Welcome to Mambo Land: the art of Della Wells

Welcome to “Mambo Land”, where black lives matter because they don’t:

An Afro-pessimist reading of Della Wells’ black feminist world-making

By: M. Shadee Malaklou                                                                                                WC: 1640

Assistant Professor, Critical Identity Studies, Beloit College

(Essay published by Beloit College in conjunction with an exhibition at the Wright Museum, August 28-November 19, 2017)

“Being the Other is a terrible thing. But most of us are the Other.”

—Della Wells

To walk into a Della Wells drawing, painting, or collage, or to hold one of her dolls is to be transported into an/Other world. This is “Mambo Land”, a fantasy world where Wells, a Milwaukee-based artist, lives and invites us to dwell with her. Not just whimsical, Mambo is frightening. It is where goblins and Otherworldly monsters live. It is also where black lives matter, in spite of the odds—in, as, and through all the ways in which black lives are fungible.

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Della Wells, “We are not America’s Wallflower and we march proudly to the dane,” collage, 2017.

Wells culls and conjures Mambo from the fables, cartoons, and fairy tales she read as a young child and which haunt her still. She recounts that while children of color are taught these fables with an eye towards violent subtexts in which “[some] things have to die for others to live,” white children are spared this lesson. They need not learn about this violence because as a structural violence, it is intended for children of color, more specifically, for black children.

Wells invokes this violence literally, in drawings of monsters, for example, in “This is a Control Free Zone” (2010) and “Little Colored Girl Series: Learn My Child” (2006), and figuratively, with animal motifs—for example, in renderings of alligators, which reference Jim Crow caricatures in which black children, reduced to filthy, animal-like pickaninnies, are chased and consumed by alligators.[1] Their appetites for black flesh, like everyone else’s—the world’s—is insatiable.

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Della Wells, “Marla, Take my Chicken while I get my Hair Done,” collage, 2017.

Mambo is inspired by but irreducible to the fables that inform its creation. While it is true that Mambo tells the story of who has to die in order to make and sustain the world, it stages a more profound critique about who has to die in order to conceptualize world-making more generally. It captures not just the wonder and possibility of Other world-making but also and especially the violence that underwrites all world-making. This is not an indiscriminant violence but the specificity of antiblack violence, which reduces black life to a matter that cannot matter. Not subject but object, racial blackness is the brick and mortar of everyone else’s world-making.

Wells indexes this violence, which is so gratuitous that it cannot be represented outright, using chickens. Chickens in Mambo signal not just the interminable violence of antiblackness in an American context—from the slave ship to the plantocracy, to Jim Crow, to the prison-industrial complex, to post-racial America, to Trump’s America, and (invariably) back again, to liberal America—but the metaphysical violence that transcends America’s example. Antiblackness is planetary or structural; indeed, Wells understands, as Afro-pessimist Frank B. Wilderson III writes, that black death “is the prerequisite for world-making at every scale of abstraction.”[2]

A careful consideration of Well’s works reveals that this is true even in the making of Mambo. Mambo is violent for black children and for the black women who care for them; but in, as, and through this violence, Mambo offers something else, something good: wonder and possibility—what Fred Moten, responding to Afro-pessimism, describes as an “elsewhere and elsewhen”[3]. We might alternatively understand this double bind as Jared Sexton, replying to Moten—in defense of Afro-pessimism—does: as the “social life of social death,”[4] or as the impossible possibility of surviving a world that requires black death in order to sustain normal operations.

Moten and Sexton squabble over terms but they ultimately agree that “black life is not lived in the world that the world lives in,” whether that world is ours or Mambo. Rather, “it is lived underground, in outer space,”[5] in an/Other space-time or dimension or reality, always adjacent to the world that constitutes the structure or frame. As the “stuff” of “the world…not the earth, but the world, and maybe even the whole possibility of and desire for a world,”[6] racial blackness is the underside or underbelly—the object and the Other—of the worlds we make.

In collage pieces like “Time for Bed, My Chicken” (2016) and “Marla, Take my Chicken while I get my hair done” (2017), Wells stages a meta-critique of world-structuring antiblack violence by using chickens to stand in for black children—black futurity, or an elsewhere and elsewhen in which black people have access to the resources required to make and sustain life—and for black death. The residents of Mambo live, like black folks in our world, in the space-time of both life and death. As the living dead, they make black life—in/as breath, and in/as black culture, music, politics, art, etc.—from the scraps left over from everyone else’s world-making.

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Della Wells, “Here I Be.,” ink and paint on fabric, 2010.

Wells exemplifies this; she assembles Mambo not from curated but from found objects. With them, she creates not a false world in which racial blackness coheres but a true world in which the black women and the black children who sustain black family are broken, fractured, and incoherent figures. In Mambo, as in this—our—world, “Life is all piecemeal,” Wells insists.

Wells, who didn’t formally become an artist until age 42 but sold her first piece at age 13, has always been the kind of person who makes something from nothing. “When I was a kid, I would see cracks and puddles in the streets, and I would see faces in them, in pieces,” she recounts. Today, at the age of 66, a mother many times over, with children and grandchildren—and play children (i.e., students and mentees)—of her own, Wells continues to indulge in play, making faces from sticks and stones with her great grandson, and when she cradles the black pillow dolls she creates for children of color, not least of all, for her own inner child. “I pretend that I’m nine years old and play with them and give them names,” Wells explains, clarifying, “I think a lot about the psychological impact of my work, especially my dolls,” which also live in Mambo.

Mambo is the intricate, layered, and distorted world of the black family, of black mothering, of black childhood, and especially, of the fractured black psyche. Wells’ art invests the psyche, a site of madness and dissonance, with profound generativity. Her work is especially inspired by the incoherence of her mother Alice’s psyche. Her relationship with Alice, a schizophrenic who went undiagnosed for most of her life, informs Wells’ renderings of inter- and intrapersonal conflicts in “Alice Was Not Meant to Live the American Dream” (2009) and “Alice’s Tea Party” (2016) and the ambivalence Wells breathes into mother/child scenes in Mambo more generally.

It’s the fractures in the stories Alice told—to herself and to others, and especially, to the Other within herself—more to the point, it is how Alice made coherence out of an experience of the world that could not cohere that Wells captures, if only to distort in depictions of Mambo Land.

I want to suggest that Alice’s schizophrenic madness stands in for the psychic incoherence and cognitive dissonance induced by lived experiences of racial blackness. Taking their cue from Frantz Fanon’s study of the colonized black psyche in Black Skin, White Masks (1952) and inspired by critics like Moten, black studies scholars in the Afro-pessimist camp like Wilderson and Sexton suggest that the living death typical of black existence is characterized by madness.

Further still, an Afro-pessimist study of racial blackness suggests that this madness, prompted by the experience of walking through a world that claims to be multiculturalist, plural, liberal, and capacious but which cannot in fact make room for you, is counterintuitively, impossibly liberating. It is a madness generative of friction—a spark—that induces alternative life-worlds.

Invoking the cast and plot of George C. Wolfe’s 1986 play The Colored Museum, Sexton cites a refrain from Topsy Washington, a character who imagines a fantasy world “‘defying logic and limitations’”, a black feminist world not unlike Mambo in which “‘Nat Turner sips champagne out of Eartha Kitt’s slipper,’” to advise black people to lean in to the somatic and sociogenic madness induced by a world that was not meant for them. He especially advises black people to dance to the “colored contradictions”[7] of a free world that expressly proscribes their freedom:

Dance to “the music of the madness” . . . for there is freedom and freedom is there, a mad freedom there where there is none, in our unending, uninterrupted captivity in the colored museum, in the baggage we do claim, in the pain we can’t live inside of and can’t live without. …“THERE’S MADNESS IN ME AND THAT MADNESS SETS ME FREE.”[8]

Black women, who take up so much of the frame of Wells’ Mambo, must dance to this madness most of all. They must give themselves over to it, as Alice did, because it is they who are tasked with engendering black life (i.e., black children) and ensuring black survival (i.e., black futurity). Their labor is also cosmological; as harbingers of broken, beautiful freedom, black women, including the artist, make do with what they have, creating entire worlds from scraps, in pieces.

[1]. Learn more about this motif at “The Coon Caricature: Coons as Alligator Bait” in History On The Net, available at http://www.historyonthenet.com/authentichistory/diversity/african/3-coon/7-alligator/.

[2]. Frank B. Wilderson III, “Irreconcilable Anti-Blackness: A Conversation with Frank Wilderson III.” A public lecture at Pomona College sponsored by the Art History Department, April 19, 2017, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k1W7WzQyLmI, minute 5:55.

[3]. Fred Moten, “Blackness and Nothingness (Mysticism in the Flesh)” in The South Atlantic Quarterly Volume 112, Number 4 (2013) 746.

[4]. Jared Sexton, “The Social Life of Social Death: On Afro-Pessimism and Black Optimism” in InTensions Number 5 (Fall/Winter 2011).

[5]. Ibid. 28.

[6]. Ibid. 31.

[7]. Frank Rich, “Stage: ‘Colored Museum,’ Satire by George C. Wolfe” in The New York Times, November 3, 1986, available at http://www.nytimes.com/1986/11/03/arts/stage-colored-museum-satire-by-george-c-wolfe.html/

[8]. Sexton, “The Social Life of Social Death” 6.

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