
I’d say it’s hard for people to be told about themselves, and to give up stuff that they believe it’s theirs, or that they worked for. To have a truly equal society we all have to give things up but people don’t want to hear it. I’m ok with that, I worked hard to get this far, and I’ve come to realise through readings of people like Audre Lorde and Martin Luther King Jr. and just listening to music, that I’d be willing to give stuff up if we all did, and the world got better.
Sources and insights: Noel W Anderson studio Fondazione Mudima: https://www.mudima.net/ (1) Noel W Anderson: Echoes from the Hole: Doubling Darkness Is Most Dark. E-flux Journal issue #99 April 2019.