By: Kathryn Higinbotham
The focal point of Glenn Ligon’s 1993 To Disembark installation represents the story of Henry “Box” Brown, a man who escaped slavery by mailing himself north in a shipping crate in the form of audio sculptures, but other aspects of Ligon’s installation also explores broader themes of slavery, freedom, and their echoes in contemporary America. One of the most poignant components is the Runaways lithographic series. Runaways is comprised of ten prints mimicking the form of runaway slave advertisements, each one featuring an image of a slave copied from an abolitionist publication above a description of Ligon, written by one of his friends. Ligon enlisted his friends to write these descriptions without telling them their purpose. The results are portrayals that, while detailing Ligon’s physical appearance in a manner similar to the slave advertisements, also provide snapshots of deep, interpersonal relationships. One reads “Ran away, a man named Glenn. He has almost no hair. He has cat-eye glasses, medium-dark skin, cute eyebrows… He’s sort of short, a little hunky, though you might not notice it with his shirt untucked. He talks out of the side of his mouth and looks at you sideways. Sometimes he has a loud laugh, and lately I’ve noticed he refers to himself as ‘mother’” (Ligon). These descriptions mimic the slave advertisement genre, yet, simultaneously, contradict it.
Historical and Cultural Context
Glenn Ligon’s manipulation of the runaway slave advertisement form is crucial to his message. This format provides both the medium and the cultural context to the series, shaping Ligon’s message of identity and slavery. The automatic reaction of a contemporary audience viewing an advertisement for a runaway slave would likely be that of anger at the institution that it represents, one where men and women are monetized property. But a deeper look at these advertisements suggests a victorious sense of freedom and liberty from this very institution. While the escaped slave depicted is living at risk, he has also upended the system that oppresses him. The advertisements may be a reminder of a cruel and oppressive institution, but they also articulate the visceral fear that slaveholders held of their slaves’ autonomy. The entire institution of slavery could only be justified by the assumption that blacks are subhuman, so a slave demonstrating their humanity by risking their life in the pursuit of freedom subverted the entire system. So, while these advertisements were slaveholders’ attempts to reign in an unacceptable expression of autonomy, they are also implicitly an admission of the system’s inherent evil: “Indirectly, slaves also forced the master to buttress their ‘passing’ into autonomous self-hood by having him testify… to the failure of the domestic regime. Indeed, by their signifying absence, slaves demonstrated that their master’s house was subject to damage and restructure by certain discursive tools” (Kang 437). A slaveholder’s desperation to recapture runaway slaves became an indictment of the entire system in which they participated.
The descriptions printed on Runaways also signify the wider cultural context of the pieces. While Ligon did not give the authors of the descriptions any specific guidance, they mimicked aspects of police reports of criminal suspects. They list approximate height and weight, physical features and build, clothing, and race, similar to a police report, innately linking Ligon to notions of black criminality. Runaways was created in 1993, directly in the middle of the prison boom, which would have lent even more weight to these racialized, police-esque descriptions. In 1993, the American prison population had reached almost one million people and was continuing to rise rapidly. This population was comprised almost entirely of black men at approximately Ligon’s age (“Trends”). The politicization of black criminality and mass incarceration would have ensured its presence in the public awareness and would have made the connection between the descriptions and the police quickly visible. Coupling this connection with law enforcement and the prison boom with a form directly connected to slavery contemporizes Runaways.
Themes and Style
In Ligon’s own words, Runaways is “broadly about how an individual’s identity is inextricable from the way one is positioned in the culture, from the ways people see you, from historical and political contexts” (MoMA). This theme of an identity — determined not by self, but by other and by history — is juxtaposed with a sense of freedom that the appropriated form of the pieces demand. The escaped slaves featured in historical broadsides sought their own independence and thus asserted their own autonomy. Thus the series allows for an interpretation that speaks both to the ways that structural injustices defined slaves as well as to the ways they resisted Runaways asserts that an individual’s identity is not fully their own but determined in large part by external forces outside of their control, but Ligon also allows for an escape from this panoptic system of identification by placing himself within the form of the runaway, a rebel who refused to relinquish his autonomy to an oppressive regime.
The installation evokes broader social and political applications to movements against oppressive institutions, such as the Civil Rights movement. During the Civil Rights movement, many notable leaders used the rhetoric of slavery and freedom to argue their case. These historicized arguments forced an association between the injustices faced by mid-twentieth-century blacks and slavery, altering the popular viewpoint from one of necessary, “separate but equal” segregation to blatantracism and oppression. Runaways mirrors this rhetoric, connecting a contemporary, living black man to a runaway slave. When pulled from its nineteenth-century roots into later eras, the message grows in its power. Ligon is not just escaping the institution of slavery, he is escaping from and rebelling against Jim Crow, police brutality, unequal employment and wages, stereotypes of black criminality, and social norms that delegitimize and stigmatize blackness and the black experience.
Intersectionality is a critical aspect of any identity argument. While one socially prescribed aspect of a person’s identity may be a rhetorical focal point, the argument is not really complete without at least some exploration of or allusion to the intersection of identities that layer themselves and together influence how a person is viewed in society. While the clearest connection to oppression and social movement falls within the realm of racism and racial reconciliation, I would argue that Runaways could also be connected to intersectionality. In the case of Runaways, Ligon alludes to his sexuality to deepen his argument about race, rebellion, and freedom. While this argument cannot be made for each individual lithograph, several incorporate certain feminized elements that evoke feminism and the gay rights movement, particularly in the decade following the height of the AIDs epidemic, and given the fact that Ligon himself is gay. The lithograph quoted in an early section alludes to Ligon’s feminization of himself, the author of the description noting that “I’ve noticed he refers to himself as ‘mother’” (Berwick). This lithograph also includes an image of a runaway woman, furthering a sense of femininity. These allusions shift the perception of Ligon further outside the sphere of what is socially acceptable. A black man is already pushing the limits, but a gay, feminine black man is something entirely different. By referencing race and sexuality, Ligon carries the anti-panoptic symbol of the Runaway into an intersectional realm that speaks to a wider level of oppression.
While some of Ligon’s past work has been met with criticism and mixed reviews, the critical response to Runaways and To Disembark installation was overwhelmingly positive. Most scholars analyzed the installation as a whole with a focus on its connection to slavery. In her 1996 article “To Disembark: The Slave Narrative Tradition,” Kimberly Rae Connor argues that Ligon’s installation not only contemporizes the American history of slavery, but also functions in much the same way that nineteenth-century abolitionist publications did: “In his installation, Ligon asks us to consider anew the same issues slave narratives once forced people to confront” (Connor 38). Connor further discusses the ways that ex-slave narratives forced nineteenth-century audiences to question politics, power, and common values through the visceral, deeply personal lens of actual autobiographic experience. Ligon’s installation does the same for a contemporary audience. His series connects slavery to his own personal descriptions and experiences as well as with facets of modern black culture that serve to realign the common perception of black life and slavery. Connor argues that this humanization of slavery and the contemporary black struggle that is central in slave narratives, abolitionist publications, and Runaways evoke the audience’s empathy, connecting them with a fellow human being as opposed to the cold and removed feeling of decontextualized statistics.
But throughout his career, Ligon has faced misguided criticism for his work rooted in his race which includes, for example, a pervasive assumption that his existence as a black man means that his artistic pursuits and their message must speak for the entirety of black America. He is not alone: most black American artists face criticism that is dependent on their race. The artists themselves often push back. Ligon has commented on the racialization of criticisms of black artists’ pieces in his own work, highlighting the clumsiness and bias that they demonstrate: “A text in an oil-on-paper painting from 1988… quotes curator Ned Rifkin on Martin Puryear, as reported in a New York Times article that year: ‘There is a consciousness we all have that he is a Black American artist but I think his work is really superior and stands on its own.’ Aside from its condescension, the statement gets under the skin because, in perhaps more veiled terms, similar things have been written about Ligon’s work over the years” (Berwick).Ligon ironically demonstrates awareness of his race within a predominantly white artistic culture by incorporating the rhetorically familiar, racialized critique of another artist in his own work.
Berwick, Carly. “Stranger in America.” Art in America. Art in America, 2 May 2011. http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-features/magazine/glenn-ligon/. Accessed 2 Oct. 2017
Connor, Kimberly Rae. “To Disembark: The Slave Narrative Tradition.” African American Review, vol. 30, no. 1, Spring, 1996, pp. 35-57. Indiana State University. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3042093. Accessed 1 Oct. 2017.
“Intersecting Identities: Glenn Ligon.” MoMA Learning, https://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/glenn-ligon-untitled-from-the-runaways-1993. Accessed 1 Oct. 2017.
Kang, Nancy. “‘As If I Had Entered a Paradise:’ Fugitive Slave Narratives and Cross-Border Literary History.” African American Review, Vol. 39, No. 3, pp. 431-457. St. Louis University. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40033673. Accessed 7 Nov. 2017.
Ligon, Glenn. Runaways. 1993, lithographic prints, Museum of Modern Art, Washington, D.C.
Ligon, Glenn. Interview with Glenn Ligon. NPR News, “Weekend Edition,” by Liane Hansen, 2011. http://www.npr.org/2011/05/08/136022514/glenn-ligon-reframes-history-in-the-art-of-america. Accessed 4 Oct. 2017
“Trends in U.S. Corrections.” The Sentencing Project, June 2017. http://sentencingproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Trends-in-US-Corrections.pdf. Accessed 8 Nov. 2017.
Copeland, Huey. “Glenn Ligon and Other Runaway Subjects.” Representations, vol. 113, no. 1, Winter 2011, pp. 73-110. U of California P. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/rep.2011.113.1.73. Accessed 1 Oct. 2017
Copeland, Huey and Krista Thompson. “Perpetual Returns: New World Slavery and the Matter of the Visual.” Representations, vol. 113, no. 1, Winter 2011, pp. 1-15. U of California P. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/rep.2011.113.1.1. Accessed 1 Oct. 2017.
Cotter, Holland. “Stories About Race, Politics and Himself.” The New York Times, 1 Feb. 1998. http://www.nytimes.com/1998/02/01/arts/art-view-stories-about-race-politics-and-himself.html. Accessed 3 Oct. 2017.
Fine, Elsa Honig. “The Afro-American Artist: A Search for Identity.” Art Journal, vol. 29, no. 1, Autumn, 1969, pp. 32-35. College Art Association. http://www.jstor.org/stable/775273. Accessed 4 Oct. 2017.
Glenn Ligon, Runaways, To Disembark, Slavery, Visual art, Racism, Activism, Contemporary art