In the United States, the color of one’s skin determines the value and quality of one’s life: It can determine whether someone is the consumer or the consumed, whether someone might be raped and tortured, whether one would receive medical care or be experimented upon without anesthetic. To this day, the myth persists that Black patients experience less pain, and need less pain medication than White patients.
Doreen Lynette Garner’s experience as a tattoo artist has informed her fascination with, and ease in, simulating skin. Garner renders flesh in silicone with unforgiving realism, representing the pathology of colonialism, slavery, and white supremacy as white skin marked with sores, cankers, and pustules, symptoms of diseases brought by European traders and colonizers. Her art is history writ large in flesh. It is violent and in your face, like an accident or a medical illustration. It is body horror in the style of David Cronenberg — accurately capturing the absolute horror of chattel slavery.
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When I visited Garner’s REVOLTED at the New Museum, curated by Vivian Crockett, the red-tinted glass wall and red lights made me feel like I had stepped inside an abattoir. Everything in the show appears through a veil of blood mixed with multigenerational trauma and anger. I was literally “seeing red.” The title pushes back on the victim narrative by celebrating acts of resistance against the slave trade and medical experimentation on enslaved African women. The title could also refer to the act of recreating and reinterpreting works from the art historical canon that is dominated by White men from countries that participated in the slave trade.
Three of the four sculptures on exhibit focus on the Middle Passage — the stage of the Atlantic slave trade in which millions of enslaved Africans were transported to the Americas. Of roughly 12.5 million enslaved Africans transported through the Middle Passage, approximately 15 percent (almost 2 million) died during the voyage. In the center of the gallery, “The Feast of the Hogs” — a diseased, disemboweled carcass — hangs from the ceiling in a nod to Rembrandt’s “Slaughtered Ox” (1655) and Soutine’s “Carcass of Beef” (c. 1925). In Garner’s work, the bovine becomes the swine — positioned as a vector of infection. The hog refers not only to European colonizers but also to the forced consumption of diseased livestock on slave ships. A Black hand holding a knife emerges from under a platform, teasing the theme of resistance that runs through the exhibition.
Another work is titled “I’d Rather the Viscera of Me Floating on the Surface of the Sea than Be Dragged into Hell by Those Pale and Free” (2022). The title is a play on a verse from the song “Oh Freedom”: “And before I’d be a slave/I’d be buried in my grave.” The title also refers to the slave ship New Britannia. In 1773 a group of enslaved Africans gained access to weapons and staged a revolt. Facing defeat and the hell of enslavement, the revolt leaders blew up the ship, killing almost all 300 on board.
Garner reinterprets J.M.W. Turner’s composition in the 1840 painting “The Slave Ship” as an epic scene in flesh: a sky of white skin and a bloody sunset — an abstraction of the scene that homes in on the carnage to evoke a swirling soup of body parts in the aftermath of an explosion. Although Turner’s painting was considered highly progressive at the time, it did not avoid scrutiny. Turner depicted the violence of the Zong massacre of 1840 from the respectable distance of a Romantic maritime painter; Garner’s composition confronts the viewer with immediacy and urgency.
Earlier this year, I encountered “When You Are Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” in Garner’s exhibition Pale in Comparison at the SCAD Museum in Savannah, Georgia. A shark, rendered as diseased white flesh, floats in the space of a dark room with black walls, alluding to Damien Hirst’s infamous 1991 sculpture “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.” A cross-section on one side exposes the remnants of the shark’s last meal: an unrecognizable clump of African skin and hair and one very recognizable Black foot.
Speaking with Garner at the exhibition, she explained how sharks were used as means of torture and control on slave ships: “they would tie people up in ropes and dunk them in the water, and the sharks would tear their bodies apart. They would do this publicly to discourage Black people still on the boat from jumping overboard because that would also be a business loss for them.”
The artist takes aim at religion’s role in the institutions of slavery with “Take This and Remember Me” (2022) by recreating the composition of Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” (1512). God giving life to Adam is replaced by a Black hand passing a weapon to another Black hand — the beginning of the New Brittania revolt.
“Here hangs the skins of a surgical sadist!
To be physically assaulted by
those who identify as Black women,
those who formerly identified as Black women,
and those who were identified as Black women at birth,” 2022
The above-titled sculpture takes aim at the J. Marion Sims statue in Central Park. This work offers catharsis following the artist’s 2019 exhibition at Pioneer Works that focused on the experimentation on enslaved Africans without consent or anesthetic. The speed bag offers an outlet for the anger of Sims’s victims.
With her art, Garner makes clear that we need to talk about the Middle Passage and avoid glossing over the atrocities committed, because it makes many people uncomfortable enough to ban books and whitewash curricula. The United States needs to talk about the Middle Passage because the State of Texas came close to changing the language in textbooks to describe enslaved Africans as “involuntary migrants.” We need to share the tales of resistance. Doreen Garner weaponizes a medium that we all understand — the flesh.
Doreen Lynette Garner: REVOLTED continues at the New Museum (235 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through October 16. The exhibition was curated by Vivian Crockett.
Doreen Lynette Garner: Pale In Comparison continues at the SCAD Museum of Art (601 Turner Blvd., Savannah, Georgia) through July 25. The exhibition was curated by DJ Hellerman, and is presented as part of SCAD deFINE ART 2022.