How to be black and look at black art? The secret lies somewhere between letting emotions overwhelm you and allowing yourself to be bored and distracted. At the fringes of the intended display, you might see something new.
At a lavish art gallery holiday party last year, there were endless bottles of wine in every corner, cheese plates with figs, decorative clementines with leaves still attached, a covered outdoor smoking room with a bar and heat lamps, and the most glamorous DJ in New York City. I ate fried chicken with my unmanicured fingers, shook hands with Ms. Lauryn Hill, danced till I couldn’t remember and, several hours later, missed my flight to Jamaica to visit my father who was recently diagnosed with cancer.
How to be black and look at black art?
Look around it.
I learned this lesson in part from my grad school friend, who’s more than that to me, too – a real friend. She grew up in, but not of, the world that might have been glibly called, during the Harlem Renaissance, the Niggerati (portmanteau of “nigger” and “literati”), a loose collection of black artists, academics, and writers living and working in New York. Though she would not put it this way herself, my friend, without a set program, introduced me to a whole new world. With my friend, I learned how to gossip, how to get free wine – no, how to steal wine – how to giggle during pretentious panels, and how to compliment the DJ’s friends on their thigh-high boots. This was not merely a mimicry of the bougie white art scene, it was something else; we found an “us” in our shared estrangement. Or maybe we spoke an ever emergent world into existence, together.
I don’t mean the art world. Sure, I had had a steady gig as an arts writer for a contemporary Caribbean culture magazine a few years ago, and I’ve since been asked to write for gallery catalogs. I’ve reviewed shows, gone to fairs, and interviewed artists. It’s not a job I’m particularly good at because I often eschew the conventional ways art is approached by a critic: objectively, generously, apolitically. Even the romantic practice of ekphrasis – a rhetorical device from the Ancient Greeks that refers to a thick and often vivid written discussion of visual art – doesn’t, as a rule, pan out for me because I don’t see what most professional critics profess to see: I see around things.
But when I was writing about art, I always did my research and took it very seriously, like I was some kind of cultural attaché, reporting back social and political truth. This might sound old-school, but all schools are tired – it’s true. The scant presence of black art in art museums and galleries – institutional spaces that have historically either erased or been hostile to black people – caused me to feel demure and lucky when I was assigned to review a show by a black artist. I bowed down before this possibility.
I soon learned that this callow reaction concerned my self rather than any kind of utilitarian collective ambition, however small. Whatever has come to be known as “black art” – which encompasses both radical tradition and profitable industry – is accompanied by the burdensome requirement that it be socially useful. Be that as it may, art criticism as a form of responsibility, duty, and group affiliation usually does not do the activist service we might want it to.
How to be black and look at art? The secret lies somewhere between letting emotions overwhelm you and letting yourself be bored and distracted in a space defined by pristine walls and malignant capital. To look around does not mean to look through. You can look around an object, willfully bypassing, missing, or ignoring it. Or, if you look around you might see something new: observe what surrounds and gathers near it, what kinds of collectivities are engendered there, at the fringes of the intended display.
Last fall, I was waiting for my friend at the much-anticipated Kara Walker show at the gallery where Walker is represented, Sikkema Jenkins and Co., in Chelsea. You could say that since moving to New York almost six years ago, I had become used to the piercing stares elicited by being a black woman in a white cube, a near extension of the objects on a wall or in a case – a black thing on display – but Walker’s typical collage cut-outs reveal the perversity of racial slavery, offering an even more painfully intense provocation of the contemporary black viewer by her figuration of the historical black commodity. Her black silhouettes, in Zora Neale Hurston’s oft-quoted words, are “thrown against a sharp white background.” With this show, Walker gave us ink paintings in lieu of paper cut-outs and sarcasm in lieu of sincere artistic appreciation. Her offbeat press release, mockingly revealing how her work is codified by various audiences, read, “Critics will shake their heads in bemused silence.” I kept my sunglasses on so no one could tell I was looking down. I was looking down because I didn’t want to lock eyes with anyone, and I was looking down because I was texting my friend who was walking from the train. When she showed up, my physical and psychological tension relaxed. I no longer felt I was being watched, because I was finally being seen. We laughed, pointed, and rolled our eyes. I can be so aware of white people staring at me – no laughing at the serious art show depicting slavery!, they imply with their pursed lips. But when I’m with another black person – like really with – it’s easier to be just us together. We live in contradiction, perform garden-variety labor, and know beauty when we see it.
The draw of artist LaToya Ruby Frazier’s Flint is Family exhibition was not the “art itself” (as if we can even begin to think of art as existing in a vacuum) but the Flint residents, photographs of whom were initially commissioned to accompany an Elle Magazine story, for which Frazier spent five months in the Michigan city. Many of the establishment reviews that have been published so far comment on Frazier’s apparent subject – what is now known as the Flint Water Crisis – and how she refracts it through the traditions of black documentary photography, which, since the Progressive Era, have been intertwined with social reform and charity. In Vulture, critic Jerry Saltz calls Frazier’s work “activist art.” Frazier grew up in Braddock, Pennsylvania, a steel town, and her socially engaged preoccupation with the intersections of environmental racism, economic decline, capital, and government in majority-black towns linger in her newer work.
Portrayed in black-and-white, Flint is Family focuses on the Cobb family, consisting of three generations of black women: Renée, Shea, and Zion. To me, it’s no coincidence that the youngest daughter is named Zion. If you’ve ever heard Ms. Lauryn Hill singing on the track “To Zion,” accompanied by Carlos Santana’s sunset of a guitar, you already have a glimpse into the terrible beauty of black life. Frazier mixes staged portraits, candid snaps, towering aerial shots of the Flint River, the Cobb family’s home, the Water Plant, and various protest signs, including “Flint Lives Matter.” One arresting image depicts three family members in a bedroom, but if you look closely, there are in fact five. From left to right, Shea’s cousin Andreas sits on the bed holding up a mirror while Shea, adorned in pearls and a bedazzled baseball cap, kneels over Andreas, braiding her hair, and in the background, little Zion looks out the window. The punctum of this photograph – what Roland Barthes famously called “that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)’’ – is a set of portraits of Shea’s grandparents, LeRoy and Hazel Cobb, that sit on the tall dresser. The couple’s absent-presence evokes Frazier’s offscreen charisma as archivist of everyday black histories.
The next day, I attended an exhibition whose creator did not feign absence from her own work. I sped through Nigerian-born, Alabama-raised Toyin Ojih Odutola’s first solo museum exhibition, To Wander Determined, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, for exactly seven minutes while catching up with my fresh ex, discussing other people’s breakups and gossiping about our mutual friends. The background to our reunion were Ojih Odutola’s regal portraits which rendered the hyper-fictional life of two aristocratic Nigerian families in a blur of phantasmagoric postcolonial self-expression. I took photos of Ojih Odutola’s grand charcoal, chalk pastel, and graphite pencil drawings on my phone, but I haven’t looked at them since. They remind me too much of my relationship with my ex and the ways we pretended in order to get by.
In an October 2017 interview with Vogue, Ojih Odutola said that with this exhibition she “wanted to show an unremarkability,” a desire reflected in the blankness in Ojih Odutola’s figures’ eyes. Still, I preferred the congested fashion to the blank faces: the matching jewelry sets, transparent lace skirts, floral salmon three-quarter-length v-necks, striped pants, mustard thigh-high boots, printed vests, and loosened ties, the kind of unfastening that conjures for many the idea of a man finally available after a long day of work. This introspective self-fashioning struck me as more aspirational than aristocratic, more performance than portraiture.
The feeling of performative flight from historical violence provoked by Ojih Odutola’s fantastical depictions of life “without any of the colonialist meddling,” as she put it in Vogue, reminded me of the last day of a show my ex curated at the Princeton University Art Museum, where he has a fellowship. We had met some five years earlier in grad school at Columbia, and I went to see the exhibit, titled Hold: A Meditation on Black Aesthetics, in the weeks after we broke up. On the train from Penn Station to Princeton,I felt like I was pulling something off. I didn’t expect to see my ex once I arrived, knowing that he lives in Brooklyn on the weekends, but I still felt the kind of excitement a child experiences when they wake up before their parents. It was raining. I took a selfie in the rain against Princeton University’s Palmer House, once owned by a slaveholding family called the Potters. I looked around the gallery and immediately started crying, overwhelmed by the end of our relationship and the art show I felt like I had midwifed. I texted him, “I’m at your show. I’m SO proud of uuuuu.” He replied, “you’re here?” and, much to my surprise, turned up in the gallery a few seconds later. Coincidentally, he’d been in the room next door. I cried even more.
I have a thing for crying, and I have an even bigger thing for crying in museums. In 2014, Portland-born photographer Carrie Mae Weems’ first major retrospective, Three Decades of Photography and Video, appeared at the Guggenheim in New York, making her the first black woman with a retrospective at the Guggenheim in its 81 years of existence. Weems has a knack for inventing black domesticities that are charged with both fact and fiction. The Kitchen Table Series (1990) is like a litany: mother-daughter duet applying make-up, a Budweiser beer, a budgie bird, a triangular overhead lamp, hoop earrings, a moment of affection, cracked peanuts, a Malcolm X poster obscured with cigarette smoke lingering in the air, signs of tension and care. As Weems is equally comfortable in front of and behind the camera, what she documents is not quite documentation. What she performs is not quite performance, either.
Critics often describe Weems’ art practice through the well-worn lenses of race, gender, sexuality, and power, as if these exist merely as themes, at a remove from social life. But museums, like universities, exist in institutional spaces operated and upheld by workers. Often, when we talk about those people who are excluded from the gallery or the academy, we forget to take stock of those who are already there: the people who clean the floor, do security, or provide the child care necessary for families to be able to enjoy leisure time without their children.
While looking around the show, a black security guard approached me and said she was so happy about the presence of Weem’s work in this particular space. She said she had never seen so many black people at the Guggenheim in her years, and had herself felt proud to witness the little black girls staring up at Weems’ photography. If I had read these words, I would not have felt my stomach drop, I would have perhaps winced at its straightforwardness, but I was there, present, and we were surrounded by Weems’ arrangement of askew glances.