The State of Black Art

Race issue a two-edged sword for black contemporary artists

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 24, 2010

They are called "knowledge cards" -- a glossy picture on the front of each, some factoids to explain it on the back -- and museums sell them in packs of 48, on all kinds of basic subjects: nature, the American presidency, the great buildings of Washington. The shop at the Smithsonian American Art Museum has added a new basic subject to the roster: It now sells a pack that features great works by black artists. The classic names are there: Henry Ossawa Tanner, Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett. There are also a few more recent figures: Sam Gilliam and Alma Thomas, both abstractionists from Washington, as well as the New York expressionist Frederick Brown. The cards "celebrate the loves and passions of a people," according to their packaging, and tacitly assert that art by African Americans has become a new field of cue-card-worthy knowledge.

The pack may need to grow. So far, it leaves out an entire younger generation of black artists that may be the most important yet: Glenn Ligon, Kara Walker, Stan Douglas, Steve McQueen, Isaac Julian, Yinka Shonibare and Lorna Simpson are just a few of the figures who have become major players in contemporary art over the past decade or two. These artists make regular appearances in the world's most important museums, and at such career-making events as the Venice Biennale and the twice-a-decade Documenta survey in Germany, showing complex art that often mirrors the complexities of race. What still needs sorting out is whether the kind of art they make will ever be the kind that people want to buy a pack of cards about. Can huge success in the world of contemporary art lead to Bearden-style recognition in the world outside it?

"We've moved from the margin to the center," says Leslie King-Hammond, founding director of the new Center for Race and Culture at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. Last fall, her center sponsored an entire conference on the "Transformations" these new artists represent. King-Hammond compares their arrival on the scene to a transporter moment from "Star Trek." "You say to yourself, 'How did that happen?' They are certainly making a critical impact."

Glenn Ligon has also made headlines. The New York artist, born in 1960, got big coverage in October when the White House announced that the works it had borrowed for its walls included one of Ligon's trademark "text paintings." The piece, called "Black Like Me #2," consists of the phrase "All traces of the Griffin I had been were wiped from existence," which Ligon repeated from top to bottom of a canvas that's almost seven feet tall, making the words progressively more smeared and illegible as he went down. It's a sort of visual recapping of the journey taken by white journalist John Howard Griffin, in 1959, as he took on a black persona and the distortions imposed on blackness in a white society. Ligon refuses to let us forget them.

"I was so glad to see him in the White House," says Naomi Beckwith, a curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem. She's speaking from the middle of her latest show, a survey of new work by black artists that includes a more recent text piece by Ligon in which the writing is made of neon. It riffs on another famous neon piece, by conceptualist superstar Bruce Nauman, which gathered together 100 almost random phrases and rendered them in colored neon. Ligon has pulled out two of Nauman's all-capped phrases -- "BLACK AND DIE" and "BLACK AND LIVE" -- and stuck them on the wall in white neon, with the front surface of each tube painted black so the light can escape only from behind. They present us with the almost-oxymoron of a dark statement that casts light. The absurdist, multicolored world of Nauman, whose piece included "LAUGH AND LIVE" in pink neon and "TOUCH AND DIE" in yellow, gets reduced to the starkest binaries of African American experience.

Blackness rising

Ligon acknowledges the "greater level of visibility" that he and his black colleagues now achieve, and explains it in terms that are almost statistical: The sheer number of black artists being turned out by art schools has helped "normalize" their presence on the wider scene, he says, speaking by phone from New York. Beckwith cites a longer history of integration in art schools than in many other institutions -- her grandmother studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, she says -- and she sees that as at long last bearing fruit.

"The system that conveys art has changed," says Kinshasha Holman Conwill, deputy director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. A globalized art world now provides a whole new set of international venues for black artists to make it big in, she explains. Compared with the situation today, there was barely a world stage for Catlett or Bearden to tread.

Yet more has changed than that. When Catlett and Bearden were admired in the larger art world, they were often being judged as makers of "black art" -- a category apart, like ceramics or stained glass. Now, race is no longer "a premise for judging or dismissing," Conwill says. Instead, it is "part of the package" that lets black artists take their place among artists of all colors. Ligon and company aren't making it big despite their skin color, or in a separate field that's all and only about being black. They are using race as a potent force that moves them from the sidelines to the thick of things.

Black, in shades of gray

Take the work of Kara Walker, a 40-year-old who is possibly the best-known of these artists, both here and abroad. Her work uses genteel cut-out silhouettes to build a nightmare image of the antebellum South, full of violence, sex and violent sex. "It's more open-ended than people allow it to be," says Beckwith, the curator from Harlem. "Kara Walker has never been a slave. . . . What is happening is in her fantasy world." You could say that all Walker's work is about how memories of real horrors and injustices lodge in the fantasies and libidos of the groups that survive them. This is just the kind of fiendishly complicated situation that makes for the best contemporary art.

Speaking by phone from her Center for Race and Culture, King-Hammond says that "race is a political construct, a total mythology" that "tries to lock you into an inauthentic identity." Black artists can use their awareness of this as "fodder" to make art that liberates them, and us, from the limiting identities of race. "Instead of race being used as the dog that bites our tail," King-Hammond says, "race is now used as the flag, the anthem you use to create your path to freedom."

Such play with race has risks. King-Hammond talks about how Walker has been "dogged" in some parts of the African American community for making art that's seen as perpetuating the violent imagery of racism, and giving it a titillating edge. She also cites the trouble black director Spike Lee got into in 2000 with "Bamboozled," a satire that riffed on some of the worst stereotypes of the blackface minstrel show -- and was sometimes read as promoting them. And King-Hammond remembers her own friends' shock, decades ago, when she started to collect racist toys from earlier times. "After a while it just gets damned annoying. Here comes that dog" -- the dog of race -- "biting at your ass again." You need to be able to say, "I'm the homo sapiens. . . . You either take control of it, or it takes control of you."

Outrunning the race dog

The show Beckwith has curated at the Studio Museum comes at a moment when it's at last possible to "think about what it is to be a black artist," she says, rather than simply assuming there's such a thing as black art and a black aesthetic that speak to transparently black issues.

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