Legacy Russell: BLACK MEME

External Pages (online)

16 April - 18 June 2020

Review by Clara Nissim

You are browsing the internet at different speeds, across temporalities. You take a deep dive in the realm of ‘BLACK MEME’, encountering material you are surrounded by every day. A journey curated by Legacy Russell, curator, writer, and artist currently Associate Curator of Exhibitions at The Studio Museum, Harlem.

When you enter the exhibition space on External Pages your screen will be entirely black: a screen within your screen will appear along a keyboard. You are not invited to zoom in, or rewind, nor use the digital keyboard. You are kindly encouraged to keep your digits to yourself.

The mediation of your experience with this series of quotidian mimetic material from the 19th to the 21st century strives to encourage a slow reading of images produced and reproduced at a staggering rate. ‘BLACK MEME’ doesn’t aim to make you feel the speed at which they evolve or travel, but to expose the notion of ‘BLACK MEME’ as “transmission by way of imitation, the copying and transmission of Blackness as mimetic material.” Its history could be traced back to the Middle Passage: “the movement of Black data carried by Black people first in the form of their physical bodies”, explains Russell in a lecture available on YouTube she gave at PNCA in early 2020 on the topic, linking this phenomenon to racial capitalism.

By now it will be clear that “the use of Black imagery is not neutral” whether fictional scenes such as the ‘post-truth’ and overtly racist feature film ‘Birth of Nation’ or the Rodney King tape, recording extreme police brutality in 1992. The virality and exploitation of Black pain and Black death didn’t start there nor end with the viral videos of Trayvon Martin, Emmett Till or Michael Brown murders. The racist and classist dynamics at work in the creation and circulation of these images were already at work in the popularity of lynching photography widely shared across the US and internationally. These artifacts are still touring as collectors’ items on eBay today. This is the kind of fetishisation of Black death that Russell points to. In this context it is dishonest to feign surprise at the emergence of the online trend of ‘Trayvonning’ whereby online users reenact Martin’s murder by staging their own bodies on the ground. As Christina Sharpe points out: “In the wake, the past that is not past reappears, always, to rupture the present”. The flow of moving images in ‘BLACK MEME’ are in constant but silent conversation, referencing, quoting, reflecting each other, without ever saying each other’s name. That’s the conversation that Russell wants you to ponder upon.

There are no links at the end, no set of pre-digested explanations or arguments ready for your consumption in this video essay. Should you want to go further, Legacy Russell’s writing is available online, behind no paywalls, along with the work of Aria Dean and Manuel Arturo Abreu.

Published on