BlackPeteisBlackface

Sherman Fleming’s UN/SUB The Hunt for Black Peter (1995)

The folkloric figure of Black Pete is a racist stereotype; a prolongation of a long history of blackface. As the folktale goes, mid November St. Nicolas and his group of helpers, called 'Pieten' arrived in The Netherlands. They will return to Spain after December 5th. During this period, I will post daily on the subject matter of the 'racist character of Black Pete'. Each post will show, deny, neglect, protest, present, discuss or challenge an aspect of this racist character. Black Pete must go!


In 1995 in Amsterdam (NL), Sherman Fleming performed UN/SUB; the Hunt for Black Peter accompanied by Terry Adkins on Saxophone. A video registration was made of this performance. For me it is one of the most powerful works of art that exposes how a racialised body is used as a fetish for our sexual and moral fears and desires.


Sherman Fleming’s 1995 performance in Amsterdam, UN/SUB: De Jacht op Zwarte Piet (The Hunt for Black Peter), was inspired by the Dutch myth of Zwarte Piet, who was St. Nicolas’s black helper, and the African American story of Harriet Tubman, the nineteenth-century escaped slave and liberator of slaves. Fleming played on the theme of slaves “stealing away”, as well as on Zwarte Piet’s dual nature (benevolent in dispensing sweets well-behaved children, and malevolent in threatening to abduct the ill-mannered ones to a faraway, Moorish Spain). He first submerged his body, clad only in a G-string, for an hour in a vat of sugar and cinnamon, and then, after his “tub man’s” dramatic emergence from the vat, stepped on to the gallery floor, removed his breathing tubes (and protection for eyes and nose,) and shook off the excess confection. Finally, Fleming’s two Dutch assistants licked the clinging “sugar and spice” off his body in patterns that (like the painting on Bill T. Jones’s body) resembled the body decorations in Leni Riefenstahl’s photographs of the nomadic Nuba people of East Africa. As with all Fleming’s performances, this merged the spectacle of a perceived racial difference with notions of desire, contagion, concealment, and emancipation, all within his theoretical construct of physical (as well as psychological) endurance.” (Powell, 1997, 197-198)


Sherman Fleming is a black performance artist who lives & works in Philadelphia, PA. “I have been actively creating happenings, performance and function actions since the 1970s. My work often explores the body’s expressive power and the limits of endurance, confronting issues of black masculinity and the psychosexual tensions surrounding the black male body.” (https://www.shermanfleming.com/bio)

 


Powell, Richard J., Black Art & Culture in the 20th Century. Thames & Hudson Ltd. London. 1997.
UN_SUB_De Jacht op Zwarte Piet from sherman fleming on Vimeo.
www.shermanfleming.com