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What is a Portrait? Black American Portraits at LACMA
“I promise you the floor plan is nothing like the model” – Pusha T
What is a portrait? Is it just a snapshot of a face? A seizing of the moment of human expression? Or is it more? Many believe that portraits have a way of capturing a personality, a human essence if you will. Portraits are used to remember loved ones, honor distinguished citizens who gain honors through achievement and capture the emotions of a subject with an ability to extract feelings that arrest the viewer with their presence.
When I think of the term Black American Portraiture, I immediately see the images of Gordon Parks from LIFE Magazine, Howard Bingham’s iconic photos of a prime Muhammad Ali, or more recently, the portraits of artist Deana Lawson who unapologetically documents black life with an eye for consistency. More recently across the contemporary art world, black portraiture has become a hot item among top collectors and mainstream museums who jump at the chance to feature these works at luxury branded events and solo presentations worldwide under the guise of collection correction. This global focus on black portraiture and black figurative work sometimes feel like a collection of people all over again as the speed at which these works are bought and sold – sometimes returning very high profits for the seller – makes me feel a bit uneasy.
The exhibition Black American Portraits on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is a collection of contemporary portraiture through a variety of mediums demonstrating the essence of its African-American subjects. This presentation was the last hurrah of the Curator of Contemporary Art, Christine Kim, who recently departed the museum for London and a new position at the Tate Modern. This show is a tribute to the late David Driskell, a well-regarded artist, curator, and pioneer for the arts who was the ultimate champion for the awareness, exhibition, and collection of black artists by institutions. His seminal exhibition Two Centuries of Black American Art, which took place at LACMA in 1976, was the first comprehensive survey of African American art. The participating works in the show were selected from the LACMA collection, local and international gallerists, and collectors whose holdings make them very important people when talks of donations, loans, and family bequeathments come about.
I arrived at LACMA’s campus excited, negative COVID test in hand, marching toward the Broad Contemporary Art Museum only to be redirected to the Resnick Pavilion. BCAM is usually the venue for major exhibitions on LACMA’s campus (even more lately since the construction on the expansion began) and I would think that an exhibition of this magnitude and relevance would carry enough weight to be housed in the building. Especially accompanied by The Obama Portraits, which were on tour from the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. and were on view to the public in an adjacent gallery, showcasing the ultimate visitor attraction.
I had the same feeling about Los Angeles icon Bette Saar’s exhibition titled Betye Saar: Call and Response which was staged in a small and seemingly insignificant gallery space in the same building in 2019. I wondered – with such a breadth of work and being a hometown hero – why Betye Saar would be relegated to such a modest presentation? I hoped as I entered the Resnick Pavilion, that the Black American Portraits exhibition wouldn’t revive those same sentiments. As I entered, I was immediately met by the BLKNWS programming, an installation by Los Angeles-based artist and filmmaker Kahlil Joseph. The work is video-based content of current and historic events involving the African American community distributed across two screens that display or support the imagery on view. The content is regularly updated by the BLKNWS team and is truly a bright light in the public coverage of black people across the world. This work was unveiled with the Hammer Museums’ Made in L.A. 2020: A Version, but my first encounter with it was at Hank’s Mini Mart in Southwest Los Angeles and I fell in love with it instantly.
Black American Portraits features over 140 works in different mediums with hopes of examining African-Americans as subjects over the last two centuries. As I stepped into the gallery, I stood, I thought, out of the walkway to get an overall sense of how the exhibition should be approached and if there were any additional guides to help visitors navigate the multitude of works on view. I was eventually tapped by the museum security to move to the side because I was blocking the entry just a tad. (laughs)
I eventually found myself in front of the wall that displayed the crimson red exhibition title and statement, hoping to browse the selection with a sense of direction from the curatorial staff. There were a variety of starting points where one could begin their viewing experience. I wonder if that was the intent of the curator? Keeping the flow open and allowing the viewer to navigate the story in their way. Almost like the mind-bending albums of Grammy-winning music artist and Los Angeles native Kendrick Lamar, the starting point is wherever you decide to begin.
The paintings in the show are arranged in a salon-style with no upfront correlation or timeline. The portraits, seemingly grouped, feature images of blue-collared African-Americans in the workforce alongside sleek and sharp presentations of dignitaries and celebrities filled with color. I began with the portrait closest to the vinyl description which happened to be “Portrait of a Sailor”, a small (compared to other works on the wall) oil work showing a distinguished black man in a striking blue sailor’s coat and a bright red scarf resting comfortably around his neck. He is standing proudly in position against a backdrop of a sailing ship. The sailor looks with confidence as the clouds that shape the background give way to the impending storm, masking the beautiful sunset. The work was painted circa 1800 with a question mark as to whom the subject in the portrait is referencing. Researchers have the name “Paul Cuffe”, a businessman and sailor, as the subject in the painting. Even still with some doubt, as the original artist is not identified and probably no longer alive to even confirm it. The painting has an interesting history as its authorship has been in question for decades with Christie’s London first attributing it to artist John Singleton Copley in 1952.
In the first grouping of works, I was drawn to a painting by local art legend Dr. Samella Lewis with her portrait of Warren Kenner. Created in 1948, this oil work shows Kenner in thought, possibly sitting for the artist. Wrapped in a wood-like frame and highlighted with gold that seemed to illuminate the subject, it gave a sense of importance, maybe a familial or platonic relationship with the artist. Portrait of a Negro (Claude McKay), 1944 by Beauford Delaney, and The Conductor, 1941 by Charles Alston are very similar in presentation, showing black men posing for photos in what appears to be their work uniforms. I love the relationship of the works as they speak to African-Americans making their way into corporate America while still maintaining the challenging labor positions that help to sustain the country.
Leading the next group of works with a bounty of color are Portrait of a Cultured Lady, 1948 by Archibald Motley, Jr, and the portrait of the legendary singer Marian Anderson in 1944 by Laura Wheeler Waring. Both subjects are donning glamorous threads for their respective professions with a solid bold color (Waring’s Marian in Red and Motley Jr’s Cultured Lady in a deep purple) indicating strength, however, the works appear very soft and share the presence of parts of another painting (I wonder which artists?) alluding to their attention and participation in culture.
Following this group was a very profound juxtaposition of paintings and drawings and possibly the best combination of portrait placement in the entire exhibition. Sharecropper, 1943 by John Biggers, and Sharecropper, 1952 by Elizabeth Catlett sit atop this grouping and offer different gazes (male and female) of their subjects reflecting the veracity of black workers throughout history.
Thurgood Marshall, 1956 by Betsy Graves Reyneau along with Frederick Douglass, 1950, and Portrait of Tom Bradley, 1974 (The City of Los Angeles’ Mayor from 1973-1993) by the legendary Charles White rounded out this group of paintings. These works demonstrate the hierarchy and timeline of the growth of a people, paying tribute to the multitude of the African-American experience in the United States. From sharecropping to occupying seats on the Supreme Court, the work expresses the assimilation of African-Americans politically and economically, and the individuals whose efforts helped pave the way to equal inclusion in American society.
I do believe that the proper spacing and additional information would have enhanced the importance of each of these works. Seeing them individually with a concentrated focus would allow the context to be fully respected in conjunction with the artistic talent displayed. Although, viewing them together spoke to a narrative that sometimes goes underappreciated.
As I made my way toward the end of the first wall of the collection, I paused to enjoy works by Alice Neel (Horace Cayton, 1949) and Eldzier Corter (The Couple, 1949). Neel’s work presents Mr. Cayton, an activist, and journalist, seated in dark oiled tones of blue, black, and gray contrasted by a colorful green, orange and yellow tie. Demonstrating a no-nonsense approach, Neel captures Cayton as an attentive but gentle man, legs-crossed and ready to tackle stories head-on.
I started to feel that as I got closer to the end of the first wall there was a constant fight for my attention. I focused on Benny Andrews’For Colored Girls, 1977, as I am a huge fan of his multi-fabric-infused canvas works. They excite my idea of subjects reaching out and touching the viewer, even if it’s only just an illusion. In For Colored Girls, he continues that practice as his subject – an older woman – sits in a fabric-covered chair with a tweed hat, next to a group of flowers that match the orangish-red strokes in her dress. Her blouse, seemingly made of canvas, hangs off the shoulders as it would if the woman were right in front of you, adding more concentration to the importance of threads in the subject’s life.
Resting above Andrews’s work was Betye Saar’sPhrenology Man with Symbols, 1966, and Jacob Lawrence’sThe Studio, 1996, which reminds me heavily of Derrick Adams’ work with its diametrical shapes that form human compositions.
David Driskell’sJazz Singer, (Lady of Leisure, Fox), 1974 seemed to be somehow hidden amongst the other paintings even though its size would have you think otherwise. I’ve recently started to appreciate the work of David Driskell after researching more on his contribution to the history of black collage and the role it plays in storytelling. He was incredibly instrumental in shaping the narrative around black visual identity in fine art. I’m excited to explore his career and work further in forthcoming writings.
As soon as you turn away from the David Driskell work you are smacked in the face with the coolest work in the whole show. Photo Bloke, 2016 by Barkley Hendricks is a beautifully bright, salmon-shaded work featuring a black male – dressed in a similar salmon suit – properly highlighted through Hendricks’s knowledge of the hue spectrum. This painting shows the enjoyment in the life of “Getting Fresh” and feeling good. Growing up in Philadelphia, I’ve always admired the cool of Hendricks’s images as youth continuing into adulthood. I am truly taken aback by the nostalgia and the accuracy in the translation of each of his works.
The Hendricks piece shares a wall with three massive works by current contemporary art powerhouses. I guess the curatorial team wanted to make a statement within the artist hierarchy as these three artists, Amy Sherald, Kehinde Wiley, and Mickalene Thomas have towering works that unabashedly declare them as the stars of the presentation. It almost makes Barkley Hendricks’s work feel like President Abraham Lincoln on Mt. Rushmore, present but almost insignificant. Sure, you’re there, but are you really?
Amy Sherald’sAn Ocean Away, 2020 is the first piece you meet of the “Big 3” and for me, it was a very familiar one. I had recently seen this work in Amy Sherald’s solo show Amy Sherald: The Great American Fact at Hauser and Wirth Los Angeles less than a year ago. It had already reached the floors of a prominent institution. Resembling a couple’s summer trip, Sherald reintroduces the viewer to her palette using levels of gray as skin tone for her subjects. It delivers a stark distinction against the bold hues of the surf gear, surfboards, and saturation of earth colors of sand and sky in the background.
In the center, we have Portrait of Mickalene Thomas, The Coyote, 2017 by Kehinde Wiley. A portrait of the artist Mickalene Thomas as a keeper of wolves in the night. I think Kehinde wanted to show the fierceness of her character as the painting has a very potent presence unlike the visible softness of the Sherald work. The portrait of Mickalene Thomas’s wife, Racquel Chevremont in The Inversion of Racquel, 2021, reminds me of a shiny UNO Card or an old flier I pulled out of my grandmother’s drawer. It’s made of oil and acrylic paints with rhinestones that shimmer against the wood panel. Its composition is undoubtedly familiar with Thomas’s oeuvre as it recreates a very reflective feel of black women in commercial advertisements in the 1970s.
Across from the introductory wall includes a myriad of stories through the works. Reframing the past and reclaiming historical narratives, these works focus on figures of advancement and awareness even amongst turbulence. Genevieve Gaignard’sTrailblazer (A Dream Deferred), 2015, shows variety in the “the look” of blackness in the art world. In the work, in which she is the subject, she stands proudly under a tree holding a framed painting of Rev Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and former President John F. Kennedy, both of whom were assassinated at the heights of their activist and political careers. Renee Cox’sThe Signing, 2017 introduces a constituency of Afro-futuristic renaissance posed portraits merged into a single frame reimagining black people as the purveyors of a new reality. Could this be a rethinking of the signing of the Declaration of Independence? But this time, signed by black people?
Atop these works is a piece by Titus Kaphar titled Enough About You, 2016, focusing on a young black youth first hidden in the original version a painting flanked by a majority of white men. In Kaphar’s version, the youth is emphasized by a gold frame accentuating his now importance and silencing, if only for a moment, the chatter about the “greatness” of the white men that surrounded him. The canvas seems to be hardened by a chemical that allows the crumbled form to take its shape and permanently places the black subject in the center of the conversation. Mixed in between are works by Lezley Saar (daughter of the aforementioned Betye Saar) Of a bed of night iris shredding pedals one by one, like the hours of darkness, 2020, Umar Rashid (Yolanda, Lady of Yerba Buena, 2015) and Whitfield Lovell (#3, (After the Card Series), 2009).
Issac Julien’sSerenade (Lessons of the Hour), 2019 plays well with Renee Cox’sThe Signing, 2017 as it could appear to be (even though it isn’t) a focused shot of some of the members in preparation for that photo. The still is from Julien’s beautifully directed film with the same title and prominently ponders on the life of abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
We come across Kaphar again with Behind the Myth of Benevolence, 2014 which features the image of a young woman, probably Sally Hemmings, the slave and bearer of a child (or children) of Thomas Jefferson. Appearing behind the hanging canvas as the portrait of Jefferson is slowly stripped away, she reveals herself likely nude, hinting at the covered crimes of slave masters. I appreciate the explanation by Kaphar in an earlier interview I read on the digital art website CultureType, in which Kaphar explains the work. He clarifies that it isn’t solely about Hemmings but “a symbol of many of the black women whose stories have been shrouded by the narratives of our deified founding fathers.” This work excites me every time I come across it as I believe it is a brilliant representation of a mix between sculpture, painting, and education.
I loved that Behind the Myth of Benevolence, 2014 is positioned next to Biddy Mason, 2006 by Elizabeth Colomba. The portrait appears sepia with its color scheme but is strong in its message as it presents Biddy as a regal figure, dressed in a black suit or robe. The light shines through her window as an indicator of her importance to a bright future for her people. Mason was a California entrepreneur and philanthropist whose leadership and deeds went highly underappreciated throughout history because of her sex and skin color. These works, like the earlier presentations of the Delaney and Alston paintings, show the growth of the black worker from sharecropper and slave to a noble leader.
In the center of the room sat the more three-dimensional portrait works. Sargent Claude Johnson’s Chester, 1930, is a bronze sculpture with the facial bust of a man with a hand, presumably his own, resting on the right side of his face. The look feels of submission or approval, maybe at a loved one. Allison Saar’sSledge Hammer Mamma, 1996, is almost three feet in size and takes human form with its fists balled as if it’s ready to take on all comers. The supposed feet of the sculpture have the shape of a sledgehammer which I took to indicate that the power is in the movement, placing one foot in front of the other. The sculpture has visible nails that have been hammered into its frame for stability but also maybe to demonstrate that it’s taken its lumps. Probably explains why it’s ready to fight. Richmond Barthe’sInner Music, 1956 is a bronze sculpture highlighting the profile of a nude black man, possibly a dancer because of the way he is posed. I wonder if this is the artist’s interpretation of a mixture of elements with Michaelangelo’s David and the Venus de Milo by Alexandros of Antioch? Barthe’s work is undoubtedly something else on my list I’d love to look more into.
Tavares Strachan’s Enoch, 2015-17 is a very interesting project from the LACMA Art + Technology Lab grant recipient as ENOCH brings awareness to the story of Robert Henry Lawrence Jr, the first African-American astronaut selected for the space program. The work takes the royal stance of a sarcophagus but physically takes the shape of a vase or urn. The project was realized through the launching of a 3U satellite with the help of sponsor SpaceX. Augusta Savage’s Gwendolyn Knight, 1934 is a casted homage to her mentee molded in clay and cast in plaster. Knight’s likeness is very firm and feminine showing the maidenly softness of the artist but also the materials of the work speak to her ability to stand firm in her beliefs. I read that not many of Savage’s works are in existence because of minimal funding for bronze casting. Artists are constantly prohibited because of financial burdens. Some things never change throughout time.
Standing away from the sculpture crowd and greeting guests who took the scenic route through the exhibition, was Karon Davis’s Ishmael, 2017. From the collection of UTA Artist Space director Arthur Lewis, Ismael, 2017 is a plaster-based representation of a young boy in a confident stance. It reminds me of the “Fearless Girl” bronze statue by Kristen Visbal on Wall Street in New York City. I love Davis’ plastered sculptures as they feel as if someone is still molding on the inside and their remarkably replicated features, especially the eyes in this work, make me question if Ishmael isn’t still in there.
As you spin around the wall, you find yourself entering the section mostly devoted to photography (there were also a few photos outside of it like but this was majority photo-based). You are welcomed by vivid images that display the gaze of the black photographer. Upon entering the space I was met by a vertical trio of photographs led by Ralph Nelson’s black and white portrait of former President Barack Obama in Untitled (Obama in Mirror, B&W), 2009. I was immediately intrigued by this photo as I see two sides (figuratively and literally) of the former President. The silhouette posterior of the President appears strong, solid, and unwavering while in the anterior shot he appears calm, eyes closed in submission, a subtle entry into the personality of Barack Obama.
Below the Nelson portrait sat a bursting ray and stripes signifying the noise from the horn of Charlie “Bird” Parker in Rico Gaston’s, Bird, 2015. This portrait of “Bird” is miniature in comparison to the bands that overwhelm the composition, almost questioning if the work is about the rays or the legendary musician. At the bottom of the trio sat the work of Deborah Willis and her son, artist Hank Willis Thomas (whose collaborative work Sometimes I See Myself in You, 2008 is also featured in the gallery) depicting almost mirror images of a singular male subject, one being Thomas himself, is reminiscent of a previous familial moment. I’d like to think that the male in the first image is Thomas’ father and the second image is a “Like Father, Like Son” moment where the mother as photographer adores the likeness of her kin.
One of the most prominent pieces on the wall almost directly on the other side of his previous work is Isaac Julien’sThe Last Angel of History, 1989/2016 from his Looking for Langston Vintage series. It focuses on a young man dressed in a wing-fitted costume holding a photo of Langston Hughes on a scroll. The photo is very dramatic as if the angel is using the image to represent something he is either answering or demonstrating. Maybe the angel was before God and pleading for the entry of the late poet into heaven?
My absolute favorite photos were of Laura Aguilar,Clothed/Unclothed #34, 1994, and Carrie Mae Weems,Untitled, 1990, from Weems’ kitchen table series. These works spoke about the embracing characteristics of love and family. Showing different scenes of affection – the husband and wife’s interaction in Weems’s work and the father embracing the children in Aguilar’s work – demonstrates different types of love generating the same feeling of comfort and security. Weems’ work also contains a text panel that waxes eloquently about love in the late summer and sets the tone for understanding the history of the love story on view.
I also got a glimpse of works from legends Lorna Simpson (Backdrops Circa 1940s, 1998) and Arthur Jafa (Monster, 1998, Printed in 2017) which shows a young Jafa posing with a menacing look at the camera. In the photo, I can’t tell if that is his hair or the shadows amongst the ceiling but it adds more of a deranged look which may be led to the title.
Deborah Willis’sLiving Room Picture Stories, 1994, has photos of what looks like family members in the fabric of the work. This quilted creation reminds me of the term “fabric of our lives” often mentioned in commercials and promotional material about moments. It brings to mind the episode of the TV show Family Matters where the younger granddaughter Laura mistakenly sold the family quilt at an art exhibition. It brought awareness to me of the importance of quilting and what it means to the black community and the history of passing down memories and familial information through knitting.Bisa Butler’sForever, 2020, a vibrant textile-based representation of the late actor Chadwick Boseman, is one of the best. She gracefully translates the images of her subjects into soft, comforting cloth illustrations. I was fascinated by her exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago which showed the diversity in imagery and consistency of the material in an array of her pieces. Kerry James Marshall’s Black Beauty (Tyla), 2012, is an extremely muted portrait of a black woman softly lit with a bluish hue illuminating the features of her skin, the shine in her earrings, and parts of her shirt. I liken this photo to his paintings which exhibit the dark hues of his figures giving a lesson on the many shades of black.
The gallery also features a collection of gelatin silver prints by James Van der Zee (one of the first black photographers I’ve had the chance to learn about as a youth) including Self-Portrait in Boater Hat, c. 1925, which features the artist donning a derby-style boater hat and a striking black suit. Other works of Van der Zee on view include Marcus Garvey & Garvey Militia, Harlem, 1924, Crowd in Harlem, 1929, Atlantic City, 1930, and Daddy Grace, Harlem, 1938, which shows a man dedicated to a spiritual message with his hands up in submission inside of a place of worship.
Kwame Braithewaite’sUntitled (Clara Lewis Buggs with Yellow Flower), 1962, printed 2020, and Untitled (Carolee Prince Wearing Her Own Designs), 1964, printed 2018 are by far the calmest works in the gallery. The way Braithwaite uses bold color as a way to accentuate his subjects is masterful. Both photos feature eccentric hairstyles and objects of scene definition in addition to the models which help to complete the photo. The objects also do an amazing job of contrasting color as it presents a beautiful offset that intensely drew my focus.
The space also contained editions from Lorraine O’Grady’s famous “Art is…” photography series featuring images (Art Is… (Man with Rings and Child), Art Is… (Nubians), Art Is… (Man with Baby), Art Is… (Unisex Barber Shop), all 1983, printed 2009) from the Harlem African-American parade in 1983. O’Grady’s mission was concentrated on capturing the neighborhood people inside of a golden frame. One of the largest and best iterations of participation art I’ve ever seen. I love seeing the multitude of photos with different scenes each time this work is on view. I find something soothing about them.
Following the O’Grady works are a collection of works whose relationships are stunning. Deborah Willis and Hank Willis Thomas’s forenamed Sometimes I See Myself in You, 2008 reminds me of the classic Source Magazine cover that featured the Death Row records team of Suge Knight, Dr. Dre, and others dressed in all black to make their bodies seem invisible over the emptiness of the black background. Willis and Willis Thomas recreate that moment with a twist. The image presents three portraits. On the left you find Thomas and on the right you find Willis. The portrait in the middle is a mash-up of both of their photos showing the similarities in the gene pool of the family. It’s striking as the features are almost exact but for a few exceptions.D’Angelo Lovell Williams’ Daddy Issues, 2019 shows an arm-wrestling match between two black males, possibly father and son, exercising the age-old duel of old versus new. It’s very interesting because the arm wrestle first starts as a handshake (just as the men are positioned in the photo) but can easily turn into a tussle. Not always physical, but mostly egotistical.
Tourmaline offers an arresting conversation with Swallowtail, 2020, as she engages the audience through the lens of Black-Trans liberation using her self-portrait to elevate ownership of identity. I read an interview with ArtForum where she speaks about “not leaving one’s self out” and reevaluating the practice to also include her journey in the narrative. Todd Gray’sMirror Mirror, 2014, displays an image of a young black child obscured by a circular photo frame containing a red, orange, and black flower. The child can be seen holding an image that is also hidden by the photo frame. The crack of the wall structure, or possibly an overhead shot of a cracked surface on the ground, add striking earth-toned cool to the image allowing the flowers’ colors to take center stage in the artwork.
A vitrine in the center of the space contained late 19th-century Albumen silver print photographs of unidentified black people sitting for the camera. Some are very small and in beautiful personalized frames, while others are preserved very well and show the postures of families, children, and businessmen of the era. One of the prints, the larger of them, is of the world-recognized abolitionist Frederick Douglass by George Kendall Warren in 1876 – on loan from the National Portrait Gallery.
Before you exit the room, you’re introduced to Barrington and Father, 2021, by the aforementioned Deana Lawson, which shows a father and son – dressed in the styles of their respective generational trends – showing how fashion has changed over the years. Even though trends change, both men remain consistent with the fashions that embody who they are. We all know a few elders in the black community that just won’t let the gators and purple suits go. (laughs) I’m a huge fan of Lawson’s photography as her study in hard-hitting naturalism of contemporary black life always seems to stop me in my tracks with its intimacy.
Paul Mpagi Sepuya’sDarkroom Mirror Study (Ox5A1525), 2017 I believe should’ve been the opening image to the works in this part of the exhibit. This image focuses solely on the camera – the instrument that initiates and records moments of our lifetime – as it sits on a tripod in the portrait position with the artist’s hand as a stabilizing and guiding assistant. This image is relatable to every photo in the room as each artist has undergone the song and dance of photography during their practice and production of their respective works.
Xaviera Simmons’Sundown (Number twenty), 2018, is more of a photo of a moment. It shows a side profile of the artist holding an ancestral mask in one hand and a printed photo of a black man being pulled from a train by white attackers in the other. The portrait, in this case, is the mask, and the photo is a representation of the constant portrait of racism that continues to plague the world.
The Martine Sims video work Still from Notes on Gesture, 2015 drove me insane (laughs). I am a fan of Sims’s video performance creations but this piece and its audible reach throughout the gallery gave me PTSD and I’m sure parents of small kids were triggered as well. I understand the meaning of gesture recognition, it is truly important to comprehend culture, especially in the black community, but there has to be some consolation for those who grew up with these (laughs). I felt as if I was back at my family’s home surrounded by little cousins and nieces and having to listen to them constantly bicker and repeat the “word of the day” from social media. I tried to tune it out on every visit home, and inside this exhibition, but unfortunately, it never works. The video’s constant repetition also drew ire from the visitors as well as many who heard the work before they saw it, making their engagement with it very minimal. One lady was completely miffed by it, asking if it could be turned off. (laughs)
Kenturah Davis’A Question Only Answered With Another Question, 2019, is an oil portrait with a painted figure that appears shadowy and creates an aura around itself through swift movement. The artist creates this effect through transparent touches of the oil and rubber stamping. The process is a fascinating one as Davis sometimes includes messages in the work that once repeated on her preferred canvas reveal figures – many times of the artist herself or friends. Jordan Casteel’sJordan 2020, is a self-portrait in a pinkish hue of the artist sitting calmly in sweatpants on her couch. The main component of the painting (besides the subject) is the pillow that she’s leaning up against as this provides a step away from the dominating hue to provide a vivid burst of coloring centering the work. You also can’t help but notice her collection of books that are on the shelves and the plants that are resting in the background representative of growth and knowledge.
Rafa Esparza’sBig Chillin with Patrisse, 2021, I initially thought was a portrait of MCA Chicago curator Jamillah James, a leading art professional and former curator at ICA LA where Esparza had his solo show “Rafa Esparza: De la Calle”. The show included works in the adobe practice of the artist which I truly enjoyed. This portrait made of acrylic and adobe depicts a black woman lying comfortably on what seems to be a balcony, restfully looking at the viewer, welcoming a heartfelt conversation. Clifford Prince King’sSafe Space, 2020 is an intimate portrait photograph of three black queer men relaxing, grooming, and enjoying each other’s company. It centralizes on one main figure who is receiving a drag of smoke from one of the men holding a joint while braiding the third man’s hair as that man reads a book. The men are seen sitting, lying, and resting against a mattress on the floor of an apartment space, exhibiting the care and candor of black queer relationships.
Kim Dacres’ No my first name ain’t baby, 2020, stems from the harassment of women being catcalled. Made of rubber tires from cars and bicycles, Dacres recreates the bust of a woman with beautiful translations of the hair and accessories. Dacres’ practice is reminiscent of the work of artist Chakaia Booker which combines similar materials in production creating large public art. Dacres’ approach is very subtle in comparison to Booker but doesn’t lack force as the work shows she’s nothing to play with, and her first name surely isn’t “Baby”.
Woody De’Othello’s Blank Faced, 2020, reminds me of a teapot or a funnel that contains the filtered water that gets delivered to homes and offices (laughs). It appears to have a set of ears adding personality to the object. The pot rests or is affixed atop a shiny blue ceramic stool as an honor for its years of use. The ceramics shine with a glaze that reflects smoothly off of the gallery’s lights showing all of the grooves and digs in the finished product. Simone Yvette Leigh’sStretch Series #1, 2019, shows the glazed stone signature eyeless sculpture with a raised neck reminiscent of African tribe women. I love how sleek her sculptures are and the exclusion of the eyes in her work to me represents a template for the voice of all black women. Her work is very sturdy and present, a testament to the will of the black woman.
I remember the series of works that Glenn Kaino’s, The Invisible Man (Salute), 2018, stems from. A version of this sculpture (or sculpture like this) made its debut during Art Basel Miami Beach in 2016 at Collins Park in Miami, FL. The public version of this sculpture features the figure with both its hands raised, referring to the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” cries that went viral after the murder of Michael Brown in 2014 by Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson. The work is a double-sided mirrored silhouette of a figure, with its right hand raised in the black power salute. A portrait that has been heavily reiterated during the social unrests of the country in the last few years.
The final walkway of the exhibition felt very cramped. This is where the salon-style curation went into overdrive and you could feel overwhelmed by the amount of work on the wall. Taking a step back, it felt as if there was an overflow of potential choices for inclusion and instead of going through the process of elimination, the curatorial staff let the ocean just flow. Like the famous meme of Oprah, “You get a space, you get a space, everyone gets spaces!” (laughs).
Kohshin Finley’sEssence and Jihaari, 2020, is a grayish oil portrait of California African American Museum Visual Arts Curator Essence Harden and her husband Jihaari, embracing in front of what looks like their family home. The painting is very nostalgic as the oil adds a smoothness to the portrait that reveals the couple’s expressions, clothing, and atmosphere. I love Finley’s realism in portraiture as he seems to capture the true expression of his subjects with a personal connection between the soul and his brush.
Glenn Kaino’s (Salute (Second Salute), 2019) is a framed golden bust of a gloved fist with the black power salute depicting Olympic medalist Tommie Smith’s iconic moment at the 1968 summer games. The work has an infinite reflection speaking to the multitude of participants in the continuous fight for justice.
Shepard Fairey’sJohn Lewis: Good Trouble, 2020, was created in the traditional screen print style made famous by the presidential campaign of Barack Obama. Fairey paints a portrait of a youthful John Lewis, the Georgia politician, and activist, who was on the front lines of many of the protests and uprisings of the civil rights movement. Lewis also served in the House of Representatives in the State of Georgia before his passing in 2020. The work is very consistent in branding with many of Fairey’s screen printing projects as he combines red, gold, and a light teal color that can be seen interspersed throughout the work. It also features a quote by Lewis alongside newspaper articles about the “Melee at Selma” in which he and a host of protestors were attacked by local police. Another headline reports on African-American citizens risking their lives for the right to vote in 1964. What a wild time in history that seems to be having a reboot.
Immediately under the Fairey piece, was a work by artist and Black Panther Party member, Emory Douglas with The Black Panther, vol. 2, no. 25, March 9, 1969. The artwork is an ink-on-paper illustration of a young boy selling the Black Panther’s newspaper with a rifle strapped around his back. The newspaper has a front-page headline reading “All Power To The People” prominently in his raised hand. The bright orange of the page invites the urgency of the task at hand and grabs the attention of the viewer instantly.
Calida Rawles’In His Image, 2021 is a hyperrealistic painting of a black male resting comfortably in a pool of water with his body semi-submerged and his face pointed at the sun. The bluish-green hue of the water dominates the painting, almost dipping you in the water with the male. The skin seems eerily real, almost as if you can touch it. The artist illuminates the essence of the subject making it appear photographic and not touched by a human hand. I am truly enamored with the way that Rawles paints water. It’s as if you can sink your hand directly into her work. I remember being blown away by her water-based works in her solo show at the Various Small Fires gallery space in Los Angeles in early 2020. This is most certainly one of the most sophisticatedly painted pieces in the exhibit.
Fulton Leroy Washington’s Shattered Dreams, 2020 portrays the late Kobe Bryant gazing sorrowfully at the viewer. Wearing a navy blue hoodie with Lakers purple highlights that gleam against the black background, tears made of basketballs can be seen pouring from the eye of the hoops legend ultimately forming a scene of Bryant shooting a jump shot. Washington places cracks in the frame of the late superstar that contain symbols of the city of Los Angeles and the fatal crash site – you can see the smoke rising behind his head – with an indication that Kobe’s death rattled the world like an earthquake. The artist reveals an opening in the skull of Kobe Bryant showing a family portrait exemplifying what was always on his mind. Family. Rest in Peace, Kobe.
When I laid eyes onNumbers and Faces: Multi-Racial Ethnic Combinations Series 1: Face #7. Eduardo Soriano-Hewitt (Black/Filipino), 2020 by Charles Gaines, my first thought was “Is that Tupac?”. There seems to be a merging of many faces of numerous races and at the end of it, it somehow looks like the late Los Angeles-based rapper and activist Tupac Shakur (laughs). Gaines carefully numbers and paints the trajectory of his work on acrylic sheets bringing to mind the paint by numbers style that is usually found at paint and sip parties. The acrylic sheet that the work is painted on summons thoughts of the light bright game from the 1980s where you would place colorful pegs on the light board and create your method from a set of prearranged plans or a custom design. Gaines has perfected this technique and puts it on display in this piece focused on facial combinations and forms to create a singular result. You can see a consistency in the eyes, nose, and mouth of each face but you witness the differences in the subjects when you look toward the top of the head and notice that the hair changes with its color assignment.
Jake, Our Best., 1978-83 by Sam Doyle, is a painting of a man named “Jake” (of course) painted on metal in regular house paint. Doyle’s work recorded the life and times of the Gullah people of Saint Helena Island in South Carolina. “Jake” is posed in the manner of a fighter/boxer, in a fighting stance, but he is holding what looks like a baseball in his right hand. Could Jake be a pitcher? He is dressed in a blue jersey with the initials T.G (or T.B.), brown trousers, a backward hat, and high socks which could convey that he is playing in a cricket or baseball game. The text “Jake, Our Best.” sits atop the subject in white and the work starts to look like a baseball card. Maybe Doyle was looking to create his version of the iconic Honus Wagner baseball card.
Henry Taylor’sShe Is Not A Ho, 2005 is a depiction of a young black woman sporting a white blouse with a hand – of what appears to be a man – gripped around her waist. The scene also includes a figure extending an extra-long arm to pour liquor out onto the road (a ritual in the black community for paying respect to a lost loved one). The most interesting part of the painting is the hidden white face at the top right, which was almost impossible to see in the gallery with the work installed way above a visitor’s eye height. The work also draws reference to Rene Magritte’s The Treachery of Images, 1929 – which is also in the LACMA collection – as Taylor adds the signature pipe and quote “Ceci n’est pas une pipe (This Is Not A Pipe)” to the piece as a form of “meta messaging”, hinting at the unfavorable perceptions of the woman. She is NOT a ho, no matter what you think of her bringing clear that the images we see of people don’t always reflect who they are.
Jonathan Lyndon Chase’s butt naked dressed in pearls, 2018 is a mixed media painting that confused the hell out of me. For real. (laughs). It shows a sketched assortment of naked bodies (perhaps men) that are trying on pearls and makeup in a scene of probable grooming. This conclusion was reached by observing pearls and the set of hair clippers that are seen in the bottom right of the scene. The figures are made up of gold and tannish paint and outlined in black, the only actual way you’d be able to recognize a figure in the work – besides a few nipples, the lipstick, and painted circles that cover the anuses of these figures that the artist emphasized throughout the scene. The heavy layering of the gold paint at the top unites with some of the formations, while they sit on what’s presumed to be a purple carpet or mattress. The purple also makes an appearance at the top, blending into the faces of two of the formations. The gold could also be seen in the hair of the figures highlighting their wave-inspired hairstyles. There are two watches in the artwork – not attached to any of the subjects – and five painted lemons (with the outline of a sixth) that threw me for a loop. The artwork could be seen resting against the wall while sitting on three styrofoam doll heads which in my opinion put the already undesirable salon-style curation of the show on an even thinner ice with the presentation.
Sadie Barnette’s (Untitled (Dad, 1966 and 1968), 2016) are portraits of the artist’s father showing his duality as a United States serviceman and a member of the Black Panther Party. Her work caught my attention a couple of years ago when she included her father’s FBI file in an installation that talked about government surveillance. I think she is doing an important duty by reframing the narrative around her father and other black men like him that have had their reputations ruined by unfortunate circumstances placed on them by governments.
Deborah Roberts’, Breaking Ranks, 2018, is a paper collage portrait mash-up of faces forming a young girl wearing a tiara. The child has two sets of arms and hands, one set being the hands of Rosa Parks from a mugshot photo, reiterating the collective trauma passed through history. What draws your eye, other than the number 7053 from the mugshot addition, is the contrasting patterns of the clothing that she’s wearing. Red and white stripes lay calmly under an orange and tan blouse along with a square patterned skirt that exudes the multiple personalities of the collaged subject.
Instantly under Roberts’s work is Chelle Barbour’s Portrait of Madame C.J. Walker, 2018-19, a mixed media collage with the most identifying characteristic being a new set of eyes over the face of Madame Walker. The creation also contains a set of hands holding the hot comb, a symbol for Walker’s industry that she founded. Barbour also adds a cluster of lids from hair product cans that almost look like pennies until you examine them tighter. Her status is also accentuated by the purple bouquet in her hair and feather-based attire. The pennies seem to work as well and maybe even better because Madame Walker was bringing in the coin.
Barbour and Roberts contribute two different approaches to collage work as both have roots based on futurism and realism. Roberts draws on historical conversations that engage the viewer to remember and research. In Barbour’s practice, her futuristic medley of images invites the viewer to reimagine and dream the impossible.
I thought that Kehinde Wiley’sYachinboaz Ben Yisrael II, 2021 could’ve been the perfect complement to Bisa Butler’s piece if curated in proximity. It would have been an intriguing conversation with each other. Wiley’s signature floral oil-based painting presents a young black man fitted with a cane in a pose of a knight or noble. As in many of Wiley’s works, that floral arrangement conquers the painting and gives the sense that the figure is emerging from the flora. The man is dressed in a very modern style which Wiley uses to relate the current feelings of joy and promise that are in black men. I love the sentiment behind his work as it shines a light of positivity and a feeling of growth and future, especially in times where the visuals you see about us are often non-progressive. The exuberance of color and the celebration of their subjects almost mirror one another and are especially reflective as many young men (like those in Wiley’s paintings) strive to achieve their dreams at great heights as Boseman had before his untimely passing.
Dr. Samella Lewis’sBag Man, 1996 has probably the best backstory story of all the works in the show. This painting was the second version of the work which Lewis made out of frustration after her request to borrow the original for a show was declined by the collector. Now that’s boss. I wonder how many times that’s been done in today’s art world? This wood-framed oil work shows the image of a worker dressed in overalls with a brown and red mix. His eyes look behind him as he hauls a yellow sack on his back. The painting is set against a solid blue with slight hints of green filled with thick brushstrokes almost jumping out at the observer. Before reading about the work, I wondered if the man had left home or work, or maybe he was just down on his luck with nowhere to go. Upon further investigation, I learned that Lewis was inspired by her memories of trash pick-up men and the social injustices of folks who struggle in the streets. Living in Los Angeles, this work touches on the heart of a growing issue in the city. I love it more each time I see it.
Tatiana Fazlalizadeh’sNayyirah and Rachel, 2010 is an oil-painted portrayal of queer love (that I felt would’ve gone perfectly with a few of the other works in the show – like the Clifford Prince King work) that features two black women in an intimate show of affection. The woman in the foreground is bare and covers the woman behind her who is also presumably nude, at least in some way, as you can see the blues of what appears to be a dress in the bottom left corner. The woman in the background wears a rose in her hair and kisses the shoulder of the woman in the front while she looks directly at the viewer. I love how the artist uses a presence of light (maybe recited from a reference photograph?) as she extracts the contrast of the different shades of brown in their skin. The rose in the hair of the woman in the background adds softness against the power of the dominant colors of the white background and the brown tones of their skin. I feel the nudeness is them baring their truth to the world and solidifying it with a kiss that symbolizes the love and trust that she has for her “protector”. Fazlalizadeh is known for her larger-scale paste-up work of charcoal-based drawings that are then printed on an extensive scale and pasted around streets and businesses across the country.
Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe is among several Ghanaian-based painters being recognized for their practice in portraiture in today’s contemporary art market. The painting, Lady on Blue Couch, 2019, is overpowered by the assertive orange of the dress, the cool blue of the couch, and the lime green that rests on the wall behind the figure. The subject has a gray skin tone that matches the somber look on her face. She is accented by a set of pearls on her neck and wrist and one earring that is visible within the hairstyle.
Lauren Halsey’s The Crenshaw Hieroglyphic Project: Exterior Wall (featuring Frankie Beverly), 2018 is an exterior wall panel of the proposed structure for the Crenshaw Hieroglyphics Project set to be installed soon by Halsey in Los Angeles. Images carved into gypsum panels depict a group of four women and a man, highlighting their hairstyles – looking like the style choices when you go to a barbershop or hair salon. The word “MAZE” is prominently carved into the t-shirt of another subject that’s missing a head (maybe to be revealed on another panel). Scratched into the panel was the text “Featuring Frankie Beverly”, referring to the legendary band. Halsey’s work has been referred to as “Sculptural Painting” and I have to agree wholly. I first experienced her prototype of the project through her participation in Made in L.A. 2018 at the Hammer Museum, where a blueprint design and installation were revealed. Halsey incorporates South Los Angeles in everything she creates. Her portrait of the familiar scene reflects her love and respect for the traditions of her community.
Ndjeka Akunyili Crosby’sI Still Face You, 2015 portrays a meeting in what looks to be the sitting room at a home. The piece is created with oil and acrylic paints, charcoal, and photo transfers that line the walls in the room, the chairs, and the parts of the floor. All of the participants are dressed in traditional African clothing with the artist and a lighter-skinned subject, possibly her husband, sharing a moment while the others look on. It makes me think of possibly the moment when Crosby brought her significant other to meet her parents. Maybe he had to face serious questions about his intentions with Njideka before they moved forward in their relationship. (laughs).
Toyin Ojih Odutola’sJunior’s Research, 2018 is a pastel and graphite-based work that shows a man with his back to the viewer standing in a pond filled with yellow and green lily pads. He is seen looking out into a lush green atmosphere, with clouds and a mountain range as he contemplates his surroundings, possibly his next moves in life. What immediately stands out is the grooves in his shirt and shorts indicating that it could be windy, which the artist captures peacefully.
The final work in the exhibition – or first depending on where you started – is A portrait of the artist as a shadow of his former self, 1980 by Kerry James Marshall. It shows a pitch-black character against a dark charcoal grayish background with a sneaky snide look as if he’s withholding a secret that only he knows. His hat and overcoat are the defining features aside from Marshall’s use of the color white to highlight the eyes, shirt, and large grin with the gap-tooth smile of the figure. I first saw this work in Marshall’s groundbreaking exhibition “Mastery” at the now-closed Met Breuer in New York City and also at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, and it has always been a favorite of fans because of its strength in simplicity. If I ever get the chance, I’ll be sure to reference this work to see if what may have been hidden was ever revealed.
After wandering for what seemed like hours through the Black American Portraits exhibition, I crossed over (actually I had to walk out and go around) to the gallery that housed The Obama Portraits, and my goodness this presentation was very extremely underwhelming. I had the opportunity to view the paintings on a trip to the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. when they were initially debuted to the public. There is truly no comparison of the venue when viewing the works amongst the portraits of other leaders and revered people in history. I don’t know what I expected, but I surely expected more of an exhibition design to accompany this stop on the tour.
Upon entering the gallery you notice an emptiness, an open space with visitors in line – phone in hand – hoping to get the perfect selfie with the former President and First Lady’s portraits. Many of the visitors completely ignored and probably didn’t even see the work of Catherine Opie, (with works Kamala Harris, 2016 and Inauguration Portfolio, 2009), whose photographs were intended to be a precursor to the viewing of the paintings. There was also a small portrait of the former president taking the oath of office, with the first lady by his side by Karen Ballard(Untitled, 2009), but to many, it went highly unnoticed. To be honest, I missed it on the first go-round myself.
There was also a small QR code that directed viewers to a video directed by Christine Turner titledPaint & Pitchfork, 2021on the LACMA website, highlighting the practices of the commissioned artists, Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, but it didn’t do much to keep visitors in the space. The only contrast in the room was a purple accented wall that included the title and a small description – which again went disregarded. It would’ve been a major win for LACMA and its curatorial presentation of the paintings if they could’ve added works from the collection to build a narrative about inaugurations, politics, or another connection. Or maybe even extend the works from the main show into the space in a more connected approach. Opportunity missed.
The Obama Portraits appear muted, understated even, as they seem to be devoured by the white walls in the space. I’d like to think any institution would roll out the red carpet and prepare the proper accoutrement for the arrival of a Presidential portrait, but in this case, I was wrong. I understand that not everyone can’t make it to the Smithsonian to see it in its proper setting, so I’m hoping that other locations have better plans for presentation. I think placing them in a smaller space could’ve been more impactful.
Overall, I wasn’t in favor of the salon-style curation and the number of works selected for the exhibition. It was contemporary overkill and a constant fight for attention as paintings seemed to encroach on the focus that accompanies viewing an artwork. This show features an augmented reality component that extends the exhibition’s experience outside of the display, which was exciting to see as new generations can learn about black portraiture in relative technology making it a bit easier for outreach.
I desired more context on the works in this presentation – facts that could bring the viewer in with hopes of an educational “why” – instead of just faces in abundance. I saw a young kid continually ask his mother who each person was in almost every work during their visit. It highlighted the need for further explanation to guests with whom these faces and art practices are new and unfamiliar.
I ended up seeing the exhibition about nine times and each time it just felt a little different. There was a revived interest in familiar works and minor discoveries in a few overlooked pieces but overall it provided the same incomplete feeling. It was a last-place finish, completely overshadowed by the presentation and context provided in neighboring exhibitions in the Pavilion. The show just felt rushed and unfulfilled.
I found out around visiting for the fourth time, that many of the works on view came from LACMA’s recent acquisitions of works by African-Americans, and it kind of soured me a bit more on the exhibition. Was it a survey of Black American Portraiture or a display of the loot? Man, was I fooled. I did see a huge potential to go deeper and truly provide a research-rich display of the history of black portraiture and the gaze of the black photographer. Merging it with the advancements of the practice in contemporary culture without saturating the content to appease market speculation. Aren’t museums places of culture and education? Or have we redesigned them into art mini-malls that cater to a “buying” audience with a don’t touch policy?
“No other field is closed to those who are not white and male as is the visual arts. After I decided to be an artist, the first thing I had to believe was that I, a black woman, could penetrate the art scene, and that, further, I could do so without sacrificing one iota of my blackness or my femaleness or my humanity” – Elizabeth Catlett
With the rise of attention in works by women, artists of color, and the LGBT community, museums have seemed to pivot in a new direction – prioritizing inclusiveness – in an attempt to “correct” the underrepresentation of such artists in its programming. “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963-1983” featuring the artwork of pioneering black artists, poets, and photographers opened at The Broad Museum in Los Angeles on March 23rd, 2019. This is the exhibition’s third stop in the United States and first on the West Coast – after originating at the Tate Modern in London in 2017. The exhibition celebrates the artists and the movements they helped to institute in the two decades after 1963 when the Civil Rights movement started to gain steam.
Reminiscing through photos from my visit to its installation at the Tate Modern, I attempted to re-familiarize myself with the retrospective by trekking back through the works, re-living some of the feelings I had at first sight. As I browsed through the display, I pondered how the exhibition would be received by the city and its artistic community. How would the museum curators arrange its display inside the institution? The Broad Museum’s plush galleries and modern architectural design have a way of rejuvenating the excitement of the artwork on view. It has the uncanny ability to reintroduce work to its contemporary audiences with newness as if these works were just acquired from the artists’ studios moments before they furnished the walls. I was excited to see if this magic would lend itself to the newest exposition, allowing the artists themselves to relive the moments and actions that spawned these objects. But what in the exhibition would be “adjusted” before it made its Tinseltown debut?
It’s always thought-provoking to see what works are chosen for display and why. Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum, 1992, at the Maryland Historical Society, brought awareness to institutional collecting and exhibiting practices that often favored the display of works by white men. Through this installation, Wilson was able to unearth works from the collection – alluding to the biases that these spaces have – presenting a case study impossible to ignore. With this in mind, I asked myself if The Broad Museum and its curatorial team would try to lean toward the promotion of more commercial works from the artists – minimizing the history of the period – to focus on drawing more attendance for local and national visitors. Speaking to The Art Newspaper, Founding Director of The Broad Joanne Heyler spoke to the process of deciding on whether to take on this exhibition and how it almost didn’t happen. “There is not an overlap between the artists in the show and the Broad’s collection,” Heyler remarked. With many of the featured artists spending a significant part of their careers in the city and surrounding areas (Betye Saar and Noah Purifoy among the most notable), the biggest question I had for the Broad acquisitions team is – Why not?
Greeting you at the entryway is Carousel Change, 1970 by Sam Gilliam, a large piece of canvas resembling bed sheets with different shades and splatters, which I can imagine lived on the floor of Gilliam’s studio initially. The way this work was displayed at the entrance made me feel a bit uneasy. The last time I saw this work at the Tate, it was presented – in what seemed to be its entirety – full and stretched across the wall accentuating its scale and the vibrancy of color it contained. It welcomed the viewer like a big hug from a grandmother. In this display it confronts me in the form of a mob of seven Ku Klux Klansmen dressed in colorful robes, immediately bringing up thoughts of the 2015 “Birth of a Nation” project by the artist Paul Rucker. I wonder if anyone else felt this way? I digress.
Accompanied by a soundtrack curated by Quincy Jones – which is available via QR code visibly accessible on the gallery walls – you’re audibly guided through the retrospective with a playlist of horn-inspired rhythms and dialogue, allowing you to experience the music that defined the time. Quincy Jones in his summary on creating the list quotes that “You gotta know where you’re coming from to get where you’re going,“ as a precursor to this curation. With hits like “Say it loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud“ by James Brown and “Young, Gifted and Black” by Nina Simone, I was interested in experiencing firsthand how the list would correlate to what visitors experienced. So I pressed play and started to head on in. Ironically, Gil Scott Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” was the opening song.
We are introduced first to the SPIRAL Group, a collection of artists whose work reacted to the Civil Rights Movement, questioning how – as artists – they could interpret the times. Executing works in black and white only, artists like Norman Lewis, Emma Amos, Hale Woodruff, and Romare Bearden among others, sought to challenge the question of the Negro image in visual art. Lasting a few years (1963-1965), the group mounted the only exhibition titled “First Group Showing: Works in Black and White” as a response to black artists being overlooked by the institutions. Similar to a recent epidemic in major cities across the country, rising rents in the area where they gathered cost them their meeting space which ultimately led the group to go their separate ways.
You come across powerful works such as Freedom Now, 1963 by Reginald Gammon referencing The March on Washington. Depicting a scene of activists in bunches – seemingly about to march right out of the painting into the gallery – it struck me how using only the two primary colors the artist was able to conceal the races of the subjects. This manipulated viewpoint gives evidence to the “We are all in this together” motto that is often brought up during points of civil unrest in America.
The most astounding and polarizing work to me in the SPIRAL gallery was America the Beautiful, 1960 by Norman Lewis. This abstract work at first glance appears as random swipes of white house paint on a black panel, insinuating at a figure to be revealed once the viewer steps back to catch a full view. Upon further investigation, you see the shapes in the paint start to materialize and then realize you’re looking at a representation of a Ku-Klux-Klan meeting. I love the correlation in these works together. These works represent groups of people acting out its form of support for their message, which mirrored the inception of the SPIRAL group. It also puts on full display the duality of the American reality where dueling classes continue to battle for their rightful place in society. I often see the SPIRAL Group reemerging in the work of contemporary artists like using the same color palette to deliver his vision.
As the decade progressed and the voice of “Black Power” started to define itself through defiant imagery, black artists aimed at creating an identity of activism through their work. Symbols like the raised fist – The Black Power salute – and the American Flag were used as catalysts, sparking debate about the country’s treatment of its African-American citizens. This led to the emergence of the Black Arts Movement (BAM) which like the SPIRAL Group, organized their communication through artistic practices – albeit more politically charged. The gallery presents some of the imagery in the form of newsletters, caricatures, posters, and magazines in a vitrine showcasing the outreach of the groups in different forms of media.
Immediately upon entering the gallery, you can feel the tension in the work. Hinting at the catalysts previously mentioned, works like Kay Brown’s The Devil and His Game, 1970, depicting then-President Richard Nixon playing what appears to be a game of checkers with Rev Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, using black children as the game pieces. And Dana C. Chandler’s Fred Hampton’s Door #2, 1975, a sculptural replica of the front door of Black Panther Fred Hampton that was shot through by Chicago Police – eventually entering and murdering him and another Panther member. They combined a grim history within its presentation. Mixed in with these works is Blackboard, 1967-71 by Cliff Joseph, showing a female teacher and young male student locking eyes with the viewer in front of a blackboard containing a Black History alphabet. Joseph used the subjects as signals for the need for “new revolutionary vocabulary”. The artworks in this gallery are more direct in their presentation – with the artists not pulling any punches – using the material as a channel of expression.
Benny Andrews’ Did the Bear Sit Under The Tree?, 1969, stares at you with the shaking fists of a man who has had enough with the country whose liberties he thought he’d be able to thrive under. The rolled-up nature of the flag in this work was very telling as it could describe what you would find if you look behind the curtain of America, or possibly, a fed-up citizen rolling up his flag to discard it – because its meaning doesn’t apply to him anymore. Andrews along with Cliff Joseph created the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC) in response to “Harlem on My Mind”, a 1969 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, in which all the black artists in the neighborhood’s invitations to participate mysteriously got lost in the mail. I hope you can appreciate my sarcasm.
I loved the juxtaposition of the works by Faith Ringgold (The Flag is Bleeding, 1967) and Elizabeth Catlett (Black Unity, 1968). Ringgold’s work arranges three figures behind a blood-soaked flag. All are locked in arms with the figure of a black male obscured behind the stars. What makes this stand out, even more, is that the black male in the painting holds his hand on his chest – reminiscent of the pledge of allegiance – but is also clutching a knife. I would love to know what that’s all about. Catlett’s Black Unity, 1968, is a double-sided sculpture appearing as either a clutched black fist or a duo of faces depending on where the viewer is positioned. Made from mahogany, the bronze nature of the wood accentuates the message of “Black Power” – as it is polished to read as black skin. When I doubled back and looked again, it’s almost like the black male figure in Ringgold’s work is having a dialogue with the faces of Catlett’s sculpture. It’s as if they’re sharing an intimate secret, instructing folks to stand firm but always watch your back.
I was a little disappointed to see that American People Series #20: Die, 1967 by Ringgold was replaced in The Broad Museum curation, as I really enjoyed seeing it in the Tate Modern display. Why the change? Was the loan period was over from the MoMA? Who knows?
In the black community, “The Streets“ has been a term used to represent being excluded from the mainstream, forming an underground set of values. Many black artists sought visibility outside of the white cube by taking to muralism. As an addition to the display, the curators presented “Art on the Streets”, a slideshow of archived photography of these murals across America. Focusing on The Wall of Respect – a mural on Chicago’s South Side – the murals became a place for gathering, ultimately leading to a rise in muralism across black neighborhoods. Being a Los Angeles resident, places like Leimert Park and The Great Wall of Crenshaw come to mind as references to how the wave of black muralism inspired the optical tone of our neighborhoods.
Chicago was a key location in the Black Power movement and in some cases has been dubbed “The Heart of Black America”. Producing art movements like AfriCOBRA (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists), artists in the Midwest looked to add a new flavor and rhythm to contemporary painting. The group set out to paint positive vibrant images of black figures and penetrate the scene with an abundance of color. The works speak action into the gallery easily dominated by Wadsworth Jarrell’s depictions of Angela Davis in Revolutionary (Angela Davis), 1971 and Malcolm X in Black Prince, 1971. Both paintings burst with the images of the activists, surrounded by text that form to their features on canvas. Jarrell chose to use one of Malcolm X’s speeches at the bottom of the painting, giving power and emphasis to his words, while Davis’ image – pulled from a LIFE magazine photograph – was adequately decked out with a shoulder strap filled with wooden dowels (“bullets”), reflective of one of Jae Jarrell’s Revolutionary Suits – that was on display in the center of the room.
It was cool to also find the same admiration for Jarrell’s Revolutionary Suits in Jeff Donaldson’s Wives of Sango, 1971, which portrays three black women heavy militarized in formation, ready to take on anything that’s in their way. Donaldson presents the women as different ages, in different styles of clothing, and with different hairstyles – showing the varying appearances of the black woman – while concurrently alluding to their willingness to protect at all costs. If you’ve ever come across a black mother then you know this to be all too true. Carolyn Lawrence bursts with her colorful jazzy canvas work titled Black Children Keep Your Spirits Free, 1972, which resembles a poster from the psychedelic era, vibrant with color, and a slurred movement almost as if time is slowing down as your viewing.
As we enter “Black Light”- a gallery highlighting the work of black photographers – we come across an array of black and white works led by Roy DeCarva, showing his range in creating deep tonal photographs of life in New York City. Before seeing his work in the exhibition, I was under the impression that Gordon Parks – who is noticeably absent from the display – was the pioneer for the photographs of black life in America. I believe that while Gordon thrived in storytelling through documentary photography, Decarva set out to show blackness abstractly – focusing on the skin tone and features of the subject – creating drama through moments of calm. One of those moments came in the form of Shade Cord and Window, 1961, where a thin piece of string takes the form of a noose. Positioned close enough to where the window sill creates a bold shade of black, the string gently, quietly, and ferociously stands firm in the photo overlaying a building in the distance. This photo to me is quite moving. I believe Decarva spoke to the systematic racism in the inner city and how that ugly part of history seems to be inescapable.
Alongside the photography of Decarva, I was also introduced to the work of Beuford Smith whose 1968 photograph Man with Roses, 125 St. NYC, 1968, was another that stopped me in my tracks. Promoting black love, Smith seems to catch an older gentleman at random – possibly at a bus or train station as you noticed a woman walking with a bag in the background – waiting patiently with flowers for a loved one.
Also in the room was a vitrine featuring publications and photo books, under a curated selection of photographs by artists who worked concurrently, such as Herb Randall, Herb Robinson, Adger Cowans, Al Fennar, and Ming Smith. A nice bonus was seeing a digital copy of In Our Terribleness, 1970 by Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones) and photographer Fundi (formerly Billy Abernathy). Fundi created the “Portraits of Life” in which Baraka responded with poetry. In his poem, Baraka explains his use of the word “Terribleness” as a way to uplift, a “new self-confident beauty”, enforcing the expression that “Black is Beautiful”. I would’ve loved to see the works of Howard Bingham in this section as well. His iconic black and white photographs of Muhammad Ali – a key Civil Rights figure – would have been in total sync with the tone of the exhibition as sports played a huge role in pushing the “Black Power” movement forward.
If there is one benefit to living in Los Angeles it’s that you get first-hand experience in Assemblage Art. From Noah Purifoy’s Outdoor Desert Art Museum to the sculpture of Betye Saar, the artists of the city have been the trailblazers of the movement, often incorporating elements of their reality to stage new experiences. Nails, steel, saxophones, and an old banjo case are just a few of the random items that you’ll encounter as you explore the oeuvre of the featured artists in the gallery. You’re welcomed immediately by Saar’s work Sambo’s Banjo, 1971-2 (On loan from California African American Museum (CAAM)) in which she uses the inside of a banjo case to stage a violent double lynching. In a plot twist, just above the victim, Saar – according to the documentation – left the tiny rifle visible for the character to free himself, ultimately placing his survival in his hands. This already sounds like a damn SAW movie. (Laughs.)
The room also features About Martin, 1975 by John Outterbridge who personally became a favorite of mine after seeing work of his at an exhibition at CAAM a while back. I again fell in love with this work as Outterbridge presents a tribute to Rev Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the form of a miniature closet resembling a military shadow box. A suit hangs in the space just under a picture of his widow Coretta Scott King, reminiscent of the wardrobe he wore in public. The suit sits on top of a black box with the names of the cities (Montgomery, Birmingham, Selma, Washington) where some of his most famous speeches were held.
One new work by Noah Purifoy was added to the Los Angeles display, too much excitement of the local visitors. Watts Riot, 1966, contains debris from the 1965 Watts Rebellion to which Purifoy transformed into the work. The piece looks as if you’ll be able to still smell the charred material but good luck getting anywhere close enough to verify it. When I look at Watts Riot, 1966, I can see the influence of Purifoy on today’s contemporary artists like Mark Bradford – also from South Los Angeles – who employ the same anthropological process to art-making. With the museum featuring a few works by Bradford in its main galleries upstairs, it allows the show to draw connections and create a bridge for viewers to understand the artistic lineage. Sidenote: Mark Bradford’s Deep Blue, 2018 is a must-see.
Not to be outdone are the “Game of Thrones” style metal works by Melvin Edwards (Some Bright Morning, 1963, Afro-Phoenix #2, 1963 and Mamba, 1965) from his Lynch Fragment series. Commenting on social injustice, Edwards used the rough material of welded steel to present abstract visual commentary and possibly gaining acceptance into the Night’s Watch along the way. John T. Riddle’s Bird and Diz, Spirit versus Technology series, 1972 resemble Outterbridge’s work as collected materials are housed together to form a larger message. An homage to Charlie “Bird” Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, the work contains a saxophone and trumpet – which protrude beyond its casing – in what Riddle calls a “breaking out of the boxes,” referring to the musicians’ ability to transcend with their musical innovations. I would love to see how this work talks to Jean Michel Basquiat’s Horn Players, 1983 in the same space as it also speaks to the improvisational style of artistry that the musicians shared. Definitely worth a trip upstairs to compare.
“Three Graphic Artists” dedicated to the 1971 exhibit of the same name at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) featured Charles White, – whose solo retrospective is currently on view at the institution until June 2019 – David Hammons, and Timothy Washington – who I’ve had the honor to meet through artist friends in the city. Under the mentorship provided by White, Hammons, and Washington were able to develop techniques that would help define their work for years to come. Hammons experimented with vegetable fat while Washington developed a new form of etching onto metal, visible in his work One Nation Under God, 1970.
The highlight of the show for me was David Hammons’ The Door (Admissions Office), 1969. In this work, Hammons’ famed body print technique – also on display in the remaining works by Hammons in the gallery (Black First, America Second 1970, Three Spades 1971, and Spade (Power of The Spade), 1969) – is displayed on an old wooden door reminiscent of the interior doors in a schoolhouse. On the glass that sits in the door under the words “Admissions Office” in vinyl, you see an oil-based imprint of hands, a face and part of a body giving off the strange appearance of “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!”, a catchphrase derived from the 2014 murder of Eric Garner.
It was easy to see the references to the young black bodies sacrificed to the inequality of the American school system. It’s always icing on the proverbial cake when you continuously encounter work whose meaning is still just as clear today as it was during its inception. The display of this work brought up thoughts of nostalgia, as I was quickly reminded of the museums opening day in 2015 where the press was welcomed by picketing teachers making their voices heard about Eli Broad’s (Philanthropist and Founder of The Broad Museum) involvement in a plan to increase private education through charter schools. I wonder if any of the curators considered this? Or if they even remember that? Hmm. Carry On.
As you’re preparing to cross into the next gallery, you are forced to face Hammons’ powerful work Injustice Case, 1971. Again employing his body print technique, Hammons sought to bring awareness to the treatment of Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale during his trial – where he was bound and gagged after outbursts in the courtroom. A very harrowing image wrapped in the American flag, Hammons sought to “frame” the results of an oppressive structure, with the work appearing as an X-ray into the fabric of the American justice system.
I hate to write this, but the East Coast Abstraction gallery was my least favorite of the exhibition. I know, I know, it has powerhouses like Jack Whitten, Ed Clark, and William T. Williams but these works – while powerful on their own – just did not feel right together in this layout. These works are larger but lack the intensity of some of their smaller counterparts in the previous galleries – at least collectively. Speaking to the abstract nature of representation, these artists took to hard-edges and color staining as methods of creation, challenging the fact that blackness had to be rooted in figurative painting.
The gallery introduces its story with Jack Whitten’s Homage to Malcolm, 1970, an abstract tribute to the late Civil Rights leader Malcolm X. Executed on triangular canvas, the shape represents the pyramids of Egypt of which Malcolm visited on his pilgrimage to Mecca. With actions rooted in the Black Power Movement, Whitten took to his Afro-comb to move around the black paint in the center of the work – releasing hues of green, red and blue – and providing a ridged texture in the center.
Close by, you find Sam Gilliam’s April 4, 1969, a large stained canvas tribute to Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. marking the day of his assassination. This was one piece that presented itself to me as more of a representation of the evidence than a tribute. The dark reds and staining remind me more of the effort to save Dr. King’s life after he’d been shot. I see more of the blood-stained fabric of the first responders and friends who fought tirelessly to save his life. Maybe this is a tribute to them? Or maybe a reminder of what we lost as a community?
Trane, 1969, by William T. Williams provides the burst of color you’ve come to expect from abstraction with vibrant jagged lines that capture a multitude of colors finding their way through. Acting on the improvisation of Jazz – which he referred to as “Abstract Music” – Williams uses the hard-edged lines like a music visualizer, attempting to replicate the powerful sound from the performances of John Coltrane.
Peeking into abstract minimalism are the works by Virginia Jaramillo (Untitled, 1971), Daniel LaRue Johnson (D9 Flat 5th, 1969), and Tom Lloyd (Narokan, 1965) who was among the first to experiment with manipulating light as a form of art. It was really hard to experience the potential light show of Narokan, 1965 which was installed way too high to truly enjoy. This could’ve been done just a tad bit better in my opinion.
Before you crossover to the next gallery, you meet the egg-shaped canvas of Ed Clark with Yenom (#9), 1970. The work has a planetary feel reminiscent of gas giant Jupiter, with its landscape blurred – revealing only tidbits of the surface. It was interesting to read that this work (along with Virginia Jaramillo) was included in the racially integrated 1971 exhibition “The DeLuxe Show” in Houston, Texas. The show proved to be monumental as the artists descended on the Fifth Ward and provided the neighborhood with access to fine art and a foundation in which to look at black artists and modernism.
Cruising into the next gallery, you’re welcomed by the smooth and cool Barkley Hendricks who – with four large works – takes the lead in the space. The first of the Hendricks works you come across is Icon for My Man Superman (Superman Never Saved Any Black People – Bobby Seale), 1969. A portrait of the artist standing confidently against a heroic silver background, almost presenting himself as a packaged children’s toy with the “I’m all the hero you need!” moniker. With his arms crossed, he is seen sporting an afro and dark sunglasses – a tribute to the Black Panther Party leader Bobby Seale – and a Superman T-Shirt covering only up to the top of his pelvic area. Unlike his work Brilliantly Endowed (Self-Portrait), 1977, which sits across the gallery, Hendricks does a better job in this portrait of at least concealing his genitalia. (Laughs). The artist is posing naked with a white leather hat and sunglasses, wristbands, jewelry, socks, and sneakers with a very matter-of-fact demeanor. Hendricks’ exploration of his nude body stemmed from a review by the New York Times art critic Hilton Kramer – in which he referred to the artist as a “Brilliantly Endowed Painter”. Hendricks used his work (with that quote as fuel) to explore the black body as a subject while demonstrating his skill as a painter. I’ve often seen this work as a rebuttal to that of Robert Mapplethorpe and others, who were often criticized for their fascination with the black male body and the exploitation thereof.
Alice Neel presents a content Faith Ringgold seated in a bright red dress with floral print, led by dark blue strands of color that goes extremely well against the striped chair that she’s seated on. She has one hand clasping the other, as she stares directly at the viewer with a look of patience and security. Neel gives Ringgold what looks like two rosaries around her neck – possibly hinting at Ringgold’s commitment to her faith. Faith Ringgold, 1977, I believe focuses on the artist’s strength and commitment to her causes as an artist and woman, and Neel’s respect for her ambitious spirit, with the composition and position evocative of a presidential portrait.
Raymond Saunders’ portrait features the first African-American World Heavyweight Champion Jack Johnson (Jack Johnson, 1971) as an armless dark green figure in a blazer, tie, and slacks mixed in a splash of color. Inside of the vibrancy, the artist scratches the signature of the champion vertically on the right of the subject, along with a date inscribed on the bottom left, maybe hinting at the reference photo that could have been the source for the work. I think of the color splash as the noise around him as he climbed the ranks in boxing to become the champion. With his mouth being the only visible feature, Saunders places a grin on Johnson as if to imply the artist “smiling through it all” as he moves forward through his success.
Emma Amos’ portrait pays tribute to an icon in her life with Eva the Babysitter, 1973. A yellow background sets the tone for the dedication, as she presents Eva seated comfortably in a red chair – smiling as she poses for the portrait. A child enters halfway into the frame – possibly Amos’ daughter unable to sit still during the process – insisting she is included. This addition of the daughter shows the loving relationship of Eva to the mother and child. I love how Amos adds the parquet floor with the red, white, and black carpet to break up the strong yellow in the painting, allowing for the reddish hues in the clothing of Eva and the seats to have more of a presence in the work.
I can remember the first time I saw Beauford Delaney’s Portrait of James Baldwin?, 1971. After reading the description I remember saying to myself, “How is there a question about the portrait if they were known friends?”. I’ll admit that there is something a bit off about the work, but it has all of Baldwin’s characteristics – the receding hairline and turtle neck were dead giveaways – and at the time the artist was going through a few mental health issues that could’ve made his memory of his friend’s facial features a bit skewed. The mustard color palette is a sharp contrast to the more colorful portraits by the artist of Baldwin. Like his 1945 painting (Portrait of James Baldwin, 1945) in which bright reds, bold blues and interchanging shadows of brown, yellow, and white accentuate the detail in the skin, giving a more impressionistic look. Although titled by Baldwin’s brother, Baldwin himself owned this painting and I’d like to think he wouldn’t keep a random look-alike painting (laughs).
The final two Barkley Hendricks works speak to his brilliance in using solid backgrounds of a specific color, while his subjects are overlaid with fabrics that mirror the tone of the backdrop. What’s Going On, 1974, always reminded me of a Motown singing group. Four of the five subjects in the painting are dressed in all white with hats to match, and the fifth one is a woman who is shown naked with her black skin as the beautiful contrast against the bold white background. Blood (Donald Formey), 1975, is a deep blood red painting of a man dressed in plaid, toting a tambourine staring firmly at the viewer. I’ve always wondered if the primary colors of these works were representative of something. Maybe the mood or vibe the artist got from the subject? Maybe it was the dominant colors in the clothing when he started his study sketches? Perhaps that’s research for another essay.
Improvisation and experimentation have always been key to the development of new forms of art-making and storytelling. Using materials from the unified experience of the black community, the artists in this section sought to expound on their practices by introducing new ways of presentation, allowing viewers to mentally participate in understanding the message. Alongside these materials are the stories that come with their use. Melvin Edwards’ powerful work Curtain (For William and Peter), 1969 – named after artists William T. Williams and Peter Bradley who were once his studio mates – is as haunting as it is provocative.
The work, very minimalist, employs barbed wire and chains to hint at the history of American slavery and incarceration. The barbed wire strands hang down from an overhead base connected by chain links. While at the bottom, each piece of wire is intertwined with the chains – calling attention to a prison chain gang or the terrible history of slavery in which groups of slaves were chained in unison to be sold. With prison reform a hot topic in current culture, this work almost feels contemporary as these same elements and materials are taking a larger role in our society with the privatization of the prison system.
Alvin Loving’s, Untitled #32, ca. 1975, and Joe Overstreet’s We Came from There to Get Here, 1970, are prime examples of how artists experimented with the installation and display of their work. Loving cut up his painted canvases only to sew them back up again into new realities, creating colorful collaged textiles. The works are very reminiscent of quilts that have been passed down through generations in the African-American community, with new additions as time goes on. Overstreet used the rope as a way of demonstrating the horror of lynching, but also the possibility of freedom with the rope also used a supports for the work. With its tent-like appearance, the work presents itself full of energetic color with a clever undertone hinting at black artists “setting up camp” in the art world – accentuating the speculation of a “black art” aesthetic.
Alma Thomas’ Mars Dust, 1972 – one of the paintings displayed in her 1972 Whitney Museum of Art Show – shows the artist’s fascination with space. With bright red brushstrokes overtop shades of blue (that try and peak through space in between), Thomas reimagines dust storms and landscapes as she sought to stimulate her fascination with space travel. A pioneer in abstract painting and a member of the famed Washington Color School, Thomas focused on movement, patterns, and consistency in abstract painting. Her work Watusi (Hard Edge), 1963, was selected by First Lady Michelle Obama for display in the White House. For an artist who was said to be overlooked, she was constantly on view in the West Wing during the Obama presidency.
The largest work in the gallery – Frank Bowling’s Texas Louise, 1971 – gives the viewer a feeling of approaching the peak of a mountain range to look at the sunset. Vibrant ranges of color blend with stenciled outlines of the continents, referring to the global mindset of identity. As you spend time with the work you can’t help but think of Bowling’s concept of the Map Paintings and how they relate to our current world. These works according to Bowling were to “celebrate a more fluid and open idea of identity and belonging to the world”, a contemporary concept talked about but rarely practiced.
Last but not least in the gallery is Jack Whitten’s Asa’s Palace, 1973, a large purplish canvas with islands of green paint that give the impression of vines in a wisteria tree. Using what Whitten called a “developer”, he created “rake-like” strokes, with the results imitating pulling the canvas fresh from a printer jam.
Entering the gallery dedicated to the work of Los Angeles-based artist Betye Saar is like stumbling into a secret antique store in rural Louisiana. The works are very ritualistic, with sculptures resembling altars and artifacts of ceremony that Saar uses almost as remedies, mentally inoculating the viewer through the context of each assembled object. Welcoming you into the gallery are Mti, 1973, and Spirit Catcher, 1977, two totem sculpted works with a myriad of materials. These two works are seminal as Mti, 1973, was featured in her first survey show “BETYE SAAR 1964-1973” at the Fine Arts Gallery at The California State University in Los Angeles and Spirit Catcher, 1977, is the result of a research trip to Haiti – in which she studied religious belief systems and practices. I have always been amazed at the practice of Betye Saar as it speaks not only her artistic imagination but the depth in her research as there is something new to find in every repeated encounter.
Above your head are Rainbow Mojo, 1972, and Eye, 1972, work made from cut and stitched leather topped with acrylic paint to mirror their respective subjects, hanging by clear string banner-like from the gallery ceiling. Nine Mojo Secrets, 1971 and Ten Mojo Secrets, 1972, face each other in the gallery, and to understand them both, I had to do my own research and it was very informative. I found out that a “mojo” is a charm that is lauded for its purported magic and ability to heal. It was also revealed that Saar’s zodiac sign is Leo, which explains the toy lion – a symbolic reflection of herself – in the work. The lion makes another appearance in Eshu (The Trickster), 1971, this time as a portrait made out of wood, leather, straw, and feathers. I like to think this work is the artist recognizing the strength associated with her zodiac sign. Bold and full of pride and power, the lion takes the form of an African mask or a stele made from contemporary materials.
As you head up toward the finish line of the exhibition, you start to see light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. The exhibit starts to say its farewell as you can hear the crowd gathered in the lobby, awaiting their pilgrimage through the sea of visual black history. The final gallery is dedicated to the work and legacy of Just Above Midtown, – better known as “JAM”- a gallery program created by Linda Goode Bryant, focusing on exhibiting the work of African American artists. Situated in the heart of New York’s commercial art world, Bryant created a marketplace for the work of artists of color to be “seen and work to be sold”, becoming a center of black art exhibition, and a space for avant-garde ambition.
In the vitrine placed at the center of the gallery were Items from the JAM archive, including installation photographs, exhibition posters, catalogs, and publications as well as performance documentation that captured the essence of the gallery’s programming throughout its duration. It is amazing to see the amount of pride and also growth that the space produced during its history, lasting from 1974–1986.
The artists featured in the gallery were instrumental to the rise and success of JAM. By creating work that allowed for discussion, immediately provided insight into an artist’s vision. Artists such as David Hammons and Senga Nengudi used activation as a form of interaction, creating works that were lauded and also heavily debated. JAM was able to use interaction as its calling card, staging large-scale projects inclusive of the community like Lorraine O’Grady Art Is…, 1983 at the 1983 Harlem African American Day Parade.
Her forty-part photography series featured selected portraits of Harlem residents along with local storefronts and building facades that represented the fabric of the community. As the story goes, Grady entered a float in the parade which displayed a large gold picture frame. She also hired fifteen dancers to survey and interact with the parade crowds with smaller gold frames, extending the experience. In essence, to be inclusive, Grady used the public performance as an opportunity to finally “include” black people in contemporary art as many of the onlookers and participants jumped at the chance to take part.
Senga Nengudi creates works based on performance using nylon tights among other objects such as sand and rubber. I laugh when I think of my first encounter with her work in London. I initially felt cheated as if someone was playing a trick on me. For me, that was the final straw in this new contemporary art scene. “Tights with sand? How fucking desperate are we?” I thought, not knowing how uneducated I was to the power the artist had in her performance. It wasn’t until I came across the Tate Modern’s video series “TateShots” and viewed an interview with Linda Goode Bryant and Senga Nengudi did I truly comprehend the level of artistic genius she exhibited.
Her work Internal II, 1977, 2015, reminds me of a spider’s web providing support to the walls of the gallery. As I learned more about the work, I understood that it spoke to the strength of the female body and it then it made sense. Senga mentions in the “TateShots” video how the nylon is at “wit’s end” from being stretched to the point of anxiety. I immediately felt a connection to the work and how it represented my mother, a strong single woman who stretched everything she had as far as she could to see me and my brother succeed. Even if it meant she would herself be stressed and challenged beyond her greatest capabilities. As Nengudi relates it to black females, she comments on the female body being reflected abstractly as being “used” and I contemplated the way we view women and beauty standards in society. I started to think of the women who struggle to return to their normalcy after childbirth and how tough that can be. I believe this was a great way to deliver the message as you could see the strength in the fragility, a perfect reference to the female body.
David Hammons’ Bag Lady in Flight, 1975, reconstructed in 1990, leads off the display of his works shown in previous exhibits at JAM. I swear when I look at this work I hear Erykah Badu’s song, “Bag Lady”. Made from shopping bags, grease, and human hair, Hammons looks to these materials and the results of the incorporation as a dedication to the positivity they hold in the black community. I see this work as a tribute to the spending power of the black woman. With the hair and grease being primary materials in the work, I think of companies like Bronner Brothers and how they have built a billion-dollar industry with hair care products all through the spending of black women. Funny enough being from Philadelphia, a brown greasy bag has always made me smile because inside of that bag usually awaited a cheesesteak which could explain my immense hunger after the exhibition. (laughs)
Also included was Untitled, c.1980’s, a wall sculpture made from pork ribs, tire inner tubes, and costume jewelry that I still can’t grasp the meaning of. I’d like to think it represented part of his upbringing and the materials and objects that were part of his everyday life. Just as in Bag Lady In Flight, 1975, Hammons uses the items to spark a form of nostalgia, tying seemingly different items together. Maybe this was a dedication to summer cookouts and neighborhood bike riding?
One of the absolute coolest works in the exhibition is Dawoud Bey’s A Boy in front of the Loews 125th Street Movie Theater, 1976, printed by 1979, showing an adolescent boy decked out in the latest fashionable tracksuit, a stylin’ pair of shades, holding what appears to be a juice carton posing on a wooden barricade in front of the theatre. The most notable thing in the photos to me was the kid’s bright white sneakers, as the beautiful contrast in the photo makes them seem to glow. This effect is also replicated in A Woman at 7th Avenue & 138th Street 1976/7, printed by 1979, where the subject’s shoes and purse reveal a similar radiance.
Howardena Pindell’s Untitled, 1978, and Randy Williams’s, Color in Art, 1976, round out the gallery displaying new abstract assemblage practices within. In Pindell’s Untitled, 1978, she uses hole-punched dots to create a texture similar to braille on top of a re-sewn canvas. The work merges the senses as each looks deeper it seems as if you can feel the texture across your fingertips. Prompting you to reach out only to be reminded to “please stay a foot behind the line” by the gallery attendant. In Color in Art, 1976, Williams uses wooden window shutters as the structure for the work accompanied by rope and a book screwed down to the wooden frame with a plexiglass plate. Williams’ work deals with the parallel themes of inclusion/exclusion, a topic he feels still needs some addressing as he continues to develop his practice while working as a college professor.
As I exited the final gallery, I ran into Self, 1978, by Martin Puryear (Puryear will represent the U.S. in the 2019 Venice Biennale) which I must’ve completely missed walking up to the exhibit entrance. In the Tate Modern curation of the show, the work was featured in the Improvisation and Experimentation gallery but somehow made its way outside the exhibition in LA. Possibly to highlight his Biennale accomplishments which I certainly am not mad at. The work is made of cedar and mahogany stained black, sticking upwards off the plinth resembling the fin of a shark on the hunt. The work as the artist explains is a representation of self as a secret entity that appears heavy and strong but in all actuality is quite hollow. If that ain’t a jab at humanity I dunno what is. But Puryear is careful in his interpretations often leaving it up to the viewer. He stated, “I value the referential quality of art, the fact that a work can allude to things or states of being without in any way representing them.”, creating his form of symbolism as a vehicle for characterization.
So what’s is the next step after Soul of a Nation? Is this the beginning of the retrospective for black art movements? Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963-1983 was a great insight into the artistic movements that existed during the Black Power era and serves as a visual history. Are era-based retrospectives the best way to understand the African-American contribution to the global art world? As I write this essay I think of what I’ve learned just by observation. The research of artworks allowed me to understand the artists’ backgrounds, their materials, and how their use of them helped to change and develop the practice of art-making. It uncovered artistic movements that mirror those of contemporary art today, adding credence to the “history always repeats itself” saying. It also was a strong reminder as we look in that same mirror, that many of the reasons for collectives like the Spiral Group and Just Above Midtown still exist today, with black artists and professionals combating issues of inclusion in museums and blue-chip galleries in new ways.
This retrospective has activated the city with showings of black artists, as local galleries and museums are presenting complementary shows adding appreciation to the contributions of black artists to the fine art canon. I wonder how or if this exhibition will improve the primary and secondary markets of the participating artists? Will artists like Betye Saar, Jae Jarrell, and Alma Thomas start to enjoy the same market success as Njideka Akunyili Crosby now that this show has made its mark? How long will these works remain with their current collectors? It will be very interesting to see what the future holds for the careers of these artists, but for now, we can all enjoy and bask at the moment for however long it lasts.
Soul of A Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963-1983 is on view at The Broad Museum, 221 S. Grand Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90012. Through Sep. 1st, 2019, https://www.thebroad.org.
“Configuration” is set to open at SCOPE International Art Fair on December 4th, 2018 featuring a collection of works by Philadelphia-based contemporary artists Serena Saunders, Ivben Taqiy, and Gabe Tiberino. Curated by Badir R. McCleary
Serena Saunders is a Visual Artist from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her work as a painter has a fresh, color-strong perspective that speaks to our imagination while the subjects ask for our awareness. Her often large-scale, graphically bold, and poetically composed paintings offer the viewer layers of narrative. The painter works with a color palette that gives her intricate prints a world of their own. She then uses these environments on canvas as a backdrop to her portraits and their stories. You will often find a matter of injustice or undying hope fighting its way through the line of work to prevail at the surface.
At the age of 7 years old, Ivben Taqiy fell in love with art. Twenty-plus years later, he’s doing what he loves. Although Philadelphia based, he has created murals, portraits, and other forms of visual art for many well-known celebrities and corporations. Taqiy has worked with Foot Locker, Fox25 News, Jimmy Johns, Lauryn Hill, and Swizz Beats to name a few. With a resume that stretches from North to South and East to West; Taqiy still manages to make time to serve and teach the youth in the Philadelphia communities. Art has been his pathway to building relationships and life, he encourages artists to continue to move forward so that they don’t miss out on all that life has to offer them and their talent.
Gabe Tiberino is a visual artist based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Born into artistic practice, he is a scion of one of Philadelphia’s best-known art families. Tiberino was probably the youngest person (eighteen) to be the lead artist on a Philadelphia Mural Arts Program project. In 2005 he received his certificate from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, winning the Best Figurative Painter Award in the Student Exhibition. Since 1998, he has been a part of the Mural Arts Program working as a lead muralist and assisting several renowned, international artists. His murals can be seen throughout Philadelphia.
Black Bodies, Feminism, and Representation. Is the use of the body in art the most effective way to examine social inequities and help to progress the surrounding conversation?
The body being one of if not the most sacred pieces of humanity, is also often one of the most scrutinized, abused, and controlled entities of our society. It has been used to judge, influence, and portray humanity, creating a classification system to which certain validations are required for participation. The body, and its representations, have also been used to spark debate, incite protest and warrant further study into its meaning to science, politics, and art. The body has been used to make political statements against censorship and control as well as promote beauty in the human form. This duality sometimes gives way to endless debates about the body’s representation in society.
Artists have long been truth-tellers of society through the masterpieces that they create, sometimes the messages are hidden beneath the surface and other times so direct that it has been known to resonate immediately with its viewer. A great artist or artwork is one whose message continues throughout time as a capsule of the current moment. Like the body, this capsule contains stories of the past and allows for future examination and debate.
I will examine three artists and their works that I believe help demonstrate a societal outlook on the body. Barbara Kruger, David Hammons, and Robert Mapplethorpe all prominent in their fields of study with interesting works that deal directly with the human body. Critical, Controversial, and Timely, these artists demonstrated the use of the body as a medium, as a representation of judgment, and to fight against laws that set to determine who was in control of its essence. The question I have is whether or not the use of the body in art is the most effective way to examine social inequities and help progress the surrounding conversation?
Specifically, three prominent works by these artists come to mind when I think of the representation of the body in art. David Hammons’ America the Beautiful, 1968, Barbara Kruger’s Untitled (Your body is a battleground), 1989 and Robert Mapplethorpe’s The Black Book (1986), three works that will live forever because of the connections to the representation of the body in different forms in their current moment of time.
Historically, through slavery, Jim Crow laws of the American South, and the Civil War, black bodies have been an instrument in the development of America. In 1968, when the civil rights movement drew to a close, these same bodies were still seen as inferior and a target to American society by government, media, and corporate community. Inspired by the body movements of Yves Klein’s Anthropometriesandusing his body as the tool for creation, Hammons created this piece by covering himself, torso, limbs, and face in oil and margarine, then pressing himself against the paper in almost a reenactment of black bodies being slammed on police cars. Showing the smashed impressions of his physical form, Hammons is able to evoke the impact and change on the body structure as it hits the surface revealing only certain features in the form of a manual x-ray or a thumbprint.
Hammons used this method of production in an assembly line fashion hinting at the continuous strain on the body as in fieldwork for slaves. Adding the American Flag as a key part of this piece goes to symbolize these horrors wrapped up or covered up within the American constitution. Creating lithographs of these prints I believe hinted at the countless bodies being used in the horror with the reproductive process being used as a metaphor of American production.
In using critical race theory through this work Hammons identifies himself with the examination of society through race, law-making, and the elite class. Hammons challenges the notion of the rejection of “color-blindness” with himself as the tool insisting that the viewer recognize that his own body was the sacrifice for the creation of this work. Hammons demands society to engage with this work through the eyes of privilege and discrimination which continue the overarching hand of supremacy in America. Using this work as almost a parable for the black experience in America, Hammons attempts to preserve the history of black pain in the period by documenting its effects on the mind, body, and character of its marginalized citizens.
Hammons’s use of this patriotic symbol juxtaposed with the black body (or representation thereof) went to emphasize the racial tensions in the United States during this period. Titling the series, Black First, American Second, the artist demonstrates the discrimination that Black Americans felt from their white counterparts on issues of justice and equality. The body pressed fully against the paper also gives the viewer the feeling of a fallen war hero laid in his casket at a funeral, I believe making a sympathetic gesture of black people’s’ contribution to the country. With the Vietnam War still being at its height, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr and the start of the Black Power Movement, America the Beautiful, 1968, and its production processacts as a dedication and sacrifice of the black body.
America the Beautiful, 1968 is a stark reminder of the Dred Scott decision of 1857 that spoke to the validity of citizenship of black people in the United States. By applying the flag as a reference Hammons brings into play the inconsistency of the American government in providing liberties to its black citizens. Using Derrick Bell’s research on critical race theory as a premise, I believe Hammons used art to communicate issues of the community that previously fell on deaf ears. By imploring these thoughts in his work, he (Hammons) invites the viewer to examine the interpretations of American history and how it’s consistently played out unfavorably in the American justice system.
I would consider this piece as a component of ethnic studies for its content and contention to the Eurocentric perspective. Ethnic studies were conceived in the civil rights era when Hammons started these works and sought to change the way the stories and representations of African Americans are viewed. Hammons, I believe, felt the best way to accomplish this reformation was to show the body and its features as an accelerated instrument of explanation.
Body Politics, referring to practices of which society tries to regulate control of the body, has been the cause of national debate in many issues and the Black First, American Second, series speaks directly to that theory. Hammons takes ownership of his body to deliver a message that challenges governmental procedures. He uses his body to source knowledge production and extracts a conversation about how black males are viewed by the current society which allowed him to stage an artistic protest instead of a physical one.
Barbara Kruger, uses her work Untitled (Your body is a battleground), 1989 as a catalyst to the debate of women’s rights in the ’80s and was produced to coincide with the Women’s March on Washington. There was a rising number of demonstrations and protests in the ’80s because of new anti-abortion laws that were going directly against the verdict of the Roe V. Wade Supreme Court Decision of 1973. Kruger’s work aligns the protests with the theory of Body Politics and control over the human body.
This work with its large canvas and bold imagery almost yell at the viewer to take charge of their body. It presents the face of a woman divided into two with the negative split evenly down the middle almost presenting (again as referenced in Hammons’s work) an x-ray of the face. The duality seems to represent the people on both sides of the issue of the debates about women’s rights and who gets to decide.
The bold words of “Your Body Is A Battleground” speaks to how the war has changed from “As seen on TV” to within the female body. With the bold red and white Barbara invites the viewer to stop immediately and heed the words almost reminiscent of the war posters of the late 1940s and ’50s, when they placed bold directives such as “Join The Army!” with a strong figure to entice other potential citizens who were still undecided. By using art in the style of tabloid marketing and advertising, Kruger was able to address media politics in a voice that was familiar and effective.
In this work, the body is used as a metaphor and a representation of a movement against the law. Kruger addresses the female population with action, encouraging them to seek knowledge and awareness of the current situation that affects them all. This call to action addresses a mental as well as a physical protest enabling the change in habit of women in society as it pertains to how they view their bodies and the rights and responsibilities in making choices. Like Hammons, the work subtly calls for a mental overhaul of the social norm with the body being the catalyst for the widespread debate.
Within the body politics structure, female bodies are seen to be vulnerable and not able to be “warrior-like” which Kruger challenges in this artwork. Adding what is seen to be a beautiful woman appropriated from a magazine, she also points to the view of women as objects in society and hinting at feminist views of the male gaze. These gender politics have determined who should be vulnerable and who commands respect. The male gaze in society has been seen as a patriarchal control over the body of a woman and Kruger uses the beauty of the female face to get the male viewer’s attention to the ultimate message. The female face in this work is seen as strong, confident, and direct, much different than what the societal norms are for women who were to be seen as docile and submitting to their male counterparts. Kruger uses the knowledge of “Second Wave” body politics to encourage women to fight against the politics that governed their bodies. By stimulating the consciousness of women and enacting a “no fear” visual element, it helped to break the long silence of women as it regards their bodies.
Kruger presents a two-part view through this work inciting action from women during the period. Using strong images (strong confident female) alongside very direct and bold text with tons of emotion, Kruger hoped to provoke a new conversation about gender politics. According to feminist theory, the male and female bodies differ in the sense that women are more “natural” than men, more corporeal, and therefore seen a difference from their minds. In the sense of the corporeal, Kruger and Hammons relate within society as the black body and the female body has been underappreciated for their contributions to the growth of humanity and portrayed as “soulless” and in turn use their art as a way of combatting this perceived difference among the colonizing class.
The male gaze and the presentation of the black body are also prevalent in the work of Robert Mapplethorpe which brings together the concepts of racial and gender politics of the body from the perspective of the white male in society. This gaze cites the “patriarchal power” of Mapplethorpe allowing him to assume his male role as the “looker” while the black male is relegated as the items to be perused at leisure. The Black Book, a collection of “idealized and homoerotic” nude photographs of naked black gay men, was looked upon as a very touchy project by Mapplethorpe. Embarrassed and outraged by its contents, many artists, theorists, and writers chose to put pen to paper to debate the relevance of this topic and how it affected black men and the artistic integrity of the works. Mapplethorpe’s representations of the black men in this book set the male gaze on its eye, with Mapplethorpe being a gay man himself, also in charge of the very device used to scrutinize (the camera), he was able to portray an alternate reality of the black body to the viewer, his reality.
Historian Kobena Mercer places this gaze in the proper perspective as he infers that the photos are a “cultural artifact in the ways that white people “look” at black people and how in this way of
looking, black male sexuality is perceived as something different, excessive, Other.” In the period when these photos were taken the gay male body was being attacked and criticized, he chose to use others as a cause for examination, ultimately separating his identity from that of the subjects. Mapplethorpe’s expose of The Black Book allowed the critics a duality of opinions about the work. On the one hand, the work completely stereotyped the black male body as a sexualized image, used only for desire or work, and on the other documented the gracefulness, power, and strength on display. Taking a queue from earlier sculptures such as Michelangelo’s marbled David, Mapplethorpe tries to push forward a conversation of maleness and blackness using the consistency of the nude through art that has gone to objectify and sometimes enhance the sexuality of a subject in history. Mapplethorpe prominently puts on display to the viewer through his “vision” that the greatest reward of the black male is his sexual prowess. Images such as Man in a Polyester Suit, which features prominently the penis of a black man and basically nothing else, are the only identifier of it being male or black in the photo leading the viewer to immediately look at its subject as an object. This places the black male body as an attraction giving the viewer an erotic source of pleasure without the permission of the model but with the permission of the photographer. A quote from art critic Holland Cotter describes this succinctly as “No face, no name, no person, just an anatomical fragment that translates into race = sex.”
This “ownership” of the body (or digital representation thereof) is reminiscent of the early days of the slave trade when black bodies were placed on display in public and news memos for sale. The Black Book has been said to reveal more about the pleasure-seeking of Mapplethorpe than it does to accentuate the abstract beauty of the “anonymous black men whose beautiful bodies we see depicted.”
Mapplethorpe uses this book of works also as a question of gender politics of the Western art world by substituting the nude of the white female for the braun of the black male body. With Mapplethorpe being a gay man, he looked to question a male’s role in society as dominant or overarching and replacing that with a more harmonious visual, helps to soften the public’s view on black masculinity but at the expense of being critically judged due to the nature of its content. Using the philosophy of otherness, Mapplethorpe exhibits his subjects as different from their “political philosophy” and in their “non-conformity” to social norms where the black body is seen as the antitheses of American society.
But how these work change the way bodies were viewed in society? I believe the consistency of action and boldness in the presentation and the messages are what tie these works together. Mapplethorpe’s works and the distorted or misrepresented meaning prompted artist Glenn Ligon to create and contention or retraction titled Notes on the Margin of The Black Book, 1991-93, which sought to “sort out the effect these images of black masculinity had on him as well as on others”. Barbara Kruger leads a revolution of text-based works that inspire street clothing brands and more and her message and design style has been the calling card to many works of protest. Hammons continues his message of black empowerment using common items to push the conversation and understanding of the black experience in America. They also touch on the key topics mentioned through this text referring to gender, race, and the theory of Otherness. These bodies, female, black, and gay were seen as abhorrent as racism itself, and through these works and practices of art, these artists were able to present new meaning, representations, and control over the body’s identity.
The importance of these works lies in their place and time in history and the context in which they were created. Rooting themselves in protest, activist, and resistance style practices, these works sought to change the perception of the black, female, and gay bodies and by using the body as the main component of the political study, these works helped to inspire their peers and all affected by their respective struggles. Hammons aspired to show the strain, strength, and resilience of the black body and its relation to the ongoing civil rights struggles in 1968, Barbara Kruger aimed to take back ownership of the female body and oppose laws set in place to control choice at the Women’s March in 1989 and Mapplethorpe’s work caused an uproar on both sides leading to a demonstration in which his photos were displayed on the building in protest. These body politics helped to dismantle the oppressive laws and impact of the ruling class on those bodies they deemed “inferior” by expelling the essence contained within.
The body remains a hot topic in art with some of these same topics at the forefront. From Marina Abramovic’s Rhythm 0, 1974 to Dana Schutz’s Open Casket, 2016, the use and presentation of the body and its status in society is constantly being challenged. These challenges are always a catalyst for global change and improvement without the physical war and loss that usually comes with it. The body is the most consistent thing across humanity and I believe it is the easiest topic to engage humanity and allow them to look into themselves for the correct answer. These artists are a prime example of protesting, activating, and demonstrating while still attempting to educate their audience on issues and their practice will continue to influence artists to follow in their footsteps. These conversations through art justify the practice as a contributing factor to the development and its importance as a voice for the sometimes voiceless.
We were so excited to be one of the first users of the Google Open Gallery platform that looked to feature creatives and institutions alike in a digital setting, to further the education of arts in the public and museums. We created our first exhibition, which featured up-and-coming and established artists focused on storytelling from inside their studios or around their local neighborhood walls.