The Negro Self Improvement Project

Ellen Gallagher, a painter by training, works with “chaos as advertising” (Goodeve 2005:40). Her matter is specifically the magazine advertising directed at the black culture of the “Negro self-improvement” movement of the fifties and sixties (Goodeve 2005). In terms of commercial messages, issues of beauty seem to focus on body type, skin tone, hair texture, and the color of one’s skin is the least easily altered. Perhaps, this is the reason that most advertisements focus on hair and body altering products and programs. As is well documented, popular culture and advertising are the handmaidens of racism. Ethnic stereotypes and ethnic notions of the nineteenth and twentieth century continue to riddle the African American unconscious like perpetually returning bullet wounds that never go away. Gallagher’s work explores the deep rewiring of the “unconscious wrought by such images as the happy and ever-smiling Mammy” (Goodeve 2005:40) and blackface. As well as contemporary images created in black cultural production that a message that black female bodies are expendable and fixate the sexualized imagery attributed to black females on the hair, where it more than any other part of the body signifies animalistic sexuality (hook 1992). Also central to her work is the concept of repetition and revision, “as in Jazz or Hip Hop, where a phrase is worked and re-worked with slight alterations” (TFG 2004:1). Similarly, by building up layers of imagery, “the artist creates a powerful pictorial vocabulary, blending visual histories with highly personal, yet seductively communicable new cultural mythologies to create a series of interlocking imaginary worlds” (TFG 2004:1) into an elaborate and narrative grid.

Through an accumulation of layers, and a clear use of structure, Gallagher creates interplay between abstract and representational form. Underpinned by grids, the surfaces of her paintings are infused with recognisable images that form her major motif of “tiny bits of popping eyeballs, hotdog lips, hair flips, and four-leaf clovers” (Goodeve 2005:39). Her large-scale works are populated by thousands of these cryptic symbols that have all been obsessively crammed together. The vast painting Double Natural confronts the viewer with a large grid of imagery.

Mainly heads, their eyes removed and their hair re-worked in bright yellow plasticine, the images are subject to the kind of repetition and alteration which informs much of Gallagher’s work. The heads are culled from a variety of magazines popular from the 1930s to the 1970s, such as Ebony, Sepia and Our World. In using them, the artist has picked out advertisements for products to remedy a host of perceived ills, and for beauty products, especially wigs, from whose fantastical names she invents characters, which in turn act as guides across the grid of the painting and around the rest of her works. The yellow plasticine when placed on the heads of the characters evokes images of blondes and the popular associations with blondeness. The extent of her intervention however varies as she sometimes leaves the text of the advertisements intact, relying on the over-enthusiastic, somewhat archaic language to make her point for her, and sometimes she alters the text, twisting the words to suit her own purpose.

Gallagher’s interest in both of paintings immediate appearance and how materiality bears meaning manifests itself in the complex blend of cultural and visual stereotypes that are intricately detailed and layered prints and canvases, which once complete, “insist that you be there to feel them as skins—tattooed and scarred by new possibilities, not tired, craggy stereotypes” (Goodeve 2005:39).

The reliance of Gallagher’s work on reproduction cuts across the categorizations of art and cultural history. Her “voracious biting, gulping, digesting, and expulsing of the ready-made political unconscious, splices historically constructed streams of modernisms into a” composite of images and ideas about race and the times. In this composite the simple act of putting a simple sketch of a face under a massive swirling plasticine Afro, according to Gallagher, the Afro “becomes this important way of taking up space in the city” (Goodeve 2005:41).

Gallagher, in her reworking of the images, gains control over the representation image and thus power over the interpretations that it generates. Consequently critiquing the rarely subverted or critiqued representation of black female bodies in popular culture; images of black female sexuality which were a part of the cultural apparatus of racism and which still shape perceptions today (hook 1992). Those “content to exploit white eroticism of black female bodies in fashion magazines” (hook 1992:65) propagate the stigmatization of African origin bodies as unsightly and ugly, yet simultaneously and paradoxically as hyper-sexual. This fantasy of black female as “wild sexual savage” emerged from the “impact of a white patriarchal controlled media shaping his perceptions of reality” (hooks, 1992:67).

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