Bennett Simpson, 2012

This Air: The Clearing

by Bennett Simpson, 2012

In her collaged photo-diptych Body Ground (The Clearing: Or Cortez and La Malinche, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings, N. and Me) (1991/2012), Lorraine O’Grady insists upon, rather than running from, the profound racial and sexual collisions that have shaped America from its origins. An allegory of miscegenation spanning multiple eras—from the colonial past to the contemporary present—the work depicts a trio of mixed-race couples set amidst a primeval forest clearing. On the right, a white male skeleton clad in conquistador chain mail appears to grope the naked breast of a black female figure, whose listless face turns toward the viewer. In the panel to the left, two children chase a ball toward a pile of discarded clothes (barely concealing a gun), their youth perhaps representing the early nation of Jefferson and Hemmings, while hovering in the sky overhead a white man and a black woman embrace in what appears to be reciprocal copulation. Taken together, the couples reflect

the deep intermingling of pain, pleasure, abuse, and desire that gave birth to and continues to inform the peculiar hybridity of the New World. O’Grady’s metaphors of complexity and “clearing” are not mutually exclusive, but dependent, the latter, really, an avowal of recognition, truth-telling, and vision that might cut through or open up the various tangles of prejudice that keep something like “America” in denial about its mixed identity. As the artist states:

“My attitude about hybridity is that it is essential to understanding what is happening here. People’s reluctance to acknowledge it is part of the problem… The argument for embracing the Other is more realistic than what is usually argued for, which is an idealistic and almost romantic maintenance of difference. But I don’t mean interracial sex literally. I’m really advocating for the kind of miscegenated thinking that’s needed to deal with what we’ve already created here.”  ( . . . )

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