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[Story]

The Work of Art

Illustration by Hannah Buckman

[Story]

The Work of Art

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The exhibit had been up for three weeks when the trouble started. As soon as Cliff arrived at the gallery that afternoon, Georgina got up from the stool where they were allowed to rest during their shifts and stepped toward him. Her bronze dreadlocks were in an architectural bun. She cocked it at the woman in front of the painting.

“Been here all morning,” Georgina whispered, her eyebrows curving up, her lips down.

The draped figure stood before the painting with her head at an angle, her hip kinked to one side. A stance of interest. While groups or pairs of visitors clustered briefly, murmuring and pointing, before moving on to the next piece, individual visitors often paused this way to take in a painting. But this one persisted. She stayed staring at just that one work of art until the gallery closed three hours later.

Cliff sat on the stool, facing her. At one point, he subtly pulled out his phone to confirm he was thinking of the right word for what she was wearing. Yes, it was a burqa. This one looked cheap, the color and texture of the black tablecloths they used for the gallery openings. That wasn’t what made Cliff suspicious, though. It was her eyes, tick-tocking to and fro behind the mesh like one of those vintage cat clocks.

Before each opening, Cliff liked to walk around the exhibits in case a patron should ask him later for the location of a work of art, or for his opinion of one. (Only white men ever asked his opinion, but he loved seeing them squint with confusion when he gave it.) Cliff would take his time, shifting from artwork to artwork. Then he read, letting the names and dates and details of each placard seep into the sketch of his first impression, as if filling it in. He’d already done that initial meander with this exhibit, which was called Black Matt(h)er. He remembered only that the painting the woman stood in front of all day was titled Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith—the names rang a bell, but only a faint one—and that it commemorated their deaths.

When the burqa woman left at 6 pm, Cliff stepped over to the painting again and reread the placard. The artist, Sonia Middleton, was South African. Cliff nodded at the word “intersectionality,” which he’d heard enough about on gallery tours to connect to his mother’s favorite saying: “The nigger woman is the mule of the world.” He reread the word “chiaroscuro,” the definition of which Cliff had heard plenty too, from the art history students who worked as docents; it meant light and dark, white and black. Middleton’s painting fit the label, and it was big, running from a couple feet above the floor to a couple feet below the ceiling. Cliff’s feeling, on this second close viewing, was that it was pretty—it reminded him of willow trees or the end of a sad song—but nothing special.

The burqa woman returned the next day.

“She’s baaack,” Georgina buzzed in Cliff’s ear as she passed, dreads in banana bunches today.

The woman was again in front of the painting, but instead of standing, she was sitting on the floor. This offended Cliff. It looked primitive or maybe just dirty. That floor got a professional cleaning only every other week, allegedly because the gallery couldn’t afford a janitor. Sitting on the floor seemed at odds with all that the burqa implied. But there were no rules against it, technically, so Cliff just stayed on his stool and monitored the situation.

From a certain angle, it looked like the woman was part of the painting, a short black shadow watching the long black shadows streaking the field of white. Camouflaged as she was, she still drew more attention sitting down. Other visitors to the gallery stared or whispered or exaggeratedly skirted her on the floor. At one point, a woman with red hair—dyed badly on purpose, Cliff thought, and cut unevenly, an old-school New York chic—leaned down and spoke to her. Cliff was too far away to hear what was said. But the burqa woman tilted her head up, and he saw the cloth bulge, her cheekbone lifting as she replied. The redhead started back with disgust and walked off, her transparent heels hoofing loudly.

The burqa woman again stayed in front of the painting all day, without even a break to use the bathroom. Cliff planned to ask Georgina about it—should they tell management?—but when he arrived for his shift the next day, Georgina wasn’t sitting on the stool. Her dreads were in curly-fry ringlets, and she was standing over the burqa woman, and they were yelling at each other.

Cliff told me and Mike all of this later. Cliff and Mike had met at the opening of Black Matt(h)er. Basically, Mike had tried to do his usual thing—get into a work situation sideways—which, in this case, had involved meeting this new gallerist, who, Mike had heard, was looking for a curator for a show in Prague called Dada Africa, Black Dada, Blada Blada. Mike had pitched up at the gallery in Chinatown, glanced briefly at the art, flirted platonically with everyone, downed a lot of free cava, and ended up at a bar down the street with Cliff, after they literally shut down the party together, pulling the shutter closed and padlocking it to the sidewalk.

Cliff looked like he was in his forties and was actually fifty-three; Mike, the reverse. They drank whiskey and Cokes, and chatted about the cost of rent. Cliff had lived all over Manhattan but had recently moved back into his childhood home in the Bronx with his mother, who had been a librarian back in the day and was now just “like, the flesh part of a breathing machine” (Mike’s words to me). The conversation got a little sad. Mike had a great time, though. He always does. He didn’t get the Prague gig and he forgot all about it until the furor hit.

Someone had tweeted a photo of the burqa woman, with the hashtags #ArtOfProtest and #AppreciationOrAppropriation. This was when her presence first got called a “protest.” Think pieces sprouted like mushrooms overnight. A Moroccan-American artist named Christianne LaBlanc put up a petition titled “STOLEN [IM]PROPERTY,” stating that her “SISTER IN HIJAB” was right: the painting should be “DEMOLISHED.” It was not only the grotesque commodification of a horrifically violent event—the lynching of the titular Shipp and Smith in Marion, Indiana, on August 7, 1930—but also the neo-imperial art-world theft of a traumatic history that didn’t “BELONG” to a white South African woman at all.

Some people signed LaBlanc’s petition, but for the most part it just got dissected, line by line, on various media, both news and social. Artists and pundits took LaBlanc to task for her naïveté. C’mon now. Art didn’t belong to anyone. The painting’s abstraction, which LaBlanc had called “A PRETTIFICATION OF BLOOD TERROR,” couldn’t really be faulted; a realist depiction of lynching could easily have been considered worse. And to call for the destruction of art in an era like this was particularly tone-deaf, conjuring the specter of Nazis and Fascists. This was not the time for us to attack one another. The Arts were already under attack. As was Civility. And Democracy.

People coolly criticized LaBlanc, but no one felt comfortable criticizing the burqa woman who’d sparked the whole controversy and who kept asserting, to Georgina and later to the police, that she had a First Amendment right to be there. She wasn’t breaking any rules. She wasn’t bothering anyone or instigating violence. She was just sitting in a gallery. This is, I think, where Cliff picked up the word “interesting,” which the woman kept using in her arguments, e.g., “I’m just expressing my interest in this work of art. I just find it interesting.

Fair enough. Blocking the painting from view seemed insufficient grounds for people to drag her. What if she got arrested for this, or even deported? This last fear, of course, presumed she wasn’t a U.S. citizen. But who knew? She had an American accent, invoked the American Constitution. She could have been a white convert, or a member of the Nation of Islam. But no one had asked. Nor had anyone asked whether there was any relationship between her veil and her protest. It seemed impolite to bring it up.

The painting wasn’t just a painting. It was a painting of a postcard of a photograph. I thought about the first time I saw Andy Warhol’s Green Coca-Cola Bottles projected on a screen during an Art and Thought of the Cold War class. In 1962, Warhol wasn’t yet sending his images through his proto-Instagram color filters, turning them garish green or blue or red, so the Duchampian gesture—an ordinary object framed by the museum effect—still had a certain clarity and simplicity. I hummed with pleasure before the image of those stalwart bottles, with their distinctive bishop-piece shape, greenish, blackish, stacked high and wide. I thought of a military battery and also, oddly, of the famous slave ship blueprint.

In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin wrote about “the presence of the original” work of art, which was essential to what he called its “aura,” a kind of glow: “the earliest artworks originated in the service of a ritual—first the magical, then the religious kind.” For Benjamin, mechanical reproduction such as photography creates copies of the original that don’t require us to be present before it. This depletes its aura, wearing it away like the nose of a statue that we rub for luck.

Warhol parodied mechanical reproduction by painting racks of a commercial product on a canvas. But the duplication, I think, actually gives aura back to the painting, lends it a new kind of glow. This isn’t even the beatific glow of the grocery store refrigerator, though. It’s the warehouse at the back, the area behind the grimy plastic blinds, the fluorescent lights stark overhead, where the crates of empties are collected before being returned to the factory to be refilled. Or, at least that’s what they did in Zambia in the Eighties. I don’t know what they did in America in the Sixties.

I know what I know about the aura of a Coke bottle because I’ve seen The Gods Must Be Crazy six or seven times on VHS. The film, like me, was born in 1980, and, like the painter Sonia Middleton, is South African. It begins when an empty Coca-Cola bottle gets thrown out of an airplane and lands, unbroken, in the Kalahari at the feet of Xi, a San man. His tribe decides it must be a gift from the gods; it cannot be shared; it breeds conflict. Xi decides to walk to the edge of the world and dispose of it. The film becomes a buffoonish picaresque through the desert, bouncing along with antic slapstick and racism. It’s as if the bottle had been tossed from the peak of Coca-Cola’s 1971 “Hilltop” advertisement—with its multicultural confetti of faces, its offer to “buy the world a Coke”—all the way down to the bathetic valley of what the world really thinks about black people.

That Coke bottle still became iconic for us, a joke my Zambian friends and I riffed on, despite the condescension in the idea that an African tribe would treat it as sacred. The thing is, a Coke bottle does have aura. It is like an original work of art, with its swooping lines and shapely anthropomorphic figure. In the world of the film, its double singularity—it is both unique and alone—is in fact what makes it sacred. Another way to put it is that there would have been no movie if another Coke bottle had fallen from the sky.

Under pressure, the white South African artist Sonia Middleton released a semi-conciliatory statement on the homepage of her spartan website. The statement was short, a little impersonal. She said that she had never planned to sell the painting. She gestured vaguely toward parallels between apartheid and Jim Crow. She argued for art’s role as “instigation.” She asked that her work stay up in the gallery “to keep the conversation going.”

Then, her website got hacked. The background flashed red behind big white block letters:

i drink black blood

for my breakfast!

That “my” in the second line seemed less than idiomatic. I was peering at my laptop screen, wondering whether the hackers were American, when I heard a soft chime. Mike was gchatting me:

what do you think of this gallery conflagratio?

I see Le Blanc’s general point but to stage a protest slash petition slash reputational gofundme seems stupid and boring to me

I am myself put off by the framing
if LaBlanc’s move hadn’t been “you, power structure, should destroy this painting,” I would be straightforwardly and comfortably ambivalent, what with my temperamental post-Jesuit leeriness of grandstanding, which is in turn already heightened by the expansion of opportunities to grandstand provided by mass social media bandstandery and also by my advancing age

omg shut up you are not old mike!

of course what I would most prefer is that she or her likest-minded would have just gone into the show and destroyed or defaced the painting themselves

Nazi
JK! JK!

No no no I know

I’m just saying we can’t really advocate for the destruction of paintings in this day and age

I mean it’s not CENSORship

it’s not NOT censorship

I just think destroying it would mean putting herself on the hook
defacing the defaced over effacement
the shock, charge, horror of it
the . . .  sacred terrorism of it?

you are once again losing yourself in the battle
hey don’t you know that security guard at the gallery? should we go down there and see what’s up?

of course!

The ellipsis in the chat window pulsed.

plus I heard there’s even more burqa now. burqas? burqae?

woot!

Three more protesters had indeed joined the sit-in. Tourists were visiting the gallery in droves to see them, not the painting. Journalists waited to pick off selfie-takers for interviews. We showed up in the midst of this circus of rubberneckers: short brown me and tall white Mike, who is Mexican and shaped like a candle flame and looks like Jesus, if Jesus had lived long enough to go gray. A few patrons were pretending to ignore the chaos but most milled unabashedly close to the protest. Their smartphones made clicking, scything sounds, as if someone had amplified a fleet of butterflies.

My stomach whimpered—we’d had dumplings for lunch a couple of blocks over—and I covered it with my hand. I peered between bystanders, trying to suss out the protesters, who had stopped speaking to anyone at all. There they were, an assembly of dark figures, a parliament of ravens, a . . . bouquet of burqas? The very fact of there being more than one lent the whole situation a dubious air. It felt stagy, in a community-theater kind of way. The tints of their black coverings differed slightly. They sat with their backs to the room, ostensibly looking at the painting, though they must have memorized every paint streak by now.

Cliff stood in parade rest position between them and the crowd. He looked a bit like Method Man. His uniform consisted of navy pants, a navy tie, a spiky silver badge, and a shirt in that shade of periwinkle that screams “not a real cop.” His elbows made wings.

“ ’Sup, man.” Mike walked up and introduced me.

“ ’Sup.” Cliff nodded languidly in my direction and shuffled his heels.

“How’s Ma?”

Cliff’s brow softened. “Not bad, not bad. My cousin Gloria been helping out.”

“Amazing!” Mike smiled and they nodded. “So . . .  what’s the deal with all this?”

“Free speech, I guess.” Cliff shrugged.

“What do you think of it, Cliff?” I leaned in. “Do you find the painting offensive?”

Cliff thought. “It’s interesting,” he said, not for the last time. The creases around his forehead and mouth rippled as he tried to explain. “I ain’t think much of it, you know, when I first saw it but I been looking at it, you know,” he said, glancing over his shoulder at the painting, the protesters, “when all y’all are gone for the day? And it is interesting.”

My belly mewled quietly.

“I mean. . . ” Cliff frowned, then leaned in to speak confidentially. “We got a lotta black folk dying right now, you know? Out there.”

“Uh, yeah,” said Mike, waving his El Greco hands. “It’s a fucking genocide.”

“It’s kinda messed up in that sense to picture the dead, maybe? But. It is interesting.”

This, I thought, was the exact opposite of what Kant had said about the correct approach to art. I was quiet as they continued their conversation though. Melanin is a kind of aura that fades in reproduction. Cliff had the most, mulatta me the next, Mexican Mike the least. My brownness had validated Mike. You can be real with us, my skin had said to Cliff. But if I opened my mouth now and started holding forth about Kant or Benjamin, I’d seem show-offy or condescending, and that would disturb the balmy vibe of solidarity.

So while the guys palavered about police brutality, I stood there thinking about Kant on my own—the idea that the pleasure we take in beauty ought to be disinterested, that it shouldn’t result from the satisfaction of a desire. I had always disliked the puritanical bent to this as a philosophical dictum: How do you explain taste then, Kant? What about money, Kant? What about pleasure?

I stared past Cliff’s nodding head at the painting, trying to sense whether it had any aura left. It was difficult in the crowded gallery, with the other art and people competing for my attention. I shifted focus, making my vision blur like it was a Magic Eye poster, like it would somehow crystallize into a clear image. I was looking for the postcard in the painting, seeking the true horror of its pale, murky background—the white people’s faces brimming with . . .  desire? Satisfaction? Interest? My eyes kept bouncing between the two black figures hanging like rag dolls in the painting and the hunched protesters on the floor, near-identical in their black burqas. I felt more dizzy than awed. If mechanical reproduction empties out aura, drains it like a punctured vessel, can the work of art get a refill?

Mike and I went back to the gallery a few weeks later. We had started our day at the Rose Reading Room at the New York Public Library to work. As usual, we sat across from each other with our laptops at one of the long tables. Undaunted by the trompe l’oeil ceilings and arched windows and walls of leather-bound books, indifferent to the echoey hush and the tapping of keys like a spring shower of diligence around us, we proceeded to have a full-blown conversation over gchat. We typed replies in tandem, muffling our laughter, which just grew worse for the muffling, like catching the giggles in a lecture. Eyes flashed and rolled around us. We are truly insufferable people. I started keeping track of when our LOLs onscreen matched our real ones.

Finally, we succumbed to the peer pressure and started “working.” Except I couldn’t stop reading about the painting and the protest and the petition. A Facebook post here, a Twitter rant there, semi-autobiographical essayistic digressions about art and capital, this or that polished writer, black or brown or white, weighing in on this tiny, enormous debate, this teacup storm for the ages. The think pieces all felt solidly constructed but huddled around their blind spots, like buildings with hidden courtyards.

Feeling an irritable déjà vu, I closed the overlapping cascade of open tabs in my browser and landed on the window for the bare-bones eBay auction for Sonia Middleton’s painting. Someone had posted it a couple of days earlier: ***minstrelsy for sale*** over a blurry cell-phone picture of the painting. The bidding had now reached the mid–six figures and was steadily ticking up. I gchatted the link to Mike.

holy shit:
https://www.ebay.com/itm/Lynching-Postcard-Abstract-Painting-Original-Sonia-Middleton/112778552326?hash=item1a3a9d86

Across the table, I saw his eyes goggle cartoonishly, then narrow as he skittered out a flurry of keystrokes punctuated with Return—the telltale sound of googling. I interrupted him:

the problem with this whole auction isn’t even the aura
it’s the indexicality

right
wait what?

Primed by my online reading, I began to discourse. The photo of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, I explained in jerky gchat rhythm, had been an index of an actual event. Those men had been brutalized and hung and burnt (had they been burnt? I googled: yes), and that violence had left its mark on a strip of film—real light had hit real people, then a real chemical composition of silver halide. That photograph had then been reproduced in the form of a postcard. Nearly a century later, Sonia Middleton had rendered that reproduction in an elite, organic medium: oil paint. Did this reversal of reproduction sanctify the event or displace it? The paint on her canvas had not touched those bodies, not even transitively. Worse, this lynching postcard had already been reproduced in art several times over now, by Abel Meeropol in his poem “Bitter Fruit,” which became Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”; by Claudia Rankine in Citizen; by David Powers, whose 2007 mural, American Nocturne, which omitted the lynched bodies, had been protested and taken down, though you could still see it online, in digital photos, another form of mechanical reproduction, whose aura, because of JPEG degradation, is also always already fading . . .

A new link popped up in my gchat window. Mike had been ignoring my treatise and his googling had turned up a news story about an incident at the gallery. I clicked. Someone had lit the painting on fire! We looked up at each other at the same time, mouthing our mutual WTFs?!

The library was closing soon anyway, so we snapped our laptops shut. We headed out with the crowd, making our way down the marble steps, scooped in their centers from the cumulative rub of a million feet.

“We have to go, right?”

“Of course,” Mike scoffed. “Cliff hasn’t responded to my text yet, though.”

“You have his number?”

“Oh yeah. I got it at the opening. Also I got drinks with him in Dumbo last week.”

“What?! Without me?”

The end-of-day murmur echoed in the massive foyer, people already gathering in a curly queue by the exit where the security guard, Sam, was lackadaisically checking bags.

“Do you think Cliff was there when it happened?”

Not only had Cliff been there, but it turned out that he was the security guard who’d tackled the protester setting fire to the painting! This was, I have to admit, totally thrilling. It was like we had conjured it. First, we had gchatted about how the destruction of the painting would have been the Platonic ideal of protest. Then we had actually gone to the exhibit and seen the burqa bouquet. And then we had been the ones who got Cliff talking about art and value and interest. Not that those conversations were why he’d tackled the protester. That was just his job.

It had been two days since the incident—we were outraged that it hadn’t been front-page news—but luckily the painting was still up in its new, compromised condition. A brief announcement concerning the decision to leave it up was posted on the gallery’s website—and taped to its glass front door—but it remained unclear whether this decision was primarily political, artistic, or financial. (The auction continued on eBay.)

Mike and I shuffled in with the crowd—fifty or so people, each taking a giggling, shocked turn to witness the burnt work of art. The painting was cordoned off now by short white poles with thin black ropes between them, giving it an air of exclusivity. Even from the distance these ropes imposed, you could see where the bottom right corner of the painting had been torched. It looked like crumbling scabs or a honeycomb of black bubbles in the white paint, surrounded by gray wisps like when an outlet short-circuits. The burn matched the chiaroscuro aesthetic and could easily have been part of Middleton’s original design.

Mike and I shuffled off past it and went to stand in front of another, rightfully neglected, painting: an American flag with Beyoncé’s face for stars. We discussed the implications.

“With the erased de Kooning, it was at least, like, between friends.”

“Didn’t some lady kiss a Rauschenberg?”

“That was a Twombly. She said she couldn’t help it. An act of love.”

“Ugh. Did Twombly even care?”

“Twombly was dead.”

“ ‘Twombly’ is starting to sound weird. Ta-wom-ba-lee.”

“It’s not not Seussian.”

“Superseussian.”

“Someone threw acid on the Mona Lisa in the Fifties.” Mike was on his phone, scrolling through the Wikipedia entry on “Vandalism of art.” “I’m looking for my favorite: KILL KILL KILL on the Guernica . . .  Ah, it is in fact KILL LIES ALL. Huh! A suffragette knifed a Velázquez!”

Las Meninas?”

“No, a Venus. The Rokeby.”

That’s rad. This,” I sent a thumb over my shoulder, “is a tad deflating.”

“Like popping a Koons.”

My eyes widened. “Or pooping on an Ofili?”

“You mean, doubling down on the . . .  extant poop?”

“Band name,” I said absently.

“Let’s find Cliff!” Mike said brightly.

But Cliff wasn’t there. He’d been told to stay away from the gallery until the civil suits closed. We learned this from Georgina, who was sitting with one butt cheek on the kitchen stool, the other leg stretched out before her. I’d never met her before. She was beautiful, Badu-esque, her thin bronze locks in rose-shaped cupcakes. She struck me as more “authentic” than Cliff. When we explained who we were and how we knew him, she was more than happy to tell us what had happened.

Two days ago, Cliff had been standing in his usual spot, protecting the protesters behind him, when he smelled something burning. He turned and noticed the original protester—by now he could recognize the cut and shade of her burqa—standing close to the painting, a little too close for just looking. As he approached, he saw that she was holding a lighter to the bottom right corner of it.

“Hey!” he shouted and grabbed at her, but she ducked him and ran off. By the time he started to give chase, she had already tripped over the black cloth at her ankles and gone skidding across the floor. (I pictured patrons gasping and stepping away, afraid that this was a shooting like the one in the Turkish museum.) Once the protester was down, Cliff managed to restrain her, but in the struggle to zip-tie cuffs onto her wrists, her veil had fallen off. When I heard this, I thought immediately of Farkhunda.

I’d been idly googling about burqas and protests earlier that week. I’d read about France’s ban, about Denmark’s ban, about burkinis, about how girls had once worn miniskirts in Iran. And I’d learned about Farkhunda Malikzada, a twenty-seven-year-old student of Islam in Kabul. In 2015, she had criticized a fortune-teller for selling blasphemous charms—as well as Viagra and condoms—at a religious shrine called King of Two Swords. In retaliation for this (likely true) accusation, a custodian of the shrine (falsely) accused Farkhunda of setting fire to a Qur’an and leaving the charred remnants in a trash can. He waved the burnt pages around, riled up the crowd, demanded that she be punished.

“I am a Muslim, and Muslims do not burn the Qur’an,” Farkhunda responded.

Nobody listened. A mob quickly clotted around her—almost all men—and the police were called to take her into custody. First the police shot their guns in the air to disperse the crowd. When this didn’t work, they tried to lift Farkhunda onto a roof, away from the reaching men. After one of the men knocked her down from the building with a piece of timber, the police gave up. Once she was on the ground, the men kicked her, punched her, beat her, tore at her. They drove a car over her. They slammed rocks on her body, breeze-blocks that required great effort to lift. By the time they tried to set what was left of Farkhunda on fire, her clothes were too blood-soaked to burn. The resourceful men threw their own shawls onto her for kindling.

Sitting in the 3 am rumple of my bed—nightblack room, moonbright screen, a packet of chips glinting among the sheets—I had followed the links from Twitter to Wikipedia to the darkest corner of the internet: the news. I watched a video that the New York Times had patched together from cell-phone footage taken (cynically? guiltily?) by the men in the crowd. I watched the staggered collapse of Farkhunda’s covered form, its disintegration to a puddled mass, the satisfaction of the men’s desire, the eyes of those smiling lynchers sparkling and spent.

The part of the footage that stuck in my mind—and is now forever patched into my ongoing reel of internal despair—is from early in the video. Farkhunda is still alive and surrounded by police. The crowd throngs around them. A man from the mob approaches a policeman. He cups the policeman’s beard tenderly with both hands, as if to kiss him.

“Let us take her, please,” the man says, according to the translated closed-captioning. “Brother, let us have her. Why not let us near her?”

The ache in his gesture, the word “brother,” the desperate longing to harm her—this is what I can’t shake. You could never paint this: a man clutching another man’s beard, separate yet bound by the shared understanding that would lead a civilian to touch an armed officer in such a presumptive, intimate way, to plead not for mercy, but for the gift of murder. Or, you could paint it, but what would you say in the caption? What frame could possibly help us understand it?

At first, the burqa protester had made a big fuss over Cliff’s unveiling—it was an “indecency,” a “violation”—but this was obviated by the fact that she and her fellow protesters weren’t even Muslim. They were white kids from Brooklyn, young artist types. They had been using the burqa as a disguise. Even before that revelation, it was obvious Cliff had done nothing wrong—the veil had slipped off by accident.

With no legal grounds for criminal charges, the protester filed a civil suit against the gallery instead. She claimed that setting fire to the painting had been a First Amendment act of protest in defiance of its racism, akin to burning the U.S. flag. She also sued for rights to the painting, claiming that by lighting it on fire, she had “co-created it in its current exhibited condition.” The gallery filed a retaliatory suit for damage to the painting—not only against the protester, but also against Christianne LaBlanc, whose petition was deemed to have incited violence. The painting, of course, was now exponentially more valuable.

A month later, Mike texted me to meet him in the Bronx. I thought it was another place on the map that he’d been painstakingly constructing of the best Szechuan in all five boroughs. I clambered out of the subway station into the late-summer heat. We grinned but didn’t hug—he was in his all-black sweat camouflage—and that’s when he told me we were going to visit Cliff.

“Cliff?!” I shouted, skipping with delight. “Where the fuck does Cliff live?”

I repeated my question in a different tone when Cliff buzzed us in to his building. The linoleum tiles were cracked like an archaeological site. The elevator jolted down violently before it shimmied us up. Cliff greeted us at the door in his civilian clothes. His braided leather belt and tucked-in T-shirt turned his jeans into dad-jeans. He and Mike dapped and I gave him an inappropriately warm hug. He gestured around at the aromas of neighborly cooking in the hallway: “The real melting pot of America,” he grinned half-apologetically. “Goat curry.”

We all stepped inside. The curtains were closed, the AC on high. Piles of old magazines lined the foyer. A cat sashayed toward us, cut warning eyes, then twined possessively around Cliff’s calves. He pointed at a door and whispered around his index finger.

“Ma’s asleep.”

Now I heard the hoarse waves, the crest of beeps. We followed Cliff into the living room: a low glass table, opaque with scratches, and a black sofa, gray with creases. Mike and I sat on the sofa and found ourselves looking at Sonia Middleton’s painting. It was precariously balanced on the mantle of a blocked-up fireplace, extending beyond the bricks on both sides.

“Whoa!” Mike said.

Cliff went and stood next to it. He grinned and posed for us, one arm across his torso, the other elbow propped on it to pinch his chin musingly. The Thinker on His Feet. “It’s nice, right?”

Was it? The table lamp beside me was on, but didn’t glow golden—the eco-friendly bulb was visible under the shade, a tangle of mean white glass. In that harsh light, the painting looked stripped-down, like part of the wall, barely there, barely art. The streaks meant to be bodies could have been stains or rips in the canvas, the burnt corner a mere shadow. Mike stood and approached to examine it. He looked like a bishop to Cliff’s castle.

“How did you buy it?”

“Get the fuck outta here!” Cliff scoffed. “You think I could afford that? With my ma’s bills?”

I felt both better and worse for having thought the same thing.

“Nah, man,” Cliff said, grinning. “She gave it to me.”

I piped up from the audience. “Middleton?”

“Yeah.” Cliff turned to me. “Oh, my bad. Y’all want a drink?” He stepped into the kitchen, still calling out his story. “Yeah, so she came up to me outside the courthouse and she was like, ‘Look, you saved my work. You took that risk. You put yourself on the line for me.’ ”

“Wow!” Mike said genuinely.

“Were there cameras?” I asked skeptically.

“Yeah, but she didn’t just do it for the publicity or whatever. It was, like, a real present.”

Cliff came back into the living room holding three glasses of milk, balancing them by pressing them together like a squat white posy.

“So, are you gonna keep it here?” Mike was pointing at the mantle but Cliff didn’t notice.

“Nah, man,” he chuckled as he handed us each a glass. “I’m selling that shit on eBay.”

We laughed. The sound of Ma’s breathing machine scraped around us. Cliff apologized for the milk, which was all he had. Tap water would have been better but we didn’t say so. We toasted. The milk tasted old—not sour, but sweet and slightly dusty.

I woke up this morning to an email on my phone from someone I’ve been having sex with. No subject line, just a link to an essay about Damien Hirst’s use of an Ife sculpture without attribution in his Venice show. I’d already read the essay, so I replied with the dream I had last night instead. I typed it on my iPhone, lying on my side, my screen smeared with hairy-looking smudges. The autocorrect function filled in for my haste and my drowse, translating my typos into malapropisms, which I fixed, my finger skidding staccato to get the cursor in the right spot.

A dream, I wrote, is like art. It is an event and a memory both, it is experienced and then recalled. So I want you to read this twice. Once to get a sense of the details and again to feel them all at once. If each detail is a point in a pointillist painting, pretend you’re an ant moving from point to point. Then step back to take in the full effect, or better yet, smack the canvas so the points scatter into the air and form a cloud of particles—ashes of event around you. Also, I wrote, I want you to feel the sleepy chattiness and intimate funk of having just woken up beside me. So imagine my voice whispering this to you, your eyes closed, my lips brushing your ear:

There’s a white field, or rather a field of whiteness—sweet, dusty milk—within which a thin black line appears from above, like a drip of bird shit. The line trickles down, tracing the figure of a hanging thing, a man. Cliff hands me a small heavy object made of glass and gold—opera glasses or antique binoculars—and when I look through them, the painting becomes TV fuzz, like sugar falling through water, or like the spritz above a glass of Coke in the sun, or like those smoky bubbles trapped inside the surface of an old mirror. The deck pitches and I drop the opera glasses and I realize that where we are, the gallery, is a ship. (I’m pretty sure that this is my mind punning on the word “galley.”) I cast my eyes over the edge. The water down there is black as ink and the waves drown themselves. One wave tilts into being, shapes itself into a pitchblack arm—a tar baby arm with a fist on its end. A flat silhouette emerges, white eyes surface only to recede again, like Kara Walker is cutting the sea’s planes into paper dolls. A woman behind me on the deck steps forward and asks me to empty my pockets to make sure I haven’t stolen anything. She wears a burqa but it’s not cloth, it’s soot, implicitly it’s built into her skin, and it might be dried blood, a moonscape of scabs, or it might be a brittle weave of mascaraed eyelashes. Farkhunda speaks into my ear but her script carves the air into shapes I can’t read. In despair, she points out at the sea, and so I look.

 is a Zambian writer. Her first novel, The Old Drift, was published by Hogarth in March 2019.


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September 2020