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From Tarzan to Rambo

Tate Online, November 2003

When I first saw Sonia Boyce’s piece From Tarzan to Rambo, I was aware of a faint itching somewhere at the back of my head. I knew I was trying to remember something but I couldn’t think what. Images from her work stayed in my mind: the Thirties-style pickaninny child; the mohicaned savages in the bush; Boyce’s own face, by turns startled and reflective, sketched on paper and shot on film. A few days later the scratching in my head turned into what felt like a swarm of angry bees buzzing and clamouring for attention. Drawn back to the artwork I started to think about what Boyce had inscribed beneath the surface of the canvas. Two ostensibly disconnected names came to mind: Hegel and Tintin.

In 1822, towards the end of his life the former wrote his Lectures on the Philosophy of World History. In that work, a grand survey of the history of the world’s nationalities, he argued that Africa had never produced a culture or civilization worth speaking of. In comparison to Europe, it was a place of unredeemed barbarity and primitiveness. “Anyone who wishes to study the most terrible manifestations of human nature will find them in has no history in the true sense of the word,” he concluded with a flourish. “We shall therefore leave Africa at this point and it need not be mentioned again.”

If there’s apparently little to unite Hegel and the plucky boy reporter created by Herge, then think of the 1931 adventure Tintin in the Congo. Here, Herge’s hero goes among the benighted savages of the Dark Continent: their skin a glistening black; their houses made of mud and thatch, their eyes liable to roll back in baffled fright at the sight of a car or a camera. Quickly he wins their trust. So much so that by the end of the book, they have come to worship him as their god, spinning legends about the great white man from Europe and even kneeling before a statue of Tintin and his dog, Snowy.

Of course, Hegel and Herge are just two random instances of how blackness, and it locus in Africa, is taken to represent little beyond savagery and simplicity. The same can be said of Edgar Rice Burroughs in whose books brutish Africans are only ever the backdrop upon which to demonstrate the blood and innate good breeding of the young Tarzan, whose name, in the local African language of the books, means White Man.

I think the buzzing in my head when I first saw From Tarzan To Rambo was a thrill of recognition. The multilayered imagery, even the acute consciousness of the sub-title English Born `Native’ Considers her Relationship to the Constructed/Self Image and her Roots in Reconstruction put me in mind of the strategies of resistance that black people have to undertake every day to avoid feeling submerged and degraded by the pervasive racism of Western culture. Boyce’s work offers a reconfiguring of the iconography of race. The pickaninny that wouldn’t be out of place in Tintin’s African adventure is still there. The jungle savages of Hegel and Rice Burroughs remain. But Boyce herself is also in the frame as the subject, the architect of her own representation, no longer the object, and the victim of racial myth.

The same point can be made about much of the other work offered within this display. In Anthea Hamilton’s film Somewhere over the Rainbow, the artist appears in negative singing Judy Garland’s famous song. Here, in a scenario where the black artist becomes white and reaches out to a world of dreams, we can think not of the negation of race but rather the possibility of occupying more than one identity, more than one skin, at the same time.

In The Fae Richards Archive, artist Zoe Leonard and filmmaker Cheryl Dunye have created a photographic narrative of a fictional black actress and singer, Fae Richards. Through their apparently found images we see a figure struggling against the boundaries of race and sexuality. We glimpse the shadows of Josephine Baker and Billy Holiday, Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge. And finally at the close of the archive, we discover a Fae Richards who seems unconstrained by white ideas of who black people should be. In the evanescence of a faded photograph Fae Richards lives. She becomes real. Like all black people all she’s ever wanted is to be taken for herself.

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