The swift cancellation of Roseanne after its star's offensive tweets Tuesday, May 29 (the same day Starbucks coffeehouses closed across the country for the afternoon for racial bias training, and a week after the NFL's decision regarding taking a knee during the National Anthem), compounded by Kanye West's recent provocative Twitter trolling, Donald Trump's continued tactic of blaming his predecessor for, well, everything [and update: the Drake blackface controversy] all highlight a sad fact: The racial tensions in this country are deeper and more contentious than ever. Barr and West have (some might say admirably) sparked conversation about race and class with their work, but their objectionable social media activity of late has all but discounted that, even for a lot of their fans. Music, art and other forms of expression concerning this issue are important, however, and I hope Public Spectacle can contribute to the cultural conversation by writing about Angelenos with something to say about it, however provocative their words or imagery may be. This piece is an excellent example. —Lina Lecaro
“My photographs explore the things people find most difficult to talk about. Race, gender identity, childhood trauma, politics — nothing is off-limits with me,” says the artist known only as BlackManWhiteBaby. “My work is autobiographical, provocative, multilayered and unique.”
BlackManWhiteBaby creates self-portraits that explore racial and sexual stereotypes by boldly and shamelessly utilizing them as part of the imagery, playing with their meaning, and compelling the viewer to feel something about them. They are often hard to swallow, even for the most open-minded and not easily offended.
Using Instagram as a vehicle to showcase his photographic self-expression, the veteran artist invites dialogue and even discourse from the public. Still, dealing with these subjects on such a public platform can be challenging and, at times, depressing.
“People have strong reactions that are not always in my favor,” BlackManWhiteBaby says. “They can be nasty.”
Quite the opposite is true when the artist showcases his work in safe spaces such as art galleries. Recently, at the East Hollywood community arts space called Junior High, BlackManWhiteBaby's collection of photographs, called “The Tar and Feathers Series,” were the featured backdrop for a gender-neutral fashion show put together by Radimo. BlackManWhiteBaby also was one of the runway's standout models.
Radimo's nonbinary designer, Dan Owens-Reid, and the artist met while they were both working on Lady Gaga's Monster's Ball Tour. “I was doing social media for the tour sponsor, and he was her personal trainer,” Owens-Reid says. “I always admired his work and have been a big fan from the beginning.”
“He has such a beautiful relationship to his own gender,” Owens-Reid continues. ” A lot of his experience with femininity is something I relate to. A soft masculine that resonates with me. We have such different experiences but share a lot of the same feelings.”
Owens-Reid chose BlackManWhiteBaby's look for the runway based on the different characters in his work, including a red skirt and a shirt that read, “Dead Men Can’t Catcall.”
“He uses colors very intentionally,” Owens-Reid says. “And that look definitely had a lot of color. There is a little bit of red blood on the knife on the shirt, paired with the red skirt — it was just perfect. I felt like that encompassed what BlackManWhiteBaby portrays in his art — it’s so soft, feminine, even sweet, but also threatening and intimidating.”
BlackManWhiteBaby's day job as a physical trainer contributes to his imagery, which frequently shows off his muscular physique. “As my art work has evolved, so has my body,” he notes. “I use it as a metaphor for strength and survival, and the fitness world I work in helps me achieve this. When I reveal myself, I’m showing you the canvas on which this country was built. My body looks strong and unbreakable in a lot of the images — as the bodies of my ancestors must have been, or I would probably not be here today.”
BlackManWhiteBaby's imposing physicality is contrasted by the gentle beauty of his work, but his use of Ku Klux Klan garb and blackface has brought him his share of online hatred. It wasn’t until he shared his work on social media that he really experienced the n-word and homosexual slurs. It had him contemplating quitting, many times.
“Not because those words have such power over me — it made me think that America hasn’t really grown and people don’t want change,” he says wearily. “Maybe some people are hardwired to be racist and I couldn’t possibly make even a small impact.”
BlackManWhiteBaby says his next photo essay, “They Called It Black Face,” is inspired by 1920s jazz singer Al Jolson, a man he's both obsessed with and conflicted about. While Jolson was a gifted entertainer, his use of blackface was controversial because some viewed him as an advocate for African-Americans. “My people are beautiful,” says BlackManWhiteBaby, who aims to call out the inherent ugliness of the practice by using it in his work. “How could performing in blackface become acceptable and almost normal?”
Next up for BlackManWhiteBaby is a secret art show that will only be announced to his Instagram followers in the next few weeks. His creative quest is to validate his followers’ online experience and take it to another level, showing them the anger, sadness and other emotional complexities they felt while viewing his photos.
“Our pain is real and exists in the world,” he says. “I want to stir things up. I want people to be real. And yes, make people angry, sad, confused and whatever. I want people to talk. Lots of dialogue! When people see my work, they talk to each other about it; the racist undertones, childhood trauma, the weird gay stuff, etc. We need to be comfortable talking about the tough stuff. Dialogue opens things up to more understanding. That's what we need if we are going to come together.”
Follow @blackmanwhitebaby on Instagram to see more of his work and get info on his upcoming exhibit.