Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

"Alive . . . Again." Unmoored in the Aquafuture of Ellen Gallagher's Watery Ecstatic

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

"Alive . . . Again." Unmoored in the Aquafuture of Ellen Gallagher's Watery Ecstatic

Article excerpt

Ellen Gallagher's extensive series Watery Ecstatic (2001-present) includes mixed media works on paper, sculptural objects, and short animated films that address Afrofuturist themes of African-diaspora histories, survival, and transformation through distinctive marine imagery. Through a dazzling array of marine life forms, Gallagher manifests what could be described as "aquafuturist" aesthetics. I look at three artworks which feature distinctive subjects-the renowned African American dancer "Peg Leg" Bates recast as a pirate; a mysterious jellyfish-like creature; and the artist's self-portrait as odalisque. I explore how they transcend or evade the heteronormative gender binary and racialization to imagine an "aquafuture," an aquatic realm of Afrofuturist becoming.

Buoyed by the artworks' eclectic maritime aesthetics and their close relationship to literature, this essay sees Octavia Butler's queer alien shape-shifters, the Ooloi, swim alongside Gallagher's Watery Ecstatic in the first section, "Afro future/Queer/Aquafu ture," which centers on the painting Bird in Hand (2006). Maybe they could swim into the series since Gallagher describes her artworks featuring the image of Peg Leg Bates as a form of "picaresque novel" inspired by Herman Melville's The Confidence Man and the novel's confounding structure (Gallagher 2005). Indeed, Peg Leg Bates only appears as a fleeting allusion in Bird in Hand since the image unmoors signifiers of race and gender. I elaborate how Gallagher's aquatic aesthetics suggest queer kinship by referring to Jean Genet's writings, building on Beth Coleman's connection between Genet's theme of doubling and the formal qualities of repetition in Gallagher's earlier paintings (Coleman 2001).

The second section, "Nurse Shark," looks at the monstrous, maternal aquatic creature depicted in the painting Watery Ecstatic (2005) to explore the agency of its destabilizing of signifiers of race and gender. Cast adrift, they affect the legibility of Gallagher's self-portrait Odalisque (2005), where Gallagher poses as Sigmund Freud's orientalist model, by rendering eyes that can speak. Her counter gaze recoups the odalisque from representing mute, racialized, and objectified femininity. To explore the agency of this gaze in the third section, "An Eye/I Adrift," I turn to Clarice Lispector's novel The Passion according to G.H. (1964), where a marginalized but critical black gaze ruptures language and propels identities toward the unknown. Lispector's reach beyond language resonates with Gallagher's transformation of signifiers, where words become objects to see and invite us to see differently. The novel's setting in a parched room contrasts with its protagonist's visions of a subterranean sea, into which we slip to conclude with a consideration of Gallagher's artworks, where race and gender undergo a sea change. Transformative modes of identity and subjectivity are imagined in an aquafuture where aquatic aesthetics queer the survivalist and futurist projections of Afrofuturism crucial at the present time.

Cultural critic Mark Dery coined "Afrofuturism" in the early 1990s to describe speculative fiction that addresses African American themes and concerns through technoculture and African American cultural production involving an appropriation of technological images and cyborg futurity. Its aesthetics of resistance to the obliteration of African American histories and dominant white-centered fantasies of the future feature in diverse works of art, music, comic books, and film (Dery 1994). Afrofuturism has been established in visual art through exhibitions including Alien Nation (2007) at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts, which was among the first to curate artists who explore themes of difference through science fiction aesthetics. Explorations of gender, race, African-diaspora histories, and politics of futurity intersect in the practices of other internationally acclaimed artists alongside Gallagher, including those of Julie Mehretu, Fatimah Tuggar and Wangechi Mutu. …

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