Publication Type: Conference Paper/Unpublished ManuscriptAbstract: Feeling Like a Woman, Looking Like a Man, Sounding Like a No-No: Grace Joness Eccentric Sexuality
The darling of Andy Warhol and Keith Haring, Grace Jones is often associated with white gay male subculture. Yet we can see the sign of Grace in the vocal stylings of Nona Hendrix and Nena Cherry in the late 1980s; in the stagecraft of Tina Turners post-Ike renaissance; and in the sartorial and sexual outrageousness of RuPaul and perhaps even Lil Kim and Foxy Browne in the 1990s, moving into the twenty-first century. And we can also see Grace Jones explicitly referenced in African American and Caribbean art that might be outside of the realm of entertainment: New York visual and performance artist Lyle Ashton Harriss Memoirs of Hadrian #19 and Postmodern cubist Caribbean poet Deborah Richards, in The Halle Berry One-Two, for example. In Grace Jones work and that of the other black artists influenced by her, we see the wedding of disco and punk; art and fashion; male and female, animal and human, and human and machine to create new notions of black sexuality.
Grace Jones counters and surpasses traditional notions of gendered erotic performances- for black women in particular- by occupying and performing the image of the black female body as Strange or eccentric. Here, I call on Carla Petersons definition of eccentric, insisting on its double meaning: the first evokes a circle not concentric with another, an axis not centrally placed (according to the dominant system), whereas the second extends the notion of off-centeredness to suggest freedom of movement stemming from the lack of central control and hence new possibilities of difference conceived as empowering oddness. (Peterson xii). Jones use of drag puts her into the larger history of African Diaspora performers using gender in complex ways. Jones drag and other techniques of performing identity pose challenges of readability. She is, in many ways a trickster figure, sliding out of grasp of both her fans and critics. Like three other trickster performers of color who rose to prominence during the same period of the 1980s and early 1990s visual artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose works and life constantly poke fun at fears of black sexual potency; performance artist Coco Fusco, whose 1992 collaborations with Guillermo Gómez-Pena, the Two Undiscovered Amerindians series, document the irony of having to demonstrate ones humanity through over the top staged performances of the savage on display; and rapper Flavor Flav, sideman for the group Public Enemy, whose manic comic persona fueled the critical fire of many of Public Enemys most potent political songs-- Jones uses an outsized, eccentric public personaone that often risks caricature to lobby critique and to express anger and ultimately, agency. In this talk, I will explore Jones eccentric sexuality in the cultural context of the 1980s and 1990s, and the implications of her performances on recent theoretical discourses of transgender identity, drag and desire.