John Outterbridge. Broken Dance, Ethnic Heritage Series. c. 1978–82. Stainless steel, wood, leather, sewn cloth, and ammunition box, 34 × 29 1/4 × 33" (86.4 × 74.3 × 83.8 cm). Gift of Marlene Hess and James D. Zirin. © John Outterbridge. Courtesy of the artist’s estate

The Reinvention of Things: John Outterbridge, 1933–2020

We remember the artist, who died in December, through a close look at one of his assemblage sculptures.
Jan 5, 2021

In memoriam of John Outterbridge, we look at Broken Dance, Ethnic Heritage Series from 1978-82, currently on view on the fourth floor, which embodies the material richness and emotional range of his art. As he once explained, “The work engaged part of the experience of the reinvention of things.” The essay below, by Nomaduma Rosa Masilela, a former Mellon Museum Research Consortium Fellow at the Museum, originally appeared in Among Others: Blackness at MoMA, edited by Darby English and Charlotte Barat.

A doll-like figure resting precariously atop a small ammunition box equipped with an extended radio antenna, John Outterbridge’s Broken Dance, Ethnic Heritage Series exists in a quivering state of becoming. Both the doll’s stainless-steel torso and the pointed prosthesis extending gracefully from its sewn leather leg appropriate the anxious mechanomorphic imagery of European Dada works made during and after World War I, such as the faucet iconography of Max Ernst and, later, the impotent fleshy mounds of Hans Bellmer’s dolls. In doing so they both memorialize the artist’s military service in the 1950s and embody the physical and psychic traumas experienced by African Americans. The voluminous legs, stuffed with resin and rags, also reference the doll-making practices of Outterbridge’s mother in North Carolina, while the cloth scraps that bind the slim waist are West African wax prints. Together these features interject other narratives into assemblage’s genealogy, which, to the extent that it is Dada-centric, marginalizes or erases the formative cultural contributions of African Americans.

John Outterbridge. Broken Dance, Ethnic Heritage Series. c. 1978–82

John Outterbridge. Broken Dance, Ethnic Heritage Series. c. 1978–82

“I build altars celebrating the remembrance of the things that have been kind to our sensibilities.”
John Outterbridge

Broken Dance is one of the 37 doll assemblages in Outterbridge’s Ethnic Heritage series, produced from the late 1970s to the early 1990s. The series continues an assemblage practice that he began earlier, constructing artworks from the detritus of Los Angeles’s Watts Rebellion of 1965. (An educator and activist as well as an artist, he would later become the director of the Watts Towers Arts Center, as well as of the Compton Communicative Arts Academy.) Outterbridge engages a complex constellation of political and art-historical narratives. In the Ethnic Heritage series he deploys vernacular salvaging practices he learned from his parents in North Carolina, excavates the cultural ties between American and African cultures, and confronts African-American sociopolitical realities. Furthermore, Broken Dance exposes gaps in modern Western art history, queers its limited binary logic, and expands the critical possibilities of assemblage.

Outterbridge has said that the contrast of hard and soft is central to his practice. In Broken Dance, that contrast complicates heteronormative readings of the doll’s humanoid form, escaping pure objectification by becoming an uncanny screen for projected desire. The effigy does not perch on the ammunition box solely to elicit the voyeuristic pleasure of observing precarity; rather, its full weight rests on the lid, sealing the box’s contents from view. This combined escape and refusal expands the affect of the uncanny into queer possibilities. Broken Dance oscillates in this space. The radio antenna attached to the protected ammunition box holds a similar latency: it serves as a receptor of the shock of news, the joy of jazz. “I build altars,” Outterbridge says, “celebrating the remembrance of the things that have been kind to our sensibilities.”