Keith Obadike’s BlacknessPrint
By Thomas Chatterton Williams
July 13, 2016
London’s Whitechapel Gallery hosted a show titled Electronic Superhighway (2016–1966) this year about the impact of the Internet and computers on artistic practice and production. Nothing very special to write home about—a lot of it seemed pretty ugly and mundane. At least that’s what I thought on a recent rainy Saturday when the fragrant food stalls on Brick Lane seemed an infinitely more reliable bet. But I take a certain pride in finishing the books I start and at least glancing at everything in a museum or gallery once I’m in.
As I made my way to the second level, in the corner of a room packed tight with all manner of screens, I stumbled on a gem, an outdated, 30-odd-inch LCD hung vertically on the wall, displaying an eBay auction for something called “Keith Obadike’s Blackness.” I had to double check the date. The work (a real eBay auction while it lasted; the website eventually shut it down), which dates back to 2001, feels surprisingly fresh in our current iteration of the perennial conversation on race. Obadike is slyly funny, aware not only of the potential disadvantages of blackness but also alive to the less discussed but undeniable pleasures, ironies, and advantages.
What is especially fascinating about the thought experiment—and perhaps more relevant today than it was even 15 years ago—is the artist’s clever emphasis on the sheer artificiality of what we’ve learned to think of and respond to as “blackness” in the first place. It is something, the work seems to say, a lot like the blueness in the sky (or in your eyes)—something not at all inherent in the person or thing itself but an optical (or ontological) illusion, activated only when seen and seized upon by others, white and black alike. What Obadike accomplishes here in the space of one compact paragraph is impressive. I left wondering why the work and the artist are not better known.
Thomas Chatterton Williams is the author of a memoir, Losing My Cool: Love, Literature, and a Black Man’s Escape from the Crowd. He lives in Paris with his wife and daughter.
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