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Family Jules: NNN (No Naked Niggahs) is a large painting showing a black man, naked but for a pair of round glasses, smoking a hash pipe on a luxurious white couch. Behind the couch the wall is decorated with ornate Moroccan tiles and thrown over the couch to the left of the figure there is a printed shirt; the print shows a white woman, and her face is turned towards the figure. The man’s right leg is bent with his foot resting on the seat of the couch while his left leg stretches to a rug on the floor. The composition crops his foot from the image as well as his outstretched left hand. Jules looks towards the viewer with his head tilted slightly back. The artist has captured a reflection of light in his glasses.
The painting is one of a small series of four paintings that Hendricks made at this time featuring George Jules Taylor, a former student from a painting class which Hendricks ran at Yale University. In the other paintings Jules is dressed in contemporary fashions, adopts everyday poses, and is set against monochrome backgrounds, but in this image Hendricks paints Taylor nude except for his glasses, and appropriates imagery associated with iconic twentieth century paintings such as Henri Matisse’s Nu bleu (Souvenir de Biskra) 1907 (Baltimore Museum of Art). By positioning a naked black male figure in the place of the female ‘odalisque’, Hendricks was adopting an extremely radical stance. Curator Trevor Schoonmaker has described how the painting confronts fears and stereotypes surrounding the black male:
Hendricks makes it known through his title how representations of African American nudes have been received, feared, and censored; in doing so he directly tackles the widely accepted notion of the hypersexualised black body that continues to be codified and consumed around the globe. His response seems to say, ‘If this is what you expect, then this is what I am going to give you.’
(Schoonmaker 2008, p.25.)
Schoonmaker does not mention the fact that Hendricks has painted the face of a white woman directed towards the figure – this is one of the subtlest features of the painting and complicates its racial and sexual politics further, magnified by its deliberately provocative title.
If the painting constituted a canny response to white fears and pre-conceptions of the black male body, so too can it be seen as a defence of a particular form of representation in the contested field of black art at this time. In the late 1960s and early 1970s many artists turned to African art to make idealised images of black subjects, whereas Hendricks was known for his more realistic images of everyday black figures. The art historian Richard J. Powell has written: ‘[Hendricks’s] portraits of the 1970s – black, beautiful, and suave – stood apart from the majority of black cultural representations produced during this period. The jarring combination of a droll, self-effacing humour with an unnerving naturalism that bordered on the profane was Hendricks’s artistic trademark.’ (Powell 2002, p.151.)
However in this particular painting, Hendricks not only confronted tendencies to ‘Africanise’ or idealise the black body, but also tackled the reluctance of black artists to represent naked subjects. Powell has explained why black artists at this time tended not to make this kind of an image:
Beyond the larger societal restrictions under which American artists had long operated (even when confronting the nude’s widely accepted position in classical and Western art), the reactionary values of many African Americans prevented artists from depicting blacks in ways that departed from the conservative or social-realistic. This self-censorship emanated from artists who worked within black communities, as well as from artistic ‘outsiders’ who feared that if they created sexually provocative images of blacks they would be perceived as racists or pornographers. All these factors, along with a history of assumptions by social scientists about pathology and moral depravity in black communities, discouraged artists from creating images that would have supplied the visual fodder for these pernicious views. Not until the late 1960s – with the onslaught of a sexual and social revolution – would a few artists and select audiences feel comfortable enough to explore the formal and psychological implications of black nudes in art.
(Powell 2002, p.146.)
Family Jules can thus be seen as a critical intervention in many debates around the representation of the black body in the early 1970s, as well as a provocative and witty painting.
Thelma Golden, Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art, exhibition catalogue, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York 1995.
Richard J. Powell, Black Art: A Cultural History, London 2002.
Trevor Schoonmaker, Birth of the Cool, exhibition catalogue, Nasher Museum of Art, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina 2008, p.25.