This is not new. Think James A. Porter, who published a 1943 book on Modern Negro art explaining what presidential candidate Barack Obama allows, "Yes we Can!" when it comes to the ability of Black people to think about and create fine art.
His classic book, Modern Negro Art (1943, Howard University Press 1992, cover art left, "Woman with Jug") proved to be one of the most informative sources to date on the productivity of the Negro artist in the United States since the 18th century. It is a standard reference work on Black Art in America. It is said that "Porter's book placed African American artists in the context of modern art history, which was both novel and profound.
Porter's book served to dispel contrary information concerning the motivation and abilities of black people who produce art works.
It seems we are still trying to prove Porter's point. In the last week I attended two panels on Black Art, addressing exhibitions in Chicago at the Hyde Park Art Center and the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago. Saturday I revisited the exhibitions.
I left both exhibitions puzzled. I left with the, seemingly, persistent questions "what is art" and "what is Black art?" All the artists in these shows are not, what we consider black. I don't mean like Barack Obama is not black enough, I mean not black as in white or something else, not bi-racial, which by the way, has for centuries been black enuf when it came to denying people their civil rights.
Both shows displayed images by prominent artists who have been shown by major institutions including museums. So the pedigree was set, right? OK, I accept that.
A couple of artists even overlapped, being in both exhibitions.
The exhibitions included racially charged images that are now called "black memorabilia" and that Fred Wilson has used in innovative ways. They include mammy figures, black face, racial epithets in text, and portraits showing black families and black female portraits intimating, I think, that the black woman is seen differently in various situations and depending on the person who views her. Surprised?
The black memorabilia photos by David Levinthal (photo left)
brought to mind the blackface minstrels in the early movies produced by Metro Goldwyn Mayer and other film houses exploiting and denigrating black culture for financial gain and notoriety.
Levinthal photographs other characters including Barbie. Black or not The Renaissance show isn't visible on his website.
One show confused me because the installation of the objects seemed uncertain. The other exhibition was pristine as far as that goes, just a bit confusing about why we need others to define black or not art. I agree that they were both thought-provoking. See for yourself by clicking on the links I provide.
If you saw either of these exhibitions or attended the panel discussions I would love your feedback.
Answering the question during a Village Voice interview, "so, what is black art?" Lowery Stokes Sims, of the Studio Museum in Harlem said:
It isn't the racist collectibles Henry Louis Gates Jr. calls "Sambo Art." Nor is it Romare Bearden, David Hammons, or Kara Walker. According to Lowery Stokes Sims, the savvy director of the Studio Museum, it's "painted by, collected by, and exhibited within African American communities." In the catalog, writer Melvin Dixon asserts, "Black art seeks to step beyond the white Western framework of American art which has enclosed and smothered any previous expression of Blackness."
Thelma Golden was the curator for the exhibition, "Black Romantic" in 2002".
(above: African American artist Joshua Johnston, created "The Westwood Children" in 1807.)
Also on the topic, below is from an artist who attended the panels. Lowell Thompson wrote this email to me:
Good. It's about time AfrAmerican artists started to think about the State of American Art and to figure out ways to "colorize" and Americanize it. I just hope our individual egos don't get in the way. I've got two blogs you might want to check out:
Here's hoping Barack Obama's presidential bid isn't the beginning and end of so much new found interest in the subject of racism in general or in the fine art world in particular. The problem will be here whether he wins, loses or draws.
Stay strong. It won't be long.