Black in Bed

Navild Acosta and Fannie Sosa, Siestas Negras / Black Power Naps, 2019. Installation view, Performance Space New York. Photo by Da Ping Luo.

This essay was produced as part of the inaugural Stelo + Variable West Arts Writing Residency, funded with generous support from Stelo.


“..it’s really the white man’s worst nightmare to have a fully rested negro who is fully self-possessed.” —Navild Acosta

As a chronically-ill Black femme, I can’t understate how much my bed means to me. Beyond medication that keeps pain boiling just under the surface, my bed is often the only thing that brings me a semblance of relief. As my face touches the cold satin pillowcase and my limbs relax between the weight of my comforter and the mattress, I (very temporarily) distance myself from an external world that punishes me for how much I need to lay down. Illness aside, I’ve always loved being in bed despite the push toward “getting up.” 

Antiblack-imperialist-patriarchal-ableist-capitalist logic marks the bed as a site of laziness. Our lives are very literally structured to deprive us from practicing rest, pleasure, and dreaming, driving a wedge between us and the spaces where we can physically and psychologically restore ourselves. Knowing this, what does it mean to embrace the bed? When we explore beds as a unique place in our interior lives and as objects that can destabilize our ideas about who is worthy of rest, do beds and bedrooms become more urgent and meaningful? While initially considering these questions, I turned to Josie Roland Hodson’s ideas about “Black Sleep aesthetics.” In “Rest Notes: On Black Sleep Aesthetics*,” Hodson ascertains that Black sleep is “a quiet gesture cast against tropes of Black idleness and the rationalization of the Black (non)human as a laboring, nonsomniac machine.”1 By extending Hodson’s line of thinking to the vessels in which/on which “Black sleep”–as well as Black birth, sex, illness, and leisure–occur, I began looking to at Black contemporary artists documenting and exhibiting their beds. In tracing a visual history of “being Black in bed,” I was struck by works that use beds to reconfigure the social meaning of the object so that the bed acted as a vehicle for exploring our interior selves. 

My fixation on bed art began in August 2021 when Twitter user @ftrplnss tweeted an image set comparing the auster stage dressing from Kanye West’s DONDA tour–comprised of his mattress on the cement floor, a small side table, dumbbells, and few pairs of shoes–with Tracey Emin’s seminal installation work My Bed from 1998. Rapper and artist Kari Faux added to the thread with images of her bedroom installation from the “CRY 4 HELP” album release party in 2019. The triangulation of West, Emin, and Faux started an art historical “who did it first” conversation that dove into nearly 100 years of examples of beds in modern and contemporary art. The presence of Faux’s performance work in this conversation is critical as it 1) represents Black femme authored Black femme interior space and 2) refuses the pervasive and idealized “empty bed” trope that marks beds as uniform objects void of the “materiality of the human body.”2 At the party/performance held at Space15Twenty in Los Angeles, Faux performed new music from a replica of her bedroom. The pajama-clad Faux engaged her audience while laying down and jumping on the bed—performing at the very barrier between listeners and her personal space. Adorned with plushies, strewn clothing, an open Macbook, bottles of tequila, and paper ephemera from her writing process, the bed-as-stage interupts what we expect from a performance by making public Faux’s “depression bedroom”—an uncensored site that reflects one’s mental state and their (potential) inability to care for their body and personal space due to mental illness. Additionally, this bed provided physical grounds for the artist to rest mid-performance. The moments where Faux snuggled on top of her bed while people roamed the party around her challenged the terms of performance and work that necessitate continuous production. The bed then becomes a shelter from expectation and a place to process. From her bed “full of stuff,” Kari Faux complicates the boundaries between public and private space; she is both intimately on display and in complete control.3

Kari Faux, CRY 4 HELP, 2019. Performance view, album release party.

While the participant vs. performer, bedroom vs. gallery, real vs. “fake” matrix was clearer with Kari Faux’s “CRY 4 HELP” performance, Navild Acosta and Fannie Sosa’s 2019 iteration of the Siestas Negras / Black Power Naps project dissolved these boundaries to create “a zone of pleasurable refusal” where beds were sites of consenting co-rest.4 Research on sleep disparities between Black folks and people of other races overwhelmingly shows that Black people are getting less quality sleep, and less sleep in general, compared to non-Black people. Sleep and sleep quality further diminishes for fat, poor, queer, disabled, and undocumented Black people.5 In response to the state-sanctioned “sleep gap,” Siestas Negras / Black Power Naps used beds, as well as other platforms of rejuvenation such as trampolines and sensory baths, to encourage Black people to reclaim mundane, “unproductive” rest amongst community. Within the dark, void-like space, pink canopies warmed by washes of rainbow lighting enveloped the squishy, orb-like beds, transporting participants out of the gallery and into a dreamspace. The materiality of the installation is critical—the size and amount of rest spaces available suggested that there was enough room for simultaneous and differing expressions of Black rest in bed, not just sleep. While we often are taught that beds are where we prepare for the next workday—an in-between that exists to provide brief respite from antiblack grind culture—can we reimagine when or what hours we use the bed, who we use it with, and what we are doing on/in it? As Hodson writes, sleeping together, or simply being in bed together as a kind of parallel play, is a collaborative act that exists at “the threshold of the interior, subjective space of the self and the sense of belonging to be found in the collective.”6 Siestas Negras/Black Power Naps strikes a balance, in concept and in practice, by conceiving of rest spaces as both communal and solitary. By inviting Black people en masse to be in bed on an ongoing basis, Acosta and Sosa refuse the idea that individual rest is a radical act, instead galvanizing the power of cooperative, well-rested interruption. 

Clifford Prince King, Safe Space, 2020.
Clifford Prince King, Communion, 2019.

Outside of performance and installation, photography is ripe with Black artists making images of, on, and from their bed/rooms. Clifford Prince King photographs queer Black men in their everyday lives in a manner that supplely reorients quotidian space and warmly embraces shared ritual. The beds, bedrooms, and bed linens in Prince King’s images transform into “tableaus for scenes of desire and vulnerability,” giving new meaning to images of these spaces and objects.7 Safe Space (2020), a work that regularly goes viral on Twitter without accreditation for Prince King, captures Black care, intimacy, and friendship in motion. The photo depicts the artist between a friend’s legs while getting his hair cornrowed. The bare chested Prince King, reading a James Balwin book, is seated with his back against the edge of the bed and the figure braiding his hair, also shirtless, is sitting on the billowing white bed. A third figure, lying on his back with the top of his head pointed toward the viewer, reaches up to give the braider a puff of a joint. At the foot of the bed there is an open container of EcoStyler gel, various combs and brushes, and an ashtray. Sticking out against the rich, earthly palette, the ordinary, inanimate bed serves as the scaffolding for small, but affirming acts of affection, holding each figure as they casually care for each other. This glimpse into the artist’s interior world is punctuated by the familiarity of the scene. Communion (2019) similarly captures the warm shadows of quotidian intimacy. Beneath a sheet lit from within, two figures sit face to face on top of a bed forming a fort. While the bed is barely in view in Communion—there’s a sliver of a pillow and bed frame in the background—it operates as what scholars Caitlin Blanchfield and Farzin Lotfi-Jam call “an apparatus of the self.”8 The quiet and sexy moment unraveling beneath the linen reveals how the architecture of the bed serves as a platform for retooling images of domesticity. Materially, the beds within Clifford Prince King’s photographs turn away from their prescribed use to sustain their Black queer inhabitants. 

There is no shortage of bed art in art history. There are beds as centerpieces and stages, as afterthoughts within the larger image, as sculptures, as multidimensional textiles, as devices through which artists consider where the private and public meet, and so on. My desire to chart Black artists documenting and exhibiting their beds feels indescribably significant to me as I navigate our “anti-bed” world. Despite how much I enjoy seeing depictions of Black people at rest, this isn’t really about representation. The use of the bed by Black artists serves as an opportunity to expand our understanding of our relationships to reparative rest (outside of white supremacist definition). Despite the mundaneness of beds, to be Black in bed without the expectation or denial of sleep is a crucial event. Images, performances, and installations that document autonomous and expansive uses of the bed live at the convergence of fantasy and reality, giving way to new possible structures for our interior lives. 

******A few end things: 

The artists I consider within this particular text are the tip of the iceberg, brilliant and challenging uses of beds exist within the works and worlds of Carrie Mae Weems, Mónica Hernández, Mickalene Thomas, manuel arturo abreu, Faith Ringgold, Njideka Akunyili Crosby—to name just a miniscule few. Also, I purposely chose not to speak at length about the set dressing from Kanye West’s DONDA tour because of the space that would take.

Notes:

  1. Josie Roland Hodson, “Rest Notes: On Black Sleep Aesthetics.” MIT Press, no. 176 (2021): 8.
  2. Gülsüm Baydar, “Bedrooms in Excess: Feminist Strategies Used by Tracey Emin and Semiha Berksoy,” Woman’s Art Journal 33, no. 2 (2012): 29.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Navild Acosta and Fannie Sosa, “Siestas Negras / Black Power Naps,” in Black Futures, ed. Kimberly Drew and Jenna Wortham (New York: Penguin Random House), 156–159. 
  5. Brian Resnick, “The Racial Inequality of Sleep,” The Atlantic, October 27, 2015, https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/10/the-sleep-gap-and-racial-inequality/412405/.
  6. Josie Roland Hodson, “Rest Notes: On Black Sleep Aesthetics.” Mit Press, no. 176 (2021): 9.
  7. Caitlin Blanchfield and Farzin Lotfi-Jam, “The Bedroom Of Things.” Log, no. 41 (2017): 131.
  8. Ibid.

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Author: Ella Ray

Ella Ray is an art historian, writer, and curator who produces texts, objects, and exhibitions that center Black artists and histories, archival material, and world-building practices. After graduating from Portland State University in 2018, Ella Ray has mounted curatorial, research, and writing based projects through and alongside the Black Abbey Residency, the Portland Art Museum (by way of the Kress Interpretive Fellowship), and Portland State University. Ray made their curatorial debut in 2021 with the group show "Nobody's Fool," hosted by Carnation Contemporary. Ray’s work can be found in Cult Classic Magazine, the Studio Museum in Harlem’s website, the Portland Art Museum’s members’ magazine, the King School Museum of Contemporary Art, ArtAboutPDX, OregonArtsWatch, and in a forthcoming Ford Family Foundation catalog.