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    9 Art Shows to See After ‘12 Years a Slave’

    Museum exhibitions confront amnesia, restore lost narratives, and consider the legacy of the Middle Passage

    “People have said I’m controversial as a filmmaker,” 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen told the Walker Art Center’s Rob Nelson last month.

    Steve McQueen, Portrait as an Escapologist, 2006, black and white offset print. COURTESY THE ARTIST AND MARIAN GOODMAN GALLERY, NEW YORK/PARIS.

    ‘12 Years a Slave’ director Steve McQueen in shackles in his 2006 artwork Portrait as an Escapologist, a black and white offset print. Click image to enlarge.

    COURTESY THE ARTIST AND MARIAN GOODMAN GALLERY, NEW YORK/PARIS. 

    “But I don’t think I am, because slavery is real. It’s huge, but it has been brushed under the carpet, particularly within cinema. It’s fascinating to me that only 20 feature films have been made about American slavery.”

    Ever since the film opened this fall, McQueen has been praised, and questioned, for the violent way he wrenches audiences out of a collective amnesia about slavery’s role in the national narrative. Some think “12 Years” is too brutal; others find it too beautiful. No one disputes that recent events continue to underscore its relevance.

    Art museums have suffered from that amnesia too, a theme that has itself been the subject of art-museum shows by Fred Wilson and others.

    But things are changing.

    Historical anniversaries have inspired shows like the current ones at the National Gallery of Art and the National Portrait Gallery, looking  at the roles African Americans played during the Civil War.

    Others shows feature contemporary artists whose work insists on a conversation about race–among them Carrie Mae Weems and Hank Willis Thomas, as well as Kara Walker, whose sinister tableaus of antebellum life influenced McQueen’s production team.

    And other shows reflect new ways of looking at art history and art’s relationship to the world around it. Their approaches range from archeology to science fiction, from contemporary history painting to video art and movies. In one way or another, all of them are bringing the invisible to the surface.


    What: “In the Tower: Kerry James Marshall
    Where: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
    When: Through December 8
    Why: Now that this show is in its last week, the furor has subsided about its being the first solo exhibition the National Gallery has ever organized for a living
    African American artist. So now we can see how a provocative a gesture it is.
    “In the Tower” is built around Marshall’s 1994 painting Great America, a 9 ½-foot long canvas the museum bought in 2011.
    The scene, in which four dark figures burst out of a haunted Tunnel of Love ride, seems like a jovial cartoon, at first. Look closer, and you will sense the fear, expectation, insecurity, and foreboding in this crowded boat ride, and you will begin to understand the real subject of the picture.
    Great America is nothing less than an arch, bitter lament on how the journey of the kidnapped Africans remains the psychological backdrop for the powerlessness and anxiety experienced by the black population today.
    “You have to put together what that means by adding up the elements,” the artist says. The banner announcing the painting’s title comes from an amusement park, but it’s not an homage. “Black people always have to wonder,” says Marshall, “When did America become great for black folks?”

    Kerry James Marshall, Great America, 1994, acrylic and collage on canvas. COURTESY NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART, WASHINGTON. GIFT OF THE COLLECTORS COMMITTEE.

    Kerry James Marshall, Great America, 1994, acrylic and collage on canvas. Click image to enlarge.

    COURTESY NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART, WASHINGTON. GIFT OF THE COLLECTORS COMMITTEE. 

    Learn more: Download the brochure. Read about the current survey of Marshall’s work in Antwerp. Hear the artist speak at at the National Gallery. Follow his progress as a new appointee to President Obama’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities.


    What: “Americana
    Where: Pérez Art Museum Miami
    When: This week through May 1, 2015
    WhyAmerican People Series #20: Die, Faith Ringgold’s epic, tragic version of Guernica updated for the Civil Rights era, was first shown at New York’s Spectrum Gallery in 1967.
    After that, the painting—like most of the artist’s civil-rights themed works from that era—disappeared from view. It hadn’t been shown in decades when, in 2010, it joined “American People, Black Light,” a travelling survey of Ringgold’s ’60s paintings that began at the Neuberger Museum of Art. That show’s co-organizer, museum director Thom Collins, left to join the Miami Art Museum, where the show traveled later.
    Now Die has returned to the institution for its reopening this week in its new incarnation as the Pérez Art Museum Miami.
    The painting, which remains in the collection of the artist, is part of “Americana,” an inaugural exhibition featuring works from North America, the Caribbean, and South America arranged in thematic groupings. Die is in the part called “Corporal Violence”; its neighbors are artworks by Sue Coe, Nancy Spero, Eugenio Dittborn, Miguel Ángel Rojas, among others–artists who, like Ringgold, work in the realm of uncomfortable truths.

    Faith Ringgold, American People Series #20: Die, 1967, oil on canvas. COURTESY ACA GALLERIES, NEW YORK.

    Faith Ringgold, American People Series #20: Die, 1967, oil on canvas. Click image to enlarge.

    COURTESY ACA GALLERIES, NEW YORK. 

    Die has grown even more fascinating to me over the years,” Ringgold’s daughter Michele Wallace writes in the “American People, Black Light” catalogue. “…I am more struck by the tension between her depiction, which portrays both whites and blacks bleeding and fleeing, males and females engaged in a free-for-all…whereas the actual riots were largely black men breaking into stores, battling the police who had guns with rocks or other objects, chaotic affairs.
    … So the battle Faith’s mural portrays is a conceptual one,” Wallace adds, “revealing the undercurrents of what was really at stake in the riots of the 60s…”
    Learn more: Get the catalogue. Read Wallace’s essay online. Listen to Ringgold on “The Makers.” Check out the educators’ guide prepared by the National Museum of Women in the Arts.


    Face vessel, mid-1800s, alkaline-glazed stoneware.  COURTESY ESTATE OF MARY ELIZA-BETH SINNOTT, COLLECTION OF THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AMERICAN HISTORY, SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION, 68233.

    Face Vessel, mid-1800s, alkaline-glazed stoneware. Click image to enlarge.

    COURTESY ESTATE OF MARY ELIZABETH SINNOTT, COLLECTION OF THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AMERICAN HISTORY, SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION, 68233. 

    What:Kongo across the Waters
    Where: Harn Museum of Art, University of Florida, Gainesville
    When: Through March 23, 2014
    Why: A collaboration with Belgium’s Royal Museum for Central Africa, “Kongo” unites objects that span five centuries to examine the rise of Kongo as a power and art center, and the transmission of Kongo culture through the Middle Passage and into American art. Newly excavated pottery from slave quarters, along with carved wooden canes, ceramic vessels, coiled baskets, conjuration devices, grave decorations, and yard art are some of the objects from the American South that reflect the influence of Kongo rituals, beliefs, and art practice over centuries.
    Among the highlights are alkaline-glazed stoneware Face Vessels, made in South Carolina in the mid-1800s. The forms can be traced to a type of Kongo water jug that inspired Afro-Caribbean wares called monkey jugs. The faces are also derived from Kongo forms, some of which were in turn influenced by Toby Jugs from England.
    Learn more: Order the catalogue. Check out the programs. Catch the show when it travels to the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum, Princeton University Art Museum, and the New Orleans Museum of Art.


    Wanuri Kahiu, still from Pumzi, 2009, single-channel video.  COURTESY FOCUS FEATURES AFRICA FIRST SHORT FILM PROGRAM.

    Wanuri Kahiu, still from Pumzi, 2009, single-channel video. Click image to enlarge.

    COURTESY FOCUS FEATURES AFRICA FIRST SHORT FILM PROGRAM. 

    What: “The Shadows Took Shape
    Where: The Studio Museum in Harlem
    When: Through March 9, 2014
    Why: The distance between slave ships and space ships is collapsed in this multidisciplinary show uniting works that riff on science fiction, fantasy, magic realism, and pan-Africanism, all under the general rubric of Afrofuturism.
    Under the guiding spirit of Sun Ra, with works by figures including RAMM:ΣLL:ZΣΣ, Robert Pruitt, Edgar Arceneaux , Edgar Cleijne + Ellen Gallagher, Wangechi Mutu, Sanford Biggers, Saya Woolfalk, and more, the show considers utopias and distopias, apocalypse and escape, and whether space is really the place–or there’s any chance left of going back in time to fix the planet we’re on now.
    Learn more: Get the catalogue. Join the book club. Read the Tumblr. See Wanuri Kahiu’s TEDxNariobi talk on Afrofuturism in popular culture. This Saturday, try looking at the world through Cyrus Kabiru’s C-Stunners.


    David Hammons,The Door (Admissions Office), 1969, wood, acrylic sheet and pigment construction. Collection of Friends, the Foundation of the California African American Museum.

    David Hammons,The Door (Admissions Office), 1969. Click image to enlarge.

    COLLECTION OF FRIENDS, THE FOUNDATION OF THE CALIFORNIA AFRICAN AMERICAN MUSEUM. 

    What: Crosscurrents: Africa and Black Diasporas in Dialogue, 1960-1980
    Where: Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco
    When: This week through April 13, 2014
    Why: A kind of sequel to “Afro Modern,” the influential show at Tate Liverpool, “Crosscurrents” charts a global history of cultural interconnections.
    The earlier show exposed the hybrid roots of Modernism. This one explores the esthetics of Black internationalism.
    Using documentary and artistic photographs, social justice and liberation posters, flyers, manuscripts, letters, and artworks by figures including Jacob Lawrence, Malick Sidibé, David Hammons, Elizabeth Catlett, Romare Bearden, and Melvin Edwards, “Crosscurrents” explores the role of the arts in Black liberation movements around the world.
    Learn more: Order the catalogue. Read about the Black Arts Movement. See more about Elizabeth Catlett. Check out Barbara Chase-Riboud’s “Malcolm X Steles” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.


    Hank Willis Thomas, Absolut Power, 2003, inkjet print on canvas and paper.  ©HANK WILLIS THOMAS/THE CLEVELAND MUSEUM OF ART, PURCHASE FROM THE J. H. WADE FUND.

    A slave ship diagram repurposed as a vodka ad in Hank Willis Thomas’s Absolut Power, 2003, inkjet print on canvas and paper. Click image to enlarge.

    ©HANK WILLIS THOMAS/THE CLEVELAND MUSEUM OF ART, PURCHASE FROM THE J. H. WADE FUND, 2012.58. 

    What: Hank Willis Thomas
    Where: Cleveland Museum of Art and CMA at Transformer Station
    When: Through March 9, 2014
    Why: The largest museum survey to date for an artist who uses photography, video, the web, and installations to consider the intersection of identity, history, branding, and more.
    “Racism is the most successful advertising campaign of all time,” says the artist. “Africans have hundreds if not thousands of years of culture. Having all of these people packed into ships and then told they’re all the same, reducing them to a single identity—that’s absolute power.”
    Learn more: Watch Winter in America, a video by Thomas and Kambui Olujimi that uses stop-action animation and G.I. Joe figures to act out the shooting death of Thomas’s cousin during a robbery.
    Explore Question Bridge: Black Males. Thomas’s multimedia project with Chris Johnson, Bayeté Ross Smith and Kamal Sinclair unites interviews with hundreds of black men in an effort to redefine Black identity in America.
    Question Bridge is currently at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, the Gantt Center in Charlotte, and the Birmingham Museum in Alabama, Question Bridge opens this week at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., next week at Cleveland’s Transformer Station, and later at various other venues.


    Unknown Photographer, Private Abraham F. Brown, 1863, tintype. COURTESY THE MASSACHUSETTS HISTORICAL SOCIETY.

    Unknown Photographer, Private Abraham F. Brown, 1863, tintype. Click image to enlarge.

    COURTESY THE MASSACHUSETTS HISTORICAL SOCIETY. 

    What: Tell It with Pride: The 54th Massachusetts Regiment and Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Shaw Memorial
    Where: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
    When: Through January 20, 2014
    Why: Built around Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Shaw Memorial (1883–1900), which commemorates the famous 1863 battle waged by one of the first African American military units raised in the North, the show seeks to “make real the soldiers of the 54th represented anonymously in the memorial.” It looks at Saint-Gaudens’ casting of live models for the infantrymen, the role of photography in recruiting for the 54th regiment, and the ways Saint-Gaudens’ heroic imagery was represented and repurposed by later artists.
    Learn more: Download the brochure. Get the catalogue. See Art Babble’s video (for kids) about the sculpture. Read more about the 54th Regiment. Check outBound for Freedom’s Light: African Americans and the Civil War” at the National Portrait Gallery.


    (Top left to right) From Here I Saw What Happened (detail); Black and Tanned Your Whipped Wind of Change Howled Low Blowing Itself – Ha – Smack Into the Middle of Ellington’s Orchestra Billie Heard It Too & Cried Strange Fruit Tears (detail); (Bottom left to right) Restless After The Longest Winter You Marched & Marched & Marched (detail); Your Resistance Was Found in The Food You Placed on The Master’s Table – Ha (detail), from the series “From Here I Saw What Happened And I Cried,” 1995-96, chromogenic print with etched text on glass. COURTESY THE ARTIST AND JACK SHAINMAN GALLERY, NEW YORK.

    Carrie Mae Weems, details from the series “From Here I Saw What Happened And I Cried,” 1995-96, chromogenic print with etched text on glass. Click image to enlarge.

    COURTESY THE ARTIST AND JACK SHAINMAN GALLERY, NEW YORK. 

    What: Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video
    Where: Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University
    When: Through: January 5, 2014.
    Why: A Richard Benson photo of the Shaw Memorial, printed with a blood-red filter, is in “From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried,” 1995-1996, a history of blacks in America as told through annotated photographs.
    It’s part of the traveling survey featuring three decades of the artist’s work, her first major museum show. The artist, who won a MacArthur Fellowship earlier this fall, spoke to ARTnews about her installations, videos, and photographs that invite the viewer to reflect on issues of race, gender, and class.
    Learn more: Follow the artist’s career on her website. Get the catalogue. Watch Weems on Art21. Read her conversation with Dawoud Bey in Bomb. Catch the show at the Guggenheim starting January 24.


    Kara Walker, The Emancipation Approximation (Scene #5), 1999–2000, screenprint on paper.  COLLECTION OF THE JORDAN SCHNITZER FAMILY FOUNDATION. ©KARA WALKER.

    Kara Walker, The Emancipation Approximation (Scene #5), 1999–2000, screenprint on paper. Click image to enlarge.

    ©KARA WALKER. COLLECTION OF THE JORDAN SCHNITZER FAMILY FOUNDATION. 

    What: Emancipating the Past: Kara Walker’s Tales of Slavery and Power
    Where: Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento.
    When: Through January 5
    Why: A selection from the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation’s collection of works by the artist, including her well-known silhouettes and her Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated). Walker’s recent installation at the Art Institute of Chicago, “Rise Up Ye Mighty Race!,” which takes a quote from Marcus Garvey as used by President Obama as filtered through The Turner Diaries, brought the narrative up to date. The artist described it as “a kind of paranoid panorama wall work—with supplemental drawings large and small, to chronicle what can be called a diary of my ever-present, never-ending war with race.”
    Learn more: Watch the Art21 profile. See Walker talk with about her work at the Art Institute. Read Dust Jackets for the Niggerati–and Supporting Dissertations, Drawings Submitted Ruefully by Dr. Kara E. Walker, a new book of her graphite drawings. It includes the image (see below) that was in the news lately when staff at the Newark Public Library found it too hard to look at. The museum covered up the drawing for a while. Then, after a public conversation, it was restored to view.

    Kara Walker, The moral arc of history ideally bends towards justice but just as soon as not curves back around toward barbarism, sadism, and unrestrained chaos, 2010, graphite and pastel on paper. ©KARA WALKER; COURTESY OF SIKKEMA JENKINS & CO., NEW YORK.

    Kara Walker, The moral arc of history ideally bends towards justice but just as soon as not curves back around toward barbarism, sadism, and unrestrained chaos, 2010, graphite and pastel on paper. Click image to enlarge.

    ARTWORK ©KARA WALKER, IMAGE COURTESY SIKKEMA JENKINS & CO., NEW YORK. 

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    • Denise E. Allen

      I enjoyed the article and thought it was a great idea to include African American Art Exhibits with the movie 12 Years A Slave. Film Director/Producer Mr. McQueen is 100 percent right about how the story of Slavery hasn’t completely been told, discussed or looked at. In reality, who in their right mind would want to take a thorough and honest look at a history of slavery that was so horrific, brutal, so insane that one could possibly suffer psychological trauma if they did. Many African American Artists have a unique calling to record our history through art, writing and lectures, otherwise, these stories may have never been told. i am familiar with some of the above artists’ work. Dr. Kara Walkers is one of the artists who has captured quite accurately ”THE BRUTAL AND PSYCHOLOGICAL TRAUMA OF SLAVERY” more than the others – and it is true, her work is not very easy to look at and digest mentally. It has brought me to tears, deep sorrow and anger. I am a African American Artist and I too tell stories although I tell the stories about our experience as families who loved one another deeply and spiritually. How our faith in God helped us to endure, hope and pray that one day things would change and be made right. Thankfully in the times we now live in we are seeing the ugly and the bad of Slavery transforming itself into our stories for the Good. Thank you again for writing this article ARTnews.

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