Art

I Cared, But What Did It Do?: Juliana Huxtable’s ‘A Split During Laughter At The Rally’

Screencap of Juliana Huxtable’s A Split During Laughter at the Rally, 2017

Juliana Huxtable just gets it. It’s the last day to view Huxtable’s solo exhibition A Split During Laughter at the Rally at Reena Spaulings Fine Art. The utter contemporaneity of the works is owed to how well she captures the humorously chaotic contradictions in today’s political climate, where the urgency to outwardly appear activist has co-opted identities, spaces, and developed its own predictable aesthetic.

Refrigerator magnets–the DIY kind, stamped out from a laminated button-making machine–bear original slogans like “Misandrists united” and “Cross dressers 4 Christ” in chirpy graphics. There was even one with a paw print for furry rights. In times when “queer” is becoming clickbaity mainstream terminology and synonymous with LGBTQ, Huxtable explores complex intersections of identities and cheeky slogans that exist at the far fringes of invisibility. Within the current landscape of identitarian-driven politics, Huxtable’s works remind us that what is truly queer must also be disruptive to a conventional liberal agenda. For, queerness is ultimately not a specific category so much as it is to deviate from what is perceived as the norm.

Juliana Huxtable, The Feminist Scam, 2017 (photo by author)

This fragmentation of identities is notably what Donna Haraway considered essential to future technofeminists in her widely read Cyborg Manifesto: “in the fraying of identities and in the reflexive strategies for constructing them, the possibility opens up for weaving something other than a shroud for the day after the apocalypse that so prophetically ends salvation history.” Haraway proposed that there was no such thing as a unifying experience for “women,” or any other marginalized identity group, unless it served the purpose of political coalition. In order to cultivate a new form of independence, Huxtable told Artforum, “As opposed to the idea of what a single subject means, what a subject’s voice represents, and how that voice expresses itself as indicative or elucidating of the conditions that we’re in, I like the alternative idea of a schizophrenic voice.”

Huxtable’s magnets surround what appear to be faux movie posters that sell convoluted yet strangely familiar narratives. In a deceptively appealing neon pink poster The Feminist Scam (2017), buzz words like “intersectionality” and “feminist” grab your attention, yet seem to contradict the imagery’s implication that these theories are to blame for the destruction of the African family. Michelle Wallace, with her famous “Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman,” would have something to say here. To grasp what exactly is going on in the poster requires patience and caution. An alt-rightish message is embedded within leftist aesthetics, and their coexistence produces extreme visual and mental discomfort. In an image and information-heavy world abound with fake news, Huxtable demands that we look with a more critical eye by letting gazes linger and then decode.

Screencap of Juliana Huxtable’s A Split During Laughter at the Rally, 2017

In the age of identitarianism and weaponized identity, the state of being any combination of black, queer, and femme is almost always immediately political, politicized, and exploited in a white supremacist heteronormative patriarchy. Even the musical beat is political, as Huxtable’s film A Split During Laughter at the Rally (2017) explains, highlighting general activism’s debt to black activism and methodologies, particularly the use of rhythm and slogans in protest. A diverse group of visibly gender non-conforming folks gather around a table and begin beating the surface, turning the pattern of drumming into the rhyming phrase, “No Trump, no KKK, no fascist USA.” The constancy of political coalition, accompanied by inevitable exploitation, is palpably fatiguing. At one point two activists declare to each other, “Girl, I am so over this.” “These chants are so lame.” And later, “I used to pay attention to court decisions and legislation, but where did that get me? What use was it? I cared, but what did it do? I’m done. I’m just done. I’m just over it now.”

Although the act of protest is assumed as autonomous and rebellious, Huxtable muses that it is possible that the action is instigated by the government as another form of control and subjugation. Halfway through, A Split During Laughter at the Rally introduces a conspiracy theory that Ronald Reagan tried to control the African American population and urban youth through music. Huxtable’s disembodied blue lips narrate with dreamy cadence, upending our perceptions of reality and who is controlling whom, “All that is expected of the applicants is to play themselves…They had to play the person that they supposedly were.” I thought about how white liberal media profits from exposing white terrorism, hate crimes, and Trump gaffes. On a surface level, they lend visibility to the actively hateful lie of white patriarchy that black scholars have in fact always known. Meanwhile, what does this surmounting anger ultimately do, except further exploit the pain of oppressed minorities and fail to reach those who deny its truth?

Installation view of Juliana Huxtable’s Untitled (Wall), 2017 (photo by author)

The last section of the gallery is filled with Untitled (Wall) (2017), a linear timeline that searches for even more of the U.S.’s roots in Africa. Though there is currently much talk around cultural appropriation, in which dominant white culture steals and violates another culture from an oppressed minority, Huxtable makes less cut-and-dry visual connections that leave the viewer to surmise their relationships with bemusement. A swastika is found in artwork by the Akan people of Ghana. The term “Skinhead” as slang for closely shaved hair is traced to Jamaican culture. Huxtable paints a thick arrow from these to Hollywood films such as American History X, where actor Edward Norton sports a buzz cut and Nazi tattoos to ultimately translate the original meanings of black symbols into white supremacy. In another trajectory, we see a line drawn between lesbian skinhead and Mark Wahlberg skinhead. Does the viewer decide Huxtable’s narrative is a reach? To do so seems to actively deny America’s continuing indebtedness to black labor.

Detail of Juliana Huxtable’s Untitled (Wall), 2017 (photo by author)

How did we end up here? Rather than just tossing a political manifesto onto a white wall, Huxtable instead captures the sheer pandemonium that accompanies having dominant realities questioned. Whether conspiracy theories are true or not, they emerge from a level of distrust that is pointedly justified. Who has time to fact-check every single thing we see and hear, including the information that Huxtable has presented us? Moreover, who cares anymore what’s fact and fiction? Our government certainly does not. Reality and objective truth is increasingly something we decide for ourselves.

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