In Funeral Doom Spiritual, a multimedia installation that recently opened at ONE Gay and Lesbian National Archives at the USC Libraries, artist and composer M. Lamar confronts themes of Black masculinity, collective trauma, and the white gaze through his singular “Negrogothic” vision.
Combining Lamar’s operatic sounds, sadomasochistic visuals, and lots of smoke, the exhibition’s multichannel black-and-white videos are beautifully Gothic, yet also haunted by symbols of racial violence, slavery, and mass incarceration. Whips, torture stocks, and nooses permeate his work, revealing the inherent horror in American racism, while also creating a new narrative that undermines the traditional hegemonic gaze.
M. Lamar, Deathlessness (Awaiting an Awakening), still from Funeral Doom Spiritual, 2016, Digital video. All images: Courtesy of the artist
“I started using the term Negrogothic because I was reading about the Gothic novel in which there’s this blending of romance and horror. That seemed to be this thing that I had been doing in my work for a long time. And a more obvious thing: I’m a Goth kid. I’m very invested in Goth, metal, and punk subcultures and taking them with me,” Lamar said in a 2014 Vice interview.
Lamar’s music, a blend of Goth, metal, opera, and Southern spirituals—genres he feels mirror the macabre aesthetic of his work—reverberates throughout the installation. The vocals directly correlate to the imagery in the videos, creating a unique operatic narrative. Lamar also recently performed a multimedia Goth opera at USC. The performance “Funeral Doom Spiritual: For Male Soprano, Piano, and Electronics” is set in an apocalyptic white supremacist regime, one hundred years hence, wherein Black people live in a state of “deathlessness.”
M. Lamar, Carrying Carrying Carrying, Still from Funeral Doom Spiritual, 2016, Digital video
Lamar’s visuals reflect a world of perpetual death and mourning. Forever My Love follows Lamar carrying a coffin on his back, while in Legacies, he rises from the coffin. The enveloping videos create a circular narrative, wherein Lamar’s body is continually participating in every stage of death: mourning, being entombed, and also, rising from the dead. The coffin from the video, the only object in the installation, is also displayed, adding to the macabre atmosphere and reminding the viewer of the materiality of death and its rituals. The Gothic realm proves to be an appropriate setting for confronting the state of the Black body, and Lamar’s looping videos call back to what Anthony Paul Farley calls the “motionless movement of death through slavery, segregation, and neo-segregation.”
Legacies, a panoramic, kaleidoscopic video featuring Lamar in a long black robe leading a naked, hooded white man to the gallows, is one of the more hypnotic works. Though symbols of violence and slavery abound, the video focuses on the looming threat of violence rather than the acts themselves, meditating on the space of perennial fear in Black life.
M. Lamar, Still from Legacies, 2016, Digital video, 5 minutes
The installation is a response to the ONE Archive’s collection of photographs by Miles Everitt, an engineer and photographer who shot images of nude Black males from the 1960s through 1980s, mostly for his own private collection. Lamar incorporates the backsides of Everitt’s images into his installation, plainly displaying his captions and notes, denying the photographer’s objectifying gaze.
Lamar’s work also critically references Robert Mapplethorpe, who, inspired by Everitt, captured images of nude Black men with a similarly fetishistic lens. In Yo My Cracka, Lamar revitalizes Mapplethorpe’s Self-Portrait with Bull Whip with a video of himself leading a white man around with a whip inserted in his anus. The whip is a symbolic extension of the Black penis, which has in American culture been mythologized, objectified, and feared. Lamar has said, “The 'big black cock' mythology is an invention of the white imagination. It's a fantasy. I like the idea, in a surrealist way, of making the whip also this black penis that white people have invented.” Lamar recently spoke with scholar Uri McMillan at LACMA about Mapplethorpe’s Z Portfolio, which comprises the photographer’s nude portraits of Black men, and on the subject of recovering of Black male subjectivity.
M. Lamar, Stills from Yo My Cracka, 2016, Digital video, 6 minutes
Funeral Doom Spiritual, particularly Yo My Craka, also interrogates the sterilization of the archival world, juxtaposing images of a bespeckled white man cataloging books with explicit sadomasochistic acts. Archives are usually imagined as spaces where lost or forgotten items go to be filed away, and in a sense, "die." While Lamar's Gothic aesthetic taps into the morbidity of the archival realm, he also invigorates the space by enagaging with the archives to create a fresh, empowering narrative. By inserting himself into the setting of the ONE Gay and Lesbian archival library, where the video was shot, Lamar breaks down boundaries between subject and object, the archivist and the artist who is archived, and also exposes the fetishistic aspect of cataloguing.
Sola Agustsson is a writer based in Los Angeles. She studied at UC Berkeley and has contributed to Bullett, Flaunt, The Huffington Post, Alternet, Artlog, Konch, and Whitewall Magazine.
(Image at top: M. Lamar, Deathlessness (Awaiting an Awakening), Still from Funeral Doom Spiritual, 2016, Digital video. All images: Courtesy of the artist)
The website will be permanently closed shortly, so please retrieve any content you wish to save.