The premise of this intriguing exhibition of African and African American Art is that the revolution will not be televised, nor is it over.
The Woven Arc at the Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African and African American Art at Harvard University, 102 Mount Auburn Street, Cambridge, MA, through July 16.
By Tim Barry
Drop the name Vera Ingrid Grant into your friendly neighborhood search engine and, along with images of the curator of The Woven Arc exhibition, you’re treated to a romantic tableau of Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant, frozen in the embrace of a Hollywood dream; it seems that even the unbiased mathematics of an algorithm won’t allow black people their own space.
The revolution will not be televised, nor is it over. This is the premise of Grant’s Woven Arc exhibition, an intriguing mix of historic African textile-pieces and decorative arts, juxtaposed with 18 works of contemporary African and African-American art. (And, in the spirit of inclusiveness, there are also several pieces by white artists who make work about the struggle for justice.)
Precisely how the patterned textile pieces here specifically relate to the political is not always made clear, though the wall text takes a stab at it: “….works not usually posed in conversation with each other: figurative and abstract sculptures, paintings, prints and textiles, along with mixed media and performance-based video…which are activated by an array of legacy textiles and hats….” The mechanics of this ‘activation’ passed over the head of this visitor, but the social impulse is transparent enough — ‘Freedom Road’ is still under construction.
For strident ideological statement, you can’t match Glenn Ligon’s “No Room (Gold) #42,” which hails the viewer via an unambiguous shout, its text sourced from a Richard Pryor performance: “I was a nigger for twenty-three years. I gave that shit up. No room for advancement.” Set against a painted background of gold, the piece sends a telegraph message: since the days of slavery, white society’s boot-heels have kept the pressure on. Gotta get up, gotta get out — but is it possible?
Ideological art comes in myriad forms; if Ligon’s piece is a hand-grenade, 72-year-old Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui’s two large abstract wall-pieces send their message more subtly. He stitches together found aluminum and copper pieces, which to this observer suggests the degrading legacy of mining, a business in which black bodies descend into the bowels of the earth, bringing back to the the surface (and the light) metals that enrich the white man’s purse.
Presented with that interpretation in a telephone conversation, curator Grant chuckled mildly:. “It’s interesting that you see that. Well, figurative realities that derive from abstract designs are always subject to the eye of the beholder, so….okay, sure. He’s been known for incorporating bottle-caps into his sculpture, which brings the role of alcohol into the conversation about the black struggle.”
The show’s signature piece, in the lobby entryway, is British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare’s “Food Fairy.” This very-mixed media sculpture (2010) features a headless winged figure — bearing a string-bag of mangos — attempting to take flight. The work suggests a number of interpretations; one can be certain that it dramatizes thwarted desire and addresses issues of world hunger.
“Thwarted” is a term that resonated throughout my conversation with Grant, primarily in the case of Grace Ndiritu’s stunning video pieces, which are shown on video monitors (four in a row) along a hallway. The screens present a black female, positioned behind a brightly colored patterned cloth, slowly moving in a sexualized manner. Slyly, she reveals a tantalizing thigh as she creeps her hand along her body. Will she ‘bare all?’ She seems to be suggesting, ‘you know you want me, but I’m just out of reach.’
“The black female body is a historically open space,” explains Grant, “and there’s a very harsh legacy of its sexual availability, whether through economic realities or other circumstances. So Ndiritu is referencing thwarted expectations.” “One thing I’m doing here,” she continues, “is putting particular objects in proximity, and seeing what dialogues may emerge. It’s a challenge to keep the visitor engaged with work that is this highly charged.”
On that count the curator mostly succeeds. ‘Highly charged’ works like Ndiritu’s can be enjoyed for their surface qualities or scrutinized for their meanings and messages. Still, several artworks in this show are visually arresting to the point that their decorative impact seems to outweigh or obscure any political or cultural concerns. For instance, Lina Iris Viktor’s four textured wall-paintings sit in an odd place: somewhere between the Afropop pattern-and-decoration portraiture of African-American artist Kehinde Wiley and and an Elvis-on-velvet vibe.
When asked abut the works during a phone call to her New York studio, Viktor denies the Wiley connection. “Oh yes, I’ve certainly heard it, ” she says. “But other than the fact that we both use a realistic depiction of (an attractive) black face, and surround the body with patterns….that’s not where I’m getting my inspiration. I’m referencing Dogon patterns and native Australian dream paintings. And I’ve looked at and been influenced by mostly African sources, including Egyptian hieroglyphics.”
Grant agrees with the suggestion that these works strongly cite the fin de siècle expressionist mode of Gustave Klimt, with gold designs coiling around and enveloping a beautiful female torso.
But Viktor won’t accept that idea either. “Yeah,” the artist sighed, “I’ve heard that one too. But it’s really not where I’m coming from.” These mixed media works start with a photograph of the artist, around which she “builds the work.” But the images are not about the self, she cautions; Viktor is merely the model. “One of the images I’m referencing is the Queen Mother of the Ashanti empire,” she explains, “who fought against British colonialism.” So, yes, revolutionary political content, but you have to look deep into the design to see it.
Tim Barry studied English literature at Framingham State College and art history at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. He has written for Take-It Magazine, The New Musical Express, The Noise, and The Boston Globe. He owns Tim’s Used Books, Hyannis, and Provincetown, and TB Projects, a contemporary art space, in Provincetown.