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Some of America’s best Black artists are joining forces for a show about Black grief — conceived by a legendary curator who died last year

A scene from “Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death” (2016) by Arthur Jafa, one of the artists featured in the New Museum show. (Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery)

An exhibition featuring an all-star cast of almost 40 of the country’s most acclaimed Black artists will open in January at the New Museum in New York. “Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America” brings to fruition the vision of the late Okwui Enwezor, one of the most influential curators of the past 30 years, who died of cancer in March 2019 at age 55.

The show, announced by the museum on Tuesday, is being described by organizers as “incredibly prescient and timely,” a “direct response to the national emergency of Black grief” and a “form of collective therapy.”

Some of the artists involved credit Enwezor with turning points in their careers. “Quite literally, if you take Okwui out of the equation, I don’t even have an art career,” said Arthur Jafa, whose era-defining video montage “Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death,” set to the Kanye West song “Ultra Lightbeam,” will be a key work in the New Museum show.

Other artists in “Grief and Grievance” (which includes a catalogue essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates and music by Tyshawn Sorey) include Mark Bradford, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Nari Ward, Deana Lawson, Rashid Johnson, Julie Mehretu, Kerry James Marshall and Carrie Mae Weems.

In this period of racial reckoning and political polarization, “Okwui’s vision and the voices of the artists selected for this exhibition could not be more relevant,” said Lisa Phillips, the director of the New Museum, where the show will fill its exhibition spaces across three levels.

When Enwezor died, “Grief and      Grievance”      was     about 85 percent complete, said Massimiliano Gioni, the museum’s artistic director. “We tried not to stray from the blueprint Okwui gave us. Where that was not possible, we tried to be like a restorer or conservator where you fill in the gaps.”

Enwezor, who was born in Nigeria, organized ambitious, multigenerational and transnational exhibitions that told big stories, giving prominence to contemporary art from Africa and other underrecognized places. “Grief and Grievance” was his first show focused on America as a geographical location.

At the time of Enwezor’s death, the police killing of George Floyd and the subsequent protests were still more than a year off. But Enwezor (who was living in Germany at the time) had already perceived that American culture was witnessing a moment of crisis — what he called “the crystallization of Black grief.”

“He picked up the frequencies of many artists who were dealing with that crisis and trying to find ways to repair the pain and mobilize it into political action or participation,” Gioni said.

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Right up until his death, Enwezor was speaking with some of the artists he wanted in the exhibition and arranged for one of them, Glenn Ligon, to act as his surrogate. Ligon worked with curatorial advisers Gioni, Naomi Beckwith, a senior curator at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, and Mark Nash, a curator based in California, to complete Enwezor’s vision.

Enwezor was ill and living in Munich when he and Ligon began discussing the show by phone in late 2018. “He wanted an interlocutor, to bounce around ideas,” said Ligon, whom Enwezor brought on as “a kind of eyes and ears on the ground here in the U.S.”

“I went to visit him not so long before he died,” Ligon said, “and we had this extraordinary visit where he was literally in his hospital bed being wheeled out as I walked in. He said, ‘I just have this radiation treatment, I’ll be right back.’ And then we spent the next seven hours talking about the show from his hospital bed. I’m not exaggerating.”

Enwezor’s death, lamented by so many of the artists he championed, echoes the exhibition’s broader theme of Black grief. The show, Beckwith said, asks what it means “to be in a perpetual state of mourning.”

“How do we recognize that, when it’s so easy to gloss over? It’s so easy to walk through your day and be productive as a worker, as a citizen, as a family member but not realize that you’re often dealing with a profound and unacknowledged sense of loss,” she said.

“The temptation is to imagine this show as a response show to George Floyd, Breonna Taylor or Trayvon Martin,” said Ligon, “and it is in some sense. That is the grief part. But it’s also important to realize that artists have been responding to what Okwui would call ‘the emergency of Black grief’ for a very long time.”

According to Gioni, the show asks: “How can we see and stand and witness certain acts of violence, and how can art help us process those images? And by processing those images also processing those feelings of loss.”

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For many of the “Grief and Grievance” artists, the answer lies not in further depictions of trauma but in processing trauma into varieties of abstraction (or nonrepresentational art).

Ligon compared some Black artists’ urge to make abstract art to “the fury blowing” in the music of John Coltrane. “The sense of outrage and grief in his playing has a parallel in what some Black abstract artists are trying to do,” he said. “To get past the topical and into the spiritual.

“In a country that’s built on white supremacy, there’s always going to be a Breonna Taylor, a Trayvon Martin, a Michael Brown. It’s important to say their names; it’s important to depict them. But abstraction for me is about getting a little deeper into the soul of the country and expressing the inexpressible.”

The artists who knew Enwezor seem just as keen to talk about him as the show’s themes. All recall with astonishment the vigor he showed during hours-long conversations over the phone or in person, right up until a few weeks before his death.

The curator, Jafa said, provided “a template for how one could be.”

“He knew what he was doing and went about it in a very straightforward, suave and professional way.” Like author Toni Morrison, Jafa added, Enwezor was “acutely sensitive to the complexity of being a Black person in a white supremacist universe, but almost paradoxically operating as if it had no effect of him whatsoever.”

Ligon recalled both Enwezor’s intellectual rigor and his generosity: “He made assumptions about one’s ambitions that were often in excess of one’s ambitions for oneself. That’s the kind of person he was.”

Enwezor functioned as “both an insider and an outsider to the Black American experience,” said Rashid Johnson. “He shared a color of skin, and when he was in this country, he was impacted by that. But because he was not a Black American, he . . . was able to reflect as an outsider on how Black American narratives have such a fascinating dichotomy between joy and grief.”

The last conversation Johnson had with Enwezor was also the best. After seeing Johnson’s work “Antoine’s Organ” (which is in the show), the curator was excited. “He made it clear to me that he saw this tremendous growth in my work. I was really humbled and I remember thinking, ‘Oh, this is going to be my first real opportunity to work with Okwui.’ ”

Enwezor died about a year later.

Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America Jan. 27-June 13 at the New Museum, 235 Bowery, New York.