In this dissertation, I compare the methods used by Romare Bearden, usually considered a modern artist, and postmodernist artists David Hammons and Renée Stout. Specifically, I show how, despite their differences, all three artists use indexical references to themselves to refute stereotypes of African Americans. Identifying a strong strain of reference to some literary and musical discourses in the lives and visual works of all three artists, this dissertation will constitute original work on this aspect of their art, where a systematic exploration of these discourses as noteworthy conduits through which their indexical, and sometimes metonymic, resistance to stereotypes has not been done.
An analysis of the body—literal and symbolic—in the works of Bearden, Hammons and Stout in regard to its indexicality can potentially expose current constructions of not only black identity, but also of "race" as a category maintained by stereotypes. I argue that Romare Bearden's collage structure and the multiethnic mixture of formal qualities evident in his representation of African-American culture was indispensable to the development of a strong visual language. The language, which I will call a "visual Creole," that is, a mix of black, white, and other visual references was done in a way that was more typical of American culture as a whole than any single ethnic visual system. Further, Bearden's works becomes a universal tongue—despite antiessentialist disparagement of the idea of "the universal"—when he reproduced rather than produced, actual pasted collage. I will expand the exploration of this "visual Creole" as it appears in works by David Hammons and Renée Stout.
Charles Peirce described the index as the trace an event leaves behind. For the viewer, the evidence of Bearden's cutting, pasting and arranging of photographs for the Projections photomontage series has become traces of his intellectual and visual travels through intentionally diverse cultures as well as his physical movement within the final image. For Hammons' viewers, the imprint of his own hair, face, and skin onto canvas or even the stench of his urine read as intentional marks of his presence within the final product. Similarly, a plaster shell of Stout's own body replicates for her viewers her very existence in a constructed sculptural trace. These artists have been extremely aware not only of the varied discourses within art history about stereotypes of black identity, but also painfully cognizant of its effect on and within the black community.
I provide insight into the current discourses on stereotyping, literary or otherwise, through a socio-historical analysis of the artist as an individual and in reference to key texts on indexical references and their implications. Therefore, I study the cultural associations of the materials each artist used, the music associated with them, and the contemporary literary and art culture within which they worked that assist in the reading of their respective oeuvres. This mixture, added to their personal experiences of American society, equipped them to wrestle directly with problems representing the black body, and finally led them to expose their own presences through indexical means. Romare Bearden, David Hammons and Renée Stout, artists of three consecutive generations, and their various approaches do not always resolve the tension, complexity or damage of stereotypes, but by highlighting here several theoretical and semiotic examples of the construction of identity seen as extensions of their analysis of the structure of this particular sign, I hope to give the reader a way to follow their demolition of the power of stereotypes that demean black identity.