I’m literally sitting writing this reading list in a Hugo Boss jacket that’s a bit too large for my small feminine frame. I found it barely worn in freshly dry cleaned in a “giveaway” box in my neighborhood. Everyone in the neighborhood leaves books, clothes and appliances out to share and trade. Some neighbors are a bit more well off than others. It’s not uncommon to find a wealthy student’s small collection of hand-me-downs that are clean, expensive and barely a year old. I almost like men’s jackets more than I like books, but as the season begins to change, and Fall makes chills the air crisp and chill, I can enjoy both at the same time. No need to choose.
These books are a combination of favorites, like my friend China Martens epic zine anthology, Future Generation and the enthralling Womanist literary effort, Hope is in the Holler: A Womanist Theory and a collection of books I’ve compiled while preparing for my feminist lectures and writing workshops like “Masculinity Studies & Feminist Theory: New Directions.” I rummage through libraries and independent books stores like Red Emma’s Books to find just what I need for my never ending literary pursuits.
The fall season is perfect for learning new things and growing our minds and perspectives, especially since school is now in session.
20/20: An exhibition at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, PA, July 22nd through December 31st 2017
REkOGNIZE: An installation by Bradford Young at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, PA, June 16th through December 31st, 2017
When you explore the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the sheer number of images on display. That this museum connects to others—scientific and historical—and a grand library—filled with books with images as well—only adds to this effect. One knows as well that there is always more. In this sense of the museum as a collection of horded paints and statues, it is easy to miss the little contexts that ascribe the material place behind the unworldly image in focus. In particular, it is easy to look over the smaller squares of text in small-caps on the identifying tags and museum guides that explain how a particular piece came to the museum. A women’s collective raised the money to place a Greek statue of a naked, male torso in the museum in the early 20th century, a time in which female artists would be denied access to male nude models for life study. Dozens of paintings appeared in Carnegie International shows and were bought for the permanent collection, with a yellow tag to indicate the year they appeared. (Marie Cassatt’s Young Women Picking Fruit  is an interesting example, having been featured in one of these shows but not purchased until several years had passed.) Many pieces offer a history in which the art was an exchange in which the artist was personally involved and had a notion of what was going to happen to the artwork once it was purchased. In a small area of the museum dedicated to African and pre-13th Century art—a deep red, narrow hallway—the identifiers become more elliptic. A large sarcophagus covered in carvings of gods in sensual pleasure scenes offers no information on where exactly it came from, though it is clear that this was removed from a grave site. What has happened to the body? The Asian, Egyptian, and Roman art contains identifiers that tell the story represented in the images, naming the gods and their relationships to each other. The African pieces—several of which are from the 20th century, and are mingled with little to distinguish from older works—often are described only as headdresses, masks, or sculptures. There is only mystery, not mythology. A 20th century mask from the Bamileke culture, Cameroon, is just “Mask,” followed by a list of materials that it’s made of, including human hair and shells which were weaved into the hair to create a beaded cloak. The description of the way it got to the museum is as follows: “Gift of Walter Ogrodnik, Peace Corps Volunteer, 77.16.” There is no volunteering of information.
There is an uneasy relationship between Western museums and non-western—or “not-white”—art. The praise brought about for artistic representations from non-white cultures has often focused on the “primitive” or “unrefined” aspects of a piece of statue or a mask, rather than focusing on the merit of the image itself. The primitivist craze of early 20th century modernism had the effect of both creating new space for artists of color within the white gallery space, while at the same time compounding and reinforcing racist and eugenicist ideas about intelligence and development in those who wanted their ideas validated. “Whiteness is a kind of cultural canvas upon which American existence is depicted in myriad artful visions of the possible,” Patricia J. Williams writes in a preface to Maurice Berger’s White: Whiteness and Race in Contemporary Art (2004). “And blackness has been for too many generations whatever was left over” (19). The space allowed does not offer much room for movement, and the tolerance that can proclaim and justify Duchamp’s readymade can, in the same paragraph, damn artworks made from found material by contemporary Brooklyn artists as “not art.”
The 20/20 exhibition at the Carnegie Museum of art, a collaboration with The Studio Museum in Harlem, is a means of addressing the schism between “white art” and “not-white art,” specifically black art. Inspired by a portrait of the young Lincoln by Horace Pippen from 1944, the exhibit attempts a fractal portrait of representations of blackness through the last century. The artworks are varied and travel in subject matter to address centuries of misinterpretation and the voluntary ignorance of assumption. Artworks in this exhibit have a tendency to lean towards the simultaneous depiction of multiple histories, commending on past and present in equal measure, occupying two spaces at one time. As the title implies, one of the aims of the exhibit is the correction of vision: not only the images of the black body in art, or what these images lack, but the black artist—particularly in their previous absence.
The photographs of Gordon Parks are so clear and crisply constructed that his images have the feeling of movement, emotional development, and existential resonance the longer one looks at them. Emerging Man, Harlem, NY, is a 1952 photograph taken to represent a deleted passage from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, a literal representation of the protagonist’s return to the surface after descending into the sewers. Even with the sense of motion in the early day rising behind the subject, his eyes do not blink; nor do they break our gaze. The viewer breaks contact first. This image is contrasted with images taken for the Pittsburgh Courier by Charles “Teenie” Harris, documenting the lives of Pittsburgh’s black community. The subjects of Harris’s photographs look out at the viewer in many cases, looking out at our looking. I was reminded of a passage by bell hooks, from “Representations of Whiteness in the Black Imagination”:
In white supremacist society, white people can “safely” imagine that they are invisible to black people since the power they have historically asserted, and even now collectively assert over black people, accorded them the right to control the black gaze. As fantastic as it may seem, racist white people find it easy to imagine that black people cannot see them if within their desire they do not want to be seen by the dark Other. […] An effective strategy of white supremacist terror and dehumanization during slavery centered around white control of the black gaze. Black slaves, and later manumitted servants, could be brutally punished for looking, for appearing to observe the whites they were serving, as only a subject can observe, or see. To be fully an object then was to lack the capacity to see or recognize reality. These looking relations were reinforced as whites cultivated the practice of denying the subjectivity of blacks (the better to dehumanize and oppress), of relegating them to the realm of the invisible. (168)
In the Harris photographs as well, the range of expressions and “looks” is worth mentioning. A woman looks out from a distance as she mounts a motorcycle. Another woman, looking tomboyish and ambiguous, rests against the front door of Kay’s Valet Shoppe. This pose is mimicked in one of the last images of the exhibition, Untitled (Gallery) by Kerry James Marshall, which features a stylish black woman posed in front of a gallery wall. In both cases, the look is a challenge, demanding attention and asserting the subject’s own attentions directed at the viewer.
Kara Walker is represented by four large images taken from her larger series, The Emancipation Approximation. These shadow pictures revise the myth of Lela and the Swan, placing it in the context of both narratives of enslavement and narratives of reconstruction. These images recontextualize mythical sexual violence within the too-real history of sexual violence in slavery. Walker’s work is exceptionally difficult to address. Working primarily with the high-contrast of black silhouettes against a stern white backdrop, the details of these delicate pieces contrast with the subject matter. By Any Means Necessary, by Tim Rollins and K.O.S., takes pages of the Autobiography of Malcolm X and places the pages side by side on a giant canvas, covers them with a thin layer of white paint, and then creates a new signature across the surface with the M and the X coming together on a downward slope to spell his initials. Once more, the high contrast of black on white addresses the phenomenon of binary existence, in which all other racial identities are subsumed by the dialogue of race relations as a black/white thing. In the same way, this piece also makes a comment on the revising—the whitewashing—of black figures after their deaths by a white narrative.
Ellen Gallagher’s 60-print series DeLuxe, presents a collage of images featuring beauty products marketed towards black women, mostly from the 1940s to the 1970s. Gallagher covers the advertisements with paint, clay, even pasta, to heighten surreal undertones of the images, turning these ideas of how beauty should-be into a different kind of beauty, one that questions the audience of the original advertisements. The scale of this work adds to the overwhelming sensation it produces: there are many ways in which one should “do” beauty; the advertisements proclaim that this product will make you look more white, this product will make you look less black, this product will make you look “authentically.” Beauty is beholden, and the contradictory messages about whether or not to embrace a sense of black-as-beautiful create a tension around the receiver.
Meleko Mokgosi’s text installation, Walls of Casbah, is a reflection on the way in which art historians and curators have perpetuated the cultural subjection of non-white cultures in both the gallery space and academic discourse. An exhibition catalog from the 2009 exhibition Walls of Algiers: Narratives of the City becomes the basis of this work of critical theory and artistic engagement, in which the artist’s hand-written notes on the catalog—ranging from questioning word choices and sentence structure to pointing out the demeaning attitude behind particular words—are reproduced and enlarged on several canvases. In one example, Mokgosi’s notes break down and meditate on this sentence:
“Seen from the sea, European Algiers is nothing but crumbling walls and devastated nature, the whole a sullied blot.”
Focusing on “sullied,” Mokgosi’s commentary works from the definition of the word in order to express its impact and the general attitude it conveys:
“defiled or damaged integrity
Shat on or shat on themselves
Blot (dark stain)
A region “belonging” to Africans (whatever this means) and associated with colonial rule—had been soiled—shat on—made into a dark stain.
Dark stain in the dark continent that only Le Corbusier could fix—bleach out and purify.”
This is a seminar of graduate theory represented in a few pages. It directly addresses issues of appropriation and the frequent missteps white audiences have slipped into when discussing non-white art. The legacy of colonizing attitudes and racist assumptions of superiority are very hard to erase, even when the white writer is attempting to demonstrate how they are “enlightened” to the problems of racism. Mokgosi’s engagement with the exhibition guide is a scene of reassertion not only of the artist’s power over those who write about them, the ability and the need for artists of color to respond to misappropriations of historical narrative, and the necessity of making black art that documents, invents, and cites the lives of the unspoken.
Untitled (Mlle Bourgeoise Noire) [Miss Black Bourgeoise] was a performance artwork by Lorraine O’Grady, documented in this exhibition by four photographs of her in the guise of artist-as-Miss America. These images contrast the notion of glamour in beauty pageants and the frequently racist (or racially-based) ideals of beauty remarked upon in Gallagher’s piece, while also calling attention to the relationship of black artists to the history of art. A successful beauty contestant is, by and large, not expected to be known for their ability to speak, but rather, to become a representation of vague ideals such as “beauty” and “purity.” In appearing as this fictitious representation, the artist is embodying a concept of tokenism as well as questioning the importance of patronage in the art world.
Basquiat is represented by a collaboration with Andy Warhol, a portrait of a dollar sign featuring Warhol’s signature silkscreen techniques and Basquiat’s devotion to graffiti and folk/traditional art techniques. The inclusion is mildly confusing to me, not because of Basquiat, but because his work with Warhol is, by comparison to his own, so slight. At the Warhol Museum, for many years these collaborations—which included videos, sculpture, and paintings—were represented by a large canvas (a commissioned portrait of a car that looked as though it was abandoned halfway through) and a sculpture piece of punching bags with each artist’s designs on them. Warhol, who in many respects represents the whitest of white artists, seems detached from Basquiat’s connection to lived experience; Basquiat seems detached from Warhol’s antiseptic and clinically repetitive late-80s work. The disconnect between the two artists, as well as their closeness, shattered by Warhol’s sudden death, was one of the few redeeming aspects of the otherwise troublesome bio-pic Basquiat. (Jean-Michel would die of a heroin overdose less than 18 months later.) Their collaborations feel often like two artists arguing with each other, rather than playing friendly, although this does not seem to be the biographical case. This is, perhaps, the reason that this collaborative work was included over a solo work of Basquiat’s, to represent the black artist’s engagement with the (then as now) majority white art culture and art establishment.
Experiencing 20/20 before walking through the remainder of the Carnegie’s collection produces a (perhaps unintended) side-effect of refocusing the white viewer to the pervasive entity that is whiteness on a museum wall. It is, by and large, only with the movement towards 21st century art that we witness an increased range of representations in the visual arts, not just of the subjects on display, but also of the artists themselves. REkOGNIZE, by Bradford Young (June 16-December 31), a visual installation project running concurrently with 20/20 explores documentary photography and the history of violent images in American racial history. Many of the images I saw do not contain explicit violence as the center point, but the cutting between images and the pieces of computer code used to translate the images into a film creates a sense of violence in every moment. To the left and right of the main screen, footage of a streetlamp, barely demonstrating the motion that comes with the passage of time, contrasts with the central images and the score. The score, which is inspired by and modeled after the “raw data” that makes up the images, builds into a cacophony on the level of late Elliott Carter. The effect between the photography, the lines of code flashing on the screen, and the music, is such that the viewer is pushed to the point of having to leave the work within a few minutes. This is a cumulative artwork, a representation of the stress and emotional drainage that comes from violent histories and histories under erasure. The viewer leaves not because they do not want to see what is happening before them, but because the viewer can no longer stand it. It is interesting to contrast this with Howardena Pindell’s video piece, Free, White and 21, in which the artist discusses her experiences with institutionalized racism, starting with her mother’s being burned by a babysitter through to her experiences with institutionalized racism in the art world. The piece ends with a white-faced figure pulling a cream-colored stocking over her head and obscuring their eyes with large sunglasses. What should I care for all of these stories, the figure speaks, for I am free, white, and twenty-one! The declaration of not having to care, of the ability to deny attention, sympathy, and indignation to Pindell’s history, serves as a cruel reminder of the distance an observer can place between themselves and the oppressed.
When looking through the Carnegie Museum of Art, after the experience of 20/20, the temptation to inverse the portraits became very strong. It was not a question of parity—to say that for every white artist, a black artist should be included; for every man, a woman, etc. It is not just a question of numbers, and including art for the sake of meeting a quota often results in the inclusion of disjointed and frankly just bad art. The drive to include a range of artistic representations seems often to be derided as a political stance, rather than an aesthetic one. (I have not noticed in the discussion of Charlottesville a great many people point out that treating whiteness as the norm is also an inherently political stance.) That-which-is-not-there in the gallery space remains a powerful force to be reckoned with. Whether this exhibition marks a start towards including a wider experience of artwork, or whether this is, like the rages of experimentation plucked by modernism, a moment for reflection before it is dropped for a new object, one does not know.
Do you believe in a love that informs, enriches, and encourages creativity? What is the purpose of love, if not to uplift us, becalm us, and embalm our broken spirits? We do not want to be crippled and asphyxiated in love, we must be able to soar; our spirits must be free.
Two women, two artists, and two lovers from two disparate corners of the world decided to redefine love. Their love for their respective partners was so great that they were ready to efface themselves. What is so uncanny is that they lived, loved, and worked in two very different time periods. One was born in the 19th century and the other in the 20th. One in England, the other in Mexico. Despite their different births, different cultures, and different sensibilities, their lives followed quite identical trajectories.
Born as the daughter of a wealthy merchant from Liverpool, Dora Carrington, was essentially a free spirit. She always felt stifled at home, owing to the domineering nature of her mother. Her father was old and passive and completely at her mother’s mercy. The motherly lessons of morality and propriety were too much for Dora to bear. So when she earned herself a scholarship at the prestigious Slade School of Art at University College, London, she happily set foot on a journey that would change her life forever. Her decision to break away from the bourgeois roots and strike new ones into the fertile expanses of the creative and intellectual bohemia of the 20th century London helped her realize what she truly wanted: Lytton Strachey. Lytton was thirteen years her senior and a homosexual. But that never deterred Dora from loving him more than anything or anyone, even herself. So great was her love for Lytton that she even married his lover Ralph Partridge to enjoy the sustained proximity of her beloved. The three of them, Dora, Lytton, and Ralph lived together in the same house, and Dora continued to devote all her love and attention to Lytton. He was a key member of the celebrated Bloomsbury Group of London that constituted of such luminaries as E.M.Forster, John Maynard Keynes, Virginia Woolf etc. He was a man of letters, and his brilliance and erudition so awed Dora that she could hardly ever speak in his presence. Even though she was in her own right and by her own merit a painter par brilliance, she chose to carry on with her life as Lytton’s shadow; a mere sidekick or not even that. Many of her artwork bear testimony to this facet of her psyche, because she too was an autobiographical painter just like my next artist, Frida Kahlo.It is strange that these two women would live such identical lives.
Frida Kahlo, born to Guillermo Kahlo, a Mexican of German origin and Matilde, of mixed Spanish and Mexican ancestry, in the outskirts of Mexico, was always a sickly child. Polio had rendered one of her legs thinner and shorter than the other, giving rise to her lifelong discomfort with her own physicality. Then at the age of eighteen, she suffered a terrible near death bus accident, leading to a broken spinal cord, a broken collarbone, broken ribs, a broken pelvis, fractures in her right leg, a crushed and dislocated right foot, and a dislocated shoulder. In addition, an iron handrail from the bus had pierced her abdomen and her uterus, compromising her reproductive capabilities. Gerry Souter in his biography of Kahlo writes, “The scene of the accident was gruesome. Somehow the collision tore off Frida’s clothes, dumping her nude onto the shattered floor of the bus. Seated near Frida had been a painter or an artisan carrying a paper packet of gold gilt powder. It burst, showering her naked body.” She lay there like a vision in gold. That is how she continued to be, a striking beauty in the face of the most extreme affliction, anguish, and physical discomfiture. She was such a resolute and strong woman that she overcame her physical limitations; her broken body, her damaged leg, her degenerative neurological disease; getting back on her feet, doing what she loved best, paint, and love like no other women could have. She fell in love with the famous muralist, Diego Rivera, who had been commissioned to paint the walls in her school. Diego Rivera was a fubsy old man, much married, a communist, and a celebrated lady killer. Frida married him knowing well enough that this man would never be faithful to her. That it is his work and his perversions that were going to take precedence in their lives and she would have to be content with playing the part of the doting wife.
Both Dora and Frida were great artists, who lived a bohemian life. They were bisexual. They had innumerable affairs and liaisons with people of both the sexes. They were both critical of their own work and never believed in the value of their art. They were both bruised in love and yet their love was way beyond any form of self-love. They were happy with their place in the periphery, willingly pushing their more successful lovers into the center stage. They both believed that their love for their partners was the source of all their creative energy, yet their partners hardly ever played such a motivational role in their lives. Probably that is why these women are known to the world, more for their personalities, lifestyle, and love lives, than for the oeuvre of their artwork. Whereas Frida’s works were mainly canvas painting in the Retablo mold, Dora had dabbled in a lot of other forms of artwork, such as furniture painting, glass painting, woodwork and so on. Her trompe l’oeil artwork has been considered as some of her most masterful creations. Dora was very secretive about her work and never wanted to display it to the public. In that respect, after her divorce from Rivera, Frida had finally been able to overcome her fear of showing her work to the people. Before that, she would only circulate her stuff among friends just like Dora.
Frida and Dora were always in touch with their feminine as well as their masculine sides. They cut their hair short and experimented with androgynous dressing. The images below bear testimony to that:
The portraits of friends and acquaintances by Dora and Frida share a likelihood in terms of the honest depiction, sense of melancholia, and profundity of emotions depicted in the same.
Portrait of Christina
Although Frida’s self-portraits are often allegorical and quite sinister unlike those of Dora’s, they are alike in their brilliant detailing and use of colors.
It is quite surprising that separated by a decade, in two different parts of the world, two women would think, feel, and paint so alike. That they would be riddled with the same questions of birth and identity, use their work as a personal blog, love someone with an ardor rare to find, happy to glow in the light of their more successful partners, and eventually die an unnatural death.
It is well known that Dora shot herself in the head following the untimely demise of Lytton Strachey. It is said Frida died of heart attack, but it is widely believed that she died of a self-induced overdose of drugs.
Both of them were also known for having written quite a number of letters in their lifetime. Letters that give us a glimpse into their complex psyche, their love, their pain, and their desires. Written in lucid words, overflowing with passion, and creativity (Dora used to doodle in her letters) these written testimonials are a mirror to their unique spirits.
In a letter, Frida writes:
Mirror of the night
Your eyes green swords inside my flesh. waves between our hands.
All of you in a space full of sounds — in the shade and in the light. You were called AUXOCHROME— the one who captures color. I CHROMOPHORE — the one who gives color.
You are all the combinations of numbers. life. My wish is to understand lines form shades movement. You fulfill and I receive. Your word travels the entirety of space and reaches my cells which are my stars then goes to yours which are [sic] my light.”
So much for love.
My love inspires me to speak my mind, to pen down all those words jostling in my head in search of an articulation. It is not just an Auxochrome, it is a Chromophore too. Shouldn’t love be a Chromophore too? I wish it were for Dora and Frida because they are way too close to my heart now that I have looked into their beautiful souls and realized how lucky I am.
In African American and or Black American culture the African and or ancestral presence is both visible and invisible. The ways to name what is Black/African American is in music and the infamous cuisine that has come to be called soul food. Yet, the production of highly consumed products of African labor and the descendants is more American than apple pie. For example, no one realizes the blue that appears in the denim that Americans wear so regularly, the corn they consume, the peanuts, soy, rice, the domestic tools, or the music that is deemed American can thank African labor. Those things are often highlighted during Black History month when America pays lip service to the numerous contributions that African/Black Americans have made to the consumption and wealth of the country. However, the spiritual and religious contributions are often absorbed in the Black church or the way in which funerals are called “home going services.” The ring shout is a spiritual practice that has roots in the Gullah/Geechee culture of the coastal region of the Carolinas and Georgia and is seen in various places of Black culture. It is largely visible during Church services but the actual ring shout as it has been since the first ships were brought to North America and resides in the coastal region of Southeast America.
The Gullah and Geechee people that inhabit the coastal islands of Georgia as well as, North and South Carolina are the descendants of slaves and Indigenous people that were forced to inhabit these regions during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. These island people worked the rice plantations, dyed garments with Indigo through techniques that the Africans brought from Yorubaland. These dying techniques are seen in the sacred dying practices known as Adinkra[i] in present day Ghana and Adire (the sacred dye practices of the Yoruba) with the largest concentration residing in present day Nigeria. The art of Adire which are associated with the Yoruba deity known as Osun/Oshun (O shoon)[ii]. The Gullah and Geechee people are also known for their basket weaving techniques that use the sweet grass of the coast.[iii] However, despite having drumming and drums outlawed from the Anglo/English Colonies of North America the rhythm and spirit of the culture did not die.[iv]
Instead, the Africans and their descendants had to find new ways to keep the rhythms alive. Therefore, stomping, clapping, and oral sounds were ways that the enslaved Africans could keep their musical, oral, and ancestral traditions alive while subversively appearing to acquiesce to their subjugated position. Yet, during and after slavery those who were the descendants of the enslaved and the newly emancipated were forced to assimilate to an unachievable standard of whiteness and respectability. Many who were enslaved and later emancipated were illiterate and therefore the culture was retained through oral history. Consequently, many who were enslaved were sold repeatedly and died with their history. Others as a form of survival often denied or erased their enslaved and African ancestry. While some in an act of defiance retained the oral lore and history that their ancestors retained despite the dehumanizing project of chattel slavery. Places like Cuba, Brazil, Puerto Rico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, St. Vincent, and Louisiana are places where people can retain a large bulk of their African past. The Gullah and Geechee people are also a part of this body of historical retention.
The ring shout is the earth based ancestral practice that the enslaved performed in order to connect with spirit, remind themselves that they too were fully human and are spiritual beings, and to pay homage to their ancestors. Unfortunately, if It wasn’t for the work of the McIntosh County shouters,[v] Julie Dash’s film, “Daughters of the Dust[vi],” Haile Gerima’s film, “Sankofa,” Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day, Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salteaters, Zora Neale Hurston’s Of Mules and Men and Their Eyes were Watching God or Luiseh Teish’s Jambalaya. African/Black Americans would not know that they have an African/Indigenous influence that does not align with Christianity.
The ring shout is a dance and song ritual that is performed in a circle that rotates counter clockwise. There is a lead singer that performs a call and response style of singing the participants respond as the lead calls out songs and rhythms are performed while the dancers rotate in a circle. There is a rhythm keeper who bangs a large wooden staff on a plank of wood which replicates the drums that were removed. Singers stomp and clap as the ring shout continues. The counter clockwise rotation replicates the ways in which Candomblé priests in Brazil[vii] perform during rituals, the Vodun of Haiti/Benin[viii], as well as priests of the Ifa/Orisa tradition in Yorubaland and Cuba.[ix]
Recently, cultural historian Rashida Bumbray has made it her mission to retain the oral, spiritual, and ancestral lore of the Ring shout[x]. Rashida Bumbray[xi], is a New York based performance artist that has studied extensively the Gullah/ Geechee people of the costal South east and the intricacies of the Ring Shout. Her installation “Run Mary Run,” was performed in Weeksville which is a former town located in Brooklyn that was the place where freemen and women of African descent lived after they were emancipated from slavery. Weeksville was discovered in the 1960s when a black historian that had a pilot’s license flew above Brooklyn and found the location. Since the re-discovery/reclamation of Weeksville[xii] there are cultural activities that commemorate the freed people that inhabited the town. Weeksville, unlike Seneca Village,[xiii] it remained intact because unlike Seneca Village it wasn’t turned into a park or paved over. Instead, it was never incorporated into the Brooklyn grid.
In addition to her installation “Run Mary Run,” hip-hop recording artist Common utilized Bumbray’s installation for his video “Black America Again,” which she (Bumbray) performs a solo in the beginning and then she and her troupe perform a ring shout[xiv].
Like many Black/African Americans I was taught and forced to ingest that we were enslaved, Lincoln freed us, Rosa Parks gave up her seat and now we are citizens. The human stain that became the ways in which blackness is quantified in this country is why many are forced to imagine their legacies before and during the Holocaust of the Trans-Oceanic Slave Trade. Nor could one imagine that we have a spiritual and cultural legacy that surpasses the ships crossing the Atlantic into North, Central, and South America or the various Oceans during the Global European expansion that brought Africans across the Pacific and Indian ocean during the same time-period. I use the term Trans-Oceanic because although I am focusing on American and the Trans-Atlantic my job is to also reveal/recover that the slave trade was not just the Atlantic but involved all the sailable bodies of water.
Instead, cultural anthropologists such as Bumbray and the breadth/celebrity of artists like Common people of African descent are reminded that we too have an ancestral/cultural legacy that began before our arrival on the shores of the Americas.
In part one, I wrote about a theme that has emerged in this column of the mercurial nature of artistic quality. i.e. one day this is good art; the next day that is good art. Even theeye of the beholder is fickle.
I continued by identifying some trends among the professional artist community. In general, the traits listed were those of non-conformists because conformity is antithetical to individualistic creation. If one is expressing oneself, then one is not marching in formation.
Expression of truth is inevitable because the human animal is not strong enough to suppress it indefinitely. Even a poised exterior houses an inner conflict between what is felt to be true and what is said to be true. And that expression surfaces in myriad ways, art being only one of them.
Contemporary art is simply an aspect of human nature. Human beings create art when they don’t know what else to do. Automatic expressions such as body language, whistling, fidgeting, and doodling happen all day every day. Much of art education is pairing those expressions with an explicit societal purpose.
A satisfied mind—one at rest completely and content—has no reason to create artwork or express itself in any way. A mind like that reacts to events as they occur, drawing on past experiences to resolve conflicts and sustain the well-being of self and community. It’s when the mind gets confused that art appears.
In the early 20th century, a group of French painters set the tone of modernist expression. The small but impactful group, which included Matisse, became known as les fauves, the French word for “wild beasts.” It was a reaction to early industrialization and its incomplete understanding of human potential outside of formalism.
Artists are artists because they are outcasts, not the other way around.
What is a professional artist? That sort of word game can sometimes be trivial semantics. Or at best, a predictable Socratic inquiry that ends in “who can say?” But this question informs the way teachers advise students to enter the world as artists, so it’s important to form a basic answer, even if it is incomplete.
The commonsense answer in American capitalist culture is something like ‘someone who earns an income from the sale of their art.’ In other words, an artist is a person running a small business who produces art objects marketed as such. By this definition, anyone else posing as a professional artist is a fraud.
That excludes a huge community of people with advanced degrees, passion, talent, and success in being exhibited in museums and galleries, who just happen to be getting paid little or nothing for their contributions.
There are some who would say “Too bad. They’re still frauds. The art world contains a network of fraudulence.”
Although that may be literally accurate, since the term ‘profession’ means a paid occupation, it is unproductive in terms of rating artists, since not all artwork is made for money. The alternative is to be an ‘amateur’, a person who engages in art for the emotional reward of it rather than for income. The problem with the word ‘amateur’ is that it is used in common speech and listed in dictionaries as also meaning unskillful. The expression “amateur hour” is used as an insult.
I encourage artists to reject that stance and learn the usefulness of the amateur model in life. Charles Darwin was famously an amateur scientist; Socrates criticized the sophists for charging for knowledge, making him an advocate for amateur teaching; the Chinese literati school of painting was an amateur tradition; so what’s the shame in being an amateur? If income is the goal, that’s a different story. But there’s no reason to condemn someone as unsuccessful just because their expression doesn’t link to a revenue stream.
However, if skills designed for the amateur model are being taught by a school, that should be explained up front. A criticism I have of art programs is that their marketing often implies direct training for a paid career, but fails to actually deliver any marketable skills. That’s not to say artistic skills need to be marketable, but schools should not be deceptive about it; it’s dishonest to the students.
I think it’s possible to teach skills that are both enlightening to the amateur and practical to the professional, which is how I (at least attempt to) design my classes.
But here’s the puzzle. If there are people contributing to the art world who are not professional, who are doing it for the love of it, and there is no objective way to rate or measure artwork, then how do individuals and institutions sort out what has quality to it? What should be collected and exhibited?
Enter the myriad alchemies of The Performance of Contemporary Art.
The art world as it currently exists resembles a loosely organized religious system. The idea of ‘fine art’ somehow keeps surviving. By the in-group, art is revered as an imperative practice—something indispensable and valuable to everyone. To suggest otherwise is met with contempt—“How dare you question the merits of art and art education?” If backed into a corner, artists often turn to scientific studies to prove the universal worth of art in people’s lives.
I don’t presume to know exactly how to sort out which art is better “medicine for the soul,” if indeed art has a positive, measurable effect on the psyche beyond temporary pleasure. But I do think it’s productive to call the belief system of art into question. Because things change. I would love to see art education in the 21st century begin treating the Western grand narrative of artistic “progress” and the current dominant institutions as an anthropological and psychological curiosity.
For instance, let me laugh at myself by pointing out the trends among my artist friends and peers, who live mainly within the northeastern megalopolis with New York as the epicenter. Note: I fit much of this stereotype profile myself, so it’s not meant as a criticism:
Artists dress casually and/or eccentrically
They advertise that they live in a densely populated city, such as New York
They have had their work in large empty spaces with white walls and track lighting
They have a neatly designed and lengthy list of places their work has been: a “CV”
They generally reject pop culture as illegitimate culture except as irony
They are likely to be atheist or to construct their own spiritual system
They are deeply suspicious and often antagonistic toward authority figures
They value obscurity when selecting literature, movies, and music
They are less likely to conform to gender binary norms
They are more likely to be gay, bi, or have a fluid sexual preference
What’s notable about this list, and why I lay it out this way, is that it has nothing to do with the creation of art objects. For whatever reason, in my experience, this is the type of person who permeates this region’s art institutions. It bears repeating that this is not a criticism, but an observation.
To be continued…
Note: The photos in this post are of “Tiny Gallery,” a structure I built in 2010. From one perspective, such as the top image, it resembles a full-scale professional gallery. In reality, it’s about waist-height.