In her brilliant Shine: The Visual Economy of Light in African Diasporic Aesthetic Practice, Krista A. Thompson considers four “lens-centered” aesthetic practices across the circum-Caribbean: street photography in Atlanta and New Orleans; Jamaican dancehall spectacles; extravagant prom entrances in the Bahamas; and the bling aesthetics of contemporary transnational hip-hop. Delving into the histories and visual economies of each, Thompson argues “contemporary diasporic formation takes place in the light of technology, in the flickering, unsettled, reflective and bright surfaces, the pixels, of photographic and videographic representation” (p. 9). Weaving together frameworks from performance studies, visual culture studies, ethnography, and art history, Shine offers an extended and deeply thoughtful meditation on how diasporic communities take up light's simultaneous illuminating and blinding effects as representational possibility and performative excess. For Thompson, shine itself offers a metaphor of, and material response to, diasporic fragmentation, a critical space for considering slavery's visual logics, and a new “representational space for figuring black subjects” (p. 35).
Shine's animating framework comes from the 1981 edition of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, which uses the term “un-visibility” to describe “the state of not being seen or not being recognized, as well as the ‘moral blindness' toward the ‘predicament of blacks”’ (p. 40). Responding to Ellison, as well as Saidiya Hartman, Christopher Pinney, and Paul Gilroy, Thompson argues that the practices she studies “produce modes of visibility quite distinct from political investments in being socially visible” (p. 40) and manifest “the state of being unseen, or of making the un-visible's disappearance seen” (p. 41). For example, in the first chapter, Thompson analyzes how and why black urban youths pay street photographers to capture their poses in front of painted backdrops depicting mansions, sports cars, glimmering cityscapes, and other spectacles of conspicuous consumerism. While placing backdrop aesthetics inside a longer history of black photography in the United States and Jamaica, Thompson also notes that the photographs themselves (whether material or digital) are often less important than the spectacle of being photographed—of a person's ability to remain in front of the backdrop, commanding the attention of a line of impatient clients. In the post-civil-rights-era world of de facto racial segregation where, as Mark Anthony Neal outlines, “self-worth increasingly became defined by the ability to consume” (p. 95), Thompson argues the spectacle of being seen consuming material wealth marks a move away from overt forms of black political engagement in the 1960s. Thompson's analysis of Charles H. Nelson's woefully understudied Backdrop Project (1999–2009) illuminates this point. In the series, Nelson reimagines the street backdrop in ways that analogize the death of political activism to the specter of death that lurks behind photography and consumerism. Eschewing flashy cars and money, Nelson's backdrops depict Malcolm X, the assassination of Martin Luther King, and an image of Gustave Courbet's The Stone Breakers which advises posers to “Keep It Real.”
In chapter 2, Thompson expands her argument through an analysis of video light: the bright, white, undiffused light from a single video camera that, in the 1990s, emerged as the focal point in Jamaican dancehalls. In dancehalls, dancers may pay camera-operators to keep the light on them as long as possible. Here, social status equates with performative spectacle, as the dancers' goal is to have others see them being seen by, even bathed in, the video light. To do so, dancehall performers transform their bodies into visual flashpoints, decorating their bodies with jewelry and sequins in shining sartorial displays meant to “catch” the video light. Through this lens Thompson analyzes the controversial practice of skin bleaching, which she positions as an effort to transform the body into “a medium that absorbs, reflects, reproduces, and records the impressions of light” which in turn serves to “destabilize understandings of race as naturally manifest on the body” (pp. 141–42). Here, Thompson's insightful critiques of media transformation continue through her discussion of the pixelated videos of dancehall performances. She positions the inevitable loss of quality that results from repeated copying and distribution across Jamaica and the US as material evidence and metaphor for the fractured nature of diasporic identity. Video light's threads of bodily invisibility, loss, and shining spectacle merge in Thompson's excellent analysis of the glittering, dancehall-inspired, multimedia installations of Ebony G. Patterson, which “materially and in its choice of subject matter, calls attention to how strategies of visibility in dancehalls were often mitigated by critics who framed dancehall as representative of criminality and sexual deviancy” (p. 156): yet another instance of spectacular visibility's transformation into social un-visibility.
Further public spectacles of visibility emerge in chapter 3, where Bahamian youth stage elaborate prom entrances inspired by American hip-hop aesthetics. This chapter is most effectively summarized in the story of one prom-goer who hired paparazzi to bathe her in photo-light as she entered the prom hall, but did not hire an actual photographer to document the entrance. Here Thompson largely repeats her argument from the two previous chapters. Situating the material photograph as less important than the fact of being seen being seen, Thompson emphasizes how “the orchestration of our cameras as parts of the entrance brings into view how being seen and being seen being represented … are intrinsic to the performance frame of the proms” (p. 187). Thompson smartly hits on the particular postcolonial contradiction of prom entrances. Prom-goers parents' may critique prom entrances for their emphasis on “spectacle rather than scholarly substance” (p. 171), while popular discourse situates prom entrances as extravagant displays antithetical to traditional forms of national belonging. Yet, Thompson notes, the Bahamas holds up Junkanoo performances as the paragon of Bahamian identity. Thus, the controversy Thomspon traces shows how proms utilize African-American hip-hop aesthetics to perform countermodes of citizenship, blackness, and diasporic belonging.
Across these three case studies, Thompson explores “bling” as both representational practice and theoretical framework. New Orleans rapper B.G. (Baby Gangsta) first coined the term “bling-bling” in 1998, describing it as “the imaginary sound that light makes when it hits a diamond” (p. 99). Throughout the book, Thompson utilizes this sonic-visual aesthetic metaphor to unite studies of consumption and haptic visuality with critical perspectives on the visibility of black histories and diasporic belonging. While bling crosses sensory realms and provides another way of meditating on the ways in which visibility becomes disappearance, Thompson also situates bling as “a form through which diasporic people” engage ideas of modernity, citizenship, consumerism, and “return to and reenvision the memory, the time-space, of slavery and the unfulfilled promises of full citizenship after Emancipation and the civil rights and independence eras” (p. 32). The full thrust of this argument does not come through until the book's final chapter, where Thompson uses hip-hop's bling aesthetics as a new framework for a “critical and illuminating perspective on the history of Western art” (p. 5). When Hookt.com appropriates Hans Holbein's Portrait of Henry VIII of England (ca. 1536), and when Kehinde Wiley places shining black men against baroque backdrops, hip-hop emerges as “not only a contemporary manifestation of a longer history of conspicuous consumption but also a mode of critical and comical reflection on the visual effect of the commodity” (p. 230). Thompson's extended analysis of the bright shine of Wiley's portraits also serves to illuminate “a complicity and continuity between bling-bling and racial slavery” (p. 31); a “slave sublime” which “served to blind buyers, if you will, to the slave's humanity” (p. 233). Reflecting again on bling, Thompson ominously concludes the text by asking whether or not this may “be another instance of the disappearance of the black subject, a new form of emblazoned invisibility” (p. 270).
This concluding turn harks back to two points Thompson raises in the book's introduction. Presenting Shine as an “art history formulated not just in the archives but in the streets” (p. 14), she also notes that the photographs she studies “only make sense within a broader system that depends on assigning bodies places within social and moral hierarchies” (p. 17). Artists like Nelson and Patterson, she argues, “bring popular forms into proximity with state criminal photographic archives, stressing how they are intimately intertwined” (p. 19). Distressingly prescient in this point, I found this book haunted by the images it did not have time to consider: the viral spectacle of Michael Brown's body lying in the streets of Ferguson (August 2014), or the pixelated video stills of Walter Scott fleeing Michael Slager (April 2015). A decisive study on the relationship between blackness, diaspora aesthetics, representation, consumerism, and modernity in the twenty-first century, Shine will emerge as a necessary text for graduate students and established scholars for the foreseeable future. But it could not have anticipated the past few years' increased consumption of the spectacle of black death that always lurks, as Thompson noted, behind the spectacle of shining consumption.