Desire Was A Single Black Square

By Sumeja Tulic

June 26, 2020

abc BLM blackout
A screen shot of black squares under Instagram’s Black Lives Matter hashtag during Blackout Tuesday. Courtesy of ABC.

Hang on, I’m going to make everything all right.
George Jackson, Soledad Brother

As an aesthetic form, a square is defined by its borders, four straight lines, separating one space from another, presumably, larger one. The demarcation of space lays the condition for establishing the square’s sovereignty, which is contingent on exclusion—a mission expressed physically and metaphorically. What is inside, belongs; what is outside, doesn’t. The operation of inclusion and exclusion is nonnegotiable. The lines are drawn in the sand, concrete, or even airspace. The metaphorical aspect stems from the constitutive and regulative function of the square’s boundaries. As such, they perpetuate the dichotomies of “inside and outside” and “insider and outsider” not only across space but also time. This allows the criteria for inclusion and exclusion to permutate as many times as necessary to subdue the disruptive potential of the diversifying elements outside and inside the square, which would challenge its coherence. The square’s authoritative elegance is contingent on its homogeneity. For all that’s been said, it comes as no surprise that the square facilitates and organizes the so-called categorical proposition, which asserts or denies that all or some of the members of one category are included in another. Among other things, this logical framework has enabled white supremacy to express itself in logic, ethics, law, and practice. 

As an exclusive and excluding form, the square is perceived as beautiful and perfect. Its perception as such comes from the innate comfort humans—participating in state-organized societal life—feel when seeing geometrically even and stable forms. Their symmetry and uniformity signals that the form results from following the rules, perceived as the ultimate safeguard against peril and atrophy. 

On June 2nd, 2020, millions of social media users uploaded an image of a single black square to their profile pages. The campaign that came to be known as Blackout Tuesday called for a full day’s pause in commerce in order to reflect upon the impact of racism on society. In the week leading up to that Tuesday, the American collective consciousness had been grappling with three recent, and racially charged deaths: George Floyd, choked by a Minneapolis policeman; Breonna Taylor, killed in her bedroom by the Louisville police; and Ahmaud Marquez Arbery, hunted down while jogging in Georgia and fatally shot by a white father and son. The black square—minimalist, elegant, perfect—was the blank slate onto which one was to project the desire of herself as a better human, one who was outraged, solidary, and sad. The posting of the square on Instagram or Facebook was easy, and did not disturb the aesthetics of one’s life, as exhibited on these platforms. The catharsis it provided for those posting it was premature and underserved. Yet it spread on visually-based social media like wildfire.

Backlash to the square came within hours. Objections were numerous, beginning with the straightforward, which was that the sheer number of black squares distorted social media algorithms, muting and obscuring information about what was tangibly happening on the streets across the country—an uprising. As with any uprising, its physical body was fragmented, asymmetrical, and antithetical to the square that symbolized it on social media. By the afternoon, many squares had been deleted from these profile pages or at least lost the hashtag, #blacklivesmatter, which theoretically enabled the flow of crucial information to continue. The squares that remained teased an inquiry about the aptitude of the square to visually communicate the facet of this uprising that sought to effectively interrupt the flow of goods and services, cutting the blood supply to the ins and outs of a more extensive system of racial inequity, within which and because of whom, people live and die.   

I didn’t post the square to my social media feeds that day. Instead, I googled “Kazimir Malevich + Black Square.” Like the squares of Blackout Tuesday, Malevich’s Black Square has a reductionist approach to content. Malevich first used the square in 1913 to design the stage curtain in the futurist opera Victory over the Sun. The opera was a collaborative effort between Malevich, the musician Mikhail Matyushin, and the poet Aleksei Kruchenykh, and its protagonists are concerned with destroying reason by capturing the sun and disposing of time. Of painting the square, Malevich wrote in his book, The Non-Objective World, “In the year 1913, trying desperately to free art from the dead weight of the real world, I took refuge in the form of the square, and exhibited a picture which consisted of nothing more than a black square on a white field, the critics and, along with them, the public sighed, ‘Everything which we loved is lost. We are in a desert… Before us is nothing but a black square on a white background!’’’ It seems that, like Malevich in 1913, the denizens of social media in 2020 were also seeking a kind of sanctuary. 

Kazimir Malevich, Black Square, 1915, oil on linen, 79.5 cm x 79.5 cm. Courtesy of the State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

Of the four variants of the Black Square that Malevich painted over two decades, I have always especially liked the one from 1915, which shows the form fractured by a white, veiny texture, and surrounded by a thick rim of white paint. The more one looks at the milky impositions within the black square, the less white it appears. They contain flickers of color—blue, yellow, green, copper, and purple.

In 2015, while art historians working for Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery were examining this painting with an X-ray, they discovered a handwritten inscription beneath the black paint: “Battle of negroes in a dark cave.” The racist missive was most likely written in response to the work of another artist: the first documented monochrome painting by the poet Paul Bilhaud, entitled Negroes Fighting in a Tunnel at Night (1882), and its 1887 appropriated version, by Alphonse Allais, the latter of which was published widely in Album primo-avrilesque (April fool-ish Album), in 1897.

The racism of both paintings and the subsequent reproduction is merited, alone, in the view that a monochromatic composite of black bodies, in the darkness of a cave, amounts to an absolute reduction, nothingness, a “full void” as Malevich describes it. “This was no ’empty square’ which I had exhibited but rather the feeling of nonobjectivity,” wrote Malevich. Although he declared this void of emotions to be unsupported by the external reality, when the x-ray laser penetrated the black coat of paint, reality indeed materialized. 

Within the black coat, one presumes Malevich imagined black bodies lumped into a cave bereft of light. The cave wasn’t only a convenient setting for the premise of his racist joke to work, it is also the birthplace of Western epistemology—profoundly supremacist, even when it is not betraying explicit racism. It favors light over dark. One learns that when reading about Plato’s allegory of the cave, for example. Plato commands an escape from the ignorance that prevails in the darkness of the cave into the sunlight, which reveals the truth.

Malevich was well aware of the philosophical connotations of the cave. After all, in Victory over the Sun, he plotted against the sun, the cave’s oldest enemy. Malevich’s war against the sun wasn’t a war for the cave either. Victory Over the Sun, necessitates the abandonment of the visible and its order of things, in favor of a higher world, ordered by a new, superior rationality and inhabited by none other than “supermen.” Malevich, one of the presumptive forefathers of these “supermen,” found the violent spectacle of lumping black bodies into a cave to be funny. There isn’t anything funny about it, as there isn’t anything funny about what went on below the deck of Desire—the first American slave ship, or what goes on today in countless prison cells around the country.

Western epistemology may have moved past its cavernous origins, but it never wanted to destroy them. Instead, it converted its ancestral home into carceral units, remodeled and refurbished throughout time, to meet the challenge of maintaining order with borders and redlining that kept the insiders in, and the outsiders out.

Whatever one may think of Malevich—and for that matter, of herself too, and the square she posted, or didn’t, the condition under which all of it occurs, and the second and more important reason why I googled the Black Square on June 2nd, is one of the perpetual crisis of imagination. Under the sun, the imagination staggers within the confinement of what comes together when conformism, self-preservation, fear, and violence foreclose a horizon: A square.

Imagination staggers until one finds herself marching down a street behind a girl who reminds her of Erika from A Jackson in Your House, a song from the 1969 album by the Art Ensemble Chicago. Like Erika, the girl leading the march is a “child of our uncharted microtones/thrown through the dawn the maze of/longing.” She walks alone and she walks fast. When I’m finally close enough to read the print on the back of her black t-shirt, it reads, “I fear no one” four times. The girl leading the march wasn’t just like Ericka. She was instead more like George Jackson, referred to in the album’s name. That Jackson once said, “They will never count me among the broken men.” And as she again became distant to me, I could see her, now, a vanishing point on the horizon, projecting a line leading outside of the square that is my camera’s viewfinder.

Sumeja Tulic is Libyan-born Bosnian writer and photographer currently based in New York City.

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