MAPPLETHORPE AND THE IMPLICATIONS OF. AMBIVALENCE
It is within this context that Mercer develops a critique of the work Robert Mapplethorpe. His images of Black Males (1983) ‘as the stereotypical conventions of racial representation in pornography are appropriated and abstracted into the discourse of art photography’ (Mercer 1994:134). Mercer claims that Mapplethorpe’s work can be seen as reinforcing and reiterating the terms of ‘colonial fantasy’ and thus constructing the black man as serving the racist fantasies of the ‘white male gaze’. (Hann 1995:8).
While recognising the importance of the concept of ‘the colonial fantasy’ as articulated by Bhabha and developed by Mercer in its implications for black identity, Mercer does move beyond a position which ‘fixes’ a conception of black identity within this model. He maintains that ‘black readers may appropriate pleasures by reading against the grain, overturning signs of otherness into signifiers of identity. In seeing images of other black men coded as gay, there is an affirmation of our sexual identity’ (Mercer 1994:135-136).
Mercer’s reconceptualisation of Mapplethorpe’s work is in part a reassessment of Mapplethorpe’s own position, as a member of the gay community and his subsequent death from AIDS, and partly Mercer’s redefinition of the nature of the text. As Hann (1995:9) comments, drawing on Mercer’s (1992) earlier work, ‘it does make a difference who is speaking because if Mapplethorpe can be recognised as a queer advocate then his representations can be empowering’. Hann goes on to note that one of the main reasons behind Mercer’s rereading of Mapplethorpe’s work is that his previous critique could be appropriated by the ‘New Right’.
In addition, Mercer recognises the importance of ‘ambivalence’ in reading texts. As Hann (1995:9) claims, Mercer ‘privileges this as an important political position reminding us that the struggle for identity and agency always “entails the negotiation of ambivalence” (Mercer, 1992:23)’. She notes that ‘Mercer argues for the importance of any representations that expose what Spivak calls the “epistemic violence” of the denial of difference, the false stability of the centre’ (ibid.). In this context Mercer suggests a textual model that advocates ‘aesthetics of ambivalence’ (Gaines 1992:29).