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Head, Heart, Hand: Ohio State University Students Respond to Blues for Smoke 4

Mon, Dec 23, 2013

Maurice Stevens, Associate Professor in the Department of Comparative Studies at the Ohio State University, recently held a course that directly engaged students with our exhibition of Blues for Smoke. He divided the class into groups and we're sharing their responses. Today's entry comes from the Blueberry Group discussing the work of Kerry James Marshall. For more background on this series, head here.

Blueberry Blog: Kerry James Marshall's Blue Water, Silver Moon (1991)

It has been a privilege for The Ohio State University's Wexner Center for the Arts to include Kerry James Marshall’s piece, Blue Water, Silver Moon in its Blues for Smoke Fall 2013 exhibit. With striking use of collage and acrylic paint, Marshall has created a piece that creates a dialogue around femininity, race, gender, mythology, and the intersections between them all.

Kerry James Marshall was born on October 17, 1955 in Birmingham, Alabama. He grew up in Southern Los Angeles where he went to college and started his career as an artist. Marshall went on to teach at the University of Illinois in Chicago where he currently lives. He uses his personal experiences and social surroundings to depict important civil rights leaders and historical events in his art. One of Marshall’s main themes in his artwork is the use of extreme dark skin tones for his characters. The abstraction between the characters and the background sets a powerful and demanding tone for the people represented in the work (Kantor, 1).

Blue Water, Silver Moon features an African American mermaid, perceived as the main subject, sitting in a body of water. The artwork is made of acrylic and a collage of other materials on linen. The piece stands out because when a person thinks of a mermaid, they usually think of Walt Disney’s Ariel character and not an African American mermaid. The artwork shows what appears to be reflections in the water from a yellow light source, possibly the moon, and in the yellow reflections are the faces of white women (

The term Mermaid is an Old English compound of mere (sea) and maid (a young girl or woman). The first known mermaid tales originated in 1000 B.C in greek mythology with the goddess Atargatis, who retreated into the sea after accidentally killing her human lover. The sea could not cover her beauty entirely, so she settled on remaining half fish, half woman. Since this account, mermaids have been documented differently depending on the culture and location of the people who wrote about them. Mermaids have always, however, held residence in the sea, and more often than not, have been faced with conflict in relation to their beauty, skills, or time having been exploited.

Mermaids have been subject to artistic interpretation and analysis since the late nineteenth century. Mermaids have been considered “another fiction of the medieval bestiaries,” and have been employed in many artistic forms to facilitate a discourse around whether or not mythology and fairy tales are appropriate subjects of art (Brink-Roby, 2). The mermaid has thus been deemed a symbol, and sometimes even a trope for what may be classified as “frivolous and impossible” (Brink-Roby, 2). Interestingly, Darwin’s evolutionary theory was attacked with the possibility of mermaids, and further discussion has lead to curiosity into the fascination humans have with mermaids, through the arts and sciences. Mermaids have been used historically to open up a dialogue surrounding mytho-folklore traditions, evolutions, and identifying humans’ place in the natural order (Brink-Roby, 4).

Mermaids are almost always depicted as women, feminine, or female. They have been associated with being luring and seducing throughout history. The Sirens of greek mythology are often compared to or associated with mermaids as evil seductive creatures. They are also seen as vain and feminine through depictions with mirrors and combs (Kokai). Beauty, feminism, and athleticism are shown often in images of mermaids. As female creatures, mermaids are shown as inherently wanting of heterosexual sex, although they are also inherently asexual as they seem to have no genitals nor ability to engage in sex. If mermaids are almost always female, then when they are male they are thought of as more feminine and not generally liked or respected as males.

In regards to African American culture, black mermaids surfaced from the ancient West African water spirits. As Europe and Africa increased contact, legends of the mermaids began to intertwine. Originally, African water spirits evolved from a half-human and half-creature to a half-fish, half-woman. Once enslaved Africans arrived in the United States, it is important to note that their traditions, beliefs, and practices were diluted and overshadowed by the American concept of mermaids.

On the plaque next to the piece, it is stated that Kerry James Marshall got his motivation for the piece from a 1980’s pop comic book which gave him the idea that African American women can be portrayed as Goddesses. After extensive research on which comic it may have been, it is found that the 1980’s comic book Monsters Attack featured a story titled Killer Mermaids in black and white that is likely the source of his inspiration. The story is about a group of people who accidentally catch a mermaid. At first they think it is a woman swimming in the water but then they notice her fish tail and see other mermaids swimming with her, all of which have sharp, carnivorous teeth. They catch her and put her on the boat and then take her and put her in an aquarium. She then seduces a guy to swim with her, where she tenderly embraces him and then drowns him. The group of people realize it is too dangerous to keep her and release her back into the water. This magazine issue is very hard to find so her exact skin color cannot be determined but this seems to have been the only 1980s comic featuring a mermaid that may have been African American ("Thread: Searching for 1980s mermaid horror comic?").

Kerry James Marshall’s piece depicts the visual intersection between blackness as a racialized color and the image of mermaids.  While blackness as visual trope is typically a negative signifier in contemporary hegemonic imagination, coding the absence of privileged whiteness and pathologized darkness, Marshall appears to pose the black mermaid as a counter image and re-assert blackness as deeply definitive to black beauty and subjectivity. The visual darkness of his mermaid figure, as conceived in the contrast between the blue waters and the mermaid’s body, importantly reminds the viewer of the visibility and corporeality of blackness, and as the most explicitly visible feature of the mermaid’s figural self, aesthetically alludes to the historical reality of black invisibility.  Blackness as a racialized category of the mermaid’s visuality demonstrates the conditions of invisibility through which black peoples “could sometimes be seen and not be seen as the same time” (Kerry James Marshall quoted in Whitehead 1).  Its apparent visuality is, at once, a form of reclaiming visibility and critiquing hegemonic reappropriation of blackness as “abstract visual property,” characteristic of normative American visual culture (Raengo 160).

Other entries in this series:



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