The Self-Lovers Suite of Confessional Texts: Conversations with the Women in Kerry James Marshall’s Mastry by Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle
Featured Image: Artists: l-r- Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle, Kerry James Marshall, and Chantal de Felice- Photo credit – Erinn Horton
Walking through Kerry James Marshall’s retrospective at MOCA in Los Angeles three different times the images on the wall were empowering, triggering and manifested a million memories for me. Some pleasant and some haunting. Because Kerry James Marshall has had so many formal reviews and so much writing exists on his technique and the purpose of writing black figures into the canon of art history I decided to utilize my imagination and speak to the paintings and allow them to speak through me. I wanted to blur personal narratives with collective narratives to see what would happen. This is my first attempt at trying this out and has been a fantasy of mine for several years. This is a very informal review in which I am asking the reader to imagine. I hope you enjoy this suite of imaginings from three paintings that resonated with me.
-Kenyatta A.C Hinkle
Confession # 1 -Tig Ole Biddies
I have had these titties since I was in the fifth grade. When it was my turn to kick the ballin our epic kick ball tournament I overheard two boys across the gate say, “Dayum look at those big ass titties!” I used to stand in the corner with my hands covering up my chest ashamed. But at the same time I loved wearing my tight shirts cause they seemed to hug them and make them feel secure but I had to stay away from decals. One shirt I loved said “Make Love Not War” and when they braced my bosom it just said Make Love or Make War I can’t remember which words my chest consumed but that’s what everybody just assumed that I wanted to do anyway. One time a weird man on the city bus said he loved the beautiful butterfly spread across my bosom. That was when I decided to stop wearing shirts with decals that were tight. I used to stand in the corner with my arms crossed firmly across my chest, til my granny asked me why I was doing that for, that I should be proud of my breast and she went in her drawer and got out the bras with backpack strap widths and the five hooks so wide they looked like every five lane intersection in the nation. It took five lane highways to hold these mugs up all the way to my chin it seemed. Button down shirts are a travesty. Every time I wear them the buttons escape, pop off unleashed and everybody has a full view of something that others pay to pump their chest with. My mama had a size G with a size 6 waist. When they filled with milk from my brother, her first child she laid in the floor and cried too miserable to move. They made her back hurt so much, my granny took a towel and bound them up. She never got over that. It wasn’t until I took a course on Traditional African Art forms with Dr. Leslie King Hammond when I was in undergrad did I learn that in traditional West African sculpture that when a woman is depicted with both hands holding her breasts that she means business. She is telling the world to look at her power, look at her power to feed millions. Those breast ain’t never heard of no button down shirt. Those breasts speak of fertility, wealth and fatty white, luscious milk poured into the mouths of babes who grow to be wise men and women. Those breasts fight off infection, can cure wounds, can convince a colonist to pick up his shit and move to another settlement. When I do this these titties say, I can pay these damn bills and then some, fuck a bra, fuck a man, fuck those damn button down tops they make me wear to work, fuck it all. These tig ole biddies are for me. For me and me only. This is my morning ritual. I hold them and tell them what and who they are here for. These hands are my training bras; these hands hold my power and then some. Let those heads turn and roll on off if they have to.
Confession #2 – I Tried To Eat The Color White
*Now, you speak your words warm and sincere And let’s me know that your love is near
A pretty face you many not possess
But what I like about you is your tenderness
A pretty face may be some guys taste But I’ll take lovin’ in its place
‘Cause I know beauty’s only skin deep Yeah yeah yeah
1. What’s your name?
Miss Mary Black A Mercy Pleasure, A Deep Sea Diver With A Stroke That Cain’t Go Wrong, Deliverer and Not Yo Mama.
2. Do you live nearby?
Naw. Bout 100 years away.
3. Where did you grow up?
In between hell and a high place.
4. What are some of the things you enjoy doing?
I like going to a local dive bar shaking my ass, eating peanuts and leaving the shells on the floor, talking shit while playing cards, doing my hair and nails, going to comedy shows. Oh and I love being in my garden breathing life into my roses.
5. Can you tell me a little about how you ended up in the hospital?
I tried to eat the color white. I was thirsty for it everywhere I went. That was before they started dissecting me. Told me I need some treatment. I was buying waist trainers, lye relaxers, bleaching creams, teeth whitening cream, staring into light bulbs for days, bought so many Vogue magazines I could barely get through my apartment door. I would rip out the pages that only had the white women featured and I would put them on a plate, sprinkle some collard green juice from the bottom of the pot on them, and I’d eat them.
6. What time of day was it that you usually did this?
Bout 2am. I woke up and I got this itching in the back of my throat and all up underneath my skin. I felt these spokes coming up off of me and my ass felt like a weight. My skin was heavy; it felt dense like the back porch dark of night in June. I kept thinking about how heavy it felt and how people told me it wasn’t nothing I could do about it that I was never
gonna get what I needed until I got rid of it. People kept telling me I was too big, too this, too that. I told them but I got soul like how James Brown say but nobody wanted to hear that. So I started searching for white.
7. Were you alone or was someone there with you?
Nope, I was alone when I decided to do it.
8. Who brought you here or called the ambulance?
Nobody. It took them days to find me. As soon as I started eating it I started to sort of evaporate. Folks said they could smell me, said I smelled like absence. Like lye and talcum powder that has the cooling agent that don’t really cool but it stings. Said my sentences were too terse. That I had shrunk myself, whittled down to nothing. My ass became super flat too. I wanted to bleach everything. I tried to eat Wonder Bread to fix it, but that was too dry, I tried to eat Smarties and even chalk but nothing.
11. Who do you currently talk to about your health? Do you feel like they understand you? Do they listen to you?
I talk to all of my friends about it. They already ate it so they have been encouraging me to do it too. Yes they give me product advice, direct me to the perfect ad experiences and we swap recipes that will help it seep into everything we say, do, think and become.
12. Can you tell me about some of your good and bad experiences with the health care system?
Well there was that time when I gave birth to my son and they gave me a baby who didn’t need to eat the color white and told me that it was my baby. Taunting me, that’s what I called it. I always have to get fifth opinions and to tell you the truth I don’t like seeking out sick care as we call it cause ya’ll be experimenting on us but I felt that if I ate enough of the color of white I could get in here. Are we almost finished? My son’s Exhibit BC and Dee are waiting for me?
* Lyrics to Beauty is Only Skin Deep performed by The Temptations recorded by Motown Records April 14, 1964 and May 11, 1966 Songwriter(s) Norman Whitfield and Edward Holland, Jr.
Confession #3 – I Will Paint Myself By Numbers If I Have To
Ain’t Nobody Gonna Erase Me Anymore
So he would sit back in the corner and laugh at your paintings. He would laugh loudly and when you would turn around and ask him what was so funny he would throw up his hands and say, “Just keep painting,” with literal tears in his eyes. He had a reputation for making female students cry and would come and paint directly onto your canvas to “correct” the anatomy and proportions. Then he would make his rounds the next class and say, “No you painted that wrong!” and I would think in my head, “Oh hell to the naw!” yet I would politely say, “No, you painted that wrong because you painted on my canvas.” He would angrily exclaim, “No I didn’t!” I could care less about his assignments and never saw his classwork as my work. One time he told me that I was one of the most colorful women that he had ever met because I went toe to toe with him when he told a classmate that she needed to make herself look sexier in a painting to make it more radical. We were tasked with copying a master painting by inserting ourselves into it wearing our current clothing. My classmate chose the famous Caillebotte’s Jour de pluie a Paris in which she dawned a crop top and miniskirt while holding onto the gentleman’s arm that held the umbrella up. He then told the class of 99% women that we had to make ourselves look sexier in our paintings and that she did not go far enough. I was furious. Even more furious when my classmates agreed with him and were angry that I challenged him. They said, “Shonda you wear mini-skirts! You show your cleavage” and I said, “Yes I do cause it’s my choice. In art history women are either Madonnas or whores. It would be radical if the man was buck naked and she was wearing his suit!” I thought this would shut him up but he loved it even more. Another time when we were doing figure drawing I came into class wearing my bright turquoise head wrap and he came up to me and said, “ You look like you are from the Caribbean, you know I have been there and the drummers come out…” His hands stroking invisible drums his voice trailing off into the distance. I said, “I am from Chicago.” and abruptly sat down pissed. It made me think of the time I went to Whitfield Lovell’s opening of Kith & Kin and as soon as I stepped off the elevator a white woman said to me, “ Oh you are beautiful, you should be on the wall.” “Taxidermied”. Not making the art on the walls but i should be the “art”. Stuffed and forever frozen. I remember being the only black girl in art class and my white classmate asking me why did I only paint black people. I told him I paint self-portraits and people from my community, I asked him why he only painted white people and he was dumbfounded. He said oh I have never thought about it like that. “Then why in the fuck are you asking me to!” I thought in my head and then that’s when I really started going in with more sables, purples, onyx and all types of black. When this teacher asked me why didn’t I do the beautiful line drawings that I do in my sketchbook for the assignments in his class, I replied because I am making what I want to make. The Black Student Union had a group show in the basement of the building our class was in. (Why we always gotta be in the basement?!) I had a painting up that was about me and my first major break up. I said to him if you want to know who I am and what type of art I like to make go down there and see my work. A week later when we met for studio class he said, “I went down and saw your art. And you know you are just too talented to be making Black Art.” I looked at him and said the only thing “black” about the art was the depiction of me in the painting.” So therefore he was telling me that I was too talented to paint a depiction of myself. It took me years to get over this and I have slowly been healing. Slowly daring myself to look into the mirror and depict myself the way I want to be seen. This journey is not easy and has been years in the making but I have to do it bit by bit, stroke by stroke, and I am not gonna let anybody tell me what I can’t do. I don’t make my work for me. I make my work for so many of the other only black female artists living in the violence of these academies and institutions and living within the shadows of the canon. I will paint by numbers if I have to. Ain’t nobody gonna erase me and tell me not to paint myself anymore.
*Mastry is a 35 year traveling retrospective of Kerry James Marshall’s work co-organized by the MCA Chicago, MOCA, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art under the leadership of MOCA’s Chief Curator Helen Molesworth. Mastry is currently on view at The MOCA in Los Angeles until July 3rd 2017
Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle is a Kentifrican-American artist who focuses on questions of race, sexuality, and history through a variety of visual, performative and textual mediums. Her artwork and experimental writing has been exhibited and performed at The Studio Museum in Harlem, NY, Project Row Houses in Houston, TX, and The Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, CA.