Essay by A. M. Weaver
Edited by Glenn McNatt
On viewing Sherman Fleming’s Codewords drawings, one might well be tempted to ask what exactly the artist has in mind. Is the word nigger, which appears in the title of each of these works, an invitation for viewers to search for obvious references to black people? Or is it not intended to be taken literally, but rather as an ironic label for images as remote from black life as Tinkerbell, as in the work entitled Nigger Fish, or as abstract as the faux mechanical drawings, sailboat silhouettes and helicopters in Nigger Chaser? Fleming filters the common racial slur through his own highly personal symbol system, incorporating it into a topsy-turvy world purview that acknowledges the N-word's power to simultaneously ignite extreme violence and serve as a salutation among brethren.
The word nigger was commonly used by whites from the sixteenth through the twentieth centuries as a vernacular term for people of African descent. Consequently, many official place names and object designations contain the N-word. For blacks, however, nigger has always been an offensive term, even when used casually by whites. It is invested with a history that connotes oppression and racism.
Throughout his career, Fleming has courted controversy. In the past, as a painter and performance artist, Fleming created a series of psychedelic rebus paintings that explored racially based sexual mythologies and colloquialisms. One of these works, Reckless Eyeballing, employed such loaded symbols as a wrecked car superimposed over a red police badge, women's high heeled shoes, banana peels and a sperm-like tadpole attached to a cartoon speech balloon. It also included an appropriated image of Emmett Till, the victim of a notorious racially motivated murder in the 1950s, who out of the corner of his eye watches the taboo image of a black male mounting a white female.
As an artist, Fleming has often violated such taboos, particularly in regard to race and sexuality. Through his performance art pieces, Fleming worked to recontextualize readings of the black male body by performing semi-nude. Aware of the sexually charged implications of exposing his body, his work deliberately flaunted, circumvented and challenged these taboos, often complicating the issue by placing himself alongside white male and female bodies. As a result, his concern with issues of strength, stamina and endurance could not be seen outside of the context of the racial constructs. However, these performances were highly successful in their ability to elicit complex readings of the black male body on public display.
In Codewords, his most recent work, Fleming turns his attention to the word nigger, encapsulating its inflammatory power in a series of seamlessly convergent images of disparate origin. Nigger Cactus, one of the most heavily charged drawings in the series, contains images of a penis pump—a device for artificially enhancing the size of the male organ—a cactus plant, a fragment from a racist Ku Klux Klan cartoon and a burning bus. These forms come together like a densely coded flash card. Did Fleming incorporate the image of the penis pump because of the presumed importance of the size of the phallus within heterosexual and homosocial interactions? From the boudoir to the men’s locker room, women and men make evaluations about who measures up based on penis size. In the case of black men, they carry the stigma of embodying a sexual threat to white men that is used as a justification for the most extreme violence. The plant Enchinacea, known as the nigger-headed cactus, probably got its name because of its rounded shape and long protrusions of hooked thorns that presumably were thought to resemble tightly coiled tufts of African-American hair.
The Klan cartoon in Nigger Cactus recounts an episode involving a large-breasted, matronly black mother and her son. In the first frame, the boy seems to be complaining that the white kids won’t let him play with them. But later, after the intervention of the NAACP, the white children include the boy in their game of cowboy and Indians. However, now the black child, dressed as the cowboy, is being burned at the stake—another phallic reference, perhaps, as well as a symbolic lynching, and clearly a hint as to the full content of this racist tract.
The third major element in Nigger Cactus is the burning bus, which occupies the right-hand side of the composition. This image wreaks havoc with a symbol strongly tied to the iconography of the Civil Rights Movement, from Rosa Parks' defiance of segregated seating on metropolitan transport buses that led to the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955 to the violence directed against the Freedom Riders who sought to integrate interstate bus terminals in the early 1960s. In Fleming’s drawing, the burning bus substitutes for the burning cross, a traditional symbol of white supremacy, completing a complex matrix of symbols that includes cactus, cartoons and urban transport.
Fleming uses watercolor and graphite to create works that are rendered just adeptly enough to make his point, while not drawing attention to issues of technique that might distract the viewer from his message. He appropriates images from many sources—pop culture, literature, etc. The graphite drawings are tight and pay careful attention to detail, while the watercolors in black, white and gray are looser and structured around formal qualities of material usage and tonal relationships. Taken as a whole, the series presents a selection of symbolic imagery assembled through the process of a highly personalized free association game. Nigger Daisy, for example, a work that depicts a poodle being groomed, is based on a dog the artist's family once owned named Foufou. Fleming recalls that the temperament of the dog changed whenever it received a stylish haircut. This act of, shall we say, feminizing the dog, resulted in its becoming less aggressive and a less fierce protector of the family, especially when strangers approached the house in the wee hours of the morning. This was a matter of some consequence, when Fleming’s family moved to an all-white neighborhood in Maryland and the dog became an element in the household's security. In the artist's personal symbol system, there is a connection between this biographical detail and his decision to title the piece Nigger Daisy, another name for Maryland's state flower, the black-eyed susan.
Codewords represents Fleming's attempt to bring to light the extent to which the epithet nigger remains embedded in the lexicon of American language and thought. Past use of the slur to name commonplace places and things reinforced stereotypical attitudes and behaviors toward African Americans and worked to deprive them of their political rights and economic and social opportunities. Fleming's works recall these vernacular usages as a point of departure for a critical examination of America's current racial climate. His montages are infused with tropes of white cultural precepts juxtaposed against images associated with his own childhood ruminations and adult reflections. The viewer's attempts to decode these symbolic icons is akin to putting together a puzzle, some of whose pieces are familiar to everyone and some of which are known only to the artist. In Fleming's store of imagery there are vignettes of American pop culture and iconic images from the 1950s and ‘60s: telephone repairmen, white debutantes and the outlines of black people dancing. The viewer is given just a hint of the complexities of race relations through these disparate references. Would these images be meaningful without Fleming's provocative titles? The viewer essentially is left to his or her own devices to assess each trope. In unleashing the N-word's multivalent nuances, Fleming joins a pantheon of entertainers, writers and intellectuals who have explored its use in America as a key signifier of a troubled past and a questionable future.