For 3 years I have dedicated the month of February to daily posts that celebrate black artists. It was a personal writing challenge as much as it was an artistic one because I wanted to expand my knowledge of black contemporary artists that were underrepresented in traditional arts publications. The artists I featured have greatly influenced the work that I gravitate toward today
This year I focused on champions of black art who paved the way for the emergence of the black arts movement in Los Angeles in the 1960s and early 1970s. Their commitment and dedication to inclusion through promoting and writing about black artists were important factors in the movement’s momentum. While many of the artists that came out of this movement continue to boast successful careers, many were men. This has prompted institutions like the Brooklyn Museum to examine the role of black women and activism between the 1960s and early ‘1980s. Exhibitions like “We Wanted a Revolution” take a specialized approach in exploring the connectivity among artists, activists and community leaders who were behind the engines of social justice. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, a gallery has opted for a broader view of art created by black women.
Sprüth Magers is currently running an ambitious group show called POWER featuring art created by 37 black women spanning 140 years. Many of the artists I’ve highlighted here on Culture Shock Art, and for me this show was a homecoming of artists that are rarely shown in L.A. Two large installations are placed prominently at the entrance of the gallery, giving them space to breathe and talk to one another before the rest of the art in the show comes into focus. Karon Davis’ plaster child Mawu rests on the floor with her dress fanned around her and a basket of tissues placed in her lap. She’s looking up at Renee Cox’s powerful piece called It Shall Be Named, featuring an enormous crucifix fashioned from wooden framed photos. The quiet, contemplative stillness created by their juxtaposition was quickly overpowered by the density of artwork placed in the rest of the gallery.
My eyes quickly darted around the room catching quick glimpses of paintings, photographs and sculptures that I had previously only seen in books and online. My internal dialog went a little something like this:
“Hey look there’s Elizabeth Catlett!”
“… and Lorraine O’Grady’s Mlle Bourgeoisie Noire!”
“Oh wow it’s Senga Nengudi next to Mickalene Thomas!”
“Oops there’s a Simone Leigh on the floor, don’t trip over it…”
Because there was so much of it, the art was talking over one another. It felt like I was suddenly placed in a room with a group of people who were all speaking at the same time and my mind couldn’t focus. In one corner Betye Saar was telling an important story, while across the room Xaviera Simmons caught my attention. Meanwhile Lorna Simpson and Carrie Mae Weems were quietly whispering to each other from different rooms. Everyone had something to say and I desperately wanted to hear it all. While these remarkable works of art speak for themselves, if everyone is talking at once the meaning is lost. They needed a moderator and a common thread connecting them. This connection needed to be more than the fact that the work was created by black women.
When we yield interpretation to others, the control over narrative is lost. This is the challenge of every artist who relinquishes control over their work to a gallery, a critic writing a review, a curator writing a catalog for an exhibition or an academic who has dutifully studied their work. Invariably something gets lost in translation, but ultimately the art must stand on its own. All of the work shown in POWER stands on its own, yet despite this I left the show unraveled, looking for that missing thread.
I went home with a copy of the show’s 33 page catalog written by Andrianna Campbell (Todd Levin was POWER’s curator). Campbell’s essay pointed out the creative intergenerational conversations that took place between works and she highlighted the connections that guide the artists’ practice. I wished I had read this before seeing the show. Following the essay is a series of artist interviews who were asked 2 questions:
“Why do exhibitions that are organized around identity continue to be important in our day and age?”
“Who is another woman in the exhibition that you have thought of as important to your practice?”
The artists’ answers to these questions became the missing thread I was searching for in the gallery; what it revealed is that among many black women artists, community rests at the center of power.
The collectives, organizations, co-ops and coalitions that fueled the black arts movement of the 1960s and 1970s have been replaced by looser networks among women artists whose bonds have sustained one another over time. These connections are crucial in an environment that continues to define black artists by “otherness” to maintain its legitimacy and sustain traditional white, male standards that continue to dominate the broader art world. The fact that a show called Power exists in 2017, raises so many questions about who really wields power within the art world. It is a sobering reminder and an important wakeup call that there’s much more to do in the areas of gallery representation, curation, collecting, museum leadership and arts writing. The common thread of community, support and mentorship is just the beginning and continues to remain vitally important today.
Seeing POWER is a good introduction to black art, but it’s now up to artists, inclusive museums/galleries, diverse curators and writers to continue to shape an ongoing dialog that supports black women artists.
POWER is on view at Sprüth Magers through June 10.