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At the Tate

ISSUE:  Fall 2023

after The Negro Scipio 


I’m lonely and the only Black person inside the paid Cézanne 

exhibit today. I’ve been traveling the world solo for six months 

trying to record and reckon with beauty. Maybe it’s more 


precise to say that it feels like I’m the only Black person 

besides Scipio, hanging on the wall. I was surprised to see 

him there. I was expecting white people, flowers, and fruit. 


I stand in front of your back, examining. Are those scars, Scipio, 

from the slave breaker’s whip or just juicy slashes of thick oil paint 

slathered in smudgy light layered across your spine like a spatula  


stirring brown butter? We see what we want to see. You lean 

on a glob of whiteness. The museum label suggests it’s a cotton 

bale. Is that so? To me, you look like you are resting or sleeping. 


You look like you are tired of being consumed, but I still can’t 

keep my eyes off you. I’m staring just like the older white people

crowding around us, peering. Encircling the magnetic orb 


your image ignites. We all are trying to get closer without 

touching your heat or sounding the alarm. Hunger configures 

our proximity. What are the white people around me seeing


and thinking to themselves about the story of your back? 

Perhaps there is no narrative other than a study of anatomy 

or practice for the Mary Magdalene or Sorrow that Cézanne paints


two years later. Next to your bent-over body, the museum label 

has a picture of Gordon, the infamous formerly enslaved Union 

soldier with the scourged back trashed with vicious scars 


in a triptych from the July 4th issue of Harper’s Weekly from 1863. 

The galvanizing power of the mutilated Black body. Does horror 

compel us more than beauty? A picture of Gordon’s back is next 


to your back on the wine-deep wall of the museum, which looks 

like old, dried blood. Back-to-back becomes an equation, 

implied context creates correlation. So, if a rose is a rose, is a back 


just a back unless it’s Black? Outside, a convenience store sells 

packs of cigarettes with graphic images of diseased lungs, holes 

in throats, and rotting teeth to shock smokers. Studies show 


the visual message is clear, striking, and more successful 

than the words on the warning label. What else is there to say 

or assume as Cézanne’s famous blues swirl with white whirls 


of clouds swooshing up and down Scipio’s pants with whimsy. 

Another museum label shares thoughts from Ellen Gallagher, 

an American artist whose work investigates race and repetition


through visual language, consumerism, and Afrofuturism. She

imagines that Cézanne “has used the language of painting 

to bring us back in time before the keloid scarring… The back 


of Scipio, layered in thick black and umber slabs of paint with 

the faint presence of red that seeped from the edge of the brush.”  

Her work also hangs in the Tate with a piece titled Esirn Coaler


on level four. The plasticine and aluminium contain phrases 

and ailments from the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, which invents 

a fictional “witness to the abolition of pain.” She is also one


of the four Black artists who bought Nina Simone’s dilapidated 

childhood home in Tryon, North Carolina, because they wanted

a “living past that we can take care of.” Scant research exists 


about the real back that posed for Cézanne. All we know is that 

he was a model from the Académie Suisse. All I know is that 

a Black man’s back is before me, and for once, I am not trying 


to think about the transference of trauma that may or may not 

have been there as my body percolates. Scipio, why do I want 

to take you and Gordon off the wall? Perhaps I’ve missed 


Gallagher’s point entirely about an “unfixed body in time.” 

Perhaps Gallagher is positioning Gordon in a place of mutable 

beauty before and beyond the pain, a mythic place like Drexciya, 


an imagined Black Atlantis in her Watery Ecstatic series, an undersea 

kingdom inhabited by the West African women and children 

who were thrown overboard during the transatlantic slave trade. 


Perhaps she was pointing to a portal through the painting

where I could see Gordon’s back before the damage. Perhaps 

I wasn’t calm enough to see that kind of care in the curation. 


Perhaps the way I metabolize beauty has been shaped by violence 

for so long that I forgot what beauty could reveal and give back 

to me as preservation. Either way, I want to look at both of you 


without having to think about or be grateful for the aims 

of abolition. Why does it feel like we are the only Black 

people here except for the man working the front door? 


Instead, I imagine at night, when the museum is closed, 

you come alive without our constant looking. You come 

alive without my transgressive need for the ekphrastic mode. 


I imagine you stepping out of the wooden frame, walking 

around, and eating all the still-life apples and peaches, which 

are forever ripe and holy glowing, sniffing the translucence


around the Grand Bouquet of Flowers, walking around the trees 

inside The Avenue at the Jas de Bouffan. You stand with your back 

to Cézanne’s self-portrait with the dreamy pink background 


all around you like a sky of cotton candy. I see you looking 

back at all the white people on the wall, imagining their inner 

worlds as I imagine you as The Bather facing forward without 


allegory. Before this, Monet kept you close in his bedroom 

until his death, saying you were “a work of the greatest strength.” 

How exhausting to be this durable, to magnifically hold all 


of this international meaning and implication, even mine. 

You push the tall, heavy doors open and leave the exhibit. 

You float down the steady stream of escalators and marvel 


at the long, knotted threads in Cecilia Vicuña’s Brain 

Forest Quipu before you step outside into the cold, 

wet bite of January’s nearly dead maw, walking toward


the Thames, which looks like a weird brown tea. Smoke 

billows from the top of a building. Construction exposing 

the guts of another high-rise in media res as you walk in mist 


across the Millennium Bridge, looking up at the grandeur 

of St. Paul’s Cathedral. The cross at the top of the dome 

is blurred by the dense fog, and I can’t see you anymore.  


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