This simple question contains a truth hiding in plain sight: signals given are not always signals received. The chasm between intention and interpretation is wide, and the consequences of a statement failing to navigate this gap range from the whimsical—isn’t misunderstanding the basis of much humor?—to the tragic, as when a neighborhood watchman labeled a young African-American man in a hooded sweatshirt as a threat
Mastering our words and appearances to clearly transmit our intentions is conventionally called being “articulate.” Yet calling someone articulate obscures the fact that clarity of expression, no matter its form, is as dependent on the beholder as the speaker. Intentions are inevitably subjugated to individual biases, and it’s an unfortunate fact of our culture that such biases weigh more unfairly on some than others.
It is squarely within this matrix that one considers Nah Mean?!, a sharp exhibition of new works at the Carrack Modern Art
by the artists Antoine Williams (UNC MFA ’14) and William Paul Thomas (UNC MFA ’13). As described in a prepared statement:
All human bodies are subject to critique, classification, and unfortunately, some form of abuse. How does one wield visual language to interrogate any of those endeavors? … Williams and Thomas proceed to label, reconfigure, and decontextualize their subjects for the consumption of viewers.
, in other words, is an exhibition about the phenomenon of the interpretation of human bodies. The works are intended, as Williams and Thomas put it, “to bridge the gap between P.C. conversations and oversimplifications of race- and class-based conflict.” It’s an ambitious goal and, for the most part, Williams and Thomas meet the challenge, not simply because their work asks these questions but because it shows us how we might ask them better.
Though the show features works from both artists, this review focuses on Williams, who makes the point most clearly in his largest work, the strongest piece in the show. In the multimedia installation “I Gave You Power,” a splintered piece of wood one might expect to find at a dilapidated construction site rests obliquely against the wall. The drawing of a spectral figure wheat-pasted there, a young man in a hoodie, seems to lean against the wood. It’s a lovely moment of formal interaction between the two-dimensional figure and the slab of wood in three-dimensional space, making the wall both support and sculpture.
It’s the hoodie that crystallizes the artists’ thesis. Hoodies, in recent years, have become loaded symbols. In the months after the senseless killing of Trayvon Martin and the tortuous trial that set his killer free, the garment has been banned in schools around the country. Administrators worry that the hoodie is too functional, that it permits students to hide drugs, weapons, cell phones and, more existentially, themselves.
The fear of the unknown can quickly turn from a kind of suspicion to a certainty of impending aggression. The hoodie, in other words, has become a way to launder the thinly veiled anti-black racism that haunts our culture to this day. It’s a way of making a racially charged judgment without having to acknowledge that it is, in fact, racially charged. When it comes down to it, George Zimmerman saw a black man in a hoodie, panicked and told himself, “I know what you mean. You’re a threat.”
Though the hooded figure of “I Gave You Power” may at first seem spectral and reaper-like, he is, ultimately, just a young man in a hoodie. A closer look, if you care to take it, diffuses a threat that was never truly there. The turn that incites this perceptive shift is the chimerical juxtaposition of the masculine figure’s upper half with the upturned feathers of a strutting rooster. What at first looked like the tendrils of a reaper’s cloak turned out to be nothing more than piqued plumage. That is, I thought I knew what it meant. But I didn’t.
“I Gave You Power” succeeds at the exact moment when it inverts Nah Mean?!
’s titular question. Rather than asking “do you know what I mean,” Williams and Thomas’ best works provoke us to ask ourselves the more potent (and much rarer) “do I
know what you
mean?” It’s the right question, and without art, it’s hard to imagine that it’s the first one we’d ask.
Nah’ Mean?! closes with a 2 p.m. artist talk at the Carrack on Saturday, July 26.
“Do you know what I mean?”