Art Seen: National

REPRESENT: 200 YEARS OF AFRICAN AMERICAN ART

by Joshua Michael Demaree

The noblest of tasks, even if they fail, carry with them some modicum of respect. It is a “shoot for the moon” scenario: all uphill, constant drag, go, go, go. Regardless of the outcome, if the goal is righteous, then the process is too. Setting out to represent the whole of African American Art is, quite obviously, no easy task—though it is a very noble one.

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Portrait of James Baldwin, 1945, by Beauford Delaney (Philadelphia Museum of Art: 125th Anniversary Acquisition. Purchased with funds contributed by The Daniel W. Dietrich Foundation in memory of Joseph C. Bailey and with a grant from The Judith Rothschild Foundation, 1998-3-1)

Earlier this month, Represent: 200 Years of African American Art opened at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Curated by John Vick and Dr. Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, the exhibit spans the entirety of the museum’s collection as well as its exhibition spaces. Drawing more than 160 works from its collection, the curators aimed to illustrate both a breadth and depth of African American art, spanning the decorative and commercial arts through modernism to the contemporary.

It is a powerful display, if not frustratingly small. The heart of the exhibition lies in a few galleries on the ground floor of the museum’s backside. Here there is a selection of early American decorative art (including an amazing Victrola cabinet by William M. Plummer, 1915–30) and service/commercial art (my favorite: a series of silhouettes attributed to Moses Williams). A section of modernist works follow, tying the whole of the twentieth century together in one small room: from the abstract sculpture of Barbara Chase-Riboud to the minimalist paintings of John E. Dowell, Jr., to Lorna Simpson’s conceptual photography and some works from the museum’s unbeatable Ella King Torrey Collection of African American Quilts. The work itself is fantastic. One is rarely lucky enough to find such monumental company in a single room. But in terms of representing an entire people’s art history, the exhibition feels rushed and patchy.

The end of the gallery contains a selection of portraiture. This is the most powerful moment in the exhibition. With subdued lighting, visitors are invited to sit on a couch across from a wall hung salon-style. A few famous works jump out quickly: Beauford Delaney’s Portrait of James Baldwin, 1945; children’s book illustrator Jerry Pinkney’s John Henry, 1994; the master of cool Barkley L. Hendricks’ Miss T, 1969; and photographer Dawoud Bey’s Sean, 1998. The rest of the portraits, not so iconic, from Donald E. Camp to Henry Ossawa Tanner, fill in the cracks: showing warmth, a respect that reveals why portraiture is a perennial favorite for the general public. This is where Represent really begins to touch on actually representing something deep and true about Black artists—allowing us to see reflection on their own community.

One must ask—as we do with any exhibition—what for? What is it to represent and what exactly are we representing and why? I can feel power in the portraits, the power and audacity of existing and feeling and creating in defiance of an industry and history that actively attempts to hide you. All of the artists in the show tap into this question in some way. Carrie Mae Weems crucial Kitchen Table Series, 1990, is about just that. The artist, as an actor, illustrates a range of emotions and scenarios centered around a kitchen table. The position of the camera, at one head of the table, invites the viewer to share (or implicates them) in the emotion. It is a powerful series that never fails to amaze and humble me.

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“Hands” Quilt, Winter 1980, Sarah Mary Taylor, American, 1916 2000. Pieced and appliquéd cotton and synthetic solid and printed plain weave, twill, flannel, knit, dotted swiss, and damask, 83 1/4 x 78 inches (211.5 x 198.1 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Ella King Torrey Collection of African American Quilts, 2006

While it is of vital importance to illustrate the point that Black artists were working alongside white artists stylistically throughout America’s art history, and that it was the collectors and the critics that ignored them, this is surface level education. I cannot help but feel that, in this particular moment of American history, a more powerful expression of Blackness in the museum is not only needed but absolutely required.

While sitting in the gallery, I was reminded of a quote from William Pope.L:

[…] in Black Arts, since time immemorial, black folk when they have attempted to make art always had to take into account their blackness. This was a gift that was also a burden; a gift because it celebrated the struggle of black folk while calling into question the supremacy of whiteness, a burden because to the powers that be celebration and questioning prevented black artists from participation in real art. (from “One Thing After Another”) [emphasis his]

For me, the artists shown in Represent tend toward viewing their art as a gift—illustrating the power of Black people to persevere—while the curation highlights what a burden it was to the established (read: white) status quo. Several works are spread throughout the museum’s standing collection. Most notably is Sam Gilliam’s Dakar, 1969; the painted canvas draping dramatically in a cloister of the contemporary gallery. But sadly, these sporadic stragglers from the exhibition main gallery seem to highlight their singular affect, emphasizing the immense amount of works from white American and European artists that receive constant exposure. The whole exhibit comes to feel like a missed opportunity, an unfulfilled promise. Though noble and vital, it falls short, disconnected.

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no world, 2010, from the series An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters, by Kara Walker (Philadelphia Museum of Art: Purchased with the Marion Stroud Fund for Contemporary Art on Paper, 2010-142-1) © 2014 Kara Walker

I should note that I have not overlooked the pivotal fact that the exhibit does not and was not intended to represent me. This, I can assure you, is not why my expectations fell. As a white writer and student of art history, I recognize that it is not my own history lining the walls of Represent and that it in fact was my own history that denied these artists exposure, life sustaining wages, prestige. I try very hard not to ask what art can do for me (which is what we ask most of it). The question, though pleasing to ask, inevitably provides a disappointing answer. Artistic expression is powerful and dark and enlightening. It erupts from anger and desperation. Works that give me pause are larger than any one person, especially if that person is me.

Perhaps the show feels lacking because of recent events. Ferguson, which has quietly and gently slipped from our lips over the past few months, is source to the most powerful, collective expression of Blackness during my short adulthood. The monumentality of this event and its aftermath calls for a similarly monumental response. Something akin to Kara Walker’s masterful, a Subtlety which was anything but subtle. Maybe I envision art too much as a call and response, as an answer to the problems we face, but this is precisely why I keep coming back to it and why I keep asking of it the hard questions. It was just over a month after Walker’s sugar sculptures installation closed that Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri. Both events burst what was hidden into the light, namely that there is something evil in regards to race in this country—a darkness that, like a cloud, settles abruptly and unexpectedly like mid-morning fog in places like Selma, Los Angeles, Brooklyn, Twitter, and Ferguson.

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Rift, 2005, by Odili Donald Odita (Philadelphia Museum of Art: Purchased with funds contributed by Jane and Leonard Korman, 2007-156-1) © Odili Donald Odita

Now, several months on, we in Philadelphia have Represent to answer our lingering questions. For a show no doubt years in the making, to answer to recent history is perhaps an unfair burden. And yet our questions remain, questions about race in this country, about the power of art, about how to make things better for everyone. I am only tough on John Vick and Dr. Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw because they undertook a tough task, perhaps an impossible task for one exhibition to complete alone.

But I can say their process is noble. One thing they never lost sight of (and this is, in part, due to the museum’s wonderful support of local artistry) is the connection of the artist’s shown to Philadelphia. The first work I saw upon entering Represent was Odili Donal Odita’s Rift, one of his famed color field abstractions. Odita, a local artist and professor at Temple’s Tyler School of Art, once wrote: “In my paintings, I am dealing with memory, the presence and absence of experiences removed; nostalgia for a lost past, and the hope for something new and better.” In Rift, a clear line splits the painting, showing disjunctured segments in colors reminiscent of traditional African color palettes. Choosing this piece for the entry is telling on Vick and DuBois Shaw’s part: that something is broken and, perhaps, fixing it is impossible.

Though its capsulation of representing the entirety of Black art falls inevitably short, the show sustains an added bump of Blackness into visual culture. What is defined as “art”—the paints, objects, and videos so easily captured in a “collection”—is only a mere fraction of our total artistic expression and this along is a small portion of the whole of our expression. Perhaps we can think of the Ferguson unrest in its entirety as artistic expression (as well as being political) and Represent as a companion piece. In this way, it does keep the conversation alive and, hopefully, can answer one question: can revolution ever last the winter?


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Joshua Michael Demaree lives in Philadelphia where he works at an independent bookstore. He is both a licensed driver and a dedicated taxpayer.

Represent: 200 Years of African American Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art runs through April 5, 2015.

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