Postcolonialism and Androgyny: The Performance Art of Grace Jones

By Kershaw, Mariam | Art Journal, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

Postcolonialism and Androgyny: The Performance Art of Grace Jones


Kershaw, Mariam, Art Journal


She strides across a stage of pillars and chains. Her tall, muscular frame pulses with graffiti. White striations and chevrons contrast with her skin. She beats a drum, the neon red and yellow spikes of her skirt, anklets, and bracelets dancing with her body's undulations. On her breasts spiral metal coils. A dance of signs ricochets through centuries and across cultures: a masked African ancestor on the Ivory Coast dancing in a raffia sheath and anklets; Josephine Baker dancing in her famous banana skirt at the FoliesBergere; a Calder mobile figure swinging through the world of modernism; to the techno-pop present of dance club, flashing lights, and amplified sound in SoHo. The effect is electrifying and the audience at the Paradise Garage screams with excitement. The year is 1985.

This article analyzes Grace Jones's primary performance art from 1978 to 1986. To summarize the inquiry: How does Grace Jones's performance art contribute to a reconceptualization of Afrocentric culture and identity; complicate our understanding of performance art; and suggest the interdependence of the postcolonial and the postmodern?1

Jones's Oeuvre in Relation to Issues in African-American Art and Theory

Grace Jones filled her performances in the late 1970s and early 1980s with multilayered references to racial and sexual stereotypes associated with the African diaspora and its relationship to colonial Euro-American prejudice. The term postcolonial proves useful for a reconsideration of her work, for in the postmodern period we have seen a dramatic reversal of European domination of one-third of the world's peoples.2 Robert Farris Thompson writes of an emerging field of cultural exchange in which the art of Asia, Africa, Oceania, and the Americas gains an influence equal to European art.3 Postcolonial scholarship identifies moments in the art-historical journey when colonial forms are disrupted. In particular, Michele Wallace and Greg Tate have articulated the critical debate that this article seeks to extend. They review the ongoing reluctance of curators, critics, and artists in either Euro-American or African-American intellectual camps to examine the vital role of African and Oceanic art in the development of modernism or the significant influence of European modernism in the evolution of African-American art. If we deny the intertextuality of these prior visual traditions and the discourses surrounding them, then we are missing a key element for our analysis of art in the postmodern, postcolonial moment. Wallace traces the link from the postmodern and performers such as Grace Jones back to Josephine Baker, 1920s Paris, and the exploration by European male artists of a new African-Oceanic aesthetic using female bodies as their inspiration.1 Grace Jones's performance art holds the potential to enrich this discussion. Rather than denying the interaction between modernist and African-American aesthetics, she actively explored that fusion.

Grace Jones did not pursue this exploration alone. The three performances discussed in this article clearly exhibit the creative aesthetics of Jean-Paul Goude and Keith Haring-the two key visual artists working with her. The performances that emerged from these collaborations exploit the tensions and preconceptions spectators carry regarding race and gender.5 Jones's fierce stage presence destabilizes historical relations of power enacted through male/female, black/white interaction, while her commanding voice leads the viewer through a symbolic negotiation.6

Origins

Grace Jones learned key devices for subversive performance during the 1970s in the worlds of Parisian fashion and New York disco. Yves Saint Laurent, Claude Montana, and Kenzo Takada hired Jones for runway modeling in Paris. She appeared on the covers of Elle, Vogue, and Der Stern working with Helmut Newton, Guy Bourdin, and Hans Feurer. Since its colonial conquests in Africa, France in general and Paris in particular had cultivated a fascination with the myth of the Black Venus, and the Parisian fashion scene was receptive to her unusual androgynous, bold, dark-skinned appearance. …

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