The real showstopper, however, is the six-minute-long video Spiderman (2015), in which Bradford assumes the role of a black stand-up comedian, riffing on Eddie Murphy’s 1983 comedy Delirious—except the artist’s image is absent. Rather, his disembodied voice can be heard sending up various facets of African American culture in flamboyant vernacular. A red spotlight signals the presence of an invisible performer in front of a black screen on which his words roll out in text form, synchronized, like the subtitles in a karaoke set. The words bounce in staccato, dance, and fade according to Bradford’s rhythms and intonations. “It’s every single person I’ve ever seen in the hair salon. This history, this oral history and comedy,” he says. “You can use comedy to talk about social issues. Because I grew up in a hair salon, I was always in charge of telling the stories. I was Marco Polo, I traveled all over the world and brought the stories back. So I learned how to tell stories.”
Traces—of a performance, a process, a memory, a roller disco, or a body—are at the center of Bradford’s concerns as an artist and at the heart of his impulse toward abstraction. “When it comes to the big topics like race, I’m a shadow person,” he explains to a crowd at the preview. “I stand back and I move things around. I think that’s the only way that I can play with and understand these big, heavy subjects. I play with them in the shadows.”
“Be Strong, Boquan” is on view at Hauser & Wirth, New York, Nov. 7th–Dec. 23rd, 2015.