Saturday, July 18, 2009

Kerry James Marshall | On Museums

September 25th, 2008

EXCLUSIVE: Kerry James Marshall discusses his relationship to museums during the installation of the exhibition Black Romantic at Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, which features five paintings from the artist’s Vignettes (2003-07) series.

Kerry James Marshall’s work is based on a broad range of art-historical references, from Renaissance painting to folk art. A striking aspect of his paintings is the emphatically black skin tone of his figures, a development the artist says emerged from an investigation into the invisibility of blacks in America and the unnecessarily negative connotations associated with darkness.

Kerry James Marshall is featured in the Season 1 (2001) episode Identity of the Art:21—Art in the Twenty-First Century television series on PBS.


ART21: What’s the relationship between your series of Vignettes (2003-07) and what’s commonly referred to as post-black art.

MARSHALL: The work of African-American artists has for a long time been seen more as a kind of social phenomena instead of aesthetic phenomena. The social implications of the work — be it identity politics and things like that — seem to be privileged in terms of the way the work is received, as opposed to any kind of aesthetic project or intervention the work might be organized around. And so if you read any of the critique that was made around the Freestyle (2001) show at The Studio Museum in Harlem, you’ll find an undertone that seems to suggest that the mainstream critical world and art aficionados were tired of this whole identity politics and multiculturalism moment.

If you examine the subjectivity that a lot of African-American artists address, it often has a kind of cultural, social, political, or historical angle to it. So for the mainstream to suggest that it was sort of tired of having to address those kinds of issues, then, what’s really left for these artists to do if that’s something that’s meaningful to them? On some level, I thought maybe the only thing that was left to do was to make paintings about love. And to take a cynical approach to the concept of love, to the concept of the Vignettes (2003-07), so that they don’t seem to directly address the social and political issues that had been relevant to me and maybe to a lot of other artists who want to make work.

I began by looking at a lot of 18th Century French painting — Rococo work — like Boucher, Fragonard, Bouguereau, and other artists who themselves are also critiqued but critiqued for a lack of political depth in their work, for the frivolity of the work and for the work being kind of saccharine and sentimental and overly puffy and flowery. I started to take those two things and see if I could put them together — to preserve a certain element of the social, political, and historical narratives that are still important to me, but also to deal with the sentimentality, frivolity, and excesses that are embedded in Rococo painting.

Friday, June 26, 2009

New York Times
June 21, 2009

Headless Bodies From a Bottomless Imagination


IN his Victorian house in the East End here Yinka Shonibare, the British-Nigerian conceptual artist, perched on an exercise ball at the wooden table in his book-crammed study, sipping peppermint tea and examining a shipment of faux oysters on the half shell.

A stationary hand cycle sat beside him, an electric wheelchair across from him. One of Bob and Roberta Smith’s slogan paintings, “Duchamp stinks like a homeless person,” hung above him, and a tuna on toast prepared by his housekeeper was sandwiched between a vase of yellow tulips and a stack of Dante volumes: “Inferno,” “Purgatorio” and “Paradiso.”

It was a small tranquil moment in the midst of a whirlwind time for Mr. Shonibare, whose theatrically exuberant work, with its signature use of headless mannequins and African fabrics, will be featured in a major midcareer survey at the Brooklyn Museum starting Friday. The exhibition includes paintings, sculptures, large-scale installations, photographs and films.

Erudite and wide ranging, Mr. Shonibare, at 47, is a senior figure in the British art world but one who intentionally eludes easy categorization. A disabled black artist who continuously challenges assumptions and stereotypes — “That’s the point of my work really,” he said — Mr. Shonibare makes art that is sumptuously aesthetic and often wickedly funny. When he deals with pithy matters like race, class, disability, colonialism and war, he does so deftly and often indirectly.

“I don’t produce propaganda art,” he said. “I’m more interested in the poetic than the didactic.”

On that gray May day in the East End, Mr. Shonibare was trying to decompress after directing a weeklong photo shoot that involved 25 live snakes, 14 nude models, 6 pigs and 2 lamb’s heads. Inspired by Dante, Arthur Miller, Gustav Doré and the financial crisis, the shoot was a work in progress, “Willy Loman: The Rise and Fall,” which seeks to depict what happens after the death of the salesman. (Hint: It’s hellish.)

At the same time Mr. Shonibare was preparing for a trip to Jerusalem, where he is a guest curator at the Israel Museum. He was granting an hours-long interview, interrupted periodically by his plumber — “Do you happen to know where the stopcock is, mate?” — and he was evaluating the oysters for inclusion alongside a peacock with gilded beak in a 19th-century dinner party installation at the Newark Museum.

“I’m juggling a few things, yeah,” said Mr. Shonibare, who in contrast to his bold and lavish work, is disarmingly gentle and restrained in person.

Because of a condition that left him partially paralyzed, Mr. Shonibare’s head lists to the right, as if being tugged there by a few of his jaunty dreadlocks. This often makes it look as if he were cocking his head to see things more clearly. But that impression is misleading because, as Arnold L. Lehman, director of the Brooklyn Museum, put it, his is the sure gaze of a “visionary” artist: “He’s able to juggle so many different ideas so brilliantly and to express them in such an immensely appealing and extraordinarily visual way.”

Mr. Shonibare is not without his critics in England. The London Evening Standard, for instance, has called his focus on cultural identity “labored, repetitive and a little last decade.” But his work is consistently requested for exhibition and purchase by museums around the world, according to his dealers, and he is rarely without a significant show or commission. The Brooklyn exhibition is his most comprehensive to date. Organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, it will travel in November to the Museum of African Art of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. From July to January Mr. Shonibare’s dining room installation will be displayed at the Newark Museum.

Apart from Mr. Shonibare’s gallery, which is in the tony Mayfair area, his life is concentrated in the East End, which is gentrifying but still mixed. His drawing studio is there, as are the private club where he socializes, the warehouse that he is converting into an artists’ space, and his late-19th-century house. He lives alone, across the street from his 18-year-old son, Kayode, who is studying computer game design.

When Mr. Shonibare was about his son’s age and just starting at the Wimbledon College of Art, he felt faint one day and collapsed. Two weeks later he woke up in a hospital unable to move. The diagnosis was transverse myelitis, an inflammation across the spinal cord, and the prognosis was grim: complete paralysis.

The following year, in the hospital and a rehabilitation center, was “my bottom, bottom period,” he said. But gradually he regained considerable function, and after three years in a wheelchair, he once again walked (although he still sometimes uses a chair).

Most important to Mr. Shonibare in 1984 he was able to return to art school, this time the Byam Shaw School of Art in London, which offered some assistance.

“I found out that with a bit of help I was O.K.,” he said. “I could do most things.”

That Mr. Shonibare became a conceptual artist who delegates much of the production of his labor-intensive projects to a network of other artists is partly a result of his disabling illness. Another product, he said, has been a keen consciousness of his own mortality that has made him more appreciative of beauty.

The seminal moment in Mr. Shonibare’s artistic formation, however, was kindled by an encounter at Byam Shaw during a period when he was “making art about Perestroika.”

One day his tutor confronted him . “Why are you making work about Perestroika?” the tutor, a white Briton, asked. “You are African, aren’t you? Why don’t you make authentic African art?”

At first Mr. Shonibare was taken aback. “I tried to figure out what he meant by authentic African art,” he said. “I didn’t know how to be authentic. What would I do if I was being authentic?”

Born in England in 1962 when his father was studying law there, Mr. Shonibare was raised biculturally. His family returned to Nigeria when he was 3 but kept a house in South London, where he spent summers. Mr. Shonibare grew up in Lagos singing “London Bridges” and watching “Sesame Street.” He spoke Yoruba at home, English at school. He felt privileged, not disadvantaged.

“I didn’t feel inferior to anyone,” he said, adding, with a laugh, “If anything, I felt they were inferior to me.’

But the tutor saw him as “someone of African origin, and there are things associated with that,” Mr. Shonibare said. “I should have actually understood all along that there is a way in which one is perceived, and there’s no getting away from it. And I realized that if I didn’t deal with it, I would just be described forever as a black artist who doesn’t make work about being black.”

Right then, Mr. Shonibare said, he found his artistic raison d’être. “I realized what I’d really have to deal with was the construction of stereotypes, and that’s what my work would be about.”

In search of authentic African-ness Mr. Shonibare visited an African fabric shop in the Brixton market in South London, discovering, to his amazement, that the best African fabric was actually manufactured in the Netherlands and exported to Africa. Further, the Dutch wax prints, as they are known, were originally inspired by Javanese batiks.

This idea, that a fabric connoting African identity was not really African, delighted the budding conceptual artist. “The material was the idea,” he said. From that point forward the African fabric was his medium and his message.

He used it first as his canvas — stretching the prints, then painting on them — and later to make his costumes, which are usually Victorian, the Victorian era being the period of British history when Africa was colonized, thus providing him not only with ruffles and bustles but also with what he called the “lovely irony” of contrasting fabric and style.

“My tutor wanted me to be pure African,” Mr. Shonibare said “I wanted to show I live in a world which is vast and take in other influences, in the way that any white artist has been able to do for centuries.” Mr. Shonibare came of age artistically in the 1980s, during the heyday of the Afro-Caribbean BLK Art Group, whose fierce work protested the perceived racism of the British art world. But Mr. Shonibare, living comfortably in his parents’ house in London, felt no kinship with them.

“I had nothing to be angry about,” he said.

For that matter, Mr. Shonibare, a born contrarian, was not constitutionally designed to belong to any art movement, not even the one with which he was associated by circumstance, the Young British Artists. Like them he attended Goldsmiths College (after Byam Shaw), overlapping for a time with Damien Hirst, the most prominent of the group. And like them Mr. Shonibare got his big break from the collector Charles Saatchi.

In the mid-1990s, at a time when Mr. Shonibare was supporting himself by working at a disability arts organization, Mr. Saatchi bought two of his pieces, for what the artist then considered an astronomical sum — about £8,000 (about $13,000 today) each. Mr. Shonibare estimates their current value as “in the six figures;” one is now in the Museum of Modern Art’s collection.

The other, “Double Dutch” (1994), shows one way that Mr. Shonibare adjusted creatively to his physical limitations. He could not handle huge canvases. So in “Double Dutch” he fragmented a large work into manageably sized pieces — 50 rectangles of African fabric — and arranged them in a 10-by-20-foot grid, incorporating the wall, painted an intense pink, into the artwork.

Because of Mr. Saatchi, Mr. Shonibare was included among the Young British Artists in the “Sensation” exhibition in 1997 — the show that, when it moved to the Brooklyn Museum, so provoked Rudolph W. Giuliani, the New York mayor, with a black Madonna adorned with elephant dung that he threatened to cut the museum’s funds.

But Mr. Shonibare was not himself a shock artist. He was not, like Mr. Hirst, suspending sharks in formaldehyde. Rather, at a time when decorative was a dirty word, he was making works of seductive beauty whose bite was only gradually felt.

Part of the bite lay in the headlessness of his mannequins, with the decapitation that is intrinsically violent but never made graphic. Mr. Shonibare said that he conceived of the headlessness as a joke related to the revenge killings of aristocrats in the French Revolution. “The idea of bringing back the guillotine was very funny to me,” he said.

Additionally, because Mr. Shonibare does not like his figures to be racially identifiable, chopping off their heads helps. (The fiberglass bodies are mixed race, “kind of coffee colored,” he said.)

This does not mean that race is invisible in his art. He himself is the centerpiece of a couple of his elaborately staged photographic works, like “Diary of a Victorian Dandy” (1998). Clearly identifying with the lead character as an outsider who gains entry to society through wit and style, Mr. Shonibare cast himself as a dandy who is fussed over in bed by white maids here, looked up to at a billiards table by white associates there.

In what he calls his “zeitgeist-inspired” art Mr. Shonibare prefers to set his pieces in a different historical era so as not to be hamstrung by unfolding events. In 2003, when he was thinking about American imperialism and the Iraq war, Mr. Shonibare made “Scramble for Africa.” In that large installation he positioned 14 headless — “and brainless” — men at a conference table adorned with the map of Africa, as if they were European leaders dividing up the continent in the late 1800s.

“It is possible,” he said dryly, “to learn from history.”

In his home on that day when Mr. Shonibare was supposedly decompressing, his studio manager, Ann Marie Peña, reviewed several pending matters with him, including details about the Willy Loman piece, which will be displayed at the Stephen Friedman Gallery in London in September.

Ms. Peña showed him a photograph of the sculptor’s dummy for the “car crash Willy Loman,” the salesman — right after the death imagined for him — which will be positioned in a crashed vintage car at the entrance.

“Is his costume being distressed?” Mr. Shonibare asked.

“Distressed and sullied — and the shirt could be ripped,” Ms. Peña answered.

“O.K.,” Mr. Shonibare said after a pause. “But I don’t want to be obvious. No blood or anything. And not too immaculate with the costume. He’s a man down on his luck. He can’t afford to keep the bling going.”

Over the last few years Mr. Shonibare’s stature as an artist has grown. He was short-listed for the Turner Prize, the prestigious British art award, and designated a member of the British Empire by Prince Charles (after which he promptly appended MBE to his name).

A constant demand for new work places continuous pressure on Mr. Shonibare’s network of collaborators — the sculptor, costume designer, photographer and others — whose assistance he sees as part of a historic and continuing tradition in artistic studios. “In my case I have a disability,” he said, “but Jeff Koons is physically fit, Damien Hirst is physically fit.”

Mr. Shonibare paused, then continued: “You know, all of the things that are supposed to be wrong with me have actually become a huge asset. I’m talking about race and disability. They’re meant to be negatives within our society. But they’re precisely the things that have liberated me. Because they are me, what I express. So it has not been a negative thing to be who I am but a positive thing.

“Do you know what I mean?”

Friday, June 19, 2009


Jerry Saltz

published: May 15, 2001

The energy of "Freestyle," the Studio Museum in Harlem's exhibition of 28 African American artists curated by Thelma Golden, is greater than the show itself. Seeing so much new work by so many young and unknown or emerging artists is thrilling. There is enough dynamic and promising art on hand to say it's a good show, and enough not-so-good work to say it could have been better. Although the exhibition is not thematic, many of the issues addressed in "Freestyle" are familiar: social cruelty, the bottomless confusion of the divided self, the crushing weight of being defined from without. Nevertheless, urgency, emergency, and bitterness have been replaced by something that could be called radical intelligence. Humor is prevalent, be it twisted or covert; answers are understood as elusive and illusory; the moral failure of America is often at the fore but never moralized about. "The best thing about my show," Golden told me excitedly, "is that I have no colon." Her reference was not gastrointestinal. It was to the title of her exhibition, which is not followed by a colon and a banal or overbearing subtitle. "Freestyle," co-organized with Christine Y. Kim, stands on its own. Like a lightbulb, it needs no explanation: The minute you see it, you know why you needed to see it.

The art world likes to think we live in what George W.S. Trow so eloquently called "the context of no context," meaning divisions have blurred, there are no movements, no one big thing. As Trow put it, there is "the context of one," you, and "the context of 250 million," America. All the rest is in-between or indistinct. The idea sounds seductive. On closer examination, however, we may be nothing but context. Look around any art opening: People of a certain age predominate; particular fashions are the norm. Art school backgrounds are standard, alpha males and alpha females recognizable. The New York neighborhoods these openings take place in, as well as the neighborhoods the attendees live in, are limited to probably four or five. But more than that, most of the people in these rooms are still predominantly white. * "Freestyle" simultaneously turns that context inside out and leaves it untouched. Other than the fact that all the artists are black, the stats are typical. About a third of the participants are women. Every artist went to art school; nine to Skowhegan, six to the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program. Half live in New York, seven in California. Perhaps the juiciest statistic about "Freestyle" is that the average age of these artists is a young 32, which may be why this show feels so fresh.

If "Freestyle" works, it's because of what it does with its dual contexts. Rather than being a show of p.c. or unoriginal art about being black, "Freestyle" is stylistically free, hardcore without being hard-line. The diversity in this exhibition is the kind that's always been a hallmark of this museum: the aesthetic kind. Formalist and figurative painting shares the stage with photography and video projection. Golden says her show is "post-multicultural, post-identity, post-conceptual, and post-black." Maybe, but more important, the artists in "Freestyle" seem to know two things: that James Baldwin was right when he said, "No true account of Black life can be contained in the English language," and that Miles Davis was onto something when he said, "If white people really knew what was on most black people's minds, it would scare them to death."

In "Freestyle" that scare is often laced with irony or a dose of self-abnegating laughter. It's there in Rico Gatson's absorbing digitalized video projection of the cannibal dance in King Kong when the "natives" lead Fay Wray to sacrifice. It's there in Dave McKenzie's terrifying, ludicrous video featuring the artist twisting and jerking like a spasmodic demon or someone who's been shot. McKenzie manages to illuminate the murky terrain between private turmoil and social indignation.

Susan Smith-Pinelo turns another stereotype on its ear in Sometimes, her politically way-incorrect, va-va-voom video featuring the artist shaking her big breasts to Michael Jackson's "Working Day and Night."Tana Hargest's Bitter Nigger, Inc. Web site offers various products, including a wearable patch for white people to decrease their feelings of entitlement and a holographic white friend for black people who want to hail a cab or rent an apartment. Sanford Biggers makes us see how close yet how far apart the two Americas are in his split-screen home movie projection picturing his childhood birthday parties, picnics, and field trips alongside those of a white friend. Just as the writer Frantz Fanon described being "battered down by tom-toms, cannibalism, intellectual deficiency, fetishism, racial defects, slave ships, and above all: 'Sho' good eatin',' " these artists stab at you with vengeful pangs of recognition and disquieting laughter.

Two sculptors stand out. Eric Wesley's Kicking Ass is a full-scale, kickass model of a donkey who has knocked a hole in the museum wall. Even better is his Mall, a messy pile that's part Claes Oldenburg, part Frank Gehry, and part out-of-control architectural model. Adia Millett's Defining Absence is a tabletop rendition of one of those low-rent apartment complexes you're always seeing on Cops. Millett lovingly furnishes each of the apartments so that different levels of aspiration, apathy, or abjectness are apparent.

Several painters look particularly good. Laylah Ali's comic-book insanities are meticulously rendered nodules of narrative ambiguity, while Julie Mehretu continues to improve in drawings that show her injecting more figurative elements and thus more clarity into her work. Similarly, Trenton Doyle Hancock makes good on one of the works he contributed to last year's Whitney Biennial with Friends Indeed, a marvelous black-and-white tangle of words, shapes, and collaged elements. Surprisingly, the very conventional biomorphic, color-field abstractions of Jerald Ieans are also engaging. Kori Newkirk's curtainlike paintings made of plastic pony beads and artificial hair are gimmicky, but his giant pomade silhouette of a police helicopter is effective. Finally, Senam Okudzeto's wall of telephone bills covered with fighting women is decoratively impressive, even if the artist almost blunts the point in her catalog interview, claiming her art is "a Marxist critique of international market time as one of the greatest effects of global capitalism."

Which brings us to the weakness of "Freestyle." In addition to too many mediocre paintings involving hair products, geometric shapes on the floor, or pictures of superheroes, fairy tale figures, and teddy bears, there are too many undigested or otherwise unaltered photographic images on hand. In spite of Golden's claim that "Freestyle" is "post-conceptual," much of the work in it is nothing but hackneyed conceptualism. There are photos of fire, black men, airports, empty rooms, subways, high schools, and city streets that do nothing and take you nowhere. Any meaning ascribed to these pictures comes from outside the work. The essential act of imbedding thought in material hasn't taken place. There is enough of this kind of blandness to mar this otherwise pulsing and occasionally brash exhibition. In order to vie for curatorial excellence, Golden must add "post-academic" to her list of things to aspire to. If she gets there, her shows at the Studio Museum could get really interesting.

Related article:

Greg Tate interviews Thelma Golden.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009


Post-black art is a phrase that refers to a category of contemporary African American art. It is a paradoxical genre of art where race and racism are intertwined in a way that rejects their interaction. I.e., it is art about the black experience that attempts to dispel the notion that race matters. It uses enigmatic themes wherein black can substitute for white.[1] Some suggest the term is attributable to the 1995 book The End of Blackness by Debra Dickerson, who is a favorite of Rashid Johnson's.[2] Johnson is a prominent post-black artist today.

However, Thelma Golden claimed to have coined the term ‘post-black’ art with friend and artist Glenn Ligon in the late 1990s.[3] In 2001 the phrase was explained in detail in the exhibition catalogue for The Studio Museum in Harlem’s exhibition entitled Freestyle, which launched Johnson's career.[1] Freestyle was an exhibition that included twenty-eight up and coming artists of African American backgrounds. Golden defined post-black art as that which includes artists who are “adamant about not being labeled ‘black’ artists, though their work was steeped, in fact deeply interested, in redefining complex notions of blackness.”[4] She continued, “They are both post-Basquiat and post-Biggie. They embrace the dichotomies of high and low, inside and outside, tradition and innovation, with a great ease and facility.”[5] Laura Meyers interprets this as “cutting edge works that are defined by not being defined as African American art.”[6] Golden stated her initial interest as an attempt to remove some of the negative associations with the phrase black art as well as comment on the diversity of artists of African descent.[7] In the exhibition catalogue, Golden proclaims, “Post-black was the new black.”[8]

As Golden explained, post-black art refers to a younger, post-Civil Rights generation of artists who are in search of a language through which they can explore their artistic interests and identities. Because artists of African descent have historically been marginalized and left outside of the general discourse on Western art history, there has not been one style or school of African American art.[9] The term ‘post-black’ attempts to encompass artists who have a variety of backgrounds and experiences, but all share experiences as a person of African descent.

While the notion of ‘post-black’ attempts to avoid identity labels, the title of ‘post-black’ serves as an ethnic marker. Some have found fault with this terminology, stating, “racism is real, and many artists who have endured its effects feel the museum is promoting a kind of art – trendy, postmodern, blandly international – that has turned the institution into a ‘boutique’ or ‘country club’, as David Hammons puts it.”[10] Golden has even stated that ‘post-black’ is “both a hollow social construction and a reality with an indispensable history.”[11]

In the post-black era that has seen the rise of Barack Obama and Tiger Woods, Johnson, has put forth significant post-black art including himself posing as Jimmy Connors.[12][1][2]

Artists featured in The Studio Museum in Harlem’s Freestyle show included Kori Newkirk, Laylah Ali, Eric Wesley, Senam Okudzeto, David McKenzie, Susan Smith-Pinelo, Sanford Biggers, Louis Cameron, Deborah Grant, Rashid Johnson, Arnold J. Kemp, Julie Mehretu, Mark S. Branford and Jennie C. Jones.

[edit] Notes and references

  1. ^ a b c Calder, Jaime (2008). "Review: Rashid Johnson/Monique Meloche". Newcity Art. Newcity Communications, Inc.. Retrieved on 2009-01-12.
  2. ^ a b Wiens, Ann (November 2008). "Spot On: Rashid Johnson". Demo. Columbia College Chicago. Retrieved on 2009-01-12.
  3. ^ Thelma Golden, Freestyle, exhibition catalogue. (New York: Studio Museum in Harlem, 2001), 14.
  4. ^ Thelma Golden, Freestyle, exhibition catalogue. (New York: Studio Museum in Harlem, 2001), 14.
  5. ^ Thelma Golden, Freestyle, exhibition catalogue. (New York: Studio Museum in Harlem, 2001), 15.
  6. ^ Laura Myers, “African American art moves beyond black and white; collectors, curators and galleries are embracing a greater diversity of genres and styles in African American art while other artists move toward a ‘post-black’ art which cannot be defined in terms of race,” Art Business News Jan 2003
  7. ^ “Thelma Golden, Curator,” April 27 2005
  8. ^ Thelma Golden, Freestyle, exhibition catalogue. New York: Studio Museum in Harlem, 2001: 14
  9. ^ Laura Myers, “African American art moves beyond black and white; collectors, curators and galleries are embracing a greater diversity of genres and styles in African American art while other artists move toward a ‘post-black’ art which cannot be defined in terms of race,” Art Business News Jan 2003.
  10. ^ Deborah Solomon, “The Downtowning of Uptown,” The New York Times Aug 19 2001.
  11. ^ Sarah Valdez, “Freestyling – Studio Museum in Harlem,” Art in America Sep 2001.
  12. ^ Weinberg, Lauren (September 25 – October 1, 2008). "Art & Design: Rashid Johnson". Time Out Chicago. Retrieved on 2009-01-12.

[edit] External links

The Studio Museum in Harlem

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

'Negritude' Encore! Revisiting a black art movement.

By Martha Schwendener

published: June 03, 2009

Négritude" is a hip-sounding neologism invented by French-speaking writers in Paris in the 1930s. The idea was to create a pan-African identity, resistant to colonialism and informed by sources like surrealism, post-revolutionary Haiti, and Harlem Renaissance writers such as Langston Hughes and W. E. B. Dubois. The word "négre" also came with plenty of pejorative baggage, which meant that Aimé Césaire, who coined the term, and Léopold Sédar Senghor—not just a poet, but later Senegal's first president—were engaging in some good old linguistic reappropriation (well, avant la lettre).

Despite its revolutionary leanings, négritude's reception and embrace, even among black artists and writers, was mixed. Jean-Paul Sartre supported it in an essay, "Black Orpheus," in the introduction to a 1948 poetry anthology edited by Senghor, but Frantz Fanon called the concept simplistic, and Nigerian Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka described it as a narcissistic and defensive colonialist stance.

Exit Art's Négritude—a scattershot hodgepodge of art, text, film, video, and performance—doesn't take sides. Instead, it approaches the term poetically as an "archipelago" with "many 'islands,' or perspectives." But it also falls into what might be called the proto-exhibition category: not terribly satisfying on its own, but providing the impetus for someone, somewhere, to organize a more comprehensive one. (Particularly since artists and curators like Thelma Golden of the Studio Museum of Harlem have bandied about another, more contemporary-sounding term: Post-Black.)

Négritude is framed as an "experimental multidisciplinary exhibition," which means it's purposefully not comprehensive, and, given the changing lineup of films and video, the show you see might be slightly different than the one I saw. It's got an impressive roster of curators, recruited by Exit Art's Papo Colo: longtime Voice writer Greg Tate; curator Franklin Sirmans; Brazilian filmmaker Tânia Cypriano; and Rose Réjouis, a scholar who co-translated Patrick Chamoiseau's epic novel about colonial Martinique, Texaco (1993).

Tate's section is the best: It includes a handful of vibrant works—paintings, mostly—by black outsider artists like Thornton Dial Sr., Lonnie Holley, Purvis Young, and Bessie Harvey. Also in Tate's corner is Xaviera Simmons's low wall of album covers from the '60s, '70s, and '80s: Ashford & Simpson, Cruz and Colon, Peaches & Herb, Roberta Flack. It's also a reminder of Exit Art's great exhibition The LP Show (2001), which offered a similar, if expanded, view of the world through the idiosyncratic classification systems of record collectors.

Cypriano's section features a changing roster of documentary films and videos from Brazil, while Réjouis's includes art objects, a reading by poet Saul Williams, and a musical performance by the group Dallam-Dougou. Sirmans, the best-known curator in the group, phoned this one in with a single offering of modest paintings by Tierney Malone that recall faded street signs. (Although his recent NeoHoodoo show at P.S.1 trawled somewhat similar territory to Négritude: how spiritual and ritual practice in the Americas have been used to address race, gender, slavery, and colonization.)

In many ways, Négritude, like many shows at Exit Art, takes you back to the early '90s and that era's concept-heavy exhibitions revolving around identity politics and generous doses of installation art. But with one essential difference: the ambivalence of the present. Is négritude viable or historically spent? The show at Exit Art is freewheeling (and unrigorous) enough to support either view. Literature, for its part, has already spawned a new term for writing of the African diaspora: "migritude." Maybe next year will bring us Migritude, the exhibition.

Monday, June 8, 2009

I am (not) Afro-Surreal

I am (not) Afro-Surreal

Well, of course not. Afro-Surreal is an art genre name, a tag extracted from a phrase of the moment (as, frankly, the immortal phrases always are) in a review of Henry Dumas' work. But when I first encountered the term I immediately thought of it as a classification or type of human psyche, a new bucket to sort people into.

Let me clean that up a bit; it's not as bad as it sounds.

In my understanding, art is a unique expression of a collective truth from the perspective of an individual. Art is an opinion. It is not limited to a mode or medium, a specific truth or specific human creator. If it does not meet this standard, it is decoration rather than art. This is my view and understanding, which I share not to convince but so you know what I'm talking about.

In looking at art I consider what truth it is seeking to express, and therefore which collective it is representing. Checking the examples culled by the active proponents of the genre, I would call that collective the edge dwellers...those whose lives span the divide of racial subcultures, those who build what they need from what they gather from both sides of the divide because they do not get enough from either side alone, and those with an exquisitely tuned awareness of where the edge is.

The term Afro Surreal Expressionism so well captures the feel of an edge dweller's life that the coining of the term may be art in the most ephemeral of media, thought. I was feeling a little bit of, yeah I'm with it...

Just a little.

Because though I see the edge very clearly, the Afro Surreal speaks to me rather than of me or for me

You have to think about where that edge is, you see. It's in your head/heart/mind (your corpus callosum is an ideal symbol). It's the dividing line, or connection, between the two consciousnesses all Black folks carry with them...the consciousness of self and consciousness of the being we are seen as, the being we must never be.

As a house divided cannot stand, a divided spirit is weaker than a one pointed spirit. And to achieve that singular state you have three options: kill one half, unify the two halves or live in the flux between the two.

Afro-Surreal lives in the flux where I seek a unitary unitary as a human can be, at any rate. I will not construct myself, I grow from the seed of my physical particularity. Were I to commit an act of art, it would not be surreal. It would be rational art.

i am afrosurreal

i am afrosurreal. i'm glad someone finally put something out there.


“…You know, every day I get out of bed and drag myself to the next cup of coffee.

I take a sip and the caffeine kicks in. I can focus my eyes again. My brain starts to order the day. I'm up, I'm alive. I'm ready to rock.

But the time is coming when I wake up and decide that I'm not getting out of bed. Not for coffee, or food or sex. If it comes to me, fine. If it won't, fine. No more expectations. The longer I live, the less I know. I should know more. I should know the coffee's killing me.

You're suspicious of your suspicions? I'm jealous, I'm so jealous. You still have the heart to have doubts.

Me? …This is my day. I have no doubts or suspicions about it.

Heart has nothing to do with it any more.

It's all in the caffeine.”

Frank Pembleton – Homicide: Life on the Streets


(…Go%&#m, Pretzel Man! ...You one DEEP mother%&*#er!!!)

Maybe it’s only me, but I thought this a brilliant assessment!

(…Harkening back to conversations that revolved around Renee Cox at one point in time yonder on, I pretty much felt you response, if you chose to all, would be very much what it is!)

Oh! By the way! The image of the piece I was describing from her website:

…Along with the ‘Liberation’ piece (Which is 5’ x 4’ in it’s wall mounted dimensions), there’s another one titled “Lost in Space’ where Cox, dressed in the same outfit, is poised high above the earth in a classic super heroine ‘strike’ pose, ready to land what could be perceived as a ‘knock out’ blow on an already reeling, heavy set, balding member of the ‘paler nation’ in a pin-striped business suit.

The only thing that I would add is that it truly sucks that art and the creative process has come to be so devalued in the manner that it has in American culture on the whole.

When I first got hooked on the writings of Chester Himes years ago, the ‘Moby Dick’ of his works for me to find was The Lonely Crusade which, even though it was considered one of the five best novels published in France in the 1940’s, I could never seem to find a copy anywhere, even in the public libraries.

Well, having finally found a copy a few years ago, I was kind of dismayed that I didn’t think it ranked as well with some of his lesser known works like ‘Third Generation’

So, I’m left asking myself, what is it that the French find so much to rave about it?

(...Then, it dawns me, this is France. A place where even the likes of Jerry Lewis is found as a genius!)

But whether the praise is legitimate or not, art does seem to be taken far more seriously abroad. Maybe if it weren’t the case here, there wouldn’t be as much of a need, or desire, to define it in cultural terms.


"...America hurt me terribly. Whether rightly or wrongly is not the point.

When I fought back through writing it decided to kill me.

Whether because I was a Negro who refused to accept the Negro Problem as my own, or a “nigger” who would not conform to the existence perscribed for niggers, I will never know.

I do know that when America kills a nigger it expects him to remain dead.

But I didn’t know I was supposed to die.

I still had hope.

I still belived in the devil. "

Chester Himes - June 6, 1971 Alicante, Spain

From the “The Quality of Hurt” The Autobiography of Chester Himes


Stew: Artists, because of the way America treats them, end up having to function like terrorists. We exist in these little cells plotting ways to make a big splash so our cause will be noticed. And then we are captured by the media and they render us pointless. In Berlin art "matters." It's really an amazing contrast.

Smolin: Will art ever "matter" in the USA?

Stew: Not in our lifetime. You're talking about a tremendous fundamental cultural shift that I am not sure there is any historical precedent for. Do cultures change? Sure, we have more museums now than ever, but is art a part of our everyday lives? I don't think so. America is cursed with this deep, puritanical learning disorder best epitomized this way:

"Who has time for art when there are cows to milk . . . and Seinfeld re-runs to watch?"

Stew Speaks His (Very Freaky) Mind


Well like a descendant, I drifted far, far and wide...
Isolation, separation, no where to hide...
Maybe there's somewhere I can go...
Where there's sunshine and the wind won't blow...

Living Color - Nothingness