As the elevator opens onto the fourth floor of the New Museum, you step into auditory chaos. Eighties hip-hop, classical music, the buzzing of flies, muffled and not-so-muffled voices: an enveloping swarm emanating from works that explore the infinitesimal individual experiences and larger shared realities of Blackness. “Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America,” conceived by Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor roughly a year before his untimely death in March 2019, is a colossally ambitious show. Posthumously realized by Naomi Beckwith, Glenn Ligon, Massimiliano Gioni, and Mark Nash, the exhibition offers innumerable prompts for the collective acknowledgment of Black anguish. In Enwezor’s essay for the show’s catalogue (initially published in spring 2020), he writes, “The exhibition is devoted to examining modes of representation in different mediums where artists have addressed the concept of mourning, commemoration, and loss as a direct response to the national emergency of black grief.” Viewers are asked to consider the breadth of experiences, expressions, and perceptions encapsulated in the troubles, triumphs, and traumas of Black people in the Western world—a mammoth effort considering the multitudes each Black individual and subculture contains.
The show opens with a palpable sense of heaviness. As I adjusted to the overwhelming presentation on the show’s top floor, centered on Rashid Johnson’s monumental installation Antoine’s Organ (2016), pushy white visitors sidled in front of their Black counterparts supposedly unaware, squinting at the introductory wall text—racial ambivalence and anti-Black violence in action even here. Within the blackened steel grid of the massive scaffold is a sprinkling of retro television sets playing a selection of Johnson’s past video works on loop: Black men performing martial arts, making music, just moving. Sitting among the monitors are stacks of books including Søren Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Anxiety and Randall Kennedy’s Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal—unsubtle nods to the complexity of a raced experience—and live plants, accompanied by busts of shea butter, and black soap. The scent is perhaps what attracted the flies, a tender nod to Black nostalgia made less tender by the tiny traveling companions of rot and decay.
Johnson’s arresting installation is displayed alongside four paintings by Julie Mehretu and one by Mark Bradford. Collectively, the works tackle themes of destruction, creation, and loss reinterpreted. Built up from numerous small markings, Mehretu’s paintings possess a world-ending force, as if channeling a relentless barrage of microaggressions: Black Monolith, for Okwui Enwezor (Charlottesville), 2017–20, a large, abstract canvas with layered calligraphic marks and shadowy airbrushed slashes in black ink and acrylic nearly occluding a brightly colored ground, confronts grief directly, paying homage to the late curator. Tucked quietly on the other side of the gallery is a small abstract assemblage by Jack Whitten, Birmingham (1964), its materials—aluminum foil, newsprint, stockings, and black paint on plywood—invoking the burnt Baptist tabernacles and ripped stockings of stalwart Black church aunties that were seared into the artist’s mind from his early years in Birmingham, Alabama.
Installed in the stairwell leading down to the next floor is Hank Willis Thomas’s 14,719 (2019), a monument—perhaps excessively literal—to victims of gun violence, taking the form of a circle of hanging banners embroidered with stars representing the number of people killed by guns in the US during a single year. It gives way to works that interlace mythology with science fiction and self-told history. Howardena Pindell’s collage Autobiography: Water (Ancestors/Middle Passage/Family Ghosts), 1988, depicts dozens of eyes sprinkled around the vague silhouette of a human form. Extra limbs extend upward from the figure, calling to mind the protagonist of Octavia Butler’s trilogy “Lilith’s Brood,” the vessel for a new form of human. Pindell uses her personal memories of segregation and the remembered tales of her enslaved ancestors (at least one of whom was maimed by their enslaver) to construct this vision of herself rising from watery depths, healing generational wounds. Other works call to mind celebration and pick up the earlier theme of destruction. In a video depicting the enchanting songstress Alice Smith in a recording session, Kahlil Joseph aims to capture Black beauty, seen through Black eyes, for Black enjoyment in AliceTM (you don’t have to think about it), 2016, while Okwui Okpokwasili offers a pleasantly unbalanced diptych in the installation Poor People’s TV Room (Solo), 2017, showing her physical and spirit selves intertwined in a dance of self-actualization and self-acknowledgment. Arthur Jafa’s Love Is the Message, The Message Is Death (2016) is a decidedly more forceful and cinematic video collage incorporating clips of police brutality, religious worship, and scenes from space, set to a Kanye West track (himself a troubled symbol of Black brilliance and self-hate intermingled in an individual).
The show includes a number of sculptural interventions that loom uncomfortably over their surroundings. Nari Ward’s Peace Keeper (1995/2020), incorporating a tarred and peacock-feathered hearse, viscerally calls to mind early colonial exhibitionist punishments, designed to dehumanize and humiliate, which continued in the form of twentieth- and twenty-first-century lynchings. Simone Leigh’s Sentinel IV (2020) peers over visitors, silently taking stock, recording, and repelling, while Tiona Nekkia McClodden’s THE FULL SEVERITY OF COMPASSION (2019), a painted manual cattle squeeze, marries themes of pain and pleasure, comfort and death. A trio of works from Diamond Stingily’s series “Entryways” (2016–19)— freestanding doors with baseball bats leaning against them—are affecting metaphors for self-protection and female agency. Stingily’s sculptures also exemplify the limits of the show’s theme: they are not so much about grief as its prevention. At once overambitious and oversimplifying, the show’s attempts to fit a multitude of experiences into a single overarching framework can have a flattening effect: Blackness is not just grief, a point that often gets lost when work by Black artists is shown in predominantly white institutions.
But mourning is nevertheless a crucial part of healing, something too often denied Black Americans, who have had to contend with a hamster wheel of atrocities flung at them century after century. This is the dichotomy of Black grief and fictionalized white grievances to which the show’s title speaks. Though at times disjointed, Enwezor’s final curatorial effort makes an insistent attempt to re-center this vital process, bringing together artists with widely different practices to create a space within which viewers can safely mourn—or at the very least, remember why they didn’t get the chance to in the first place.
This article appears in the May/June 2021 issue, pp. 109–110.