A-Cold-Wall*, Experimental Black Poetry and the Contemporary Relevance of the Black Arts Movement
- Words Jacob Victorine
- Date July 17, 2017
Founded in the fall of 2015 by multidisciplinary artist and former Off-White graphic designer Samuel Ross, A-COLD-WALL* is an ongoing conceptual art installation and fashion line that explores class, geographic, and racial inequalities within, and beyond, the UK, as well as the social restrictions placed on the expressions of youth cultures. A-COLD-WALL*’s installations and collections often make political and social statements through textual landscapes rather than traditional garment construction and—although this form of fashion design has a long lineage, from Raf Simons to Jun Takahashi to Ross’s mentor Abloh—ACW*’s approach toward text and garment-as-page owes just as much to the Black Arts Movement and contemporary black American experimental poetry.
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Influenced by black American writers, theater groups and poets such as Gwendolyn Brooks, the Black Arts Movement was literature’s answer to the Black Power Movement. Formally founded in 1965 by former Beat-associated poet Amiri Baraka when he opened the Black Arts Repertory Theater in Harlem, the movement took root across the U.S., especially in urban centers such as New York, Chicago, Detroit, and the Bay Area. Black Arts writers often took an antagonistic stance toward preexisting social, racial, and even literary structures and as a result produced work intended for communal distribution and consumption; poets and playwrights such as Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Larry Neal, and Marvin X created black-centric and anti-establishment art that focused on black issues while simultaneously engaging in activist and/or community work related to the communities they represented. A distillation of Black Arts ideology can be found in Baraka’s most famous poem, an ars poetica fittingly titled “Black Art,” which calls for “poems that kill”: i.e., poems that actively and aggressively fight oppression; poems that represent black people and black pain truthfully; poems that are unafraid of making white people uncomfortable.
Similarly, Samuel Ross has stated in interviews that “a lot of the cynicism and down-trodden war words of A-COLD-WALL*” is influenced by his experiences of pre-Brexit racism in London, such as “being 15 years old and getting my head getting kicked about by skinheads who were grown adults.” Ross’s family is from Brixton, which “was known as like a black hub of London that was like Harlem,” but he has witnessed the neighborhood gentrify and lose much of its Afro-Caribbean feel over the years. In fact, ACW *’s name and initial concept are based off “concrete blocks and different shades of slate and tan” that recur in lower-income structures and public housing across the world, which, in effect, is a commentary on both structures and structural racism and classism, since oppressed peoples are often forced to live within not only limited geographic areas, but even limited color palettes. Like Baraka, Ross aims to represent the communities he comes from on a broader stage.
Yet, A-COLD-WALL* does not merely feel akin to the politics of Baraka’s “Black Art” and the Black Arts Movement in general, but also to the movement’s visual aesthetics. Throughout his poem, Baraka makes use of untraditional capitalization and block text; the last three lines of the poem read: “And Let All Black People Speak This Poem/ Silently/ or LOUD.” Baraka’s capitalization both instructs the reader on what words to value most and presents them with a guide for how to read the poem aloud.
For his SS16 collection, Ross printed “No Water” across an image of nesting tables made by Josef Albers, a German-born Bauhaus designer, color/art theorist, and educator whose work played a major role in the development of arts education. This juxtaposition places the clean/no water crises faced by many underprivileged communities (think Flint, Michigan) against the privilege of beautiful art objects, while also making subtle reference to, for those in the know, the power of arts education (something Ross has referenced in multiple interviews). And, just as Baraka puts “LOUD” in block text to solidify its importance, Ross places “No Water” on top of the nesting tables, thereby creating a hierarchy of value that reassigns the rights of underprivileged people to the top of the pyramid.
In May of this year Ross took his commentary on education further by opening a weekend-long pop-up installation/store in London. Titled “ACADEMIA* CORRECTION WORK SHOP,” the space was reminiscent of a grade-school classroom. For the pop-up’s main graphic, Ross created a print with a right triangle placed atop the title of the installation, so that the words “WORK SHOP” are struck through. As asterisks are used to denote annotated or omitted matter, the one adhered to “ACADEMIA*” seems to question the validity of academia as a structure, just as the asterisk adhered to “WALL” in ACW*’s name implies a push beyond boundaries. Additionally, the line that strikes through “WORK SHOP” is a wry nod—and potential critique of—revision, since crossing words out is a technique associated with writing workshops. Finally, by splitting the word “workshop” in two, Ross calls attention to the societal relationship between capitalism and consumerism, with a bit of irony to boot, since the installation is, itself, a store.
This form of play between image and text can also be seen in the work of contemporary black American experimental poets such as Douglas Kearney. In his poem, “Runaway Tongue,” Kearney explores the racism embedded in the expressions of language as the value placed on Edited American English over other—in particular, African-American—dialects. The poem layers text atop text and aligns voices in different physical directions—techniques that cause the reader to squint and turn their head or the page, thereby taking a literal closer look at the hierarchy and histories of English dialects. The poem is also rich in consonance, assonance, repetition and portmanteaus; these poetic tools allow for a deconstruction of language similar to the way Ross makes use of intentionally stained fabrics, inside-out garments, and uneven/abbreviated hemlines that call attention to disparities in class privilege.
Although Ross has not made explicit reference to poetry in his work whereas his mentor, Abloh has (as recently as his SS18 collection), A-COLD-WALL* feels more in tune with the techniques, intentions, and movements of poetry than nearly any other current streetwear or high fashion brand. Whereas Abloh seems to be dipping his toes in explicit politics and Demna Gvasalia of Vetements consistently plays with tongue-in-cheek social commentary, Ross, like Black Arts and contemporary black American experimental poets, makes political statements through texts (of garments) as a way to represent groups that are historically under- and misrepresented. These statements will never be without complications—made more complicated by the business of fashion and the guaranteed obliviousness of some of ACW*’s customers—but that does not extinguish the spotlight Ross shines on communities that are so often obscured.