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4/18/11 - "Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality and Blackness" review by Jasmine Cobb, Ph.D.

Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality and Blackness 

by Nicole Fleetwood

Review by: Jasmine Cobb, Ph.D.

Jasmine Cobb, Ph.D., was a 2010-2011 ARC post-doctoral fellow whose dissertation was entitled "Racing the Trans-Atlantic Parlor:  Picturing Freedom in the Early Nineteenth Century".

Extravagant Abjection Blackness, Power and Sexuality in the African American Literary ImaginationTroubling Vision Performance, Visuality and Blackness by Nicole FleetwoodTroubling Vision: Performance, Visuality and Blackness is Nicole Fleetwood’s first book. Fleetwood, an assistant professor of American Studies at Rutgers, New Brunswick, also has published works on youth performance, hip-hop culture, and hurricane Katrina. Fleetwood explains upfront that Troubling Vision “is a study of Black visuality and performance, not a study of film or mass media” (p. 2). Her book joins a long tradition of the study of Black visual culture, but nicely delineates a new trend that is less focused on what Michelle Wallace described as the “negative/positive images.” Troubling Vision draws on scholarship from the fields of performance studies and art history to argue “that the visible black body is always already troubling to the dominant visual field” and explores the “productive possibilities of this figuration through specific cultural works and practices” (p. 6). In addition to art and performance, her book offers insights for readers in the fields of Africana studies and American studies.

With an emphasis on what Fleetwood describes as the “black visual” and “black performative,” the chapters of Troubling Vision explain “that the black body is always problematic in the field of vision because of the discourses of captivity and capitalism that frame the body as such” (p. 18). Across five chapters, with the support of 38 images, Fleetwood explores various visual media including photography, installation art, and bodily performance. Chapter 1 explores the work of Pittsburgh’s Charles “Teenie” Harris; chapter 2 discusses plays about colorism by Black women playwrights, Zora Neal Hurston’s Color Struck and Dael Orlandersmith’s Yellowman. Chapter 3 argues for hypervisibility as a uniquely Black woman’s experience of performativity, through a discussion of Janet Jackson, Lil’ Kim and other Black women performers. Chapter 4 describes the marketing of Hip Hop clothing through advertisements that iconicize the Black male body and Chapter five critiques the media art of Fatimah Tuggar.

I recommend Troubling Vision to readers interested in teaching or researching issues related to race and visual culture. As a junior scholar rethinking the themes of my first book manuscript within the field of Black visual studies, I find this text extremely helpful. For my own publication needs, Fleetwood’s text models a clear and concise method for parsing one’s interlocutors early on in the text. Moreover, an important point to model for studies on these subjects, Troubling Vision illustrates how to express connections or interests in interdisciplinary conversations. For the classroom, Troubling Vision will give students a solid grasp of the relevant literatures informing contemporary discussions of Black imagery. It cites significant works in the history of the field, but also gives students an updated sense of the disparate, but related, kinds of media available for study—from photography to installation art to electronic media.

Nicole, R. Fleetwood, Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness (University of Chicago Press, 2011). ISBN-13: 978-0-226-25303-9