Art criticism can offer the possibility of chipping away at corrosive dialogues and building solidarity. It was in that spirit that I set out to review A Constellation, even though it is in no way obvious that, with my background, I am the right person to assess this major survey at the Studio Museum in Harlem, the internationally renowned institution dedicated to work by African artists and artists of African descent.
On ViewA Constellation, The Studio Museum In Harlem
November 12, 2015 – March 6, 2016
I was never told I had to behave better than everyone else. My parents never told me to use “sir” or “ma’am” when speaking with authority figures. In fact, I was told to protest injustice afflicted upon myself or others. I’m often embarrassed by my race—not only because of America’s past, but because of today’s racial separatism and the fact that my whiteness represents supremacy. I don’t know what it feels like to have my life regularly threatened. I don’t feel endangered by people in my community, by my leaders, or by the justice system. I feel protected by our institutions.
A Constellation challenges us to reflect on contemporary and historical politics of racial inclusion versus exclusion. It is remarkable not only for its diverse collection of artists and media, but because it embodies such a large scope of political themes. As we navigate through painting, photography, sculpture, large-scale, small-scale, and mixed-media works, we are confronted with subjects of race, identity, culture, gender, and economic inequality. Among the eight works completed before the turn of the 21st century and eighteen works completed after, notions of socially and culturally constructed Black identities and the human condition permeate. Independent from time, the kindred themes are equally compelling in their solidarity and bitter with sociopolitical stagnation.
The complex challenges the survey evokes are intensified by the fact that people considered “Black” by mainstream society embody a huge variety of cultures, traditions, and identities—that Blackness is more than skin deep. One possible point of entry is the ambitious and original curatorial strategies behind A Constellation. It is not organized chronologically and it is not organized by theme. Assistant curator Amanda Hunt provides minimal wall text, instead supplementing the show with a beautifully designed booklet enclosed with thorough information about the artists and works, which encourage us to explore what resonates individually. This slightly unconventional structure is catalytic; we are motivated to draw our own conclusions with diplomacy while facing controversy and our own morality. Most importantly, it demands that we expand the dialogue on race and diversity in the art world, however daunting a task that may be.
Historical and traditional motifs glimmer throughout the two-gallery exhibition. Some mourn the dismal past, others celebrate tradition, and some function as both, lending us swells of admiration and compassion. For example, Nona Faustine (b. 1977) marries the bleak past and present, while Faith Ringgold (b. 1930) honors her lionized cultural traditions. Ringgold’s quilt tapestry Echoes of Harlem (1980) is a tribute to the esteemed practice of craft-making, which is often passed through generations of families. In collaboration with her mother, the artist painted male and female faces on each of the square quilts—some meet our eyes, some meet each others’, and some do not meet anyone’s. The quilt itself is an homage to the creative activities that slaves embodied as artistic outlets for releasing sorrow and frustration, such as quilt-making, dance, and spirituals. It conjures memories of our own individual customs, fostering cultural competency as we relate though coveted tradition.
With morbid historical sentiments, Faustine’s From Her Body Sprang Their Greatest Wealth (2013) is perhaps one of the most important works in this show. It is a photograph of Faustine, nude, with shackles around her wrists, standing on a wooden pedestal in the middle of the intersection of Water and Wall streets in the Financial District—the location of an old slave market. With a backdrop of cars, including a taxi, modern architecture, and traffic lights, Faustine provokes us to consider how the injustices of slavery still saturate our society—racial inequality did not disappear with the Emancipation Proclamation or desegregation—and our deficiency as a country to assure freedom and equal opportunities for all individuals.
Some insist that we dismiss histories behind racism—like slavery and segregation—in the contemporary dialogue, perhaps because such evils seem incomprehensible to us; however, these were the weapons used to butcher human equality. With aims to mend our society, are we not to revisit the source? Torkwase Dyson (b. 1973) does revisit the source in her Array (Strange Fruit) (2014). An homage to the 4,000 recorded lynchings after the abolishment of slavery, it is also a symbol of Black Americans’ resilience. In this Minimalist, site-specific wall drawing, she calls on Abel Meeropol’s “Strange Fruit,” a poem of protest to racism, which reads, “Blood on the leaves and blood at the root, / Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze, / Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.” The lyrical and historical significance of “Strange Fruit,” and the practices of Dyson and Faustine, all work to uphold America’s histories within racial conversations, signaling the potential and power of these dialogues.
In the context of the Black Lives Matter movement, A Constellation is furnished with allusions to contemporary politics and, more so, how recent social affairs have become a part of how artists express themselves through language and art, which even further becomes a part of both Black identities and American identity—America does have the highest police murders of Black individuals, and Black and Hispanic people constitute the majority of the prisoned population, so, yes, this is part of our country’s identity. While Faustine and Ringgold embody historical and celebratory elements of Black identities, artists Tony Lewis (b. 1986) and Talwst (b. 1979) illuminate the dolor and urgency surrounding institutionalized violations of the body. Their configurations continue to serve as lessons in cultural competency, yet they operate as nonviolent protests against our justice system’s corruption.
Lewis’s work broadcasts the power of language to embody race and subjectivity. It asks us to consider—and honor—varying language and dialects, and why these variations exist. Two tiny graphite works are each framed within excessively large matte, and they’re ingeniously ironic. Make His Mouth Bigger, Angrier (2015), which is depicted within a white word bubble above an empty black void, directs our attention to its shrunken presence. It’s similar to the frustration that brews in the body when feeling misunderstood, neglected, or anonymous, where aggression seems like the only solution. Bad, Bad (2015), again, depicts “BAD BAD” on the canvas, surrounded by some graphite marks on white paper with some tape. “Bad” may speak to the asymmetrical injustices inflicted upon people of color, reflected in the irony of these dynamic works’ small scale. Lewis plays with linguistic Black stereotypes and provides clear symbols of frustration.
Likewise, Talwst’s tiny-scaled works interrogate institutionalized racism—police brutality, particularly—and foster hope for a social-political revolution. As with Lewis, Talwst’s works are charged with irony. Though he depicts miniature sculptures of men in jewelry boxes, they are not meager in design. Started from the bottom now we here pt. 1 (2014) blends ancient history with contemporary pop culture. It shows a nude man of color standing in what appears as a cave within one of his signature jewelry boxes. Inspired by one of Drake’s hits, “Started From the Bottom [now we here],” it dramatically alludes to society’s lackadaisical efforts towards harmonious racial equality, as if we are functioning on the same archaic level as the first homo sapiens.
Adjacent to Started from the bottom now we here pt. 1, is another of Talwst’s works entitled Por qué? (2014); a scene from the death of Eric Garner, Por qué? directly asks us to question such ludicrous violence. Here, Garner is in a chokehold by a policeman backed by two more policemen, as a man dressed in white films the tragedy. Talwst calls upon Goya’s “Disasters of War”(1810 – 1820) series, which illustrates the consequences of the bloody wars and famine in 19th-century Spain. With attention to the larger theme of inclusion versus exclusion, we might also consider the complexities of Goya as both a Spanish court painter and anti-war advocate. Talwst echoes Goya’s theme of institutional dehumanization: Goya’s French army is Tawlst’s police line. In Goya’s lineage, then, Tawlst holds us accountable for confronting our institutions’ deficiencies to protect our fellow citizens.
The show inspires us to move past the barriers of social constructs that impel us to see other humans as insiders or outsiders. A passage in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me attests to violence in his Black community in Baltimore as a product of institutional separatism. Coates explains the root of violence as simply a pursuit for control over one’s own body within one’s own country:
“The crews, the young men who’d transmitted their fear into rage [. . .] walked the blocks of their neighborhood, loud and rude, because it was only through their loud rudeness that they might feel any sense of security and power. They would break your jaw, stomp your face, and shoot you down to feel that power, to revel in the might of their own bodies.”
What makes A Constellation so impressive is its ability to capture not only the traumatic, but also the celebratory elements of multicultural identities. Juxtaposed with the monstrosity of social inequality are works that profoundly elevate the Black body, particularly the female Black body. The Black body, the female body, and the Black female body are not homogenous in likeness; for the purposes of this work, I’ve chosen to consolidate the bodily themes and focus primarily on the female body. Ayana V. Jackson (b. 1977), Sondra Perry (b. 1986), and Julia Phillips (b. 1985) have created a metonymy of the routine violations of women and our bodies, though they specifically allude to offense upon the bodies of women of color.
Jackson’s Wild as the Wind (2015) adopts a similar historic approach as Faustine and Ringgold but, instead, she depicts the power of the female body to protest the exploitation that has persisted since colonialism. A self-portrait of the artist wearing traditional clothing, she appears to run swiftly through a black void. She is faced in profile view, focused on the distance, her mind confident and her body strong. Here, Jackson challenges female stereotypes with the strength of her Black body as a symbol of women’s strength universally.
In similar form, Perry’s video installation, Double, Quadruple, Etcetera, Etcetera I and II (2013), corporeally conveys power, abilities, and convictions as a female and male figure, respectively, convulsively dance around a small white room. The figures use all of the allotted space, forcefully changing levels. Though it is clear that they are confined to this space, the dancing is not timid of this restraint; they are liberated and fearless. They do not shrink their beings. They take up space.
As women, we can relate to general prejudices that our bodies and minds are weaker than our male counterparts’. While Jackson’s and Perry’s depicted bodies reinforce strength and autonomy, Phillips, by contrast, conveys an opposing identity. Regulator (2014) is an abstract rendition of the body with only black glossy footprints that modestly assert its physical presence. Instead of an image of strength, the body is nearly invisible. By associating these artists’ works with one another, we notice the differences between artists who aim to rework conventions—like Jackson and Perry—and others who represent conventions as a form of ridicule of the superficiality of said stereotypes.
Complexities of the body, gender, and race are paramount in A Constellation. Further probing the universal vulnerability of women, particularly women of color, are Adrian Piper’s (b. 1948) and Tschabalala Self’s (b. 1990) work. Piper and Self both work to reverse conventions by humorously and satirically playing with stereotypes. Piper’s Self-Portrait as a Nice White Lady (1995) shows her own stern, tenacious expression with a cartoonish word bubble that reads, with aggressive ebonics: “WHUT CHOO LOOKIN AT, MOFO.” Her piercing gaze and defiant Black dialect underscores women’s strength, negating all associations of weakness and objectification of the female body.
Self plays with the Black bodily experience yet, with humor, focuses on socioeconomic inequalities. In Bodega Run (2015), a woman in colorful dress ventures to the bodega, followed by an intrusive looming figure with piercing brown eyes. The male figure overpowers the female figure with the size of his body. He personifies this woman’s vulnerability with his “voyeuristic and erotic” gaze. Bodega Run appears to align with commonplace examples of male supremacy over the Black body. However, Self flattened the figure to disrupt the man’s visual intrusion upon this woman, which abandons familiar tropes of male superiority; comically, the man appears to look at us with voyeurism and eroticism. Now we are the victims. Here, we are asked to empathize with the objectification of the female body. Self further remarks on two critical issues: socioeconomic inequality—why is it that bodegas hold most of the available food in lower income neighborhoods?—and the unsolicited street harassment forced upon women—why do men feel they have the right to make women feel uncomfortable and unsafe through their uninterrupted stares and sexualized hollering?
A Constellation upholds tradition and values, the unity that comes with these artistic practices, and the pride that these artists take in their individual cultural identities. Aaron Fowler (b. 1988) and Kandis Williams (b. 1985) particularly manifest Black identities through marks of cultural celebration, offering a window into their own environments. Whether motifs are familiar or unfamiliar, they enforce harmony; they welcome all beings into their reality, which is built on the human condition.
Fowler notably embodies celebration of the mosaic that shaped his Harlem and St. Louis identities. Family (2015) can feel over-stimulating. Portraits of and allusions to a range of socioeconomic statuses litter the large-scale, mixed-media work: working-class individuals stand among the wealthy, which includes a toddler wearing a dress that reads, “Yale.” Wooden planks, drywall, CDs, crutches, tiki torches, and a picture of Jesus (upside down) surround the figures, and, finally, a large palm tree stretches beyond the canvas’ ground as a symbol of Fowler’s paradise. He is proud of his paradise, and welcomes all beings to take part: in fact, he attached a small circular mirror in between the two working-class men, causing us to humbly crouch down to see the reflection of our own faces. No matter our bodies, we are encouraged to assimilate within this multicultural paradise.
Williams’s mixed-media work, paralysis II (2014) confronts the chaos of racial identity in her depiction of what seems as a collage-like example of a family portrait with a father and his two daughters. We are immediately met with the father’s eyes and beautiful, bright smile before noticing the two daughters gazing into the distance. Their triangular shape evokes the holy trinity, aligning this family with the Divine. It is both joyous and somber: the familial element—their bond and the father’s pride—appears graceful and strong, yet it is the daughters’ distant, preoccupied expression that suggest an element of strife.
Throughout this show, artists have blended the boundaries between socially constructed culture, culturally constructed culture, and the universality of human nature. Most works require us to mediate on the social versus the natural. Billie Zangewa (b. 1973) and Elizabeth Catlett (1915 – 2012) created works that candidly represent the human condition. Both artists have palpably represented the angelic, congenital bond between a mother and child—an undeniable facet of humanity that is blind to race and culture. Zangewa’s silk tapestry, Mother and Child (2015), depicts a woman, with exposed subcutaneous anatomy, in the kitchen feeding her infant child; both figures command our gaze with an expression of pride from this nurturing mother. Any trace of ethnocentrism dissolves during this interaction.
Coupled with this work is Catlett’s large mahogany sculpture, also entitled Mother and Child (1993). The mother, here—with an expression of sorrow or joy or worry—protectingly holds her infant in her arms, who appears indifferent and unaware of the unforgiving world to which he was born. The woman’s closed eyes and furrowed brow reinforce unconditional love as she coddles the child close to her chest. Both Zangewa’s and Catlett’s work speak to family as a universally divine concept.
Just as the works in A Constellation demonstrate the artists’ personal perceptions of tradition and culture, the exhibition urges us to recall our own congruities with its themes. An example, for me, involves a story from a cherished friend. She was living in a predominantly multicultural, gentrifying, Brooklyn neighborhood. She looks like what society would call “white,” but she actually is [and identifies as] half Hispanic. She was walking home when a Black man approached her for directions. However, he did not walk straight up to her. He held back, said, “excuse me” from afar, and proceeded to ask his question—like he knew that she would be startled by his Black body and he tried his best, with such respect, to not appear threatening. Within this anecdote are details of socially constructed racial identities and how they alter human interactions.
To spend time with A Constellation is to cultivate an individualized mediation on the state of social-politics and our own morality. Its accomplishments reach beyond Hunt’s expressed curatorial intention to illustrate the relationship between 20th- and 21st-century multicultural artists. It is a colorful body of work amalgamating American history, the body, principles of both crucifixion and celebration within Black identities, and the human condition. No matter our races, cultures, and traditions, we can relate to the represented lamentable and celebratory themes. For art historians, it makes us contemplate the separation of African American art from Euro-centric American art. However, A Constellation is only one example of a configuration of works by artists of color that reinforces art as an extension of the human body and the human psyche, which is applicable to all. It calls for change. It demands that we deviate from separation, not only in art, but in our communities.