Days Between Stations: Keith Carter’s ‘Mojo’ (03/96?)

Keith Carter’s Mojo is an oversize book of fifty-five black-and-white photographs; it takes its cue, says an introductory page facing a photo of a black woman wielding garlic stalks like spears, from the African KiKongo word Mooyo meaning ‘spiritual spark,’ ‘force,’ or ‘soul.” Very nice, but, like the African-Amer­ican word “mojo,” Carter’s pictures suck up other meanings: hex, trick, spell, curse, magic, death.

Shot in Mississippi, Texas, and Louisiana, with four images from Mexico, the photographs are sometimes merely striking: a traditional southern bottle tree leaning just like the Tower of Pisa. Oth­erwise, they’re a lookout onto the uncanny: a pig­tailed black girl, shot from behind, the tufts of her hair so defined and gravity-defiant it seems each has its own little will, or mission. Old mystical blues songs snake out of the pages, and so do new ones. Mojo encompasses small, dressed-up white children at a garden party and the bulging torso of a scarecrow that looks more like a week-old corpse from Jonestown; Muddy Waters’s “Rollin’ Stone” fades seamlessly into R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion.”

In her introduction to Mojo, novelist Rosellen Brown asks if Carter’s pictures “constitute a world of individuals and their unique experiences” or “a shared landscape and a set of lived assumptions.” For once, an art question is easy to answer. Carter absolutely posits a landscape. It’s a terrain at once objectively, externally particular and subjectively, internally boundless, and probably no one has ever described it better than novelist and short-story writer Clark Blaise. “I grew up,” Blaise writes in “The Voice of Unhousement,” a memoir collected in his 1986 book Resident Alien, “on the wild shores of Lake Harris and Lake Griffin in central Florida, back in a time when they were utterly savage. Somehow, I ingested the sights and smells of pu­trescence, and of a primordial, unspoiled plenti­tude that has now vanished from the common experience, even of Floridians.” It was, he says, “a touch of the living prehistory of the planet and a triggering of the brain’s own disremembered past.” Then Blaise goes on to line out a picture that is missing from Carter’s Mojo only because Carter didn’t happen to be around to shoot it:

I remember even now a spectacle that belongs in Hieronymus Bosch. Dozens of mudfish nailed by their tails to cypress trees in front of a moss-picker’s shanty. Those fish, their primitive lungs permitting life out of water for days at a time, whacking the trees with their heads, their air-bladders making Donald Duck noises, while sand-castle drippings of black mud built up under the propped-open mouths.

And so the images of the unconscious were planted early and privately by the peculiar wealth of southern poverty, and I grew to believe in the co­existence, or the simultaneity, of visible and occult worlds: duplicities, masks, hidden selves, discard­ed languages, altered names, things not being what they seemed.

This is precisely the terrain shared by Carter’s Mojo pictures and a certain strain of American mu­sic—and if Blaise’s litany of “masks, hidden selves, discarded languages” tracks every step of the vocal dance Michael Stipe makes in “Losing My Religion,” then the notion of “images of the unconscious” is a key to Carter’s work. There’s a moment in Muddy Wa­ters’s 1950 “Rollin’ Stone”—a country blues song recorded solo with electric guitar—when a big bass note rises toward the theme, bends under pressure, and then bursts. What is revealed is no image in the unconscious but something like Blaise’s im­age of the unconscious, a power you may not want to know about, and also just a counter in a piece of rhythm—and that sense of the bursting of the ordinary, of the functional, is present all through Carter’s pictures. You look at a domino table and all but seek to repress the feeling you’re looking at Stonehenge. You squint at an old, rolled Bible on an altar table and believe that reading it would not be like reading any other Bible. You wonder about the violence of motive that has produced the cruel stillness so many of Carter’s subjects bring to their poses (assuming it’s not a stillness Carter waited for)—a stillness that, in picture after picture, of humans and animals, makes it hard to tell if the subject is dead or alive.

Ultimately it doesn’t matter. There are dead animals here, for certain, but there is also an aura of death in almost every photograph, just as there is in “Baby Face” Leroy Foster’s weird 1950 “Rollin’ & Tumblin’ Part 1,” Muddy Waters and Little Walter pounding out the incantatory rhythm behind him, the three men moaning, wailing, never uttering a recognizable word, as if seeking that discarded language. You can’t always tell what you’re looking at with Carter, any more than “Losing My Religion” ever hesitates in its swaying long enough for you to single out a meaning: in Mojo a pig’s head is as indistinct as Robert Mapplethorpe’s picture of a bloody penis forced through a hole in a board, and an old kid’s toy, a stuffed elephant, looks like an elephant fetus floating in a bottle of formaldehyde.

Real mojo music isn’t music where the singer brags he’s got a mojo—brags that he’s got magic, power, that he’s going to make his lover do his will. Real mojo music carries a sense of transformation, the sensation that the body, like the soul, is unfixed, unstable—that just as the mind can think any thought and defend against none, the body can take any shape, at any time. This is Carter’s argument, or his eye. His greatest strength is in his understanding of the mojo as a look, a gesture, an abstinence—a performance, both ritualistic and instinctive, of the occult contours of everyday life.

His picture Hanging Alligator is so fierce a version of this performance it makes you wonder how the picture came to be—that is, did Carter simply come across this hideous apparition on a country ramble, or did he think it up, find himself an alligator, and hang it from a tree? It’s hard to decide which would be better, or worse. The picture is just what it sounds like, though something as strange as “hanging alligator” doesn’t really sound like anything. An enormous, dank, terrifying alligator has a rope around its neck; the animal dangles in the air. Behind it is a tree. The feeling is that of suspension, between events—what happens next?

There’s no gainsaying this image: the alligator has been lynched. As you wonder why, another, older notion can creep off the page—an echo of a discarded language. Some American Indian tribes believed that each human had a kindred animal spirit; that when the human died, that spirit revealed itself, the animal body shrouding the human body, which disappeared as if it had never been. You can’t go much further into mojo than that, and Carter has gone that far. The longer you look at his hanging alligator, the more you want to know about the human who was hung.

Interview, March 1996 (TBC)

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