“Make America What America Must Become” takes its title from a line in James Baldwin’s “A Letter to My Nephew.” Originally published as an article in 1962, it would later be renamed “My Dungeon Shook,” appearing as the first of two missives that constitute Baldwin’s seminal work The Fire Next Time (1963). The Contemporary Arts Center exhibition, mounted in response to what the curatorial statement calls a summer of “electoral consternation,” features some thirty-five living artists from the Gulf South. Participants were chosen by two New Orleans curators—CAC director George Scheer and Toccarra A.H. Thomas, an artist and director of the Joan Mitchell Center—and Brooklyn-based Katrina Neumann, director of a private collection.
Such a robust showing of regional artists is unusual, even in Louisiana. The exhibition seeks to present a picture of urgent contemporary art concerns, and to reflect what many institutions are doing in response to the nation’s current political climate. Numerous venues now house works that directly question the society from which such art institutions derive their power to set the critical discourse. The show finds its guiding spirit in Baldwin’s letter upon the one-hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, in which he imparts the tough wisdom he amassed through struggle at home, and in expatriation and return. America is both his and his nephew’s only true home, he says, and so its fate is their own. The only hope for freedom lies in refuting a mythology based on lack of awareness and accountability: “It is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence that constitutes the crime.”
Caroline Sinders’s installation “Feminist Data Set,” incorporating myriad texts on both paper and screens, examines artificial intelligence procedures to trace how a discrepancy between theoretic ideals and actual prejudice gets built into digital tools. Part of a long-term project (2017–) entailing workshops, seminars, and software, the piece also explores various ways that data gathering and processing can be used, conversely, to help disadvantaged communities challenge the dominant hetero-patriarchy. Dalila Sanabria’s resin-encased DHL envelope, Visas (2019), once contained visas for her parents, who had waited ten years for permission reenter the United States after an initial deportation. Lionel Milton offers paintings on plywood, Social Distance Social Justice and Strange Fruit (both 2020), memorializing Ahmaud Arbery, the unarmed Black man fatally shot while jogging in Georgia in 2020, and protesting the health disparities that allowed the coronavirus to ravage Black New Orleans. Combining weighty themes with mundane materials, such works bring today’s social justice issues home in every sense.
Ariel René Jackson’s video The Future Is a Constant Wake (2019) is a standout in a show whose sheer volume of provocative work made individual prominence difficult. Audible throughout the galleries, Jackson’s voiceover accompanies looping footage of two Black feet working dry soil back and forth, inscribing cryptic patterns: “Gestures become technology, pushing back against the Age of Enlightenment that we insist on preserving.” Indeed, even in the show’s press material and catalogue, the elusive ideas of “self-evident truths” and “unalienable rights”—enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights—are still treated as inspiring principles. But some of the selected artworks go further, suggesting that this intellectual and moral foundation, dreamed up in the eighteenth century by men of privilege, must now be closely questioned, if we are ever to solve the conundrum of perpetually falling short of our ideals. In Jackson’s short video, the link between Black people, the land, and the nature of mortality itself in the United States of America is a mantra, aiding meditation on the show as a whole.