“Banal Presents” was the final installment in a trilogy of exhibitions at the Institute of Contemporary Art curated by Meg Onli and titled Colored People Time, after a black expression that frames a supposed lack of punctuality on the part of black people as the effect of a particular sense of time. Using this notion as a departure point, Onli argues that black artistic work in the United States expresses a temporality that troubles normative society’s focus on productivity. The exhibitions—which will be shown together at the MIT List Visual Arts Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, between February and April—invoked what literary scholar and cultural historian Saidiya Hartman calls the afterlife of slavery: “skewed life chances, limited access to health and education, premature death, incarceration, and impoverishment.” This latest show was preceded by “Mundane Futures” and “Quotidian Pasts,” which explored what might lie ahead and what already happened, though all three exhibitions blurred the lines between past, present, and future. The descriptors in their titles point to the ubiquity of the subject matter, while also (given their near-synonymousness) highlighting how things stay the same.
“Banal Presents” comprised four works by three artists: Cameron Rowland, Sable Elyse Smith, and Carolyn Lazard. Although physically small, the show was conceptually large. Examining themes of private property, incarceration, education, and medicine, the artists intervene in institutions that seem too big to touch—even while they intimately touch the lives of vast numbers of people. Rowland’s Depreciation (2018)—which consists of legal documentation concerning his purchase of one acre of land on former plantation property and placing a restrictive covenant on it so that its value was depreciated to $0—walks the line between conceptual art and political action. Smith, meanwhile, engages with the ways in which the cruel logic of incarceration affects children. The ICA show featured her Coloring Book 33 (2019), a screen print of a page from a coloring book offered to children visiting inmates. Above the instruction to “Draw your own picture,” Smith has drawn a sideways rainbow and written, in a childlike script, NOT MY FATHER, NOT MY BROTHER, NOT MY COUSIN, NOR A CHEAP FUCK, NOT FRIEND, TEACHER, NEIGHBOR, ACQUAINTANCE, NOT MY FICTION. Her Pivot (2019) is a sculpture in the form of a toy jack whose prongs, topped with blue powder-coated aluminum circles, resemble prison visitation stools. These seats can’t be sat on, the jack can’t be played with. Smith uses the aesthetics of games to insist that keeping people locked in cages is hardly a game.
Directly across the room, Carolyn Lazard’s fifteen-minute video Pre-Existing Condition (2019) brought the prison, university, and hospital into direct conversation with one another. The work draws on two sources: archival documents related to the research projects of Dr. Albert M. Kligman, a dermatologist who taught at the University of Pennsylvania (of which the ICA is part) and conducted experiments on inmates at Philadelphia’s Holmesburg Prison between 1951 and 1974; and the oral history of Edward Yusuf Anthony, a Holmesburg survivor. Struggling with illnesses related to long-term health effects of Dr. Kligman’s tests, Anthony experiences long days. “When I wake up, I have many pains, you know, my hips, my back, the arthritis—you know, I’m thankful. I’m thankful that I woke. But what I’m gonna do today? So I just get up and put out the trash, wash the dishes. Cook something for me and my wife, you know what I mean, turn on the TV, watch my favorite shows. Stuff like that,” he says. The juxtaposition between Dr. Kligman’s cold, typed black-and-white documents (shown on-screen as stills) and Anthony’s attention to the labor it takes for him to do basic household tasks—one after another, day after day—is jarring, and conveys how institutional malpractice plays out on the individual level. This last exhibition in the epic Colored People Time series seemed to suggest that, although the passing of time is universal, the present for black people is very specific: uneven, unavoidable, unrelenting.
This article appears under the title “’Banal Presents’” in the January 2020 issue, pp. 82–83.