One of the places designated as a ‘must see!’ during my recent trip to the United States was the Studio Museum in Harlem:a site first established in the iconic New York district in 1968 as a space for ‘artists of colour’ from the USA, the global African diasporas and Latinx heritage communities to (in the words of the current Creative Director and Chief Curator, Thelma Golden) “share their gifts of provocation and insight.”
At the time of my visit in mid-February 2017 the Studio Museum’s main galleries featured the following four temporary displays and exhibits, arranged on three levels:
(1) Circa 1970(November 17, 2016 to March 5, 2017) – a wide-ranging display of paintings, photographs and sculptures from the Studio Museum’s permanent collections illustrating the changing expression of African-American and wider African diasporan consciousness and socio-political activism by established and emerging artists during the years 1970 to 1979. As this period represents significant transitions in black and brown American lived experiences and agency following the civil rights era in the USA, the scope and subject-matter of the artworks was highly reflective of an increasing sense of confidence and assertiveness that came through in sublime portraiture and figurative work by artists such as Beauford Delaney and Romare Bearden, but was equally also revealed in more overtly political works about the history of the Black Panthers, the rise of Black feminism/womanism, and the art-political activism of AfriCOBRA (Coalition of Black Revolutionary Artists). This radical history was depicted in works by a diverse selection of artists: from Elizabeth Catlett-Mora (1915-2012) and Norman Lewis (1909-1979), whose portfolios commenced during the Harlem Renaissance and concluded in the 1970s; through to former Studio Museum ‘artist-in-residence’ LeRoy Clarke (b. 1938, originally from Trinidad and Tobago), and Chicago-born feminist artist Senga Nengudi (b. 1943) – two avant-gardists who both initiated their most innovative work in the latter years of that pivotal decade.
(2) The Window and the Breaking of the Window(November 17, 2016 to March 5, 2017) – an exhibition of hard-hitting typographic paintings, street photography and photo-portraiture documenting the history of public protests within African-American communities. The texts and images presented in the gallery reflected decades of documentation about how black communities in the USA, and African diasporans in the wider West, have risen up and spoken out with a strong collective voice against long-standing racialised injustices, acts of discrimination and cycles of violence meted out by police and other public officials whose unjust and biased policies and practices have blighted black lives throughout the African diaspora(s) for generations. Acts of protest and statements of resistance and resilience presented in works by (among others) Chris Ofili, Deborah Grant, Rudy Shepherd and Kerry James Marshall were some of the most powerful and provocative pieces in this bold, forthright and affirming display. Continue reading Circa 1970, and beyond, at the Studio Museum in Harlem (New York)
My proposal to present a research paper about the life and work of Cuban surrealist artist Wifredo Lam (1902-1982) at the forthcoming 2nd CARISCC Postgraduate Conference on Caribbean In/securities and Creativity (University of Leeds, UK, 8th March 2017) has been accepted. The presentation – titled, “Reading Issues of In/Security and Creativity through the Life and Artworks of Wifredo Lam: a Cuban ‘Passeur’ in Paris” – will form part of a broad conference programme themed around ‘Reading’ Caribbean In/securities for Creativity. Through this theme my fellow conference contributors and I will seek to examine the links between precariousness and creativity within the context of Caribbean cultural, area and diaspora studies.
When art scholar Catherine Grenier recently curated the exhibition “Multiple Modernities, 1905-1970”* for the Pompidou in Paris, she made reference to the French term “passeur” [“go-between”] to describe the activities of selected pioneering and influential modernists whose travels and artistic practices throughout the 20th century supported global artistic syncretism and dynamic cultural exchanges across a range of art forms, movements, genres and media. For Grenier, the role of the passeur was an important aspect of ‘thirding’ the Pompidou’s gallery spaces so as to displace and replace false Enlightenment era polarities of Self/Other binarism in favour of more fluid and pluralist ‘both/and also’ exhibiting practices – as advocated by cultural theorists such as Homi K. Bhabha, Gayatri Spivak and Ed Soja.
One person celebrated and valorised in this thematic display as an influential passeur of Caribbean heritage – who (in Grenier’s words) “propagated the modern spirit throughout the world” – was the Cuban surrealist artist Wifredo Lam (1902-1982).
In this conference presentation, archival documents and past exhibitions detailing the artist’s portfolio of works and his biography will be showcased as the prelude to addressing underlying questions about the extent of Wifredo Lam’s ‘borderless fluidity’ and ‘hybrid identity’ as a passeur ‘of colour’ – negotiating complex spaces and structures normalised as white within avant-garde Europe during the inter-war period. This spatio-temporal survey and mapping of his lived experiences – as an artist deeply influenced by his African, Asian and European ancestry, just as much as his connections to fellow artists in the Surrealist Movement of ‘Jazz Age’ Paris (most notably, Pablo Picasso) – will also serve as the prelude to deeper, critical reflections on the politics of in/security within the observed aesthetic characteristics and narrative interpretations of Lam’s visual poetics by contemporary art critics, scholars and wider publics.
On 7th December I was pleased to give a presentation about African and Diasporan artists’ ‘politically aesthetic’ interventions and activism within museums and galleries in the West. This illustrated talk was part of a panel session and Q&A that took place at Raindance in Charing Cross as the inaugural London meeting organised by the education and social justice project “Make a Difference” (aka “The M.A.D Project“).
As a non-profit education organisation, the artists, teachers, scholars and arts activists affiliated to M.A.D seek to develop creative learning initiatives, exhibitions and awareness-raising campaigns that challenge dominant narratives perpetuating racialalised hierarchies, ‘differentialist racism,’ stereotyping and the legacies of colonialism within present-day mainstream society. Through this work M.A.D make a significant contribution towards tackling racism(s), other forms of prejudice, intolerance and misrepresentations of cultures falsely perceived as ‘other.’
Central to the Project’s pedagogic outcomes are the ongoing collation and presentation of stories and images detailing different forms of cultural expression from various regions of the World – particularly the Middle East, continental Africa, Asia and Europe. These diverse (and often diasporic) narratives – as well as the activists’ and researchers’ accounts of their own travel experiences through which this cultural knowledge is sourced – are widely disseminated via publications, photo exhibitions and taught programmes in classrooms, community-based organizations, universities and other public institutions.
South African photographer Justin Dingwall and lawyer and model Thando Hopa have recently collaborated on a new project featuring photographic portraits that address albinism as a key theme. Both the model and the photographer have created a series of poignant images that invite audiences to reflect on – and rethink – attitudes towards beauty, skin colour, corporeality and albinism as a condition caused by a lack of melanin in the skin that can affect people from every ethnic background.
In addition to the presentation of these striking visual images, Dingwall and Hopa aim to inspire a public debate about the historical taboos that surround the subject of albinism, as well as draw attention to the devastating levels of discrimination, threats of physical violence and actual bodily harm many people with albinism have experienced throughout history because of the superstitions that persist in some societies around the world.
Session title:Western Museumscapes and the Political Aesthetics of Decolonisation: African and Diasporan Arts Activists Agitating for Change
High-profile museums and galleries in the West – such as the British Museum in London, the Pompidou in Paris, and the MoMA in New York – are continuously revising and developing new strategic plans to ensure that their collections, cultural programmes and exhibiting practices are engaging increasingly diverse global audiences. At the heart of these developments are complex issues about the changing nature of acquisitioning, curation, display and interpretation of artworks and cultural objects described as permanent holdings. The policies and practices implemented by these institutions serve as catalysts for generating and sustaining a rich discourse that invites artists, researchers, curators, archivists, educators, scholar activists and other creative practitioners to question their own roles and responsibilities within such dynamic museumscapes.