The Arkivest: Chester Himes and Black Futurism

The Arkivest: Chester Himes
-d. scot miller

When reviewing the prolific life of Chester Himes the first lesson to learn is that as Black artists, we are the world-walkers. The second is as Black writers we are the scribes of the jubilee apocalypse.

With sixteen novels covering thirty-two years of professional writing, it is amazing that so few people know of his established presence in neither American literature nor his contributions to what is now known as Black Futurism.

And how does Chester Himes relate to Black-Futurism? Though he passed away nearly 25 years ago, and many of his writings are set in the time and place he was in, Chester Himes‘ life was, the embodiment of the Black Avant Garde and, dare I say, apocalyptic sage of the Black Futurist literary tradition.

Before the redemption narratives of The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul On Ice, Himes began his writing career while serving a three-year prison bid for armed robbery by writing articles for Esquire and Harper’s.

Before Ralph Ellison addressed the perils of Black men struggling with absurd disenfranchisement in Invisible Man and Richard Wright confronted the exploitation of Black people by American Capitalism and Communism through the 40s and 50s in Native Son, Himes had nationally published two separate full-length novels- If He Hollers Let Him Go (Doubleday, 1945), and The Lonely Crusade (Knopf, 1947) – laying the groundwork for these two seminal works.

By the time James Baldwin, John A. Williams and Cecil Brown escaped this Land of the Free; Chester Himes had traveled across Europe several times and was there to greet the expatriate Black writers on Parisian shores. In the 70s, Melvin Vann Peebles stayed in Himes‘ Paris apartment while Chester, then in his late 50s, traveled through Spain in a busted Volvo, writing.

One only has to follow his bibliography to see the evolution of Black Futurist thought as it emerged from the African American subconscious. The Primitive (New American Library, 1955), tells the story of Jesse Robinson, a drunken, guilt-ridden reprobate, holed up in a New York City penthouse with a White socialite and too much booze to go around. The fact that he wove narratives fully exploring miscegenation in a time of overt segregation would be enough to clarify his trajectory as a radical man of letters, but the last scene of the novel – where Robinson sits naked on the living room couch, plays with his Johnson and watches a talking gorilla on a morning news program inform him that the socialite lies dead in the next bedroom, that he is the killer, and will be going to jail for life shortly – places him, again, at the forefront and gives an unnerving, and genre-shattering glimpse into the future of speculative fiction.

absurdity.jpg In the second book of his double-volume biography, The Quality Of Hurt / My Life Of Absurdity, Himes tells of after a failed marriage and being blacklisted by the American literary establishment, he takes a cruise-ship to Europe. What met Himes there was a whole new level of absurdity. As with nearly all of the great jazz musicians of the era’s Avant Garde, Paris made a home for Chester Himes. The writer was offered a contract with Serie Noire-Gallimard, the most successful detective novel publishers in France. He received the best pay of his career, but Himes wrote and drank all day, everyday, in apartments and chateaus all over Spain, Paris, and Holland, while living in relative obscurity and poverty.

For twelve years, Himes published a book a year. He was honored with le prix du Roman Policier in 1958 for his 1957 novel For The Love Of Imabell/A Rage In Harlem. Cotton Comes To Harlem (1963) was made into a movie directed by Ossie Davis in the 70s, and twenty years later, A Rage In Harlem made it to the big-screen under the direction of George Duke.

Himes, having been away from America for so long, had vivid recollections of the sights and sounds of Black America that gave life to his detective novels. Along with remembering streets and bars throughout Harlem, he also took advantage of fictionalizing the world of cops and robbers through his lens of surreal experience. In the beginning of Real Cool Killers (1959), for example, a man’s arm is chopped off at the elbow by a fireman’s axe as he confronts a patron in a bar.

The publication of Amistad #1, Writings On Black History and Culture (Vintage Periodicals, 1970), marked an important occasion in literature and Black Futurism. In it, John A. Williams, author of The Man Who Cried I Am, traveled to Spain to interview Chester Himes for a piece entitled “My Man Himes.” In it, for the first time, he is asked about his life as a writer and thinker. It is here that Chester Himes, Black Futurist, truly emerges as he discusses the work he is doing on his final novel, a piece of pure speculative fiction, Plan B. Though he hadn’t chosen the title at the time of the interview he explains, “-all dialogue ceases, all forms of petitions and other goddamned things are finished. All you do then is kill as many people as you can, the black people kill as many of the white community as they can kill. That means children, women, grown men, industrialists, street-sweepers, whatever they are, as long as they’re white.”

Chester Himes made a place for himself in the Arkives by stating and living his truth at all costs. Peep him. Now.

For more on Chester Himes:

Medicine For Melancholy

Medicine for Melancholy In the aftermath of a party, two 20-something San Franciscans wake up in bed together with no recollection of how they got there. They exchange names at a Noe Valley coffee shop and share a cab in cold silence. She leaves her wallet behind. He hunts her down online to return it. From there, they begin a convincing dance of seduction infused with excitement, disclosure, and tenderness. Micah (Wyatt Cinach) is immature, self-effacing, and strong, while Jo (Tracey Heggins) is confident, grown-up, and intense. What they learn about each other — and what the film reveals — is on par with any postmodern romance.
Writer-director Barry Jenkins has created complex characters trying to negotiate simple feelings in a difficult world; in mixing black and white with color to explore the relationship between setting and dialogue, director of photography James Laxton captures the sublime and gritty sides of San Francisco. Medicine for Melancholy is important because it spotlights the most overlooked aspect of SF's changing face: black people, and the lack thereof. Micah and Jo are black and their race plays into the affair in surprising and subtle ways. Jenkins has said that Medicine for Melancholy is "a simple, straightforward film that illuminates the modern complexities of living as a declining minority in America's major cities." At the time Medicine for Melancholy was filmed, SF's black population was 7 percent and dropping. As one of the remaining black people in SF, I know that black flight is a reality here. The self-evident gentrification and anti-black sentiment of the city play heavily into the dynamic of this movie's couple. "Why is everything that is 'indie' mean 'not black?'" Micah asks at one point. Conversations like these have been going on among my dwindling number in San Francisco for too long. Until now, only we have heard them. Tell people about Medicine for Melancholy. In the face of an impending cultural extinction and the potential loss of SF's soul, this excellent movie is part of a necessary discussion. (1:27) Embarcadero, Shattuck. (D. Scot Miller for SFBG)

Baraka Looks Back

Tales Of The Out And The Gone (review)
By D. Scot Miller for The San Francisco Weekly

Fans of Afro-surrealism and black futurism have cause to celebrate Amiri Baraka's new book, Tales of the Out and the Gone, a collection of short fiction written between the early 1970s and 2003. The author, essayist, former New Jersey Poet Laureate, and playwright's contribution to avant-garde black art is unparalleled, as is his place at the forefront of the Black Arts Movement. The artist formerly known as LeRoi Jones began as a Beat poet in the 1950s, and he still uses North Beach slang to subvert expectations. "In specific contexts, anything can be Out!" he writes in the book's introduction. "Out of the ordinary. Just as we call some artist, like Thelonious Monk or Vincent Smith, or John Coltrane, Out! Because they were just not where most other people were. So that is aesthetic and social, often both at the same time." Equally well known for his plays (The Dutchman) as he is for his poetry (Somebody Blew Up America, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note) and his essays on music and culture (Blues People), Baraka is also a profound storyteller whose fiction transcends a single genre, moving among science fiction, protest, surreal polemic, and black chant.
Most of the out-and-gone tales have never been published; they reflect the remarkable progression of one of America's most prolific literary antiheroes and a living master of black radical letters.

Sun Ra: Pathways To Unknown World

D. Scot Miller for
Signal to Noise Magazine - Summer 2007
"Pathways to Unknown Worlds: Sun Ra El Saturn and Chicago's Afro-Futurist Underground 1954-68
White Walls Inc., 2007
In Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra, Afro-futurism is a place "where the material culture of Afro-American folk religions are used as sacred technologies to control virtual realities", this is the most apt definition of this creative movement known as Afro-futurism and its technique for expression Afro-Surrealism. The book Pathways to Unknown Worlds: Sun Ra El Saturn and Chicago's Afro-Futurist Underground 1954-68, illustrates Afro-surrealism in practice.
This book accompanies the exhibition presented October 1, 2006 at the Hyde Park Art Center in Chicago and also serves as a companion piece to Whitewall's The Wisdom of Sun Ra: Sun Ra's Polemical Broadsheets and Street corner Leaflets published in 2006. Together, these volumes give a glimpse into the creative and philosophical processes of the man born Herman Pool "Sonny" Blount as he re-invented himself into the mystic journey-agent Le Sun-Ra.

Editor John Corbett begins the text portion of this photo essay on Chicago's Southside, April 13, 1956, where Sun-Ra, pianist, bandleader, mystic, and businessman and Alton Abraham, his partner in all matters musical, financial and spiritual on the day that they began the first full-length recording for El Saturn Records, one of the first, and most successful artist-owned record labels in Jazz.
Corbett's fluid and succinct biographical introduction shows that the editor has a familiar enough grasp of the Sun Ra mythology to glean how the visual ephemera of the volume illuminates on the development of the Ra persona, the Arkestra, and Thmei Research group, the small, secret fraternal organization that informed Sun-Ra and Abraham's vision.

Glenn Ligon contributes an essay called Greatest Hits (1954-1986) an aphasia inspired collage of Ra's early broadsheets as he presented them in Washington Square Park - amid Christian, Nation of Islam, and Moorish Science street-corner proselytizers - interspersed with snippets from Black stand-up comedians like Richard Pryor and Dick Gregory. The effect is both humorous and profound. Oft-times the comedian becomes the prophet, the prophet shows humor and the whimsical transforms to the lamentable in an afro-surreal twist that traces to the ecstasy of the blues.

First-person accounts from Alton Abraham's son Adam, singer Ricky Murray, trumpet-player Art Hoyle, singer Hattie Randolf, tenor saxophonist Von Freemen, Drummer Robert Barry and a genuinely moving meditation on alienation and other-worldliness by Camille Norment make up the textual narrative, but the essence of the book can be found in the photo-copied notes, notations, and sketches from Ra and his fellow travelers.

Often beginning with rough sketches done in pencil and ink, the subtle album covers from records like Jazz From Tomorrow's World give way to transparencies and tonal separations from the numerous covers designed by Claude Dangerfield including We Travel The Spaceways and Sun Ra Visits the Planet Earth, and on to even greater sophistication in technique with the use of print blocks and cut-outs designed by Sun-Ra, and further to the lurid Jazz in Silhouette cover.

The most telling of this thin volume, however; is the "notes and ephemera" section where the entire cosmos of The Arkestra is distilled to catch phrases on an evolving series of business cards and ticket stubs. "Those Atonites Are At It Again," says an early one. "Beta Music for Beta People", says another. There's even one from El Saturn offering to record the local church sermon which "Enables the pastor's voice to be within reach of every member when spiritual guidance is needed," almost as a reminder that the Afro-futurist visionaries were also shrewd businessmen. As the artist formerly known as Sonny is quoted, "Sun-Ra is not a person, it's a business name."  The business was space, and business was good.

Roscoe Mitchell & the Art of Experimentation

Roscoe Mitchell & the Art of Experimentation

D. Scot Miller (for

April, 17 2008

For more than thirty years, saxophonist and composer Roscoe Mitchell created what has come to be known as Great Black Music with Cecil Taylor, Malechai Favors, Joseph Jarmen and Anthony Braxton in the Art Ensemble of Chicago and their non-profit organization, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music and the Art Ensemble continues its work with new voices, visions, and projects.

The Art Ensemble has been known to wear African-inspired face paint, but seeing Mitchell en masque is rare, or non-existent. His saxophone may be a swashbuckling blade, but his bare face and stoic composure let you know that Roscoe Mitchell is a serious man. Mitchell, 67, is at Mills College in Oakland, California as the Darius Milhaud Chair of Composition. He spoke with NovoMetro about his work, his upcoming recording in June, and why he won’t paint his face.

For more than thirty years, saxophonist and composer Roscoe Mitchell created what has come to be known as Great Black Music with Cecil Taylor, Malechai Favors, Joseph Jarmen and Anthony Braxton in the Art Ensemble of Chicago and their non-profit organization, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music. Though Favors has since passed on, the Art Ensemble continues its work with new voices, visions, and projects.

The Art Ensemble has been known to wear African-inspired face paint, but seeing Mitchell en masque is rare, or non-existent. His saxophone may be a swashbuckling blade, but his bare face and stoic composure let you know that Roscoe Mitchell is a serious man. Mitchell, 67, is at Mills College in Oakland, California as the Darius Milhaud Chair of Composition. He spoke with NovoMetro about his work, his upcoming recording in June, and why he won’t paint his face.

NM: What is the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music (AACM)?

Mitchell: It’s a group of guys that came together out of their association in the Muhal Richard Abrams Experimental Band and sat down to have a look at the way some musicians’ lives had gone, out there on their own, and who wanted to have more control over their destinies, sponsor each other in concerts of their own original music. They wanted to maintain a training program for young, aspiring musicians in the community. They wanted to set up an exchange program with other musicians in other cities thereby establishing a form of employment for musicians. The AACM is still going strong today with two chapters, one in New York and one in Chicago still following its basic rules it made at the beginning. I see a lot of younger musicians back at the same place when we first had a look at all of these things.

I was lucky to be around people who had the same vision as mine. Nobody ever thought we were in there for the short term. We knew we were in there for the long term. We just stuck to our original ideas and stayed with that. The Art Ensemble was a barn-storming band and we’ve been able to establish a network to bring younger people along so they don’t have to do the things that we had to do.

A long time ago, it took twenty years to be known as a musician. You’d have to go out to go to different places so people could hear you. Before we went to Europe, we’d already come to California twice in 1967-68, traveling in a van. We always did that --connecting, finding younger musicians.

NM: What are you working on now?

Mitchell: I finished work on my Orchestra piece, Noncognitive Aspects of the City, a poem written by Joseph Jarmen in the sixties for orchestra and baritone voice. That’s going to be recorded in the Czech Republic in June. I’ve performed it with him in the context with the Art Ensemble a few times and I became interested in the text, so I decided to set the poem to music. I’ve decided to use the orchestra for that context. That’s a lot right now.

NM: What is your approach to text and music?

Mitchell: I’ve set several texts to music. I’ve worked with poets in live situations also. What I did with Amiri Baraka is that he sent me the poems in advance so I could read them and get a feel for them. If I’m writing a piece that incorporates the text, you have time to consider the text in a compositional form. As an improviser, I’m working to be able to do the forms spontaneously, I work with it from both sides.

NM: Do you work in any other media?

Mitchell: I’ve worked with different people throughout the years. I have a long-standing relationship with David Wessel who does computer music. I’ve been working with him since the late sixties. He’s one of the first people to start the computer music conference in the states. Of course, I’ve worked with George Lewis on several of his computer music programs throughout the years. I’ve done collaborations with artists, inventors, poets, and dancers. There were more interactive collaborations going on a long time ago. It’s starting to come back now. Things change as we go along. I’ve found things go away and come back. It’s just time for those kinds of collaborations again.

NM: Is revolution still possible?

Mitchell: Back in the 60s, if you would have asked me that I would have said, “Oh yeah, definitely.” Now, I think that something will get our attention one way or the other. If we goof up the planet, that’ll get our attention. Try to remain optimistic. Somebody comes along in your life that brings you into focus onto something that you may have missed. Those are the things we appreciate the most in life. Always keep yourself open because you never know who that’s going to be.

NM: Why didn’t you wear the face paint?

Mitchell: I tried that, but I discovered that if you sweat, you couldn’t wipe your face.

NM: Simple as that?

Mitchell: Simple as that.

Hit Picture To Read An Excerpt

""Knot Frum Hear," by D. Scot Miller, is like Naked Lunch revisited by B-Boys"
- Rachel Smucker for
Bronx Biannual: The Journal of Urbane Urban Literature, Issue 2
by Miles Marshall Lewis [Editor]
Akashic Books
June 2007, 225 pages, $13.95

And Now A Word From Ramelzee

Afro-surrealist writers?

* Author: anika
( * Filed under: check it out, new, paranormal, sci-fi/speculative/fantasy
Jun 4,2008

"An article about Afro-surrealism at the San Francisco Black Film Festival piqued my interest:
Per the article, Afro-surrealism is not Afrofuturism, but:
Afro-surrealism is about the present. In sound it conjures everything from Sun-Ra to Wu-Tang. In speech, it brings you Henry Dumas, Amie [sic] Cesaire, Samuel Delaney [sic], and Darius James. In visual realms, the Afro-surreal ranges from Wifredo Lam to Kara Walker to Trenton Doyle Hancock.
That stumped me for a minute. At first, I thought this would be just another descriptive term that could be applied to something like speculative fiction, but I wasn’t sure. If Afro-surrealism is about the present, does that mean, say, paranormal works wouldn’t be able to be included — even if they are set in the here and now?
Besides Darius James, whose books I’ve never read, and Samuel Delany, I stumbled trying to come up with living authors whose books would be considered Afro-surrealist but not necessarily, or always, Afro-futurist.
The first authors who come to my mind are the brilliant Nalo Hopkinson, Zakes Mda and Minister Faust.
Can you think of other living authors who might fit into this category?"

To answer Anika's question, I would have to say that Afro-surrealist writers are everywhere!
You may be an Afrosurrealist and not even know it!
It happened to me...
The first time I came across the term was in an introduction to Echo Tree: An Anthology of Henry Dumas' short stories and poetry written by Amiri Baraka :

"The Afro-Surreal Expressionism of Dumas and the others mentioned unfolds the Black Aesthetic—form and content—in its actual contemporary and lived life. MUSIC (drum—polyrhythm,percussive—song as laughter or tears), preacher and congregation, call and response, the frenzy! The color is the polyrhythm, refracted light! But this beauty and revelation have always existed in an historically material world. The African masks are shattered and cubed. Things float and fly. Darkness defines more than light. Even in the flow of plot, there are excursions and multi-layered ambiguities. As with Bearden (Romare), Dumas's is a world in which the broken glide by in search of the healing element, or are tragically oblivious to it."
(Hit book for rest of essay)

And I was like, "That's me! I'm AfroSurreal!"
It was like I'd found my kinfolk after wandering a cultural wasteland.

By this definition, there are a lot of writers (and reg'lar folk like you and me) who would call themselves afro-surreal. Upon hearing the term, quite a few of us surely see ourselves in it. Among the writers, for me, Victor LeValle, Colson Whitehead, Ishmael Reed, Paul Beatty, Percival Everett, Jayne Cortez, and Harryette Mullen, are a good start towards an AfroSurreal aesthetic. Working with this definition, are there other writers that you consider Afrosurreal? Artists?

Happy Hunting!

Ten City

Ten City

On the lookout for Afro-surrealism at the SF Black Film Festival

By D. Scot Miller

Your Superwoman: Women's Work


For the last two years I have been trying to plant the term Afro-surreal into the collective unconscious. Unlike Afro-futurism, Afro-surrealism is about the present. In sound it conjures everything from Sun-Ra to Wu-Tang. In speech, it brings you Henry Dumas, Amie Cesaire, Samuel Delaney, and Darius James. In visual realms, the Afro-surreal ranges from Wifredo Lam to Kara Walker to Trenton Doyle Hancock. Afro-surreal stages are set for new productions of Jean Genet's The Blacks (1959), George C. Wolfe's The Colored Museum (1986) and Leroi Jones' The Dutchman and The Slave (1964).

I'm always looking for an Afro-surreal movie. Maybe I'm the last of a dying breed.

The 10th San Francisco Black Film Festival (SFBFF), is billed as a bridge between worlds. But which worlds? Sirius and Earth? Black and other? Local and global? Oakland and San Francisco? San Francisco and itself? Dammit, they all apply.

Most of the SFBFF is taking place in the Fillmore District, and many sites are redevelopment showcases. Opening night at the Sundance Kabuki Cinema presents Nogozi Unwurah's Shoot The Messenger (2006), a UK import about paranoia, self-loathing, love, and redemption. The after-party is at Rassales, so I might get a haircut and brush off the derby.

Yoshi's Fillmore is hosting Donnie Betts' Music Is My Life, Politics My Mistress: The Story of Oscar Brown Jr. (2005). Despite its connection to ongoing gentrification debates, the venue will be an apt and stylish location for a bio on Brown, an overlooked poet-singer-playwright-composer-social activist who penetrated the zeitgeist with his song "Forty Acres and a Mule." Certain other issues also spring to mind: The black derby again? The brown? Pin-striped wool pants and well-shined shoes, or suede boots?

The Melvin Van Peebles Awards Brunch (props to the festival for naming its short film award after the Afro-surreal mastermind behind 1971's Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song) is taking place at 1300 Fillmore, which will also host a screening that includes the 2007 short film Lifted. Directed by Randall Dottin, it's a magical realist piece about a dancer on the edge who finds herself on the wrong side of a subway platform, trapped by a spirit named "High John." The actors are great, which is just one reason why the supernatural story takes simplicity to the brink of facile schmaltziness without tottering over.

A housewife realizes she has superpowers in Chad Benton's Women's Work (2008), a warm, funny sitcom short with animation screening at the African American Art and Culture Complex. Around the same time, Yoshi's is showing Nijla Mumin's Fillmo (2008), a documentary about the gentrification currently taking place in the Fillmore. How's that for mixed signals, homey?

Footsteps in Africa (2007), showing at the Museum of African Diaspora, is about the lives of the beautiful, mysterious, and enduring Taureg/Kai of Mali. These African nomads have survived thousands of years of drought, flood, and famine, and withstood acts of genocide. Director Kathi von Koeber's portrait reveals the wisdom and strength of some of this planet's greatest human survivors.

Considering the documented decline of black people in San Francisco, it's a minor miracle that SFBFF continues to grow. Like MoAD, the festival is a testament to the artists and benefactors who've come to San Francisco, as well as to the aesthetes among SF's native population. This year's festival promises glimpses of vast black realities — the kind that appear to be diminishing locally, yet somehow still manage to thrive.


Wed/4 through June 15

See Rep Clock for listings

(415) 771-9271

Wednesday June 4, 2008

Fashion: A Philosophy tumbles on the runway

Speed Reading

Fashion: A Philosophy tumbles on the runway

By D. Scot Miller

for San Francisco Bay Guardian


By Lars Svendsen

Reaktion Books

188 pages


As a once and future dandy, I've noted the growing field of fashion philosophy. In the realm of the academy, the idea of a unified theory of style has become something of a holy grail. The latest knight-errant, Lars Svendsen, associate professor of philosophy at the University of Bergen in Norway, starts his quest by seeking the meaning of fashion.

Relying heavily on Immanuel Kant and Walter Benjamin, Svendsen (as translated by John Irons) creates a concise and comprehensive primer on fashion and clothing as it relates to identity. He then stitches on a virtual CliffsNotes of philosophy on fashion, citing Roland Barthes, Charles Baudelaire, and Michel Foucault, and then appliqu├ęs some hep quotes from Bret Easton Ellis, AbFab, and the Pet Shop Boys.

In the end, Svendsen finds that we cultivate surfaces, that we live in an increasingly fictionalized reality, and that our identities are in steady decline. He concludes that fashion is a highly diverse phenomenon that pretends to have meaning, but in reality "has meaning to only a limited extent." That's it? Fashion has no meaning, but some meaning? How weak is that?

If philosophy wishes to find meaning in fashion, it must make room for the power of talisman, totem, and fetish — elements that pure reason cannot abide. Svendsen errs in a manner many fashion philosophers have, by refusing to look away from the runways of Europe toward the magical elements of dress in Africa, Asia, and South America. The eggheads just don't get it.

Wednesday July 2, 2008

Just Dandy

Just dandy
Modern Menswear outfits the new aesthete's imagination

Men dress up. Yes, we do. We dress like animals: peacocks, roosters, cats. We dress like weapons: blades, pistols, and straps. Men dress up. Always have. Always will.

Something has been happening in men's fashion lately, an evolution that's taken place underneath just about everyone's noses. For the longest time it was assumed that men's fashion was about function over style, resulting in an array of boring, drab clothing. Sexy, exotic, or provocative was taboo.

Hywel Davies' Modern Menswear (Laurence King Publishers, 208 pages, $40) is a beautifully illustrated book that challenges this stereotype, introducing the new dandy or aesthete in the process. It also covers a lot of territory — geographically and intellectually — through interviews with the designers. "Menswear is no longer status-led or solely rooted in tradition," Davies writes in the book's introduction. "It is driven by the personality of the consumer. Men will take elements from a range of designers and create a distinct personal style." And that is precisely what Modern Menswear inspires a reader to do.

I would like to take Aitor Throup's military-inspired pants, please, along with his skull accessories and his tagline, "When Football Hooligans Become Hindu Gods." Let's top the ensemble off with one of those baseball-cap masks.

Sadly, Alexander McQueen's men's collection hits at least one disappointing note. Apparently the bad boy can't dress himself with as much verve as he does his models.

I will take the Blaak double-breasted suit.

That label's mix of western, eastern and African influences, its use of natural fabrics, and its fusion of hedonistic street style and subdued anarchy is new. Blaak believes in "The working class hero, The Poet, The Outsider, and Edwardian Pomp and Ceremony with a whispered subversive punch." The label's ideal customer "is a person who understands the riot of

anarchy, the need for the whimsical, and the hidden fine lines bound in society." Damn, these boys speak my Afro-surreal language.

So does John Galliano, whose eclectic mix of nearly every fashion innovation since the fig leaf makes him a patron of the new aesthete.

A derby hat and a kimono can be fly, especially with a sturdy pair of boots. "It's like giving men a bit of what they've seen on women without taking away their masculinity," he says, "allowing them to dream more." Savage refinery — ah, nothing like reconciliation!

The book draws to a close with the rich, opulent colors and decadent accessories of Vivienne Westwood's MAN label...

And Yohji Yamamoto's sublime understanding of the silhouette.

There are some outrageous pieces, but Davies' book isn't geared toward gawkers.

Fashion is an opportunity to expand possibilities — to dream, as Galliano puts it. Do I have $5000 to spend on a Yohji coat? No. But I may be inspired to modify a pea coat or mourning jacket from a secondhand store after seeing one. Will Vivienne Westwood ever see a dollar of my money? Probably not, but I can borrow her sense of adventure and create a little magic of my own. "If you dress up," says Westwood, "it helps your personality emerge — if you choose well." Modern Menswear makes that process a bit more exciting.

Wednesday January 21, 2009

His Royal Highness

His royal highness

Excess and seduction rule the vainglorious art of Yinka Shonibare

By D. Scot Miller

for The San Francisco Bay Guardian

Shonibare: just dandy


REVIEW Yinka Shonibare's 1998 photographic essay Diary of a Victorian Dandy, Member of the Order of the British Empire runs like clockwork.

At 11 a.m., Shonibare the nobleman is shown waking and then donning a nightcap in his gilded bedroom; he's surrounded by four ruddy-cheeked buxom maids and a pale, thin butler, who each cater to his every whim. At 2 p.m., dressed in a three-piece blue-gray suit, he tends to business in his private library. Busts of Greek and Roman conquerors sit atop mahogany bookshelves, observing while high-collared, porcine sycophants with handlebar mustaches congratulate Shonibare on squandering what's left of his father's fortune.

By 3 p.m., Shonibare's nobleman has retired to another bedroom, where — sporting a salmon-pink velvet vest and matching satin tie — he reclines on a chaise lounge with a glass of red wine. An undressed brunette woman on his left caresses the vest, her eyes turned upward as if she's entranced by his wealth and power. A red-haired girl to his right runs her fingers through his hair. In the background, a woman dressed in a hoop skirt fellates one of Shonibare's sycophants, another woman lies at the foot of the bed, and still another looks bored as she's buggered by one of Shonibare's consorts.

Five p.m. brings a rousing game of billiards in the parlor. The day's activities end at seven, with white ties, tails, and candelabras in a plush dining room replete with red velvet curtains and gilded framed oil portraits of aristocrats in powdered wigs.

Shonibare is a heavily bearded, 46-year-old Nigerian. This hairy black man, assuming the role of a dandy, places himself at the center of all his photos, reveling in absurd glory. "Historically, the dandy is usually an outsider whose only way through is his wit and style," Shonibare explains, in a text within the monograph Yinka Shonibare MBE (Prestel USA, 208 pages, $55), edited by Rachel Kent. "His apparent lack of seriousness of course belies an absolute seriousness, and that attracts me to the dandy as a figure of mobility who upsets the social order of things."

Shonibare has upset the British social order and gained mobility — including an exquisitely absurd and very real royal appointment — by creating Victorian costumes from Dutch wax print fabrics, then placing them on headless mannequins that strike leisurely poses. Much like the dandified role that he often assumes, his art seems excessive and frivolous at first glance — high fashion in extremis. But it takes on greater dimensions with consideration. The Dutch wax prints that play a prominent role in Shonibare's work, for example, are usually associated with Africa, though they were first designed in Indonesia, then imported by the Dutch, who brought them to West Africa during the slave trade, making them a symbol of the height of colonization and imperialism.

The actions of Shonibare's figures: skating (in 2005's Reverend On Ice), seducing (in 2007's The Confession) and swinging, both literally (in 2001's The Swing — after Fragonard) and figuratively (in 2002's Gallantry and Criminal Conversation), contain surreal, violent, erotic, and decadent connotations.

Like his contemporary Kehinde Wiley, or like Ghostface and Prince in the realm of music, Shonibare uses the rococo movement of pre-revolutionary France as a point of departure. Figures of excess and tools of subversion, his headless mannequins take on references to the guillotine.

"Excess is the only legitimate means of subversion, " Shonibare has said. "Hybridization is a form of disobedience ... an excessive form of libido, it is joyful sex." An illustration of such ideas, this monograph retrospective of Shonibare's painting, sculpture, photography, and film work is a must-have piece of Afro-surreal ephemera.

Wednesday March 11, 2009