Stranger in the Village #8, 1997
Coaldust, acrylic and oil on canvas.
183 × 244 cm (72 × 96 1/8 in).
Stranger in the Village #8 reproduces the opening lines of American novelist and civil rights activist James Baldwin’s essay ‘Stranger in the Village’. American conceptual artist Glenn Ligon appropriates Baldwin’s text in this work as a commentary on the socio-political divide between the African American and the white American in contemporary society. ‘Stranger in the Village’ comes from Baldwin’s collection of essays Notes of a Native Son published in 1955. It is about Baldwin’s experience of being the only African American person in a small Swiss village in the 1950s. Baldwin compares his feeling of social isolation in this village to the larger African American feeling of unfamiliarity in so-called ‘white America’. The essay essentially explores the notion that a white man can never feel like an outsider simply because of his assumed position of authority, and by consequence the black man is destined to be different due to his assigned position of social inferiority. In this sense, Baldwin uses the Swiss village as an allegory for the displacement of the African American subject in the wider Western world. Baldwin further specifies a difference between the African American man and the African man, in that the former has had all semblance of personal and familial history erased by the slave trade, and therefore experiences an even greater social loss. In this text, Baldwin focuses on the African American’s struggle for equality as countered by the white American’s firm grip on social stature, a position which apparently has only enough room for one. Glenn Ligon explores race, language and identity issues throughout his work, engaging with various literary works and his own personal experiences to produce large near-abstract works. In Stranger in the Village #8, Baldwin’s text is repeated until it becomes completely illegible. This is perhaps a commentary on the deaf ears of society on which these critiques fall. Despite being repeated over and over, these words are often not registered, but are rather organized into a private genre of Black political art. Ligon attempts to disrupt this relationship by traversing racial stereotypes in his works, and as a result by allowing the viewer to momentarily see the world through his eyes. Ligon explains his inclusion of text in his work as an attempt to add content to his abstract paintings: “I started to put text into my work [because] at some point I realized that the text was the painting and that everything else was extraneous. The painting became the act of writing a text on canvas, but in all my work, text turns into abstraction” (the artist, in an interview with Jason Moran, Interview Magazine, [n.d.]). For Ligon it is not the visual presence of the text that is important, but rather the meaning behind the words. Despite the fact that Baldwin’s text becomes increasingly blurred towards the bottom of the canvas, for Ligon the intention behind their inclusion is what makes them so important. Further, by allowing the text to move into abstraction, Ligon moves beyond the issue of race and into a more universal exploration of feeling like a stranger no matter where or who you are. Stranger in the Village #8 is ultimately about breaking down the barrier between all people. Ligon works upon Baldwin’s earlier texts written at a time before civil right movements, and modernizes them in such a way that they may be applied to anyone who lives outside of the social norm.