Nataleah Hunter-Young: Media of Anti-Black Brutality and Its Refusal
This past summer, we’ve witnessed a global movement, leading plenty to go out in the streets and to protest despite the lockdown. The chants “black lives matter” resonated in each city, touching places like Paris, London, New York or Montreal. A seemingly transient, fleeting moment of a black square being posted on Instagram, deeming millions to be allies. However, being surrounded by an overabundance of images and videos documenting anti-Black police brutality, its circulation is part of a legacy of anti-Black imagery born of colonization, transatlantic slavery, and lynching. It’s ongoing impacts terrorize Black people and white supremacy instructs non-Black peoples, in the Euro-American imperial global context, to aestheticize it as normal. Despite the movement seeming quieter now (with the media covering it less), it is in this time of recovery and transformation to analyse and rethink the way we consume these images and to question the racist systemic and institutional structures behind them.
Nataleah Hunter-Young, PHD candidate in Communication and Culture from Ryerson University, speaks of the importance of the aesthetics of these brutal images and of their visual culture inherent to our society.
Nataleah Hunter-Young is a writer, film curator and has an involved career in social work. Her recent project Against Collective Power Through Brutal Aesthetics, is a lecture (that took place November 24th2020) and a workshop (December 1st) centering on her doctoral research exploring the impact of anti-Black brutality imagery upon socio-political culture. Her lecture is part of the Radiant Power initiative created by the Leonard & Bina Ellen Gallery. Radiant Power is comprised of online lectures and workshops working in parallel with the on-site exhibitions entitled Going To, Making Do, Passing Just The Same. As mentioned on the website of the exhibition, a question raised is “how do we create collective power?”
Collective power, as we have seen with the Black Lives Matter movement can be countered with the use of a constructive, and destructive force. It is in the destructive – through the questioning of dominant discourses, through the politics of resistance that one can then create. In her lecture, Hunter-Young refuses to participate in the circulation of the “brutal aesthetics” and refer us to artists whose work explores a different visual language.
First, Hunter-Young introduces us to the aesthetic theory. Drawing on the works of Clyde Taylor and Sylvia Wynter, modern-day aesthetics are based on renaissance humanism, where beauty, art and nature became an objective science and was seen as subordinate to reason. Therefore, the subject position becomes decider of taste and a hierarchy of value is established such as beautiful, ugly. Aesthetics is about placing limits on meaning and assigning negative or positive values and are intrinsically tied with visual culture. She importantly notes how value-judgement “are constantly being challenged and the aesthetic attempts to unify meaning and cohere understanding of the object along the hierarchy value to make sense of it.”
This notion is important when it comes to the circulation of police brutality or other violent acts against black people. What we are seeing with the case of George Floyd isn’t new, images dating years back are still present in our visual economy, although the problem is the pace at which police brutality happens. Every time we are faced to one of these images, the white patriarchal hierarchy is being reinforced due to the aestheticization. Its value accruing with circulation and absorbed into culture. Hunter-Young notes how the black body is instrumentalized as endless justification for domination by white power.
It is important to keep in mind of our position in Canada. The Canadian rationale often points out how racism isn’t as bad in Canada as it is in the United States. In a way, this is normalizing violence over black bodies anyway. There shouldn’t be such a comparison since violence against black people just shouldn’t be tolerated (this also definitely doesn’t encompass all violence towards indigenous people as well). Hunter-Young explains how “this is an act of brutal aesthetic” but that there is a way for a collective power of refusing this aesthetic.
From Christina Sharpe’s “Lose Your Kin” article, white people have always relied upon kinship narrative which classifies their ‘kin’ (whiteness) from the ‘other’ (black people). Therefore, when a dominant culture aspires to whiteness, it is always done on the premise of exclusion to sustain a hierarchy. Consuming imagery of violence against Black people translates to ownership of black bodies. What one is required to do to refuse brutal aesthetics is to defy this white kinship and refuse reconciliation to the ongoing violence to black people. If you haven’t noticed, we are going full circle to the black square posted on social media, attempting a temporary fix over a crisis. Performative allyship such as taking a knee, or wearing a safety pin is another way for having aesthetics cohere meaning. Sharpe, therefore, notes that to refuse reconciling with violence can mean losing your white kin, it means facing the discomfort of being on the outside to truly end violence of white supremacy. By avoiding rifts with your family or friends is once again tolerating violence being done to black people and upholding the dominant societal discourse.
Of course, we cannot stop the flow of images constantly appearing on our feed. However, we can if we end the violence of policing. Hunter-Young encourages us to reflect on them asking ourselves these questions:
- How am I being instructed to look?
- What am I being instructed to see?
- What am I expected to know?
- What is missing?
Through these questions, we are taking the time to understand our images fed to us day by day, but also to refuse its message. It is to become conscious of the constant brutalized images and refusing them, and not being afraid to speak about this refusal, in other words, willing to see from the outside.