Felandus Thames, I’m Neutral, 2010
inkjet print, acrylic, and rock salt on museum board
27 1/2 x 21 1/2 inches
Whenever I see black face or any racist caricature of black people, I am reminded of how the world has perceived and continues to perceive black people. It does not shock me as much now as when I was small and was first made aware of my blackness as spectacle. Upon looking, I am usually greeted with the same feeling of grossness and humiliation as I would if someone were to catch me in the most unflattering position. However, when I went to see the Black Pulp! exhibition and came across Felandus Thames’ I’m Neutral, I felt the warmth that one experiences when they look upon the beautiful thing. According to the exhibition guide, “I’m Neutral dissects racist caricatures by selectively concealing and revealing elements of minstrel costume.” What you are seeing is a vaudeville performer whose face has been obscured by salt, which to me, resembles diamonds. The character is then reduced to a grin and a pair of waving hands. I’m Neutral questions what physical characteristics make up racial identity.
I appreciate the use of movement. The character in the print could have been stiff, but the artist decided to show the hands moving, perhaps to liken it to a white actor’s understanding of authentic black movement. You get a real sense of the performer’s attempt to mimic the jive of a black man. It reminds me of a film or something that I am seeing live. The character in the print is here performing yet I cannot see his face. And why can’t I see his face? Is the character representing a man or a concept? Is the figure representing what blackness is or is it the idea or expectation of blackness? What does it mean for his face to be covered by salt? I am unable to detect agency in this figure. How is it that salt is a substance, yet the character has none? Could the reason to why I was not put off by this work be due to my inability to see myself in it? The only way of knowing that this was minstrel costume was to have understood the context. The bits of salt on the face share such a resemblance to jewels that the piece becomes luxurious and alluring.
It is interesting that Thames titled this work I’m Neutral. The phrase reminds me of those people who never want to talk about politics or pick a restaurant. To call yourself neutral these days is difficult. You must stand for something or it’s your fault the terrible thing happened. Surely you cannot like all colors, which color is your favorite?
When one hears the word “neutral” it is likely that they would be reminded of things that are considered impartial, impersonal, and inoffensive. I can see this work as being all those things and I am especially interested in interpreting it as something that is inoffensive. I am not reminded of the hurt that I have felt when looking at images of the Mammy or the half-naked black child eating a watermelon twice his size. I think it has something to do with not being able to see the figure’s eyes or the jet-black paint on the white man’s face. If I could see the black paint surrounding the eyes of the white performer whose gig it was to become the most black and “coonish” joke he could be, I might feel bad, I might be offended and I might take it personally. What would have once been the beautiful thing now would make my eyes sore and my heart sink.
I would feel a lot of something. I would no longer be neutral.
BA Undergraduate, Art History
School of Art & Art History
University of South Florida