“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.
“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?”
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.
Where: Pérez Art Museum Miami
When: This week through May 1, 2015
Why: American 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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 out “Bound for Freedom’s Light: African Americans and the Civil War” at the National Portrait Gallery.
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.
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.