Drenched in Light

Krista Thompson, Shine: The Visual Economy of Light in African Diasporic Aesthetic Practice (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015); 349 pages; ISBN 978-0822358077 (softcover)

• June 2016

In Shine: The Visual Economy of Light in African Diasporic Aesthetic Practice, Krista Thompson offers a sweeping exploration of the role of contemporary video-based technology in the Caribbean and United States. Spotlighting the United States, Jamaica, and the Bahamas, and weaving together visual studies, performance theory, art history, and ethnography, Thompson’s organically interdisciplinary study excavates the “lens-based” processes and practices that circum-Caribbean blacks deploy to “reflect upon, represent, and recast their relationship to the modern, the past, the commodity, the global, the diasporic, and the national” (2). In so doing, Thompson joins scholars such as Anne Cheng, Nicole Fleetwood, and Jennifer Nash, whose recent works move beyond conceptualizations of the visual sphere as negative, violent, and pernicious to challenge a politics of visibility invested in recognition and inclusion. The brilliance of Shine’s contribution is Thompson’s entry point: light.

Thompson’s turn to light is certainly not without precedent. The anonymous narrator of Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man famously theorized light as a technology that simultaneously generates and obliterates black personhood. In the passage from that novel that serves as the epigraph to Shine’s fourth chapter, Ellison’s narrator proclaims, “Light confirms my reality, gives birth to my form.” While critics and scholars have long turned to Ellison’s phrasing to theorize hypervisibility, Thompson goes further, and perhaps closer, to the ambiguous terrain that Ellison crafts. In Shine’s expertly researched and capacious introduction, Thompson invests in light’s capacity to register the threshold where illumination and opacity converge. Situated at “the representational edge of hypervisibility and invisibility, optical saturation and blindness, presence and absence, blackness and white light,” glaring light—or shine—“induces a sublime state of visibility in which the subject is so hypervisible that it disappears from view.” Rather than pure negation or absence, shine “produce[s] a form of excess, a visual superfluity, that points precisely to the limits of vision or what lies just beyond photographic and visual capture” (14). As both practice and metaphor, shine invites a reconsideration of histories of photography, consumerism, and the practice of diaspora itself.

With this theoretical scaffolding in place, Thompson develops a series of related concepts—bling, shine, sparkle, and surface—that are explored through close analysis of four modes: street photography, prom entrances, video light, and contemporary hip-hop art. In each case, Thompson reveals how light’s effect and affect enables diasporic subjects to negotiate their relationship to normative visual economies; indeed, through physical and imagined encounters with light, “black urban subjects in the circum-Caribbean come into visibility but seek to remain unfixed, indeterminate, sparkling in the transformative possibilities of visual technology” (37). The emphasis here is on process rather than material product, and on the construction of a viewership that has the capacity to reenvision and reconstitute the very terms of (racial) value.

Chapter 1, “‘Keep it Real’: Street Photography, Public Visibility, and Afro-Modernity,” explores the understudied practice of street and club photography, a popular genre in which men and women pose for photographs in front of hand-painted backdrops that transform urban nightclubs, street fairs, and public parks into temporary photography studios. Characterized by a distinct style of backdrop painting that emphasizes two-dimensionality and depicts luxurious lifestyles (cars, money, champagne), street photography creates a visual economy that privileges the process of posing and the spectacle of picture taking and spectatorship rather than the material photograph itself. Here, the idea of shine structures the aesthetics of the backdrop (which often features diamonds and surfaces that reflect light) as well as the photographed subjects’ “flash” or temporary performances. Throughout the far-reaching chapter, Thompson unveils a deep history of the painted backdrop, one that stretches from nineteenth-century studio photography to the “post-soul” streets of Washington, DC. For instance, Thompson suggests that street photography’s alliance with prior photographic conventions registers the unfinished business of black freedom struggles. Although this historicizing is thorough and compelling, the chapter is at its best when Thompson uses street photography to retheorize photography’s relationship to realism and the photographic index. Together, what Thompson calls the “artifice of the pose” and the backdrop’s nonrealist aesthetics radically destabilize the boundary separating the real from the fantastic, clearing a space for the articulation and imaging of new political possibilities and affiliations (105).

Like the painted backdrop, video light, the subject of the second chapter, also provides the occasion for urban blacks to generate new relationships to visibility, photography, consumer culture, realism, and one another. Video light, explains Thompson, “refers quite literally to the light that some videographers mount on top of their handheld video cameras” in Jamaican dancehalls (112). But it also encompasses a broader set of related practices, interactions, and transactions through which dancehall attendees seek to achieve visibility. Dancehall participants, Thompson argues, actively seek out the light, a desire that impacts everything from dance routine to clothing to hairstyles to the production and consumption of dancehall videos. In particular, Thompson highlights the relationship between video light and skin bleaching. Rather than casting skin bleaching as a desire for whiteness or as an act of self-loathing, Thompson’s nuanced analysis frames the widespread practice as a “visual technology that reflects and records histories where photography and race intersect, while remaking the constitution of the photograph” (114). From this perspective, bodies and skins become surfaces that, like photographic paper, reflect light, and skin bleaching emerges as a part of a broader performance repertoire and history of visual technology. In many ways, the analysis of video light presents the most salient theorization of light’s radical possibilities. In addition to revealing an expanded definition of visual technology, Thompson’s vivid description of a dancer’s appeals to the camera, as well as the videographer's capacity to move through and organize space in unprecedented ways, conveys the extent to which video light can, in her words, “generate a different political realm at the nexus of public space, the camera, and light” (168).

Turning toward Caribbean prom culture, chapter 3 asks, “What might the spectacularlization of the proms reveal more broadly about structures of visibility and their obverse in postcolonial Bahamian society?” (170). To answer this question Thompson explores the intricate (and expensive) theatrics of prom entrances, theatrics that signify upon everything from hip-hop culture to the world of the Disney princess. Rather than simply reading these performances as acts of conspicuous consumption, Thompson’s focus on light and shimmer exposes a “luminous framework” used by urban blacks to both participate in and critique modernity. This framework is not merely aspirational; on the contrary, with a focus on visibility and bling, prom theatrics create a network that looks across to other members of the African diaspora, from US hip-hop producers and consumers to Trinidad’s Carnival performers.

While the first three chapters focus on vernacular forms and practices, the final chapter, “The Sound of Light,” returns to familiar archives: the work of contemporary artists Kehinde Wiley and Luis Gispert and the popular 1990s hip-hop videos directed by Hype Williams. While both archives have received significant scholarly attention, the novelty of Thompson’s intervention is her uncanny ability to historicize these works. Thompson’s illuminating analysis of the politics of bling connects hip-hop art to the history of surfacism in European art. Again, Thompson’s interest is not in proving a genealogy that might legitimate the work of Wiley or Williams. Instead, her investment lies in what this historical trajectory unveils about hip-hop’s relationship to modes of perception; that is, the chapter moves away from exploring what these artists depict and toward the methodologies of seeing they encourage. Despite Thompson’s innovative and fresh take on the genre of hip-hop art, I found myself wondering about the place of female hip-hop artists in this discussion. Where might, say, Beyonce and Nikki Minaj, female artists who have been considered and critiqued for their own surface appeal, fit into an analysis of the light, sound, and bling?

Thompson’s study of light is nuanced and generative. If there is a flaw, it is the range of practices and histories the work attends to, practices that are so diverse and whose implications are so far reaching that, like light, they often seem to exceed the parameters of each chapter. Indeed, the structure of each section encourages the reader to embrace a protean reading practice, one that resists firmly embracing a single understanding of light, and of its affects and effects. The result is a powerful project that stands to impact multiple fields, while at the same time challenging how we see and understand black visual practices. In the end, Shine succeeds in reconstituting the very terms of photography and visual technology and their role in the diaspora.

 

Autumn Marie Womack is assistant professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh where she specializes in African American visual and literary culture. She holds a PhD in English and comparative literature from Columbia University. Her book manuscript, “Re-Vision: Race, Visuality, and Literature in the Progressive Era,” charts the relationship between emergent visual technologies, reform movements, and the development of African American literary modernism.