Before there was Grace Jones – icon, goddess, warrior, megastar – there was a different Grace, young and awkward. Aged 21 or 22, she greets us through a doorway in an early modelling shot: head tilted appealingly; hair in a polite chignon; a nervous smile.
This Grace Jones is bare shouldered but for two lengths of thick gold chain wound tight around her neck: a clumsy bit of styling, and one that is chokingly uncomfortable. Twenty-one years later, on stage at the Palladium, she will perform Slave to the Rhythm costumed entirely in chains: cowl, dress and long strands of linked metal dangling from cuffs on her wrists. Jones quickly came to understand the power of the image, and has worked it brutally hard for more than 50 years to retain her place in the spotlight.
Getting into that spotlight in the first place meant performing for the camera and impressing the men who controlled it. Struck off the books after a brief stint with the Black Beauty model agency in New York, she found an early champion in the photographer Anthony Barboza, who captured her angular beauty in an early black and white portrait tightly cropped to her face, all humid skin and structural drama.
Within a few years, Jones had transformed herself so totally into a mythic object that you forget the young woman avidly constructing this Kevlar-tough image around herself. It is fascinating when the armour slips. She appears pensive, almost vulnerable, dressed as a ballerina in a fabulous 1975 backstage portrait by Ming Smith (herself a brilliant young black woman making her way in a white man’s world – and another talent championed by Barboza).
In a film shot three years later, Jones chats tensely in French with a stylist while he shaves her hairline with a cut-throat razor. He seems uninterested: she determined to charm him. He nicks her ear with an open blade and makes light of it, only worrying that the blood might ruin the look – oblivious, it seems, to the real bleeding woman behind the image.
Moments such as this reveal the aching labour that Grace Jones put into being Grace Jones. Sure, legend has her playing the diva, partying hard and delighting in outrage, but behind that is fearsome discipline. In an unpublished interview, the writer Michele Wallace admits she wants to ask about the star’s workout routine but thinks it might be wasting her time: Jones leaps at the question, detailing how she alternates heavy weights to build form, and light weights to maintain it. Pumping iron isn’t a superficial concern: it’s a cornerstone of the job.
That sculpted body gets treated like sculpture in return. In 1978 photographer Jean-Paul Goude posed her with her knee on a support, then cut up, repasted and repainted her body, taut and glossy as a bronze idol, for a New Yorker article (the image was later used for the compilation Island Life). Keith Haring painted her body – nude but for coils of wire – head to toe with his glyphs and squiggles. Photographed dancing in this white graffiti in 1985 by Haring’s regular collaborator Tseng Kwong Chi, Jones’s body becomes a beautiful abstraction. Robert Mapplethorpe portrays her instead as a sinister and exotic fetish, in a piece of faux anthropology that reinforced Jones’s reputation for wild behaviour.
Grace Before Jones is neither a biographical exhibition nor an exhibition straightforwardly celebrating Jones’s creative circle or exploring her collaborations. Instead it darts in muddling flurry around adjacent themes. Reading the accompanying booklet, the sense is often that the curators were guided more by academic writing than the works themselves.
Still, there are powerful moments. In an antechamber hang Charles White’s portrait of Paul Robeson and Terry Adkins’s silenced video of blues singer Bessie Smith. This opening display evokes the tense status of black performers in the US: celebrated as entertainers, vilified for speaking out.
In the video Funk Lessons (1983), the artist Adrian Piper teaches a largely white audience to dance in a university lecture hall. Through the apparently incongruous setting Piper highlights the dismissive misunderstanding of music by black artists, and the anxious hostility surrounding cultural expression such as dance. A 1979 news report shows the smoking aftermath of an anti-disco rally, the music becoming a foil for heated racist and homophobic sentiment.
The show ends on an elegiac note, in tribute to Jones’s many collaborators on the New York scene lost to Aids (and Andy Warhol, who died during routine surgery). We can still hear the intoxicating majesty of La Vie en Rose from the adjacent room. This was a staging post. The Grace Jones show goes on.