In the middle of the sweltering July heat, I accompanied a group of students on a guided tour of the Brooklyn Museum’s “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women” exhibition. The exhibition was impeccably timed for the Feminist Art class I was teaching.
In all my years of facilitating groups for lesbian and queer people of color, museum trips were my most favored and pursued. This was partially my overzealous attempts at bringing women and gender studies to a community setting, but unfortunately these field trips required funding and resources that my young people and community organizations weren’t always able to sustain. Now that I am a college professor, the resources are more plentiful in certain settings.
Our summer trip to the Brooklyn Museum was even more fortuitous, because our tour was able to focus on the following masterpieces all briefly housed at the same museum: Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, Faith Ringgold’s For the Woman’s House, and Blondell Cummings’ Chicken Soup. This student group was predominantly white, but somehow I wasn’t surprised that many of them chose For the Woman’s House as a thesis for their final paper: Choose three pieces of art from our class and explain how they exemplify intersectional feminism.
For the Woman’s House was created in conversation with the female inmates of Rikers Island, only to be discovered in a basement of the prison several years later, instead of where it was intended, for display and community enrichment. Our museum educator (who happened to be the director of education and programs) asked the students to look more closely into the eyes of the women in the painting, to take notice of the matching smear of sky blue above each of the figures’ eyes. It looked like a worry line, eye shadow, a similar sadness.
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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While most of the work that these students have seen offers a universal theme that these young white women could connect to, the brief observation of the racialized feminism, of Black women working, brought their usual experiences with art down to earth. Suddenly, the futility of privilege could not be denied. Rendered outsiders, my students wrote about this tension, between the foreign and relatable, the lived and the learned.
In recent years, there have been several solo exhibitions at mainstream and commercial arts spaces for Black female artists in New York City. There is a question of this being as on-trend as summer linen or heirloom tomatoes, an aesthetic that ebbs and flows like white standards of beauty on magazine covers.
Throughout the Obama era, political art became more prominent in a well-intentioned, but moderately lukewarm movement toward inclusivity. Codes, or methods and modes of “seeing,” were also appearing in academic discussions and art publications. It also seemed that the employees and staff of galleries and museums were become younger and browner. The word “queer” was suddenly a verb in some art spaces, as something you can do or perform. I found myself experiencing a meta form of engagement as a museum-goer, often wondering whether I was the art. However, the difference was that I didn’t feel at arms or objectified, I was more interested in what my sisters had to say about us.
In March 2008, around ten months shy of U.S. voters electing Barack Obama, Holland Cotter wrote a memorable review of “Black art” as “political art” for the New York Times. Americans were in a quaint nucleus where hope was being bottled and sold, and some liberals and members of the Black bourgeoisie were tossing around painfully terrifying misandry such as “post-racial” or “post-Black.” I read the review several times, fascinated with the hullabaloo. I remember considering what it would it be like if Black people could be seen and accepted as making art as artists, and not as Black artists. As naive as this question may be, it is important to note that this label is also laden with notes of respectability and liberalism. But at what point does Black art release itself from being politicized and radicalized?
I called my father, who at the time had just turned 60. “Why do all of you young people want to talk about race?” This, coming from a man who survived the civil rights movement, who felt the white robes of the KKK graze his brown arm as a 4-year-old, on his way to school. My great-grandmother walked him to school. She would clutch his hand more tightly as they passed the KKK, before walking alone to her job at the department store where she used the “colored” entrance.
My father’s voice sounded more tired than curious.
It seems that the question points more to racialization, and the tainted perspectives of the racialized. So, could it be possible for Black artists to create work without it being racialized? Can our work be received? This question is mostly regarding the saturation of our perspectives, the re-centering of our status quo, and my own capacity for rich, Black beauty.
The question feels silly. Unimportant. Langston Hughes criticized Countee Cullen in his famous essay, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” when Cullen professed an interest in being an artist, not a “Black artist.” Hughes called this a bourgeois desire, influenced by whiteness. Much like the foolishness of post-racial or post-Black art, it is difficult to consider whether such a thing could or should really exist.
There is another striking question here, when Black is synonymous with racial, when Black is synonymous with political. Race, by definition incurs such doublespeak. The question of whether or not a Black artist can make art that isn’t racialized resolves itself when we look at art made by Black people. The complex twist, however, is the social responsibility that Hughes referred to has everything to do with systemic lens with which such art is seen.
“Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud”
A scan of Black female painters with solo shows in recent years could easily include Mickalene Thomas’ Origin of the Universe show as its thesis.
The show debuted in New York on September 2012. One review called it a “state of the union,” which was a double-edged prospectus on the political nature of a fully displayed sparkly Black vagina, the image after which the exhibition was named. The title piece was a reimagining, or more like a reawakening, of Gustave Courbet’s “L’Origine du monde“ (1866). Thomas’ portraits climbed the walls, bedroom-scapes of Black woman either dressed ornately or wearing nothing at all. Each image dared you to look into the power of a new kind of gaze.
“Origin of the Universe” was also “labial” self-portrait, if you will. Thomas photographed herself in repose, then studied the image of her labia to create the details for the fastidious depiction. It was an image of testimony, calling for a shift in tired modes of seeing. Neither male nor white, this was a Black woman’s gaze. In her review, “Loud, Proud and Painted,” veteran critic for the New York Times Roberta Smith described Thomas’ work by saying, “She doesn’t so much depict a universal humanity as practically force it into the viewer’s place, where it implicates, illuminates and bedazzles.” The title of her review was a reference to the classic by the Godfather of Soul James Brown, “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.”
I must admit, being in the room with this work was a wild experience with my body. The detail in the curves, the thickness of the thighs, the dense jet-black coils—I didn’t realize how shy I felt until I sat down and caught my breath. Finally, I thought, Black female subjectivity could be seen. I’m sure that any aforementioned meta quality was prevalent for many Black museum-goers. As a Black woman, to see oneself in fine art is a groundbreaking shift of center, at the apex of where we are taught to locate beauty—a museum. But I’m uncertain as to whether or not that’s really what the piece was about.
I was pleased to be in a room with images of how I make love alongside the passion and the pleasure in relationships among Black women.
Just two weeks after the New York debut of Mickalene Thomas’ solo exhibition, the Museum of Modern Art’s PS1 presented “Now Dig This! Art & Black Los Angeles 1960-1980.” The show, which collected work from the civil rights movement spilling over into the Watts riots, presented a precarious time of aggressive art making and horrifying destruction. Most of the artists featured were men (Noah Purifoy and David Hammons, for example)—a scalding omission given Thomas’ massive show at the Brooklyn Museum, just one subway transfer away.
Nonetheless, New York Times critic Ken Johnson found it important to assert that the Black male artists appropriated the use of “assemblage” seen in the exhibition from the likes of Marcel Duchamp, as if most art isn’t an inherent nod to the classics. It seemed important for the work to be situated in whiteness in order for the critic to engage. There is an indignant tone to the review, even when Johnson, with a light hand, manages to point out the show’s thesis of solidarity. His tone projects its barrier throughout, like reaching across the table and hastily sprinkling salt onto someone else’s plate of food. A more recent look at this review makes me think that these were the kind of people that could use their privilege agitated with a greater consistency in the years leading up to the 2016 election.
Three years later, the Brooklyn Museum presented, “Isbionelo/Evidence” by photographer, Zanele Muholi. Muholi, a native South African and queer-identified woman, has dedicated her career to capturing the images of other queer South Africans, a priority she has coined as “visual activism.” That summer, I also chaperoned a group of youth to this show. These young people were Black, LGBTQ-identified, and had never been to a museum before. Muholi’s portraits blanketed an entire wall in the Sackler Center, kicking around any leftover ephemera from Thomas—continuing to shift the center. The youth and I sat for nearly an hour staring into each image as if it were a mirror, mesmerized by seeing ourselves in a fine art space.
By 2014, Kara Walker brought us to a plateau in the visual depiction of Black women with her acuminous and controversial sculpture of Mammy as the sphinx, titled “A Subtlety” at the Domino Sugar Factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. A work that is arguably more revelatory than upsetting, the sculpture implicated the “ways of seeing” that kept Ringgold’s painting in the basement of Rikers for all those years. For the viewer, the experience inferred the meta-reality that Black women are typically accustomed to: object. Throngs of tourists from all over the world, confused or excited Black people, and white folks lined the dusky South Third Street that led inside the refinery. However, the work was created by one of us, a Black woman. It took approximately seven minutes to make your way around the sugar sculpture. As I roamed past the sphinx’s upturned vulva and puckered breasts, pacing at times, disassociating at others, the predominant feeling was that of wearing a frame around my neck like a noose.
“Are White People Ready for Black Women?”
After these eight years of liberal analysis and Black female art featured in solo shows, art criticism has reached a disorienting plateau. In the spring of this year, Carl Swanson from New York Magazine asked, “Is Political Art the Only Art that Matters Now?” The title of this review is a taunting thump at the back of the head after enduring years of post-racial jargon. Marginalized artists will never get a break from the bully of white supremacy, waiting to snatch away the credence of our work. Because if we were struggling with being politicized and therefore named, we barely had a running start against the trend of “issue as art.” Only the art world could make the end-times a fad. And Black women, whether or not our art is intended to be so, will always be subjected to a political gaze. Rarely do we construct ourselves around perception, but never can we avoid it. But it is also not surprising.
The article briefly mentions Marilyn Minter’s Brooklyn Museum retrospective, “Pretty/Dirty”, a career dedicated to the embedded hierarchies of media and desire. A conceptual artist with many years of social and political engagements, Minter’s show closed two weeks before “We Wanted A Revolution: Black Radical Women.” The article, however, never mentioned “We Wanted a Revolution” despite being a piece on “political art.” For the most part, many of the Black female artists with solo shows are art makers and refute the labels such as “political art” and “Black art” altogether. Therefore, the question posed in the article is an asphyxiating vacuum and Black female artists deserve a harder line of distinction.
The growing visibility of Black femaleness and womanhood is political because it equates action and presence. Yet, to consider whether or not political art “matters” should be unrelated. Somehow, it isn’t. Especially when you consider Joan Walsh’s foolishly titled article for the Nation, “Are Black Women Ready for Hillary?” Syntax adjusted, her title would have been more strongly suited to read: “Is Hillary Ready for Black Women?” or “Are White People Ready for Black Women?”
When you take a look at the art world and at how all the social relevance that it decorated itself in throughout the last eight years has been collected inside of another trend—political protest—American liberals should not be fooled by the art world’s current political climate. Eccentric media philosopher Marshall McLuhan asserted in the ’70s that “the medium is the message.” It is inevitable that we are surrounded in a perception of consciousness that we created.
This, I would imagine, is precisely why such petty conjecture over labels such as “political art” do much to distract instead of amplify. Reconsider Mickalene Thomas’ “Origin of the Universe.” Her audacious presentation of Black female beauty—is it an image of protest, beauty, or art? It is all three, but what has the image of protest evolved into? In political moments like the one in which we’re living, we often hear people cry out that it’s the end of the world. Why does it have to be the end? The apocalypse could very easily be a part of the propaganda that rejects us.
The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture ties this together with two current exhibitions, “Power in Print” and “Black Power!” Both exhibitions manage to detail the Black Power movement with the inclusion of the Black Arts Movement in simultaneity. “Power in Print” opens to the left of the gallery’s entrance, with one of Emory Douglas’ posters of the famed Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The poster is in red and black and depicts a father holding his child. Directly next to it is an image of the “Black family,” the man standing boldly at the center. The woman, his wife, is seated, her two children clinging to her like baby koala. It is an image doing double work—uplifting the Black family, empowering the Black father, but also solidifying the identity of the woman as the mother and the wife.
Upstairs, the “Black Power!” exhibit begins. It’s divided into areas of the movement: From “The Look” and “The Education” to “The Black-owned bookstore” and “The Coalitions,” etc. On the far wall, there’s a large poster advertising the 1970 Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention, where a new constitution was created. Forty-seven years later, the Black queer women who founded Black Lives Matter have created guiding principles that honor queer relationships and trans individuals, reject misogyny, and embrace a community of leaders.
As Ella Baker, founder of SNCC, said: “Strong people don’t need strong leaders.”
Among the many reviews of the Brooklyn Museum exhibit, “We Wanted a Revolution,” which ended last month, I have found the title of the show to garner the most speculation. In his April review, “To Be Black, Female and Fed Up with the Mainstream,” New York Times art critic Holland Cotter suggests that the title be in the present tense: “We Want a Revolution.” The article is a lengthy and informative due diligence on the history of Black radical art-making that has lived in the Schomburg archives or elsewhere, rarely displayed. Therefore, Cotter is right. A contemporary urgency in the title would better suit the oeuvre presented.
However, Artforum briskly asserts that the title “impl[ies] a wistful retrospection,” without offering any alternatives.
An exhibition title is critical; a missing plural or a passive verb has the potential to influence audiences in all sorts of directions. But to arrive with editorialized thinking diminishes any potential engagement with the work, or artists. Even though Cotter left his re-naming to the end of his piece, a show about the history of Black radical women will most certainly warrant a pandering critique, even as an articulation of socially deemed facade, before anything else. That is, title as character study? Or character, as art? Perhaps I’m reaching. But if viewers are in the business of naming, allow my Black female subjectivity to make the suggestion: “Black Women Want A Revolution.”
Which leaves me to the real question: Will Black women ever be received as revolutionary?
I return to my class. I strive to utilize an intersectional pedagogical framework for my English and art classes. As a Black woman, to engage with creative work and writings by other Black women, there is usually a moment when I will inevitably become the focal point for my students. And when this occurs, no matter how hard I initiate a boundary, I have found that this collision is unavoidable. This is the condition of being perceived as an object—a target, a tool, a vessel—even to my students.