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.”