by Cole W. Williams
Do you see the red tie?
Or how the entire painting appears to be seeping off the page, as if Marcus Jansen applied too much wet paint allowing it to slide down in streaks. The Colonialist, an oil enamel painting with spray paint and oil stick on canvas was completed in 2021. I’ve stared at this figure often; in person at the Artis Naples gallery, online, a photo on my phone.
Missing, are the tiny “diminutive figures—standing for the ordinary people—acting as protagonists,” as seen in paintings, Monument Wars #2, and Falling Statues. In person the delivery is human sized at six feet tall, and the figure speaks for itself.
In Week One of Me and White Supremacy, by Layla F. Saad, we embark on what she refers to as the basics. With daily lessons delivered like an elementary workbook, I operated under the assumption this would be easy, sharpened pencil ready, let’s dismantle myself. I have paused too many times. Too many times I’ve stared out the window after hearing “I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group,” Peggy McIntosh. My sessions tended to fade into mental dust.
The painting’s silhouette is sheathed in a great robe with colonial wig. In abstraction are two ovals, a pink nose, a red mouth. They could be any colonial nose, any colonial mouth, as distinguishing features are withholding us from identifying a time, country or individual. The Colonialist is not the only faceless figure in the museum, along with Purple Heart (2019) they live within the series titled Faceless. Faceless and he seems to be disappearing. A smoky apparition searching for body.
My work with me and white supremacy comes in fits and starts and I’ve yet to write anything down on paper. Day two asks me to consider, what leads to white fragility? Answer: Lack of exposure to conversations about racism and here I begin to feel groggy. Layla asks me if there is a little voice inside my head. Yes, it is there as it told me I could listen to the book and skip the work, that I could simply think about the work.
The chair is red and hollow. The light is on above. The light is centered. From the museum label, “Referencing the portrait conventions of European old masters, he attempts to render the invisible, anonymous power of our time visible.” This ubiquitous power breeds silence. Jansen’s shadowy “masters of the universe” allow humans to suffer.
New lesson: White Silence is Violence…You do not need to be the loudest voice, but you do need to use your voice.
The museum label, or ‘tombstone’ likens Marcus Jansen’s The Colonialist to Francis Bacon’s Pope series of the 1950’s. Review Figure with Meat, 1954; and Study after Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X. 1953. Bacon would refer to this series as “silly” and that he wished he had never done them. In 1964, a decade later, we see Study for Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1965. Bacon is haunted by the distorted forms, the pose we all have memorized as the historical symbol of wealth, power, and conquering.
I will arrive at Friday’s lesson, after months of distractions: Think back across your life from childhood to where you are in your life now, in what ways have you consciously or subconsciously believed that you are better than BIPOC. Don’t hide from this. This is the crux of White Supremacy, own it.
The Colonialist may be fading, but he is also wearing the red tie. He is ready for work and so I must also be ready for the work. A daily and pervasive commitment to clear my own haze.
Cole W. Williams has writing forthcoming in North Dakota Quarterly and Ran Off With the Star Bassoon. Her piece, “The Godwin Essay” was recognized by the International Human Rights Arts Festival’s Creators of Justice Award; 2021.