Dark Descriptions of Black Appearance

What does it feel like to describe an appearance that hasn’t quite come into being? To conjure a sensation at the edges of haptic awareness? To make a case for a time yet to announce itself as present and always already here? Such a project would traffic in the blackening potential of the world around us, a chromatic call to a politics that might already await us despite the very structure of that world that does everything it can to disavow, disentangle, and dispossess itself of the Blackness that composes it. For Nyong’o, the aesthetic, political, and social questions raised by this kind of Blackness really come down to appearance. For me, appearance is at once perceptual (an experience of sight) and performative (how one makes themselves seen). Appearance opens up the contours of how the aesthetic is a highly unstable, yet curiously felt, production of knowledge.

Afro-Fabulations stages some of these questions in eight fast-paced chapters, which seek to provoke rather than further elaborate the known. The subtitle of the book, The Queer Drama of Black Life, points to Performance Studies as an interdisciplinary origin, while at the same time locating the concerns and sensibilities of the field within the expansive horizon of “Black life.” It is refreshing to be given a set of wildly de-centered case studies, whose objects of analysis range from the moving image to installation to dance and even to the project of “theory” itself. Nyong’o cares not for the leaps and transgressions he makes because in each chapter there is an urgent attendance to key debates in contemporary Black studies as routed through Hartman, Moten, Wilderson, Sharpe, and Keeling. Nyong’o returns repeatedly to several of these thinkers across chapters, asking us to consider how particular Black problems for being appear over and over again, making for a lasting dialogue across genres, times, and spaces. This is why Amiri Baraka’s notion of “the changing same” sticks for Nyong’o as the perfect description for how recurrence and seriality are central tenets of Black aesthetic practice.

Appearance is anxiety-producing while reading the book, and is emblematic of a general anxiety to which Black aesthetic practices often respond and resist. “The persistent reappearance of that which was never meant to appear,” writes Nyong’o, “but was instead meant to be kept outside or below representation forms the first sense in which this book will mobilize the term ‘afro-fabulation’” (3). Prohibition and transgression activate this description of appearance. Fabulation pushes us towards the very boundary of representation upon which the appearance of Blackness is interdicted. Appearance flickers as a not-yet-solidified temporal state; appearance lives in a liminal state between a present-tense and a past-tense. Appearance in this understanding works as a temporal possibility that advances the past and present into a kind of forever, even while this state is never directly articulated but assumed to be understood. This raises, for me, the quandary of appearance as a guarantee for something other than presence. What are the “tensed and tenseless” corporeal coordinates between the presence and appearance of Blackness (10)? What flickers within and against the very forms, shapes, textures, and sensations that makes Black Black or black black or rather Black black?

I signal here the exchange between the ontological category (Black) and the chromatic descriptor (black), even while I know that these distinctions are fictive and provisional at best, to say nothing of the ways a politics of capitalization winks at a knowing audience. Signaling the interplay between these two arenas, I underscore the relationship between surface and depth as a mode of inquiry that does not quite make it into Afro-Fabulations.

To put it crudely, Nyong’o’s uses of appearance begin and end with an assumption that the delimitations of the perceptual boundary Blackness signals at the level of surface—seeing and knowing are givens. While dynamics of surface are indeed alluring within Black aesthetic sensibilities, for me, these surfaces work as a cover for an unstable, non-essential inhabitation that might get us to quite another sense of appearances. The closest descriptor for the work of this chromatic approach to Blackness manifests in Nyong’o’s uses of the work “dark.”

The book is peppered with concepts that are modified by the term “dark”; my likely incomplete list includes: dark materialist (47), dark vitalism (70), dark time (70), dark sense (94), dark precursor (83), dark polytemporality (104), dark future (107), dark ground (110), dark flesh (122), dark fabulation (125), dark vitality (150). The chromatic slide between dark and black provide unexpected possibility: what would it mean to see black in the dark? Or dark in the black? How can we describe the aesthetic capacities between dark to black? If we take François Laruelle’s “uchromia” (“to learn to think from the point of view of Black as what infuses color in the last instance rather than what limits it”) as a position from which we describe, then how might we sense the politics of color from the position that Black is what inflects our very social chromatism, the structure of the world we inhabit, and colors our very being?

To be clear, I’m not invested in a surface colorism, but rather a deep investigation on the production of color that appear on surfaces and below. Dark could be an antiessentialist description made possible in a world where Blackness is a “protective coloration” to “take temporary shelter in” (9). Here, the question of appearance might exist in contrast (being Black in a white world) but thrives in other shades (a Black that colors a range of bodies/theories). The surface covers various epistemologies, ontologies, and possibilities that surface through Blackness. Blackness works as a social relation posed as an aesthetic question. Blackness could be a darkness that has everything and nothing to do with the affirmation and negation of light, the layered application of texture, the hues of a single color that suddenly make that color multiple. But it could also be a host of other kinds of ___nesses.

Afro-Fabulations joins others that have produced descriptive language for such an endeavor: Huey Copeland’s rigorous insistence on how the Blackness of objects touches the subjects who live among them, Adrienne Edwards’s “blackness in abstraction” as a material, method, mode, and multiplicity, Glenn Ligon’s ongoing theorizations of blue black, Krista Thompson’s “sidelong glance” as a mode of shade enlivened throughout histories of art, Jared Sexton’s meditation on the paradox of the color black, David Hammons’s insistence that light could be “very black”, and Sable Elyse Smith’s lightning form descriptions of how appearance is a feeling that takes shape between bodies (see the signature image for this essay), to name but a few. Following their leads, I too have spent some time thinking about how to describe the sensational apparatuses that exist between Black and black, a set of moves that relay appearance as something we must work towards and with. What appearance makes possible at the level of social relation, between dark and black, is something that remains thoroughly Black, with or without the drama.

There is one particular moment where these approaches appear in Nyong’o’s writing, best captured by the sentence, “I know the barest facts of this stone I am attending to,” where he lucidly describes a scene from Regina José Galindo’s Piedra (2013) in which the artist is huddled into a ball, figuring her body as a stone blackened by charcoal (107). Allow me to take liberties with Nyong’o’s prose to say: to know the barest facts of this stone we are attending to might require we describe how Blackness appears to be.


Cover image: Sable Elyse Smith, Landscape III (2017). Neon, 96 x 144 x 29 inches. Image courtesy of the artist and the New Museum. Photo by Maria Hutchinson / EPW Studio.


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Sampada Aranke

Sampada Aranke (PhD, Performance Studies) is an assistant professor in the Art History, Theory, Criticism Department at the San Francisco Art Institute. Her research interests include performance theories of embodiment, visual culture, and black cultural and aesthetic theory. Her work has been published in e-flux, Artforum, Art Journal, Equid Novi: African Journalism Studies, and Trans-Scripts: An Interdisciplinary Online Journal in the Humanities and Social Sciences at UC Irvine. She has written catalogue essays for Sadie Barnette, Rashid Johnson, Kambui Olujimi, and Zachary Fabri. She's currently working on her book manuscript entitled "Death's Futurity: The Visual Culture of Death in Black Radical Politics."