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Collection Reflection: Glenn Ligon


15 October 2020 4:00 pm
Capitalised words Negro Sunshine repeat in nine horizontal rows in a grid-like structure against a white background. The letters become increasingly smudged and abstracted down the page.

Glenn Ligon

United States of America, 1960

Study for Negro Sunshine II #17 2010

Oil stick and gesso on paper

Presented by Art Fund under Art Fund International

Here, capitalised words repeat in horizontal rows in a grid-like structure against a white background. Glenn Ligon uses black oil stick through manufactured stencils to render each letter. He plays with spacing so it takes perseverance to tease out the words and meaning. The letters do not have sharp boundaries and become increasingly smudged, abstracted and illegible.

The phrase ‘Negro Sunshine’ is a fragment taken from Three Lives (1909) by American author Gertrude Stein (1874–1946). Stein uses it throughout the work to describe the lives of three female characters. It references historical racist depictions of African American slaves as supposedly jovial, faithful and ignorant of their servitude. Ligon challenges this representation. Through repetition, he amplifies the expression to highlight its socio-political complexity. The word pairing echoes oppositions between black and white as well as slavery and freedom. This tension is heightened by the stark contrast of the black lettering against the white paper.

Ligon works across mediums. He is best known for his works incorporating words and phrases from varied literary texts – by writers including Mary Shelley (1797-1851), poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892), author Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960), and human rights activist Malcolm X (1925-1965) – to examine the representation of black people in American society.  

Words: Helen Welford, MIMA Assistant Curator


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