Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Emily Collins reviews A Black Gaze

Tina M. Campt. A Black Gaze: Artists Changing How We See. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2021. 232 pp.

Review by Emily Collins

24 May 2023

Black feminist and visual culture theorist Tina Campt’s recent book publication is a masterclass in methodology for the study of artistic practice and form, attentively combining autoethnography and close readings, as well as a massively critical intervention in theories of contemporary visual culture and the “gaze.” Campt is primarily concerned with the innovative and distinctive ways in which contemporary Black artists are restructuring the gaze around Black life, ways of knowing and being, into an “emergent Black gaze” that produces “radical forms of witnessing that reject traditional ways of seeing blackness only in a subordinate relation to whiteness” (p. 17). Continuing her preoccupation with sonic metaphors, poetic structures, and attunement from earlier projects, A Black Gaze disperses its inquiry across seven “verses,” each centering around multiple artworks of one or more artists, including Deana Lawson, Kahlil Joseph, Arthur Jafa, Okwui Okpokwasili, Dawoud Bey, Simone Leigh, Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich, Luke Willis Thompson, and Jenn Nkiru. Though they range in form across photography, video art, film, and sculpture, and they explore a diverse spectrum of experiences, these artists are united by both a disorienting quality and what Campt calls their demand for labor from the viewer, a "labor of discomfort, feeling, positioning, and repositioning" that "solicits visceral responses to the visualization of Black precarity" (p. 17). This has much to do with the proliferation of Black artistic production and the widespread circulation of images across digital and social media, where Blackness is now seen but too often rendered in ways that are safe and at a distance through a “lens of pity, sympathy, or concern” (p. 7). Ultimately, this study asks us to consider, both alongside Campt’s analysis and beyond, what is at stake in the Black gaze invoked in contemporary artworks and what the visceral responses and affective labour in their viewing can stimulate and generate towards new forms of engagement with the political and social questions that they foster.

One striking formal element sprinkled through the book, demonstrating Campt’s attention to etymology and language, are insert boxes in the margins containing keyword definitions and explanations. These terms—such as weather, fabulation, gravity, frequency, movement, flow, hapticity, slowness, quiet, hum, chorus, vessel, and more—uphold crucial tenets of the argument and are conspicuously displayed to call attention to themselves and the wider histories, implications, and associations from which they emanate and entangle. Campt’s choice to highlight terms that are not typically associated with theories of the gaze and visuality articulates her rejection of traditional understandings of spectatorship and offers an opening to her own capacious thinking of and with these terms in all their multifaceted meanings and possibilities.

Rethinking the politics of the gaze becomes part of an intricate aesthetic practice that confronts an audience's expectation of passively consuming images and introduces, instead, the density, multiplicity, and entanglement of Black intimacy, poverty, excess, violence, joy, community, and care. It is precisely through the hapticity and viscerality of these images that we can begin to see ourselves implicated and through the complex positionality of Blackness rather than simply looking at Black people.