Glenn Ligon, Untitled (I Was Somebody), 1991


NARRATOR: This white painting features the phrase “I was somebody.” The words are Ligon’s variation on the rallying cry of black political leader Jesse Jackson’s “I Am Somebody”—a mantra that itself appears in a black and white painting nearby. Scott Rothkopf and Glenn Ligon:

SCOTT ROTHKOPF:  The painting I Was Somebody, where he changes this into the past tense, you start to think, well, if you were somebody, then today you're not. And that's a kind potentially sad or troubling thought. And this painting, being in white text on a white ground, has a sense of dissolution or ghostliness to it that I think communicates the feeling of absence maybe that that text suggests.

GLENN LIGON: Also, I guess, when I made the painting that said “I was somebody,” I was thinking of historical processes, and how our notions of identity and selfhood change over time and become more complicated, that our very fixed and certain notions of who we are have to change over time. I think that pair of paintings is about that, that loosening of the sense of self.

SCOTT ROTHKOPF:  A lot of Glenn's work deals specifically with subject matter from black history, African American literature, and for that reason, it's often been discussed in terms of its engagement with questions of identity as they relate to race. But one of the things that it's worth emphasizing is the extent to which this work actually speaks to all of us.

Glenn Ligon (b. 1960), _Untitled (I Was Somebody)_, 1990 and 2003. Oil stick, gesso, and graphite on wood.80 x 30 in. (203.2 x 76.2 cm). Collection of John and Mary Pappajohn © Glenn Ligon; photograph courtesy of Glenn Ligon