My reading of primitivism within popular culture is essentially about western culture and its perceptions of difference. It focuses on white people and their perspectives rather than their exoticised black subjects. Often, when I am asked to discuss Primitivism, I find that white audiences warm to discussions about blackness. They are entertained by my anecdotes about people like Josephine Baker, thrilled at the mention of jazz, hip hop et al and positively transported when we get into the parallels between blacks and sexuality. But inevitably the subject becomes less amusing when it is clear that primitivism is not about black culture at all but about how the west dumps its anxieties and fantasies onto others. We need to avoid these more straightforward and entertaining examinations of how blacks are represented in the popular media and instead consider the processes behind that representation.
Within the realm of popular culture, the camera has been our most important tool for constructing new realities. It takes the discussion about alterity and the reflective principle of the mirror as purported by Jacques Lacan, to another stage, and for whites as well as blacks it is a tool through which we can explore our other selves and create fictions about our worlds. The camera’s value as a tool of communication and alteration was not lost to artists and during the 1920s artists such as Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, and other surrealists exploited its capacity for distortion. They experimented at a time when white juxtaposed with white was vogue, and Man Ray’s images of street women like Kiki de Montparnase alongside African sculpture served to make fashionable and challenging statements about the essential primitive nature of modern man. Their aim was to enhance their outcast and bohemian reputations byexploring other personas.
Man Ray’s depiction of Marcel Duchamp posing as his female alter ego Rose Selavy perfectly demonstrates this dressing up ritual, whereby this white male becomes a femme fatale sibling of other negrophiles such as Kiki de Montparnass and Nancy Cunard, famed for their love of black culture and black men. Duchamp calls his other female self Rrose Selavy, a name that shamelessly promotes carnal love when pronounced Eros, C’est la Vie. The significance of this imagery may be lost to us today but for Duchamp’s bohemian fans its references to the Salon des Independent’s lineage of exoticised harem nudes translated to photographic glamour and commercial advertising were apparent and challenging. The succession of images created by one artist, then the next, was the equivalent of the type of improvisation we witness within contemporary culture today when one rap-artist outdoes the next using the same rif. Our shock shifts gear with each new outrage, but the message remains tied to stereotypes of the primitive, otherness and sexuality. For the stereotype to be effective it has to be both fixed and fluid: to appear unchanging, but also to remain open to manipulation. Homi Bhaba considers this act of repetition conjoined with fixity to be a deliberate strategy used by the West when creating stereoptypes. He defines this process as a form of identification that vacilates between what is known and something that must be anxiously repeated”. In the visual arts and visual media this process is evident. A fascinating aspect of the study of the primitive is just how basic its imagery actually is . Within the realm of black culture its signifiers revolve around a few basic props, bulging eyes, bottoms and bandanas. A role call of popular black female entertainers from Josephine Baker, Dorothy Danedridge, Eartha Kitt, Grace Jones to Queen Latifah and Beyonce shows that the primitive is alive and well. They are all variations on the same theme. And the same can be said for the negrophile, currently teen culture is obsessing over Marshall Mathers, a Kanses born blond haired kid whose media image as a black influenced rapper owes more to Marcel Duchamp than Dr Dre and his gangster crew, whom he credits.
More popularly known as Eminem, Marshall Mathers would have been just another popstar from Detroit, had it not been for his penchant for black culture and a sharp alienating wit that allowed him to pun on his own whiteness and to make a misery of a past more typical of his brothers in the ‘hood’. His initial appearance on the rap scene under the ambiguous name ‘eminem’ a pun on the multi-coloured sweets favoured by most chocolate lovers, immediately gave him milage with the media. His striking blonde hair, angry posturing and disdain for artists like Britney Spears and Vanilla Ice cut against the grain of mainstream pop culture in a way that even black rappers found curious and endearing. This combined with edgy lyrics and and a genuinely poetic rapping style gained him the respect of black musicians like Jay-Z and Dre. Like Duchamp, Mathers has a way of re-inventing himself and in 1996 after a much hyped suicide attempt and the failure of his first album, Mathers abandoned his Eminem image in favour of a new alter ego Slim Shady a leaner, meaner a more enigmatic version of his angry blonde personna. The contrast between his Aryan looks and his black posturing was striking and served to play up white fears of miscegination and racial contamination. As if white parents had not been frightened enough at the prospect of their teenage kids identifying with his baggy prison style clothing, fowl mouthed lyrics and black gangsta rap style, his performance at the 2001 Grammy Awards seemed to confirm their worst fears. It was an incredible performance, Mathers dressed in Slim Shady’s uniform of a white T-Shirt baggy jeans and plimsoles entered the building followed by 100 lookalikes. The sameness of these clones brought into sharp relief the lyrics his latest hit “Will the real Slim Shady please stand up” as the distinction between one slim shady and another became less discernable. It is interesting that there was nothing about Slim Shady and his clones that overtly said primitive or black culture, in fact their was something sinister in its clinical execution that spoke to a more deeper understanding of our European fears of primitive self, that are more white than black, more atavistic and aryan than african. The performance was the ultimate demonstration of Homi Bhaba’s theory of a stereotype that is known but must also be anxiously repeated. It struck a cord with both white and black audiences. But this also demonstrated a phenomenon consistent in the west’s modern visual history that white people are constantly re-inventing themselves in the image of their ‘others’ in a parasitic relationship that blacks just don’t get. Eminen now outsells even his fellow black rappers as the primitive dances on the fringes of each outrage. The call for a ban from public events in the UK on certain Jamaican dance hall dj’s and a subsequent decline in their sales, alarmingly demonstrates this dichotomy and suggests future points of conflict between blacks, feminists and homosexuals, marginalised groups regularly viewed as allies within the realm of culture and critical theory.