The Deafening Silence in Robert Mapplethorpe's 'Portfolio Z'

Figure 1 - Ken Moody, 1983
Gelatin silver print
image: 15 1/8 x 15 1/4 in (38.4 x 38.7 cm); sheet: 19 3/16 x 15 7/8 in (48.7 x 40.3 cm)

Figure 2 - Ken Moody, 1983
Platinum print mounted on board image: 19 5/16 x 19 7/16 in (49.1 x 49.4 cm); sheet: 26 x 22 5/16 in (66 x 56.7 cm)

            When entering the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition in museum Kunsthal Rotterdam one photograph immediately catches one's eye: a much-enlarged version of the black and white photograph 'Ken Moody' (1983) in which the subject, a nude black man seen from the chest up, is facing the camera with his eyes closed, almost dissolving in his surroundings as if in meditative state. It is an impressive sight, first of all because of its size but most of all because of the sublime beauty of the picture. However, when exploring the rest of Mapplethorpe's 'Portfolio Z' that consists solely of similar photographs, it is difficult not to wonder whether the beautiful, serene state the men are dwelling in is not slightly too reminiscent of the "extraordinarily sterile and arid zone of non-being, where black is not a man" that Frantz Fanon spoke about many years ago (2).
            A great deal has changed since Fanon wrote his canonical work Black Skin, White Masks. However, even though direct colonial rule has disappeared, colonialism lives on in a variety of disguises (Sardar xix). In a recent article, Shannon Winnubst argued that this might have much to do with the Western ocularcentric and scopophilic culture that enacts violence against bodies both inside and outside of that culture (28). According to her, one's significance within the visual field, and therefore also in the cultural symbolic that is conjoined with it, is shaped and informed by the way one looks - both how one appears to others and how one perceives others' appearances. The way bodies appear is thus to be understood as a "primary mapping of social power" (Winnubst 37).
            The bodies that carry the power and value in the Western cultural symbolic are the ones that are simply seen as they are: nothing more or less than human. These 'whole bodies' are to be understood by Winnubst as white male bodies that move through the world as a discrete, contained mass, while most other bodies exceed their boundaries in some way (35). In contrast to the whole bodies that simply appear, black male bodies find themselves somewhere on the spectrum from hypervisibility to invisibility (37) in which the former might be understood as the representation of bodies through stereotypes and the latter as the failure of describing or presenting the body as simply human. I would like to argue that the way these overflowing bodies must submit to the limits and boundaries that are set out for them by 'whole' white bodies is quite similar to how the black men in Mapplethorpe's photographs are to heed the limits and boundaries that are imposed on them.
            When approached as a textual system, the photographs in 'Portfolio Z' and more specifically those of Ken Moody, catalogue a series of perspectives, viewpoints and takes on the black male body that facilitate the imaginary projection of certain racial and sexual fantasies (Mercer 436). Immediately striking is the fact that all men are nude: they are sculpted and shaped to create statues reminiscent of ancient Greece. Each way of looking at the men has a unitary vanishing point: an erotic and aesthetic objectification of black male bodies into one idealized type. Even though the photographs carry the name of the black men portrayed, all that is seen is their sex as the essential sum of meanings signified around blackness and maleness, as if the essence of black male identity lies solely in the domain of sexuality.
            The camera thus opens an aperture onto stereotypes about black men that have become quite well-known through perpetual repetition in mass media (Mercer 436). These stereotypes have their roots in physicality, such as the well-known stereotype of the black athlete that is "mythologically endowed with a naturally muscular physique and an essential capacity for strength, grace and machinelike perfection" (439) and the stereotype of the black man as a primitive figure associated with words such as 'biology', 'potent', 'strong', savage' and 'animal' (Fanon 128). In the photographs elements of these commonplace racial stereotypes are appropriated in order to "organize, prop up and most importantly fix" (Harris 70) the process of erotic and aesthetic objectification.
            Considering that the only legible bodies in the cultural symbolic are 'whole bodies’, it must be noted that, through the deafening repetition of the same stereotypes and stories, the photographs of the men in the photographs have almost become too legible (Winnubst 39). This experience is reminiscent of one that has been described by Fanon as a process of whiteness writing upon his body, a "sketching of a historico-social schema below the corporeal schema" that is made up by the details, anecdotes and stories that are well known about black men (Fanon 111). The most important implication of this 'loud' stereotypical representation is that it leaves no room for individuality, because no act, speech, thought or desire of the men can actually be heard.
            It is interesting to see that in the photographs of 'Portfolio Z' the usage of aesthetic and erotic objectification has a similarly totalizing effect that is only further emphasized by the visual isolation of the men in the pictures. This visual isolation is achieved first of all, by a lack of social interference in the spectator's erotic enjoyment of the photograph (Mercer 438), and second of all, by the fact that the men are structurally posing alone, ensuring that any possibility of representing a collective or contextualized black male body is ruled out (436). Within the frame there is thus no room for any references to a social, historical, or political context that might mobilize the conscience.
            Here it becomes most apparent that, while the black men are on the one hand hyper visible and 'loud' because they are confined to a stereotypical essence of eroticism that is repeated over and over, this repetition on the other hand makes sure that the bodies simultaneously grapple with an invisibility that is silencing and quieting. This is further accentuated by the eyes of the men in the pictures: whether their eyes are closed, not visible, or looking in a different direction, all instances underscore that while the spectator is given free rein to objectify, sexualize and gaze upon the men, the men themselves are not allowed to gaze, and therefore speak, back. They are silenced, battered down by stereotypes. It is once again Fanon that referred to this paralyzing feeling of not being able to be himself with all his multiplicities, systems, and contradictions: he writes of the feeling of imprisonment and objectification, while all he wanted was "to be a man among other men, a man and nothing but a man" (85).
            While Fanon already asked for the chance to be his multifaceted self many years ago, looking at Western media at the present day and age it is still uncommon for black characters to emerge as fully developed people dealing with daily life (Novak 39). To this day black bodies often remain an abstraction "locked behind imperialist essentialism and generalized racist images" (39). White people, however, are overwhelmingly and unnecessarily predominant, have the central and elaborated roles, and are above all placed as the norm, the ordinary, and the standard (Dyer 11). At the level of racial representation white people are not of a certain race, they are the human race, and this comes with the opportunity to appear multifaceted. It seems that white bodies are not presented as white but as people who are variously gendered, classed, and abled (11), while black people are confined to their 'blackness' and have much less opportunities to appear as simply human.
            This failure of appearance is something that has implications that trace all the way back to the formation of a 'whole body'. During the mirror stage, as described by Jacques Lacan, the child sees itself as both a subject before the mirror and the object reflected in the mirror, and it is here a first step towards forming a meaningful identity is taken (Winnubst 30). The child tries to gather the fragmented sense of its body as 'bits and pieces' into a sense of wholeness (Lacan 2; Winnubst 30). Yet, what Lacan fails to mention is that the child sees his body as a body bound by skin and in recognizing his body as distinct from others he enters the cultural field. When the child attempts to put itself together as a whole body it does so with the images that are available to him in the cultural symbolic: the stereotyped, objectified, sexualized images that fail the black body. Referring to these bits and pieces that play a role in the mirror stage, Fanon describes how, for the black male body, "the fragments have been put together by another self "(Fanon 82).
            In conclusion, to simply see the world of the photographs in 'Portfolio Z' as one in which black men are put on a pedestal to show their immense beauty, is to forgo that the men are first put there to be moulded and worked into passive, decorative objet d'arts (Mercer 439). The idealized black male bodies are constructed as images instead of as real people with real histories, just as much as more evidently negative stereotypical portrayals of black male bodies are (Sardar, xiv). While the camera might not be able to possess, it has become evident that it can resume, intrude, trespass, exploit and even assassinate (Sontag 13). After the men are figuratively made to die in front of the camera, their lives, experiences, and histories are buried, and all that is left is their alienated essence as idealized, aesthetic objects (Metz 89). In the pictures, the men are forever silenced, lingering in their seemingly perfect surroundings, which indeed turn out to be just like those arid zones of non-being where black is not a man, that Fanon once spoke about.

Works Cited

Dyer, Richard. "The Matter of Whiteness." White Privilege: Essential Readings on the Other Side of 
            Racism, edited by Paula S. Rothenberg, 3rd ed., Worth Publishers, 2005, pp. 9-14.
Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. Translated by Charles Lam Markman, 1986, Pluto Press, 2008
Harris, Keith M. ""Untitled": D'Angelo and the Visualization of the Black Male Body." Wide Angle, vol. 21, 
            no. 4, 1999, pp. 62-83
Kobena, Mercer. Welcome to the Jungle: New Positions in Black Cultural Studies. Routlegde, 1994.
Lacan, Jacques. Ecrits: a Selection. Translated by Alan Sheridan, Norton, 1977. Metz, Christian.                
            "Photography and Fetish", October, 1985, pp. 80-90.
Novak, Amy. "Who Speaks? Who Listens?: The Problem of Address in Two Nigerian Trauma Novels." 
            Studies in the Novel, vol. 40, no. 1, pp. 31-51.
Sardar, Ziauddin. Foreword to the 2008 edition. Black Skin, White Masks, by Frantz Fanon, Pluto Press, 
            2008, pp. vi-xx.
Sontag, Susan. On Photography. Penguin Books, 1987.
Winnubst, Shannon. "Is the Mirror racist? Interrogating the Space of Whiteness." Philosophy & Social 
            Criticism, vol. 30, no. 1, pp. 25-50.