My recent visit to view the expansive art collections at Brooklyn Museum, located in the Prospect Park area of New York City, provided an interesting opportunity to peruse and critique a series of complex and engaging artistic and curatorial juxtapositions. On every level of this five storey building the vast collections of exhibits and their interpretation narratives were assembled to encourage dialogues between historical artefacts and contemporary artworks, established and experimental museographic techniques, and also conventional versus innovative perspectives on curation, all coupled together within close proximity throughout the display spaces.
The African Collections on Level 1
Nowhere were these artistic and curatorial binaries more starkly evidenced than in the furthest corner of the Level 1 galleries where two, black walled rooms presented the Museum’s permanent holdings of African art objects as the temporary installation “Double Take: African Innovations.”
Whilst it was wonderful browsing these two, tightly filled galleries, packed almost to bursting point with a diverse array of artworks sourced from several African nations, the thematic nature of curator Kevin Dumouchelle’s presentation – contrasting historical sculptural pieces with a range of more recent, multi-media contemporary art exhibits – was actually rendered quite problematic by the Museum’s decision to retain the old-fashioned convention of showcasing African collections within dimly lit, darkly painted interior settings, designed to communicate (wittingly, or unwittingly) the tired 19th century tropes about Africa being perceived in the West as a culturally mysterious ‘Dark Continent’ (see, for example, Hutcheon 1995: 11-13 and Elliott 2007: 32). Continue reading Curatorial traditions and experimental innovations at the Brooklyn Museum, New York
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)
“I’ve found that the night and twilight here enhances the imagination. In the city our relationship to the night is very particular because it’s always illuminated, but here it’s unlit, so you’re relying on the light of the moon and sensitivity of the eyes.”
– Chris Ofili (2010)*
Chris Ofili: Night and Day was the title of the artist’s first solo retrospective in the USA, curated by Massimiliano Gioni (New Museum, New York, 29 October – 1 February 2015). The exhibition featured more than 30 of Ofili’s paintings, collages and a selection of sculptures displayed over three floors of gallery space at 235 Bowery. Continue reading Chris Ofili: Night and Day
Birmingham Museum of Art (Alabama, USA) has recently published an online smartguide to its current exhibition “Black Like Who? Exploring Race and Representation” (July 11 – November 1, 2015). The exhibition features 28 works from the Museum’s permanent collection, and selected loans, brought together to consider how artistic representations of African-Americans and aspects of black cultural life have been influenced at pivotal historical moments by specific socio-political, cultural, and aesthetic interests, as well as the subjectivities of individual artists.
The assembled works by 19 artists are arranged into five thematic sections covering the period from the early 19th century, when the brutalities of enslavement and ‘Jim Crow’ restricted black self-representation, through to more modern 20th and 21st century portraiture of black subjects by African-American and white artists from Birmingham and other locations in Alabama. These works are placed alongside notable artworks and commentaries by internationally renowned African-American artists and scholars to contextualise changing attitudes to ‘race’ in the USA more broadly.
‘American Policing: Lessons on Resistance’ is the title of a panel discussion that took place at the Schomburg in New York on 18th February 2015 as a follow-up conversation to their recent town-hall-style debate on ‘American Policing: The War on Black Bodies’. The session featured wide-ranging commentary on issues related to police brutality, racial discrimination, ‘stop and frisk’/’stop and search’ policies, and community-led responses to the killing of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Aiyana Stanley-Jones and others in recent news.
The panel discussion was moderated by writer Mychal Denzel Smith (The Nation), with contributions from the following four political activists and social commentators: Ashley Yates (poet and co-creator of Millennial Activists United), Dante Barry (Director of Million Hoodies Movement for Justice), Philip Agnew (Co-founder of Dream Defenders) and Cherrell Brown (National Organizer with Equal Justice USA). Closing comments were also provided by Dr Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
Central to the debate were questions about what justice might look like if black lives actually mattered in the USA; strategies for restructuring, de-militarizing and dismantling policing systems so that their historical origins in the States as organisations founded on the surveillance and restriction of the lives, mobilities and freedoms of black and brown people did not continue to perpetuate racialized discrimination; critiquing the complexities of campaigning against the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) and the increasing monetization of incarcerated black bodies; envisioning safe communities; aligning anti-racist political activism with wider education and culture agendas – including activism via the arts; routes into community-based activism and leadership for young people; self-esteem/’self-love’/self-care and spirituality issues within movements for social change; and effective ways to disseminate counter-narratives to help challenge the normalisation of privileged white citizenship to the detriment of others’ lived realities.