The neighbors determined it probably wasn’t intended as a threat, but rather a symbolic act by a longtime resident. And that led to a lively, sometimes angry online conversation about what constitutes art, who is allowed to use toxic symbols and whether a noose repurposed by an artist can ever be art.
The tone, at times, was condescending. “Hey everyone it’s an older black woman trying to make an artistic statement,” wrote one poster. Other voices were hostile. “It is a rancid, despicable attempt to make some kind of sick artistic statement,” said one observer. “There will never be anything artistic about a noose,” wrote another.
The vine outside the porch is indeed meant to look like a noose. And the artist, Anne Bouie, is, in fact, “an older black woman,” though she cheerfully rebuffs an inquiry about her age (“a friend said to me ‘A woman who would tell her age will tell anything,’ and I am a respectable woman,” she says by phone, laughing). She’s also a longtime Washington artist, an independent historian and an educational consultant who holds a PhD from Stanford University. She uses materials collected from all over the region: vines and seeds, old bits of wood, furniture scraps, bottles and other objects. Friends know to bring her things they find, things that have resonance, objects that suggest, in particular, the history and culture of African Americans.
She describes herself as “an artist in the naive tradition,” but the word naive can be misleading. There is nothing naive about Bouie, whose work explores how signs and symbols function, especially among people who are forced, by oppression, to communicate in code. She makes things in her studio, but these objects are usually connected to an evolving narrative of invented and historical characters who interact in stories that Bouie writes in parallel to the work she creates for display. She cites artists such as Renee Stout and Martha Jackson Jarvis as inspirations, though she is also inspired by historians of black culture, the lives of enslaved people and the Underground Railroad. Her stories sometimes shift effortlessly from footnoted historical papers to fictional dialogue and plotlines, as the artist Bouie adds what the historian cannot supply, the gaps and silences in a historical record that erased the texture and details of black life.
“I don’t march, I don’t protest, I don’t do crowds, I don’t go any place where I can’t see a direct line out,” Bouie says. But as protesters in Washington and around the country demanded a sustained and meaningful reckoning with racial inequality, injustice, state-sanctioned violence and police brutality, Bouie wanted to say something. The noose recalled this country’s devastating history of lynching, of racial terror and the extrajudicial murder of African Americans. She also felt it was a way to express an idea that she considers essential to her work: the resilience, persistence and survival of people who suffer oppression.
“I found that vine in Southern Maryland,” she says. “When I saw it, I said, ‘Oh, my, my, my, look what we have here.’ I brought it here, and have been looking at it, and then I decided to tie it up. It does indeed reference or bring to mind a noose. That’s what it brought to mind to me, except it’s not a slip knot. What it means to me, most objectively put, is: ‘And still we rise . . .’ ”
The reference is to Maya Angelou’s 1978 poem, “Still I Rise,” which is, on one level, an inspiring ode to overcoming. But it’s also a more nuanced expression of well-being, joy and the human emotions of plenitude that get obscured when the narrative of black life is determined only by black suffering, and by white shame. “Does my sassiness upset you?/Why are you beset with gloom?/’Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells/Pumping in my living room.”
When Bouie describes her work as “in the naive tradition,” she is connecting it to an aesthetic derived from folk culture, and the sacred imagery of spiritual traditions that predate or exist in parallel to Christianity. The art is meant to look “naive,” or simple, or homespun, rather than polished, finished, contrived or rhetorical. Through the use of refined materials, or the finesse with which it is constructed, or the explicit information given in captions, much of the art one finds in galleries or museums says explicitly to the world: This is art. Bouie’s work is more ambiguous, referencing things like lawn art, folk art, even the accidental assemblage of things one might find in a household object that has been repaired, improved, decorated and repurposed over years of use. You might pass by it, look at it searchingly, and still wonder if it came together by accident, or at the instigation of a creative intellect.
Recasting stereotypes and offensive images is an essential trope within African American art. In 1972, decades before the announcement last month that the Quaker Oats company would drop the Aunt Jemima brand image, artist Betye Saar put a small toy gun in the hands of an offensive Mammy figure and titled the now-classic work “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima.” In disturbing silhouette, works that explore the racist violence and everyday terror of black life in the antebellum South and after, artist Kara Walker uses caricature and horrifying imagery of sexual exploitation that would, in another context, be deeply offensive. Last year, at the Venice Biennale, the American sculptor Martin Puryear created “A Column for Sally Hemings,” the slave who bore some of Thomas Jefferson’s children, which included a shackle mounted atop an exquisitely carved white wooden column.
While some people may be troubled by these forms of expression, they are generally understood within the context of the art world, in which artists provoke and explain while audiences resist and rethink, in an ongoing dialogue that uses freedom of expression to prod and expose social conflict, contradiction and anxiety.
Some of those who responded online to Bouie’s noose-shaped vine concluded the object was intended to be understood within the context of art. Others felt that the artist was naive to think a noose could function as art in today’s context. Though that wasn’t surprising to Bouie, it was disheartening.
“That vine out there produced nothing but pretty much . . . knee-jerk reactions,” she said. “It didn’t manifest the ability to explore how [something] iconic could take you someplace else, mentally and spiritually, than just horror or despair and fear and aversion. There are other places to go with that piece of work, and the challenge is to see people realize that there are other places to go.”
Bouie acknowledges the noose is hard for some people to see, and she doesn’t intend it simply as provocation. “I did not want to be so explicit, but I believe there are times when it is justified and appropriate.” She has left it up, and hasn’t put up a sign to explain its purpose or her intention, in part because that would change its meaning. The piece may still be evolving.
Among Bouie’s invented characters is a figure called Miss Ellie, a woman with extraordinary powers of communication and healing, and a revered and feared center of her community. “Now, every plantation had somebody like Miss Ellie,” writes Bouie in a story called “Miss Ellie’s Cupboard.” “Somebody everybody, respected, some loved ’em, but nobody, black nor white, messed with ’em.”
Miss Ellie is a repository of signs, teaching people — including enslaved people seeking to escape — how to read them. The character and her ability to remember and interpret a secret language of signs is based on Bouie’s reading of accounts of the Underground Railroad and other histories of the life of enslaved people. But Miss Ellie also stands for the way humans will create and use codes and sign systems to communicate with those “who need to know,” how they develop private languages of expression and signification apart from more oppressive systems.
Right now, the noose exists outside Bouie’s home like one of Miss Ellie’s signs, a private expression meant to signify a new direction in which people could go. Once it’s explained, once someone puts a caption or a label on it, the noose becomes a standard symbol — a commonly held sign fraught with centuries of accumulated meaning — and it functions within an art context that allows symbols, even toxic ones, to be used for a particular and circumscribed purpose. That purpose, a dialectic of shock and thought, fundamental to the orthodox art world, seems less interesting to Bouie than the power of the raw, enigmatic and perhaps magical object, without any labels or warnings attached.
All of this is a long way from contemporary legalistic and institutional discourse about offensive symbols, including things like nooses, which are deeply repugnant to most people in most contexts. The neighborhood response to Bouie’s work mirrors the larger American response to things like the use of racial slurs and offensive caricature. Who is allowed to say which words? Is there any context in which the n-word, or blackface, or a noose is acceptable? If there is, how do institutions distance themselves from the anger these expressions inevitably inspire?
Are there any words or symbols that are offensive in all situations, no matter who deploys them, no matter the intended meaning or audience? Where is the line between public and private space, and are there different rules that govern each?
Bouie’s art affirms what people who have studied language and signification have long understood, which is that meaning is always contingent on who is speaking, who is listening and the context in which the thing is said, including the history that delivered everyone involved to the moment when the communication takes place.
That’s a lot of weight for a loop of vine to bear, and it presents a challenge far greater than many people who pass by it are likely to accept. But thinking deeply about signification — and being willing to enter into the cherished sign systems of other people — really is the only way out of the dark forest of symbols in which we now find ourselves lost.