The Plantation Is Still Here: An Interview with Artist M. Lamar

We talked about sexuality, racism, history, the policing of black men's bodies.

|
Oct 3 2014, 7:01pm

Discipline 2. All images and videos courtesy of the artist

“The plantation is still here. The slave ship is still here. It’s just now in prisons. My work makes these connections.” That's how the artist, musician, and performer M. Lamar explains his provocative exhibition Negrogothic, a Manifesto: The Aesthetics of M. Lamar, which is currently on view at Participant Inc. in New York.

Filled with imagery of whips, sadomasochism, cotton plants, and a penis guillotine, Negrogothic, which runs until October 12, portrays Lamar’s multi-layered examination of the continued social, political, and sexual resonances of these historical traumas. While perhaps best known in pop culture as actress Laverne Cox’s twin brother who also played the role of Orange Is The New Black’s "Sophia" before her transition, Lamar is a highly trained countertenor. Through his music, he has commented on the legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, slave ships, and lynching. It comes down to a chilling and beautiful distillation of influences as varied as opera, spirituals, blues, and black metal.

Maintaining his interest in using music as a medium to investigate contemporary representations of blackness, black masculinity, and interracial desire, Negrogothic presents two surreal black-and-white videos: Badass Nigga, the Charlie Looker of Psalm Zero Remix and Surveillance Punishment and the Black Psyche, Part 2, the Overseer, which features Lamar as a ghostly black figure placing whips into the asses of bent-over white men while singing ac operativ love song to an overseer. With large stunning stills printed on canvas from each video lining the gallery walls, the exhibition also includes several unsettling props, haunting remnants from the filming of the videos. In addition, Lamar will perform a new requiem entitled “Tree of Blood,” a narrative piece combining his songs on lynching, on October 5.

Touching on topics ranging from his disdain for Beyoncé to the hyper-eroticization of the black body in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, and copious quoting of iconic black feminist theorist bell hooks, who Lamar calls “his North Star,” my conversation with Lamar was illuminating and exhilarating due to his utter fearlessness in discussing issues surrounding race and sexuality that are often repressed. 

As we sat in the back room of Participant Inc., Lamar told me he titled the show, his first solo exhibition, after a term he created to describe his own work.

“I started using the term Negrogothic because I was reading about the Gothic novel in which there’s this blending of romance and horror. That seemed to be this thing that I had been doing in my work for a long time. And a more obvious thing: I’m a goth kid. I’m very invested in goth, metal, and punk subcultures and taking them with me.”

While he's long been a fan of goth music and played in bands before his solo career, Lamar was also drawn to opera, particularly black sopranos such as Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman, and Marian Anderson. “What they did with their voices was almost like science fiction to me,” recalled Lamar. “They were in this very European form, but you could tell they came out of the gospel tradition.”

The defining moment in Lamar’s conception of his own ability to articulate a radical social critique through an operatic style came after hearing Diamanda Galás’s album Plague Mass. He was introduced to Galás's work through his college roommate at the San Francisco Art Institute, and Lamar said, “That was the moment for me when everything came together—my rage since I was a kid and the urgency to say something about injustice in an operatic form.”

With songs such as “Swinging Low” and “In the Belly of the Ship,” which reference the horrors of lynching and the Middle Passage, Lamar’s music uncovers the hidden histories still prevalent in American culture, a devastating and significant theme that remains at the forefront of

Negrogothic

. Pointing to Toni Morrison, whose novel Beloved appears in the Badass Nigga video, as an inspiration for his own mining of America’s painful past, Lamar observed, “I’ve always read a lot about history and have been troubled by the absences of black people’s contributions, which is a certain kind of violence. I’ve always been interested in creating these narratives in the way that Toni Morrison writes in the margins of what wasn’t written into history—all these forgotten things.”

Lamar is also concerned with exposing the political aspects of desire, particularly interracial desire. Pointing to examples from the millions of porn hits for the search “big black cock” to basketball announcers describing the players as “black studs” to a naked Jamie Foxx in

Django Unchained

, Lamar said, “I always like to say white men have an obsession with black bodies and black penises. I think how the black penis operates in the white imagination is a fiction. It’s this constructed thing with a mythic place. I think that’s the other side of the coin to black men being shot down in the street. This kind of thing in the imagination of white [police] officers or white people in general. And black people have internalized this fiction of the oversexualized black men.”Through reoccurring scenes of sadomasochism and subjugation in his videos and archival prints on canvas, often using the whip as a symbol for a black penis, Lamar shows how sexual practice echoes these stereotypes, histories, and constructions of interracial desire. He identifies as a "practicing homosexual"—rejecting the largely “bourgeois and white” aspects of the term gay—and is in a happy long-term relationship with a white man.

“I’ve been out in the sexual realm and I have been in scenarios where people are living out various things that haven’t been spoken," Lamar said. "As a first step–—and we are still unfortunately in a first step about talking about all this stuff—at least if you have it out there, we can maybe get to a different place with it. Some people try to make desire apolitical. You can’t control who you love but you can analyze why.”

Central to Negrogothic and perhaps the most complex yet illustrative example of the artist's detailed examination of the American psyche is his video Surveillance Punishment and the Black Psyche, Part 2, the Overseer. The second section  of a hopefully full-length film, the video has its genesis in Lamar’s interest in combining the ideas of Michel Foucault’s panopticon with Frantz Fanon’s understanding of internalized racism and the white gaze. However, the film took a more concrete turn once Lamar learned about the tragic story of Willie Francis, a black teenager who was executed twice in 1946 and 1947.

“The first attempt to execute Willie Francis was unsuccessful because the police officer was drunk setting up the electric chair, which was passed around different Southern cities," Lamar said. "If that had worked, we probably wouldn’t know his name. It was a question of cruel and unusual punishment. It went to the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court said, 'Go ahead and try again.' The NAACP started talking to him and it came out he had a sexual relationship with the man he was accused of killing, a 53-year old white dude who owned a pharmacy. That was the concrete story that led to the show becoming more developed.”

Fascinated by this story, Lamar attempted to research the possibilities of the history of homosexuality on plantations. Finding little to no information on the subject, Lamar decided to create a fictional realm of historical desire in his video.

“My work is invested in fiction," he told me. "I kind of hate documentary work in a way. I’m interested in it as a genre, but there’s something about the notion of reality that I think is very limiting. For me, it’s very much about the imagination and the imaginary realm.”

Through these imagined dynamics of desire and sexuality, Lamar clearly references Robert Mapplethorpe’s censored and controversial BDSM-filled X-Portfolio photographs, particularly his memorable Self-Portrait With Whip, which depicts Mapplethorpe with a whip in his ass. Lamar's is admittedly obsessed with commenting on Mapplethorpe’s sadomasochistic photographs as well as his eroticized images of black men in The Black Book. “[Mapplethorpe’s] use of the whip echoes him as a person who is deeply invested in white supremacist notions of blackness," Lamar said. "There has been no evidence from reading his biography or looking at his work that he had a very humane relationship to black people or black men, specifically. It was all about shock factor.”

While other artists such as Glenn Ligon have previously addressed Mapplethorpe’s photographs of black men, Lamar takes this critique one step further by refusing to reuse and reproduce Mapplethorpe’s problematic imagery.

“I never wanted to give viewers a black body they expect,” said Lamar. “Even in my life, while I’m very male-identified, I’ve never done masculinity in a traditional way. But in terms of the work, I wanted the figures in these films and in the images to not really be attainable or tangible–almost like a ghostly figure. If you watch 12 Years A Slave or Django Unchained, there are all these black naked bodies and there’s this pornographic moment the viewer gets to have. I didn’t want to give viewers that kind of thing.”

Another unexpected yet thought-provoking moment in Surveillance Punishment is the sudden appearance of Jamie Foxx during his 2004 Oscar acceptance speech, during which he thanked his grandmother for keeping him in line as a child, saying “And then when I would act the fool, she would beat me.”

“Here you have this moment of grand success for this black man and you immediately go to him being beaten down," Lamar said. "Like there’s inherently something wrong with black children that they have to be beat down and put in their place in order to succeed.”

An almost shocking moment of reality in the surreal and atmospheric video, the inclusion of Foxx’s speech further cements Lamar’s thesis of the inescapable connections between past traumas and the handing down of these historical legacies. Lamar's grandfather grew up in a sharecropping situation and was beaten endlessly, which in turn led him to become violently abusive to Lamar’s mother and grandmother.

“There’s all this post-traumatic stress disorder that’s not talked about in black life,” said Lamar. “I would say we’re all contending with that. I think there needs to be public spaces and real public discourse about PTSD and the lasting wounds.”

Lamar added, “I’d like to think there’s a sense of great loss and mourning. We can’t even mourn enough for the lost bodies, the lost spirits, the lost souls. One of the things bell hooks talks about is the assassinations of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and even Kennedy—these figures that represented the possibilities of freedom. The levels of devastation and loss are almost inexplicable. I think about the particular loss of possibility with those figures, the continued losses and the losses before that—all those who died in pursuit of freedom. And in my Negrogothness, that will always be a huge part of my work.”

Negrogothic, A Manifesto: The Aesthetics of M. Lamar will be on view at Participant Inc. through October 12, 2014. 

Emily Colucci is a New York–based writer and the co-founder of Filthy Dreams, a blog that analyzes culture through a queer lens. Follow her on Twitter.

More VICE
Vice Channels