THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY BUFOONS
Men of pleasure were indispensable figures in the social structure of Spanish royal palaces and functioned as a crucial counterpoint in the hierarchical system that governed court life. A racial type, Spain’s Oriental Other (the Moor, the Turk, or African), was most frequently performed by ‘natural fools’ - jesters chosen for their mental or physical disability. Their impersonation of this racial type associated the physical and mental incapacities of ‘natural buffoons’ with the ‘bestial natures’ of foreign infidels, as expressed in Velázquez’s jester portraits through gesture, technique and expression. Their performances, their depiction in portraiture and the way in which they were exhibited at court, in opposition to one another, asserted a racial binary which legitimised the discriminatory beliefs of the self-identifying pure-christian court.
The end of 1980’s saw a rise of black professional comics and the establishment of circuit of comedy shows involving The Posse, a group of male black comedians seeking to circumvent their marginalisation on television, to the Bibi Crew, a group of black women comics. These performances in the 80s ad 90s raised questions about the extent to which black culture is reproduced for blacks as opposed to non-blacks? What was the racial experience that their performances referenced to? Opposite the portraits of seventeenth ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ buffoon are installed three portraits of Dexter’s characters: Nathanial, the Nigerian Accountant/Taxi Drive (a West Indian Comedian imitating a Nigerian Man ridiculing West Indian efforts at integration), the bemused integrated lawyer who speaks from his person cell and the virile Boxer in pink sequinned leopard print.
The Caribbean comedian performs to an almost exclusively to a black audience, as visualised in The Nigerian Accountant/Taxi Driver. The satire then forms part of a diaspora cultural practice, the focus and subject shifts to the inter-community and interpersonal dynamics among the diaspora.
The two moments in racial comedy are set across from each other. Offset from the centre is the double sided canvas of the ‘artificial bufoon’ and the comedian Hugh Denis, figures whose position in comedy has changed little through time.
The installation casts the visitor as the comedy’s audience, spectating these historic and modern portrayals of race. This casting runs counter to Dexter’s focus on inter-community and inter-personal dynamics among the diaspora. The comedy is reliant on insider knowledge limited to his audience.
A Comedy of Race’s panels are integrated into the installation - their visual vocabulary references the portraits’ colour scheme, narratives and characterisations. Their composition was modelled on the didactic arrangements of medieval Books of Hours and Ancient Han Shrine carvings. The seventeenth-century panel expresses the power dynamics and ideological significance of the binary of “natural buffoon”/Moorish Other and “artificial buffoon”/Christian hero. The twentieth-century panel marks the increased agency of black comedians over their representation, the enduring presence of racist caricatures and the difficulties of integration. The symbol of the black subject transforms across them, identified and linked to the portraits by its red colouring. It begins as a bull, a one-dimensional symbol of brute strength and anger. Paralleling the increased agency of the black person over representations of their race, in the twentieth-century panels, the bull becomes a rabbit. A complex character - unpredictable, indefensible and a trickster. On the top left hand-side of the panel the rabbit tries to free himself from the black tar baby, an allegory for the struggle against the racist characterisations and prejudices which frustrate the progress and integration of black people.