by Maria Porges
As an exhibition, About Things Loved: Blackness and Belonging is both innovative and compelling in its approach to curating objects and images made by Black artists, deploying a fascinating combination of sensitivity and boldness. Under the guidance of Professors Lauren Kroiz and Leigh Raiford, 15 UC Berkeley students in a seminar (Diaspora/Migration/Exile) spent months reading texts, talking with artists and examining artwork held in the collections of BAMPFA and the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology (also part of the university) before organizing this exhibition. Its five sections address how blackness belongs in museums — and what belonging truly means. Works were chosen from both museums’ collections (as well as library archives), with an eye toward pieces that haven’t been exhibited recently or — in some cases — ever. Most strikingly, Bettye Saar’s Liberation of Aunt Jemima (1972), a well-known work in BAMPFA’s collection which is frequently lent and often reproduced, is not included — a choice meant to highlight the way certain objects are valorized disproportionately, overshadowing other works and preventing a broader understanding of the richness and diversity of Black expression. As the exhibition catalog states, “the richness …that becomes visible when blackness is taken as the norm rather than the exception, proposes the museum as a space of care for relationships of equity and inclusion.”
A small number of pieces are historical, but most are modern/contemporary. The works on view and the eloquent and informative labels and wall texts that accompany them are both moving and troubling when considered in light of the questions being posed. Foremost among them: Why have so many Black artists been rendered invisible and ignored by institutions and the art world in general? Why do Black visitors feel unwelcome in the museum? And, how can the metanarratives of colonialism and the false history created by such narratives be transformed?
Some of the strategies used to challenge preconceptions are immediately apparent upon entering a gallery in which the walls are painted black. The resulting darkness creates a jewel-box setting for each of the pieces — perhaps most strikingly, for Kamau Amu Patton’s Light Bar, Blue (2011), a magical cobalt oval of glowing light that, as the wall label puts it, “call[s] into question the common use of white paint for gallery walls, which we have come to accept as natural. What would it be like to take this insight out of the gallery?” Another work that benefits from this unique setting is Mildred Howard’s installation Safe House (2005-15), the show’s centerpiece. A random spill of battered silver-plate objects covers the floor of a steel skeleton that sketches the shape of a small house, their tarnished forms trailing through the outline of a “door” on one side of the structure towards two short freestanding gallery walls nearby. Dozens of sharp knives are embedded in the corner where those two walls meet, as if flung from the vestigial protection offered by the house. The jumble of once-precious objects on the floor suggests that the house is a safe broken wide open, no longer securing its contents. Howard, raised in Berkeley by her activist mother Mable (who was primarily responsible for forcing BART underground in the southern, Black part of the city), asks viewers to consider “what happens to a community when all the color leaves?” At a time when Berkeley’s Black population has dropped from 24 percent in 1970 to 7 percent today this is a question that needs to be answered.
The materials used in Howard’s Safe House recall Fred Wilson’s groundbreaking 1992 intervention at the Maryland Historical Society, in which the artist’s rearrangements of objects in the museum’s collection forever changed the way the holdings of such institutions are seen and understood. In one famous example, Wilson placed elaborate colonial silver teapots in a case with iron slave shackles, labeling the grouping Metalwork, 1793-1880. Wilson has not only made museums come to terms with both deliberate and unconscious bias, he has continued to draw attention to the invisibility of people of color within them. His contribution to this show, Wanderer (2003), is a sculpture of an African servant whose head he replaced with a globe showing African migratory routes. (It first appeared in the artist’s exhibition at the 2003 Biennale in Venice, where, incredibly, many such “servant” figures can still be found in hotels and other public places. It appears here in the subsection titled Routes and Roots: blackness as belongings alongside photographic works by Lorna Simpson and Carrie Mae Weems. This grouping of objects and images addresses the transatlantic slave trade’s role in creating the African diaspora, asking how artists can uncover and help heal the wounds of people whose connection to their homeland and history were severed. Weems’ photogravure, The Shape of Things (1992), pictures what the artist describes as the gender-specific architecture of three buildings in Djenne, Mali—part of her extended exploration of the slave coast of West Africa.
The subsection called Collecting and Belonging features reproductions of catalog cards from the Hearst Museum’s archives. Reading them is devastating and essential, their impact analogous to Wilson’s display of manacles and a whipping post in Maryland. One card describes “mulatto hair samples” collected by a curator who believed that it was possible to quantify race and that collecting such “artifacts” was a way to confirm the inherent biological difference between Africans and others.
The section titled Embodiment and Materiality consists of a variety of media and approaches to portraying black reality, from Charles Gaines’ meticulous geometric grid of tiny marks to Romare Bearden’s colorful collage of two figures, Continuities (1969) to Erica Deeman’s hypnotically beautiful photographic silhouette, Untitled 08 (2014), of a young Black woman, which, like Howard's Safe House, could fit almost almost anywhere in the exhibition.
The next section, Abstraction, brings to the fore an area of modern and contemporary art in which the achievements of Black artists have historically been given short shrift. Othello # I (1960), a knockout of a painting by Haiti-born Hervé Telemaque, has been in the museum’s collection since 1967 but hasn’t been exhibited for decades. It hangs next to Local Calm, (2005) a handsome print by art star Julie Mehretu — a reminder that the art world’s recognition of artists of color has shifted, though not nearly enough. Nearby, you’ll find Isom Dart (1972), a
painting by Peter Bradley, one of the most intriguing figures of the 1970s. It’s an ethereal field of blue and gray, named after the legendary Black cowboy, rodeo rider and outlaw who was born into slavery as Ned Huddleston (1849 – 1900) and later nicknamed Isom Dart. The Committee for the Acquisition of Afro-American Art, formed by the museum in the early 1970s, selected it. Painter and educator Raymond Saunders, who served on that committee, is represented here by an expansive abstract work from which the exhibition takes its name, About Things Loved (1986). Saunders and Bradley, the text panel suggests, embraced abstraction as a way of escaping prescriptive notions of what constituted “blackness” in art, paving the way for an expanded understanding.
In the final section, On Blackness and Belonging, artists reflect on ways in which Black women “create spaces for their communities.” Included are Faith Ringgold’s lovely evocation of Black feminist thinkers (Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks) stationed around a quilt decorated with sunflowers, and Margo Humphries’ vivid color lithographs.
After I left the show, I kept thinking about a piece by one of the youngest artists, Ethiopian photographer Girma Berta. A digital archival print called Moving Shadows II, VIII features a horse-drawn cart carrying a Black couple and a big pile of packages, isolated against a field of saturated blue. Berta documents the people of his hometown, Addis Ababa, unobtrusively shooting pictures with an iPhone from which he excerpts figures, placing them against fields of color. There is something both joyous and disquieting about these floating figures moving through undifferentiated space. They define their own place and time, reminding anyone who looks that we need to consider what a museum should be. A museum without walls, something transparent like Howard’s Safe House, where art and ideas flow freely and belong to all, would be a good start.
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“About Things Loved: Blackness and Belonging” @ BAMPFA through July 21, 2019.
About the author:
Maria Porges is an artist and writer who lives and works in Oakland. For over two decades, her critical writing has appeared in many publications, including Artforum, Art in America, Sculpture, American Craft, Glass, the New York Times Book Review and many other publications. The author of more than 100 exhibition catalog essays, she presently serves as a professor at California College of the Arts.