chapter  11
BUSY IN THE RUINS OF A WRETCHED PHANTASIA
ByKOBENA MERCER
Pages 24

Keith Piper’s 1983 painting, The Body Politik, depicts two bodies, one female and white, the other black and male, both denuded and beheaded on either side of two canvases joined by a pair of hinges. The two figures mime and mirror one another across the body of text which gives voice to mutual claims of misrecognition, “To you I was always (just) a body… I was your best fantasy and your worst fear. Everything to you but human.” This early work (since lost or destroyed) can be read as embodying a matrix of concerns arising out of the visual arts sector of the postcolonial diaspora. Its depiction of doubling across the boundaries of sex and race, the chiasmus of difference that is inscribed as a relationship of both polarity and complementarity, draws attention to the “danger zone” of psychic and social ambivalence as it is lived in the complexity and contradictions of a multicultural society. The difficulty of articulating sexual and racial difference together, as sources of social division constantly thrusting identities apart while simultaneously binding them intimately beneath the cliche that “opposites attract,” pinpoints the key displacements brought about over the past decade by the hybrid interplay of postcolonial and postmodern paradigms in contemporary cultural politics. But what strikes me as the most salient aspect of the diaspora aesthetics taking shape in a work such as The Body Politik is the unique way in which the fear/ fantasy formulation came to be echoed and disseminated across a whole range of critical developments, for it was precisely the psychoanalytical implications of the concept of ambivalence that were being theorized in Homi Bhabha’s profoundly influential text, “The Other Question,” which also entered public circulation in 1983. Structured around a diacritical rereading of Touch of Evil, Orson Welles’s film-noir classic which depicts the Mexico/US border as the narrative setting in which textual dynamics of fear and desire revolve around the mixed-race identity of its Chicano protagonist, the wealth of insights generated by Bhabha’s critique can be seen to double back into the representation of

interracial sexuality investigated in Piper’s art: both lead us into the ambiguous realm where different differences intersect.