A body / a sign : On Black subjectivity / interiority / finding tenderness: beyond political meaningfulness

Through voice and matter, artist-writer Mara Duvra considers possibilities for black subjectivity beyond the representation of otherness, making manifest calm, interiority, and gestures of tenderness.

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In order to speak a truer word concerning myself, I must strip down through layers of attenuated meanings made an excess … over time, assigned by a particular historical order, and there await

                    whatever marvels of my own inventiveness1

/  /   /   /     /

The adjectives

flake away from me, no

threads left holding

me, I flake apart

layer by

layer down

quietly to the bone, my skull

unfolds to an astounded flower2

To be seen / to be manifold

These are notes on tenderness / a brief anthology, collecting remnants, flesh memory of blackness as soft and varied. An attempt/ to move beyond the public and political meanings of what blackness evokes


Subjectivity is fluid / changing and shifting / an ever evolving method of looking / on looking.

Black subjectivity in art often seems to move at an almost languid or listless pace. Overlooking the need and responsibility to say more and express more. There is too much suggestion in simplified gestures of depicting black identity that is read as intentional subtlety but is ultimately a reliance on what blackness does for a work of art, the political or contemporary timeliness it provides. There are always implications when using a black body.

“and feel myself in all places … the custodian of a black body, and have to find language for all of what that means to me and to the people who look at me.”3

a flesh memory

What is left to say about black subjectivity in contemporary art?

“There is not much that can be said about blackness as a public discourse. Indeed nearly all of what has been written about blackness assumes that black culture is, or should be, identified by resistant expressiveness – a response to racial oppression, a speaking back to the dominant ideology…”4

In these notes on tenderness I am calling attention to the ways blackness exist as a sign / as a stand in for expressive and resistant ideologies. This is a process on looking for the quiet and quotidian / the gentle and interior ways blackness exists outside the paradigm of the public and political.  Calling into question the allocation of humanity given to people of color that is marginalized, taken away in efforts to start conversation.

What precisely is this conversation and where does it begin?

There is social responsibility that comes with making art that speaks to marginalized experience / that seeks to image and foreground it.

So the action of putting things into the world, into public consciousness and retreating away from the conversations/ reactions/ and meaning it dredges up falls short of that responsibility. Political meaningfulness in art is a vital tool for creating space and voice where there wasn’t before, this however makes you culpable to express/ to understand the works implications and the ways the conversation about race and subjectivity are already underway / have already started.

This way of working is seemingly well intentioned however it makes its social agency and contemporary relevance at the expense of black and brown bodies in an urge to be diverse, start conversation, give voice, and various other politically or socially meaningful gestures creating a dynamic where blackness exist only as a sign, as a demonstration of history, a relic, rather than as a living/ soft/ and vibrant whole presence/

                                    blossoming in ever growing futurity.

The black body has been used so much for centralizing otherness that when it is used for its beauty for its plain and simple presence of being human there is always something / some underpinning / a current that runs through second guessing its meaningfulness, its presence. What does the black subject’s presence say about society, and what is the level of victimization on display?

This tendency seeps into the notions of understanding the ways people who are black live full & vibrant lives that have interior motivations and concerns that extend beyond the public and political construction of their racial identity.

Is it possible to use black subjects to represent universal concerns?

To identify with the soft, flawed ways we are all human even when the subject in the work of art, writing, film is black or brown. A method of destabilizing what has come to signify otherness and therefore separate.

Tenderness as an expanding gesture /

To create more space for the various manifestations of Black culture that extends beyond resistance. This is about the politics of representation. Developing an understanding of how we have come to see our own identity in relation to others, and the ways this conception has been shaped by the signs and depictions of that culture.

“As an identity blackness is always supposed to tell us something about race or racism, or about America, or violence and struggle and triumph or poverty and hopefulness.”5

“Identity can’t be concise. It is knit from sequins and lust and scatters”6

The subject becomes a body of multiplicity, a being of nuance whose humanity is illegible if … only read through a social lens7

This articulation of the interior and depictions of blackness exists within the diaspora already. Look to artists, writers, and makers that have already started evolving black subjectivity.

They create space to introduce wonder and imagination into the depictions of black identities/ poetic representations of tenderness, calm, and creativity.

blooming into forever

afros like maple crowns    /           the fields of lavender – brothers

                                       dancing between the storm8

tender / luminous / demanding

prism reborn, sharp refracted everything9

                                          a body of multiplicity

a harmony of being / a spiritual aesthetic10

a way of looking and becoming

                  on the possibilities of expressing humanity      

by finding quiet, by pointing to and celebrating the elements of quiet: interiority, surrender, attention, vulnerability, waiting / contours of being

May we be healed may we be comforted … in waters sweet of our enoughness

in the blue hour dawn morning, the bright light of noon and after, the blue hour at dusk, the handsome navy that is night, and the blackest truth in a moonless sky, may we know, may we know, may we be pleased, may we exalt!11


                                          unfolding a soft horizon

This article was commissioned and developed as part of a series by guest editor Jordan Rosenow.

  1. Hortense Spillers

  2. Margaret Atwood

  3. Teju Cole, Blind Spot

  4. Kevin Quashie, Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture

  5. Kevin Quashie, Sovereignty of Quiet

  6. Lisa Robertson, Magenta Soul Whip

  7. Kevin Quashie, Sovereignty of Quiet

  8. Danez Smith, Don’t Call Us Dead

  9. Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity

  10. bell hooks, Belonging: A Culture of Place

  11. Aisha Sasha John

Mara Duvra

Mara Duvra is a visual artist whose work combines photography, poetry, video, sculpture, and her experience as an artist who reads, writes, and collects to create and arrange objects as text and text as objects / studying the malleable qualities of images and poetry to create installations that explore stillness and interiority to condense both voice and matter. Mara received an MFA from the University of Minnesota in 2015 and currently lives and work in Minneapolis. …   read more