Here, Ligon extracts a passage from Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel Invisible Man, a contemporaneous story of a young African American growing up in the South. “I am an invisible man,” it begins. “I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone . . . and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” Ligon smeared black oilstick on the text to render it increasingly unreadable. At the bottom he left the word “not” clearly visible, responding to the words of the title and thus insisting on visibility and respect.
Gallery label from 2022
Ligon’s work is often simple in means and almost minimal in expression, but this restraint masks a sweeping ambition to engage and reflect the American experience, which is bookended by the promises of freedom and the legacies of slavery. For Ligon these conditions give rise to existential questions that result in a fundamental sense of not belonging. “Lack of location is my location,” he has declared. “I’m always shifting positions and changing my mind.”
Here Ligon has extracted a passage from the prologue to the 1952 novel Invisible Man, by the American writer Ralph Ellison, the story of a young African American growing up in the South in the mid-twentieth century. It begins, “I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” Ligon has filled the entire composition with this text, smearing the black oilstick to render it increasingly illegible. Importantly, at the bottom of the drawing he has left the word “not” clearly visible, reversing the words of the title and reiterating his (and Ellison’s) claim for visibility and respect.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)