The contemporary political and social hive mind of the Western World is preoccupied with issues of race and gender. The recent White Nationalist rally at the University of Virginia, the physical violence involved (mostly perpetrated on students protesting Neo-Nazism), and lukewarm statements from the White House encapsulate the struggle to break with patterns of a troubled past to fix the ails of a troubled present, and possibly escape a troubled future. We are indeed grappling with contemporary questions provoked by the poltergeists of our past: how do we as nations spurred by an economy of slavery account for that major feature of our development? Is there a way to redesign our current infrastructure so that it does not reproduce injustices of the past? How do we properly honor the interiority and humanity of people who are systematically unprivileged and oppressed?
Art, perhaps, cannot answer these questions. Art, at best, can only respond. Art institutions, at best, can provide a platform for dialogue and education through innovative, interdisciplinary curatorial practices. In the cases of two current exhibitions, the Tate Modern’s Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power and the Brooklyn Museum’s We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–1985, we see institutions attempting to operate within that model.
Installation view of We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-85, Brooklyn Museum. Photo: Jonathan Dorado
How does the art historical map sketched by these shows reproduce social constraints faced by the Black body?”
Via their curators, these museums seek to simultaneously educate the public, monetize their audiences, adjust the lens of history, challenge three dimensional space, and honor their selected artists—no small feats. And in today’s “weather” of racism and misogyny (“weather” as coined by Christina Sharpe in In the Wake), these museums and their curators are mobilizing work by artists who are Black.
The artists in Soul of a Nation and We Wanted a Revolution have dedicated their lives to directly and indirectly crystallizing their individual and collective experiences of Blackness into art. Their work, like all art, is a fractalization of reality; reconstitutions of the quotidian; glimpses of personal interiority. The Brooklyn Museum and the Tate Modern attempt to, and in some respects succeed in also querying those experiences in massive shows, the crown jewels of their respective exhibition seasons. Both are immense surveys that cover some twenty years, beginning during the Civil Rights and Black Power movements and ending during the 1980s; they are important, lush, multimedia sensorial experiences that provide worthwhile accountings of an era. But art audiences should question the sprawl: how do the artistic and revolutionary aims of these artists fall flat in the topography of these exhibitions? How does the art historical map sketched by these show’s curators reproduce inhibiting social constraints faced by the Black body?
Lorna Simpson, Rodeo Caldonia (Left to Right: Alva Rogers, Sandye Wilson, Candace Hamilton, Derin Young, Lisa Jones), 1986. Photographic print, 8 x 10 in. Courtesy of Lorna Simpson. © 1986 Lorna Simpson
A fundamental difference between these exhibitions is the focus on gender. We Wanted a Revolution highlights, with few exceptions, Black women artists whose work addresses the axis of racial and gendered social experiences. The exhibition’s wall text narrates these artists’ concerns, opening onto their careers and personal lives: being mothers, being queer, invisibility, being rejected from art institutions, being rejected by male-dominated Black artist collectives. This textual component emphasizes the coalition created by Black women artists and allies, such as JAM or Just Above Midtown Gallery. The show explores the realities of being a Black woman in the wake of history. In Howardina Pindell’s video Free, White and 21, for example, the artist gives a monologue, sometimes in the caricature of a White woman, about her experiences as a Black woman artist. Another example is Lorna Simpson’s photography, which questions the language used in association with the Black woman’s body, beauty, and the discounting of the Black woman as a source of historicity and reliable memory. Blondell Cummings’ video installation depicts the dancer and activist miming, transforming her body through the everyday gestures associated with the pink collar economy in which many Black women are economically compelled to work. Numbered maps on the walls guide audience members throughout the exhibition, which is structurally organized around watershed moments during the twenty year period (1965–1985) it covers.
Romare Bearden, Pittsburgh Memory, 1964, Mixed media collage of various printed papers and graphite on board. Collection of Halley K Harrisburg and Michael Rosenfeld. © Romare Bearden Foundation/DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2017
Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, on the other hand, consists primarily of Black male artists, with an inclusion of a handful of Black women artists (who are also featured at the Brooklyn Museum). The exhibition starts with an installation of televisions featuring the faces of James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Stokely Carmichael, and Martin Luther King Jr.—the public-approved pantheon of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. The “I Have a Dream” speech plays in entirety with alternations of short audio clips from the other revolutionaries. King’s voice is the first thing a viewer hears before entering the exhibition space; it operates as a unifying cry instead of the source of dissension it was for its time.
In exhibitions meant to account for a lack of representation and opportunity for these artists, that lack is reproduced by the curatorial relationship with space and time.
Soul of a Nation can be seen as a primer for the diverse methods of address used by Black artists in their work, and the exhibition’s wall text describes this polyphony as a common point of historical contention. Romare Bearden’s multimedia collages feature largely in the first gallery with Norman Lewis’ abstract expressionist paintings. Bearden uses pictures from prominent Black magazines to reconstruct scenes of rural and urban Black life; it’s a direct critique of the magazines, but also of the white gaze. William T. Williams’ abstract expressionist paintings capture the energy of the era’s contentious weather. In his work Trane, contrasting colors break up a field of complementary colors: a centered orange line intersects at an angle with a blue line, filling the canvas with vibration. Emory Douglas’ prints span nearly two galleries, consisting mostly of the graphic art he produced for the Black Panther newspaper that ran roughly from 1967 to 1980. Also present are Roy DeCarava’s hypnotic photographs and Melvin Edwards’ visceral and elegant sculptures. The exhibition is arranged chronologically over ten galleries, each space focusing on a different school or movement of artists. The diversity is the fulcrum that drives time in Soul of a Nation; it is a highly navigable exhibition with the wall text used as sign posts.
Both shows are strong because the art they contain originates from a generation of artistic genius; the shows are strong because the art is strong. The diversity of media, form, and technique on display assembles an impressive visual orchestra. The ways that Betye Saar, Emma Amos, Jae Jarrell, Senga Nengudi, Barkley Hendricks, and others, transform their materials, emotions, and thoughts into art matter pries at questions of where the lines are between organic and inorganic, alive and unalive, subject and object. Indeed, it is the artists themselves in each of these exhibitions who provide grounds for their work to be considered an art subject, not an art object. There are nevertheless serious questions raised as to how, in exhibitions meant to account for a lack of representation and opportunity for these artists, that lack is being reproduced by the curatorial relationship with space and time.
Barkley L. Hendricks, Icon for My Man Superman (Superman Never Saved Any Black People — Bobby Seale), 1969, Oil, acrylic, and aluminum leaf on linen canvas. Collection of Liz and Eric Lefkofsky. © Barkley L. Hendricks. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
Most of the artwork in these exhibitions confronts the exterior experience of being Black, that is to say: how the world responds or reacts to a Black body. This means that the art itself confronts the experience of being hyper-visible through race, but invisible as an individual. This is the question of Fanon and contemporary Black critical theorists like Hortense Spillers and Sylvia Wynter: what are all the ways in which a Black body becomes homogenized and stereotyped in such a manner that its interior of psychology, emotion, and intelligence—what makes the body human—becomes fungible? In the institutional history of acknowledging the Black body, the method is to characterize en masse or to create a caricature. A very simple example is how in the educational system the Harlem Renaissance may be taught over two days, while Transcendentalism, solely taught on a roster of white writers, receives two weeks. The amount of space and time given to a subject is often a reflection of its worth. The audience does not see the invisible personal investment, just the conditions which shape the final product.
The eras they represent operate in a captive moment instead of the runaway historical tradition of racism.
The exhibitions at hand squeeze together two decades of artists and their movements—who are worthy of comprehensive time and space—to attract an audience being made aware of the current weather—striking while the iron is hot, so to speak. While this provides much needed and deserved attention for overlooked artistic genius, it does not challenge the status quo, the societal habit of only acknowledging blackness en masse. While a viewer unaccustomed to seeing their favorite artist on display is overjoyed and overwhelmed, for curators to present a room of masters only visible because the difficulty of the present matches the difficulty of the past is perhaps a glossing over of the artists’ intentions. The shows inherently provide limited space and time to give a proper cogent representation of their two-decade spans, as if the eras they represent operate in a captive moment instead of the runaway historical tradition of racism.
William T. Williams, Trane, 1969. Studio Museum Harlem. © William T. Williams. Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York
The external lack of representation for these master artists in art history only aggravates and exacerbates the conditions of these shows—a snake eating its tail. These artists are not only valuable in terms of revolutionary Black arts; they are equally valuable as masters of their respective crafts. After all, at Tate Modern, master draftsman and sculptor Giacometti currently has ten galleries dedicated to his work alone. He did not stand in an exhibition dedicated to Cubism and its discontents with fifteen-plus other artists. Where are the exhibitions that focus on assemblage arts by Black women artists? The exhibitions on Black abstract expressionists? The exhibition on American sculptural traditions which include a fair share of Black sculptors? How can continued inclusion and recognition of these artists in exhibitions focused on their techniques or schools create more value for their individual practices?
The value of this work is tied to Blackness in the context of struggle and state-sanctioned violence... Apparently we cannot care about Blackness unless it is hurting.
Both exhibitions stumble into the same art historical gap. The value of this work is tied to Blackness in the context of struggle and state-sanctioned violence. The curatorial topography does not break with the metaphor of Blackness being synonymous with exclusion. What new discourse is being presented by the curatorial framework at hand? This is a question more for curatorial training and method than the curators themselves; it is a reflection of the weather. Apparently we cannot care about Blackness unless it is hurting. The wall text for Soul of a Nation repeatedly references the Black Power movement’s responses to violence without describing the source of the violent events perpetrated against black communities. This leaves the call to arms by the Black Power Movement seemingly unfounded. The textual body of the exhibition also leaves untroubled the narrative of the Black Power Movement’s reaction to King’s pacifist stance in the face of violence. It does not broach the complexity of King questioning his own non-violent leanings and collaborating with the Black Power Movement. The text for Soul of a Nation brackets the Civil Rights and the Black Power movements as purely American events, not attending to the reality that both movements were transnational in artistic influence and collaboration.
Emory Douglas, 21 August 1971, ‘We Shall Survive Without a Doubt’, 1971, Newspaper, Center for the Study of Political Graphics (Culver City). © Emory Douglas / ARS NY
While museums often (and for their fiscal safety) are compelled to shy away from overt political statements, there is a question around what is a statement and what is historical fact, and when does one preclude the other in artistic institutions? Both exhibitions break with the thesis of their titles and introductory wall text statement: these are exhibitions about Black revolution and the artistic responses of Black artists to their situations. Virginia Jaramillo, Andy Warhol, and Ana Mendieta make art that deals in the vein of this subject matter, they even lived their lives with Black artists, but they are not Black artists. They are included—the first two explicitly, the latter by the contingencies of installation—without contextualization in these exhibitions. A large portion of these show’s artists were very prolific—could they have included more work from one artist or another, substituting breadth for depth? In a show that already glosses over so many incredible artists, what does it mean that space has been made, even minimally for non-Black artists in an exhibition about Black Revolutionary arts?
Part of curation is being a cartographer. The privilege is not only to present the art alongside talks and restaurant menus that “honor” the apparently shared culinary practices from the culture the artists are a part of. Curatorial exploration and mapmaking, at its best, investigates what is communicated through an exhibition’s topography. The major question here is how do these exhibition topographies reproduce the experience of hyper-visibility/invisibility of the Black body? If we take Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space to heart, then the blank gallery wall simultaneously poses as a threat of enclosure, and a brilliant doorway of transportation. Whether the wall becomes the latter or the former is a matter of vision and time.
We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-85 continues at the Brooklyn Museum through September 17.
Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power runs at the Tate Modern through October 22.
Jessica Lanay is a poet and short story writer from the Florida Keys living in Pittsburgh. Her work can be found in Salt Hill Journal, Tahoma Literary Review, and is forthcoming in Fugue and The Common.
(Image at top: Installation view of We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-85, Brooklyn Museum. Photo: Jonathan Dorado)