not but nothing other: African-American Portrayals, 1930s to Today

Glenn Ligon (born 1960)
Runaways, 1993

To run away is to become a fugitive, an outlaw, someone who refuses to remain in their “proper” place. In Runaways, a series of ten lithographs from the early 1990s, Glenn Ligon provides us with a dispersed portrait of such a fugitive self.

Looking at nineteenth-century advertisements for enslaved people who had escaped their owners, he was struck by the elaborateness of the descriptions provided. They seemed to exceed the purpose at hand and instead spoke “to a complicated relationship,” as he calls it, between master and human property. Ligon subsequently asked ten friends to describe him, as if filing missing person’s report; he printed these descriptions in a graphic format reminiscent of the old ads, now for a “runaway” named Glenn. The results are at once humorous and disturbing, and a reminder, as Ligon has commented, of “how an individual’s identity is inextricable from the way one is positioned in the culture, from the ways people see you, from historical and political contexts.”

Click here to hear Derek Scott speak about this work.

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