Bodys Isek Kingelez almost wasn’t famous. He lived in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (D.R.C.) — which was still known in the 1980s as Zaire, per edict of the autocrat Mobutu Sese Seko — a city scarce on opportunities for a contemporary artist. A bit of a recluse, Kingelez had ditched his early career as a schoolteacher for a more oblique civic engagement: constructing, out of paper and plastic and found materials, scale models of fantastical buildings that he imagined for the city.
When the Parisian curator André Magnin visited him in 1988, Kingelez was forty, and worked as a restorer at the national museum, tending to masks and other traditional items. His own art — meticulously crafted, vividly colored, always representing civic or business edifices — piled up at his office and in his modest home. Magnin picked Kingelez to be one of the artists in Les Magiciens de la Terre, the mega-group show he co-curated in 1989; mixing fifty Western artists with fifty from the so-called Third World, it made a forceful statement, especially for the time, about equal worth in contemporary art. Even so, the Congolese press treated Kingelez as a footnote, emphasizing the selection of the popular painter Chéri Samba instead.
Kingelez is now the subject of a fun and absorbing retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, the apotheosis of a career that took off through that Paris exposure, making him a regular at biennials. It comes late for the artist, who died of cancer in 2015, and even later for the museum, as this is MoMA’s first-ever survey of a Black African artist. In that respect, the idiosyncratic Kingelez is an unexpected choice. But one has to start somewhere, and the show itself is a delight. Attractive in its jaunty, toy-world charm, it gets profound on longer look, as the cityscapes reveal the artist’s stubborn civic optimism dueling with his frustration at broken social promises and missed possibility.
Kinshasa is the crucial context. Prior to the Paris show, it was the only major city Kingelez had known since arriving from his village after secondary school. In the late 1970s, when Kingelez began to make art, the energy was souring in many African cities, lofty post-independence dreams giving way to cynicism in the face of corruption, neo-colonialism, and complicit leadership. Mobutu’s histrionics amplified this phenomenon in Zaire. Having taken power in a coup in 1965, he had imposed in 1971 his doctrine of authenticité, under which people were told to spurn suits and ties for Mao-like ensembles, switch from French to African names, and call each other citoyen. The mishmash didn’t stick, leaving the single party, the M.P.R., with no ideology beyond plundering the country’s mineral wealth, while ordinary Zaireans lived by “Article 15,” a fictional law invented by street wags that stated simply débrouillez-vous, find a way to get by.
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Architecture and planning underwent a parallel decay. A wave of truly interesting African modernism had swept major cities on the continent as countries attained independence, starting with Ghana in 1957, and with the biggest batch, including the D.R.C., in 1960. In major African cities like Abidjan, Accra, and Dakar, both European and local architects endowed civic and corporate buildings with aggressive designs — blunt rectangles, cylinders, pyramids — plus elements such as breezeways or louvers or sheathing intended variously as decoration or to suit the climate. But by the 1980s, with money and belief exhausted, high architecture retreated, and unregulated sprawl took over as the language of urban expansion. Kinshasa was no exception, with no better symbol than the Tour de l’échangeur, four tubular concrete shafts soaring more than 200 meters high with a rounded triple-level belvedere on the top intended to serve as a city landmark — like the Eiffel Tower or Space Needle — as well as house a restaurant and other entertainment amenities. Begun in 1971, the tower looms over the city today, yet was never finished or put to use. Mobutu shifted his attention in the 1980s to building palaces and useless amenities in Gbadolite, his home village far up the river.
Kingelez was attuned to this psychic and political environment, and the needs it left unfulfilled. He had come to Kinshasa after high school, like so many rural migrants; his village was called Kimbembele-Ihunga, a place impossible to find on the map, at the edge of Bandundu and Kasaï regions in southwest D.R.C. At university in Kinshasa he studied economics and industrial design, so he was not exactly an autodidact. The urge to make art only hit in his late twenties, however, in a kind of epiphany. The medium he landed on would stick for the rest of his career. He called his works “extreme maquettes” — paper-based models of almost always imaginary buildings, and eventually whole cityscapes. They varied in size, but often reached two feet high or more. They landed between architecture and sculpture, but were not meant as literal designs — rather as general propositions, or fantasies. What made them truly distinct was their style, rich with ornaments and full of bright color applied with paint, marker, or colored pencil.
The exhibition gathers 33of these maquettes, many of them quite involved: The largest, Ville Fantôme (1996), fills a base that is roughly nineteen feet by eight feet, with buildings several feet high. All the works show imaginary buildings, except one — a rendering of that unfinished concrete tower in Kinshasa, Approche de l’échangeur de Limete Kin (1981). Three feet high and made of paper and cardboard colored with paint, marker, or pencil, it is close in structure to the original, though gold-toned with pink, orange, and brown accents instead of the concrete gray, and with its spire off-kilter, looking distinctly (and one presumes, intentionally) wobbly. Later Kingelez invented structures with clear marked purposes — airports, stadiums, universities — and sometimes urgent relevance, such as The Scientific Center of Hospitalisation the SIDA (1991), an elaborate gingerbread-house hospital; that title appears verbatim on a label affixed as a canopy, using the French acronym for AIDS, a major concern in Congo at that time.
What he made of Mobutu is never clear. The M.P.R. acronym, for the ruling party, appears on a monument in Place de la Ville (1993), a model of a plaza with a rambling city hall–cum–conference center, a second building dominated by scalloped shapes, plus paper trees and statuary. A version of Mobutu’s green-and-yellow Zaire flag flies atop the buildings, but incomplete, the central torch-bearing brown hand replaced by a ghostly white shape. Then there are two works titled after Kingelez’s rural village. Reinvented in Kimbembele Ihunga (1994), the village becomes a space-age downtown with some fifteen buildings in assorted shapes — bulbs, wheels, fans, scallops, shafts — and a cacophony of decoration. One of three large, complex cityscapes in the show, the work includes a railway station with a sleek high-speed train ready to depart, as well as a “Kingelez Stadium.” One can read the work as aspirational and development-minded, but also a sideways comment on Mobutu’s Gbadolite and similar artificial cities manufactured by autocrats.
By then, the Mobutu regime was falling apart, the president sick and often out of the country, the government dysfunctional, and the Rwandan civil war spilling into the east of the country to spark a regional conflict that continues to mutate to this day. Mobutu fell in 1997, and died in exile in Morocco the same year. His successor, Laurent Kabila (father of the current president) promptly changed the country’s name back to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Through it all, Kinshasa carried on in its usual resourceful way. Kingelez stayed, though he now traveled for exhibitions and European residencies. His spent the newfound means from purchases and commissions on imported art supplies, but also on Kinshasa real estate.
His work became more global in references, however. U.N. (1995) is a wild alternative design of a United Nations headquarters that looks like a demented fairground attraction. Nippon Tower (2005) and Development Australian Bank (2007) make geographical assertions in their title, and Sports Internationaux (1997), a tower of beer and soda cans crossed by an oval horizontal structure adorned with Lipton tea bags, is odd but clearly of global intent. (His proposal for replacement twin towers for New York City after the 9-11 attacks, with their third structure intended as a water-cooling system for putting out fires, is not in this show.) Ville Fantôme (“Ghost City”) is peak Kingelez: With skyscrapers up to four feet tall amid a forest of lower-rise buildings in seemingly every possible shape, it looks like a demented mash-up, drizzled in colors, of Las Vegas, Dubai, and the capital of Wakanda in the film Black Panther. Adding to the overload of signifiers, some towers are marked “USA,” and one cluster of buildings is labeled “Seoul.” (This piece is also the subject of a three-minute virtual-reality experience at MoMA, in which you zoom amid the buildings, though this reviewer, deterred by the long line, skipped the opportunity.)
Kingelez was on a residency in Sète, a port on the French Mediterranean, in 2000, when he fell ill, resulting in his cancer diagnosis. He lived another fifteen years, but his output slowed. The cityscape Ville de Sète 3009 (2000), made during that visit, contains some of the classic Kingelez motifs — scalloped triangle buildings, weird tubes, bulb or cone spire ornaments — but makes greater use of translucent materials that give the work airiness and new light. With diagonal lines sectioning curtain-walls (in the manner of I.M. Pei’s Bank of China building in Hong Kong), and a star-like grid of roads, it suggests a geometry at work, a vector field. It is the rare Kingelez work that feels squarely futuristic, and not just for its title. More often he seems to work in an alternative present, concerned with expanding the scope of possibility to address civic needs. And though his maquettes are not meant for literal implementation, the cascade of materials and style vernaculars involved in their making returns, inexorably, to the improvisational genius at work in Kinshasa and other African cities.
“As I see it, he is more of a mental-mapping phenomenon, and his sculptures represent a dogged mining of the contemporary African psyche,” the British and Ghanaian architect David Adjaye writes of Kingelez in a catalog essay. “The power of his work comes from his ability to aggregate his observations in fantastical scenarios.” There is nothing stereotypically traditional in Kingelez’s maquettes — no village motifs like thatched huts, nor for that matter the slum vernacular of tin-roofed shacks. Instead he offers a kind of shadow history of African modernism as it might have been and could yet be, suffusing his work with the while tormented, romantic history of nationhood and belonging, from the independence era through globalization, with its promises and contradictions. The absences are striking as well. Kingelez never put human figures in his works. He never depicted housing. He only did cities. Perhaps that was just his obsession, but it reminds us that infrastructure, public facilities, the skyline, remain central to how a society narrates itself, its way of being. They are always improvable, and they are worth the fight.
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The sheer color and invention gives the MoMA show a snack value that has earned it raves since it opened in early summer. The works live on white pedestals with rounded, irregular shapes, prepared by the German artist Carsten Höller; they are not encased in vitrines, so one feels proximity. But there are missed opportunities, too. A thirty-minute documentary about Kingelez, with ample interview footage, is shown near the elevators, in an area where noise is near-certain, making it impossible to hear. The catalog is truly excellent, its highlight a fluent and wide-ranging essay on Kingelez’s life, art, and context by curator Sarah Suzuki, but little of that information makes it to the gallery. The risk is that Kingelez’s work lands out of nowhere, and comes off like a brilliant curiosity.
Kingelez is at one end of the spectrum for African artists, in that his exposure owes primarily to Western curators and patrons. They include Magnin and the businessman Jean Pigozzi, whose famous private collection of African contemporary art, considered the world’s largest, owns a good number of the works in this show. Kingelez didn’t exhibit in Kinshasa, nor seek out Congolese collectors. To be clear, this was also by his choice: He was obdurate, grandiose, and didn’t care for the company of other local artists. That’s fine; it’s who he was. But if MoMA, after looking away from Africa so long, is to play catch-up (for instance with the Brooklyn Museum, which has presented surveys of El Anatsui and Wangechi Mutu), the hope is that it will pick up the pace, broaden the range, and not limit the pleasure of deep engagement with the work to those who already know.
At the age of five, John Akomfrah nearly drowned at a beach in Accra, Ghana, where the Atlantic Ocean laps the coast in treacherous tides. The experience bred a healthy respect for the sea. “It almost claimed me, you know,” Akomfrah said when I met him at the New Museum, which hosts this season a major exhibition of his film-based art. “But for the bravery of two fishermen, I wouldn’t be here. So I understand its force.”
Akomfrah was born in Ghana in 1957, the same year that country gained its independence from Britain. But he grew up in London, where his family moved when he was still young; he studied film in Portsmouth, and made his career as an artist in the United Kingdom. His family belonged to that swelling wave of immigrants to Britain from its former colonies who came to supply industrial labor, nursing, and social services, and — though this part would require struggle to get recognized — the feedstock ideas and experiences of a new cultural politics.
Today, Akomfrah is a fundamental figure of that art and politics, as it has evolved from the battle years of Thatcherism to the stitching together — not always easy — of humanist and anti-racist culture work across the Atlantic, putting theories and aesthetics to the test of local particularities. And to the overwhelming global present moment, with its money lust, race panic, and pyromaniacally inflamed tribalisms careening against the backdrop of digital saturation and imminent environmental doom.
Akomfrah’s body of work includes some forty extended pieces of “lens-based” art: Among these are some features and documentaries, but the bulk are in a personal language of art film that blends original shooting, archival footage, photographic stills, interstitial text, and music in multi-channel composites that unfold like symphonic collages. It all amounts to as solid an oeuvre as exists to chart how our “western” and/or “multicultural” societies got to where we are, and offer clues about a way further.
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But few are those who have seen it all, beyond the artist and his longtime collaborators, the producers David Lawson and Lina Gopaul. These are museum works, mostly shown in exhibitions and screenings, almost none for sale (let alone streaming). They are long, relative to most film and video-based art, often stretching half an hour or twice that. A complete retrospective would be an unwieldy thing.
This season, the New Museum has chosen a different approach — one that works elegantly. It has devoted its entire second floor to Akomfrah’s work, but made a tight selection of four film pieces, each of which shows in a generous space, like its own movie theater. The largest room goes to Vertigo Sea, Akomfrah’s lavish, unabashedly emotional ode to the oceans, to marine creatures, and to the humans who have journeyed at great peril across waters, of their own volition or otherwise, and those who ended at the bottom of the sea. First screened in the 2015 Venice Biennale, and now in its New York premiere, it unfolds on three channels side-by-side across the wide wall.
Rounding out the multiplex are smaller rooms that show Transfigured Night (2013), a less-known two-channel work that meditates on the ambitions and failings of postcolonial states; The UnfinishedConversation (2012), an intimate yet socially capacious three-channel work that tracks the life of the late British-Jamaican scholar and activist Stuart Hall; and, jumping back to the beginning, Signs of Empire (1983), by the Black Audio Film Collective, which Akomfrah and six other Portsmouth Polytechnic students formed in search of a politically and artistically autonomous voice.
The film was made of an ingenious montage of slides from multiple projectors beamed together — a choice dictated by aesthetic and penury, as they could not afford film — fading together sequences of archival images, along with text, radio tape, and original music. It unpacked the tropes of imperialism — the explorers, civilizers, natives. The juxtapositions and repetitions brought out the psychodynamic aspects of colonialism: the delusions, the venality, the anxiety.
The whole exhibition, which the New Museum has built out in a way that nearly eliminates any room-to-room audio bleed, makes a rich experience, worth devoting about three hours to (the works range between roughly twenty to 45 minutes each). It amounts, at this moment in social discourse, to a kind of invigorating cleanse. Akomfrah’s method is creatively satisfying, while his subject matter and the way he applies materials and techniques are profoundly humane. The work is more romantic than didactic; attentive to the idea that a vision of society is as provisional as it is necessary.
I met Akomfrah in late June, soon after the exhibition opened. He was juggling obligations before his flight to London and was apologetic about the short window he had for the interview. A youthful 61, Akomfrah is affable and funny; he speaks at once carefully and casually, nice long sentences that touch on theory and literature, but more like an investigator than an authority.
This querying, humble mode echoes the humanistic thinking of Hall, a mentor whom Akomfrah first sought out in 1981 while making a film about the Handsworth riots in Birmingham. Hall had arrived from Jamaica to study in Britain in the 1950s, and went on to become a founder of the New Left Review and a progenitor of the field of cultural studies. He was instrumental in expanding British progressive thinking beyond a hide-bound Marxism, in ways that accounted for race and ethnicity, as well as media and representation, without losing sight of economic struggle.
Hall once defined identity as “the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves within, the narratives of the past.” It follows not only that knowing ourselves requires thinking about the past, but also, since the present is constantly accruing, that we can reliably self-define only in the unstable now, while our sense of becoming is provisional.
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When we met, Akomfrah was still taking in the particular juxtaposition that the New Museum assembled. “The weird thing in making long-form pieces that in a way feel like they sit somewhere between the gallery and the cinema, is that when you conceive them, they are — in potential — isolated pieces,” he said. “I never thought that The Unfinished Conversation and Vertigo Sea would play together. It never entered my head that someone would go, ‘OK, let me survey what you’ve been doing in the past decade.’ It seems just daunting enough to make them.”
Over the years, Akomfrah has been able to access resources he could not imagine as a scrappy oppositional artist in the Thatcher era. The BBC’s nature film production unit collaborated on Vertigo Sea, affording Akomfrah the use of spectacular ocean footage — schools of fishes, marine mammals, scenes from the Arctic, and the like. From these and other sources, he weaves into the work narratives that surge and mingle like currents. There is whale-hunting, which supplies some of the toughest scenes. There is sea travel and migration — the refugee crisis is heavily evoked, but in visually indirect ways (no migrant porn of overcrowded capsizing rafts), and through sampled news narrations. There is ecological depletion, the melting ice caps, the inexorable waters rising. There is also pure beauty: fish in shimmery dance, frothy wave caps out to infinity.
It makes for a kind of heavily augmented, highly problematized take on the nature film. “I love nature films, natural history films,” Akomfrah told me. “I watch them religiously. But at some point you are struck with the question of what keeps that natural history at bay and offstage, which is our complicity in the drama of our own making. Lions eat zebras, but we on the whole don’t spend time talking about how we kill lions.”
What he has reached, from his starting point addressing immigrant and working-class life in industrial England and struggles for dignity amid the rise of neoliberalism, is not so much an abrupt turn to environmentalism as it is an integration of fates. Understanding our threats to nature should help us understand how we threaten each other, and ourselves.
“The approach is to involve a broad range of subject positions, human and non-human,” Akomfrah said. “That’s a very important point for me. Ethically, part of the reason I have to do what I have to do is, once you’ve accepted the implications, that the theater of being is a stage where humans have held pretty much all the space, it becomes incumbent to find ways in which discreet subject positions can have conversations.”
“It is as important to me that you care about the fate of the enslaved African, thrown overboard, as you do about the sperm whales that are harpooned to death in the most gruesome fashion, essentially drowning in the sea.” These things are not the same, of course; different audiences might come in with different priorities, but that isn’t the point. “There may be hierarchies — but not ones that I’m insisting are important for perception.”
Woven into Vertigo Sea, per Akomfrah’s habit, are original passages he shot, plus archival texts in written and spoken form. Short readings from Moby-Dick and To the Lighthouse appear, as do old drawings. Akomfrah shot some parts in a chilly-looking waterfront setting that turns out to be the Scottish Hebrides. Some of the archival art shows a distinguished Black man in eighteenth-century garb; in the Hebrides sections, we see a lone actor, looking out to the water. These are references to the remarkable historical figure Olaudah Equiano,the enslaved Igbo man who bought his freedom and became an abolitionist in England. But Akomfrah also evokes a migrant archetype that could be any African currently crossing the Mediterranean — or the artist himself.
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“I’m exactly the figure who, if they came now, might be separated from their parents,” Akomfrah said, now alluding to the harsh practices in effect on the U.S. border. “Like most people who migrate, my parents did it for a reason; and the reasons, it seems to me, are always utopian. No one leaves to go anywhere with the hope of causing trouble or being a burden.”
While Vertigo Sea is the centerpiece, and Signs of Empire the foundation, the show is worth absorbing in full for the connections it sparks. Transfigured Night builds off newsreelsof visits by Félix Houphouët-Boigny, the first president of independent Côte d’Ivoire, and Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, the first prime minister of Nigeria, to John F. Kennedy in the White House. There is pomp, parades, and a palpable sense of pride in the new leaders and solicitousness from their American hosts. Akomfrah then uses past and present vistas of the Lincoln Memorial and shots of individuals in lonely settings — a room high up in a glass-and-steel downtown, for instance — to offer a meditation on hopes and alienation that is ambiguous but emotionally charged.
The Unfinished Conversation, another three-channel work, functions as an art piece but also a biographical sketch of Hall’s life, augmented by generous archival material — Hall gave Akomfrah broad access — and audio of Hall speaking. (Akomfrah also made a television documentary about the thinker, The Stuart Hall Project.) The images, from the Jamaica of Hall’s childhood memories and adult visits to the hulking factories and gray northern English towns that he visited as a young activist, present less a theory than an ethos.
Akomfrah derives his own method from Hall’s teachings, which he sees as healthy for any period, and certainly today’s atmosphere of great flux and political tensions. “He was always in this space of, ‘I worry about the moment,’ ” Akomfrah says. “His value still lies in that ability to say to people: Think about the new times you’re living in. Think about how the baggage of critical reflection that you’ve inherited from the past can be applied to that. And when new times and a theory don’t fit, rethink the theory.”
‘John Akomfrah: Signs of Empire’ New Museum 235 Bowery newmuseum.org
Even back then, they didn’t know what to make of Rammellzee.
At the dawn of the Eighties, in that magic moment when the uptown scene met the downtown scene and hip-hop spun out from its roots among the b-boys, mobile DJs, and graffiti writers of the South Bronx and began its takeover of global culture, Rammellzee, though a central figure in this scene, was — even to true heads — a mysterious quantity.
Born in 1960 in Far Rockaway, Queens, Rammellzee — or to use his preferred orthography, RAMMΣLLZΣΣ — began tagging at fourteen, under various identities such as Maestro and Hyte. He took part in the birth of wild style, which turned the forthright act of spray-painting your name into a pageant of colors and extravagantly shaped letters, bulbous or jagged or shooting out arrows, melted into one another to the point of illegibility. For him, this was not just art but ideology. His theory of history, which he synthesized in a series of esoteric writings, focused on the struggle to liberate the letters of the alphabet from the shackles of words and sentences. (He called it Gothic Futurism and Ikonoklast Panzerism, and believed himself in the lineage of the medieval monks who inked illuminated manuscripts.)
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He put up some large pieces, including on subway cars — the paramount graffiti-art display surface of the time — but he was not one of the ubiquitous whole-car artists, like his contemporaries Iz the Wiz, Dondi, or Seen. Instead he shifted to drawings, paintings on canvas, and sculptural forms. But unlike many other “gallery writers” who began making portable (and sellable) pieces, his graf esthetic gave way to a weirder practice in which he used trash and discarded materials to enact his idiosyncratic theories.
Thus, beginning in the Nineties, he built Letter Racers, sculptures that he imagined represented individual letters, formed of junk mounted onto roller-skates or skateboards, suspended from wires, swooping like a vengeful armada. He also made Garbage Gods, whole-body costumes with names like Alpha Positive, Panmaximus Magus, or Destiny, each with particular powers and weaponry. When he left the Battle Station, his loft on Laight Street in Tribeca, it was often clad in one of these outfits. Usually he received visitors at home, surrounded by these creatures, drinking Olde English 800 and discoursing on esoteric subjects.
By the time Rammellzee died, in 2010 — of cardiovascular disease, likely resulting in part from the alcohol and unprotected exposure spray paint and epoxy — he was something of a mythic figure, an oddity who emerged from hip-hop’s foundational stew and had a moment of art-world prominence yet moved away from both, preferring not to compromise his stubborn habits and his quasi-impenetrable system of knowledge.
“Rammellzee’s influence and mythology is ensconced in folklore and hearsay,” says Max Wolf, chief curator at Red Bull Arts New York. The two-level space in Chelsea, a gallery sponsored by the energy drink, has organized the most comprehensive survey of Ramm’s life and art, complete with evocative extras that transport the visitor into his world. There are big-screen videos of early hip-hop shows where Ramm, a proficient rapper, expounds in his nasal, sing-song style; footage of interviews and performance-art events, Ramm clad in body armor; and a rich oral history, accessed via phone-booth handsets — another retro reference — at wall-mounted listening stations that dot the exhibition space.
A merit of the current exhibition is that it fleshes out the story of Rammellzee the working artist. The lower floor of the gallery is largely given over to a spectacular display of Garbage Gods, who lurk like an occult army in the darkened space. A flotilla of Letter Racers hangs in the stairwell, as if frozen in interstellar space. This is the wild, science-fiction Rammellzee, and it’s exciting to see all these inventions in one place. But there is also, on the upper floor, a substantial selection of Ramm’s prior work, much of it on loan from museums and private collectors, particularly in Europe, where he found many of his buyers and patrons during his art-world phase in the mid-Eighties.
The earliest gallery pieces here were made while Ramm was still in his teens. They transpose a pure graffiti ethos onto cardboard or canvas; some incorporate his street tags. Maestro (1979) is a drawing, with architectural precision, that alternates lines of train cars with lines of graffiti lettering. Several pieces are long rectangles, emblazoned with lettering, aerodynamic lines, and other geometric shapes, as if they were models for whole-car pieces. By 1982 to ’83 the subway references decrease: Works such as Jams (1982) and The Knowledge of the A (1982) are large canvas squares that evoke a busy section of wall where taggers have put up letters, dollar signs, abstract shapes, and chicken-scratch scrawl.
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In this period, Ramm was close to Jean-Michel Basquiat, also born in 1960. They were rivals and mutual inspirations; in one oral-history segment, the gallerist Barbara Braathen calls them “frenemies.” In another, the musician Nick Taylor recalls long sessions with Basquiat, in thrall to Ramm. “It was like talking to Malcolm X on acid,” he says. “It was a little threatening. He went beyond Afrocentrism and talked about arming and militarism on a cosmic scale.” The graffiti writer Toxic sums it up: “Ramm was like a general. Ramm wanted to destroy everything.”
This sense of imminent conflagration grew as Ramm’s canvases gained relief through epoxy additions or assorted glued objects, and surfaced in their titles. Ransom Note of the Infinium Sirpiereule (1984) is a “resin fresco,” in which a video camera, splashed with green paint and angled downward like a surveillance apparatus, is glued onto the canvas along with collaged drawings, Gothic lettering, and assorted plastic bric-à-brac, all set against an eerie reddish-brown background that feels vaguely post-apocalyptic. It comes with Rammellzee’s notes, presented as wall text: “Specifics: Your death, a Planet’s death, the death of your Ego, Super-ego, or Id. A Galaxy or womb’s death and any kidnapping worth the mechanic’s crime.” Letter M Explosion (1991) is an iridescent purple and green phantasmagoric in which what may be some kind of battleship seems engaged in combat with a weaponized M shape (spacecraft design, jagged edges) amid a field of cosmic projectiles. Ramm clearly had a military obsession; yet the sculpture Gulf War (1991), a highlight of the exhibition, and distinct in that it references an actual conflict taking place at the time, reads in that context as pacifist critique. It involves a found Gulf gas-station sign split down the middle and stuffed with random items — a bicycle, a train set, a record player, caps and hats, plastic toys, a gas mask, other flotsam — and marks the turn to recycling that would sustain the rest of Ramm’s career.
Rammellzee’s is a New York story, with many classic features of the form. It involves a hard-knock upbringing that his brother, identified as K.P., describes on one of the listening stations: their mother was a Black woman from South Carolina, their Italian-American father ditched the family, and a stern policeman stepfather raised them. There is a plunge into street knowledge and esoterica: As a detailed wall timeline in the exhibition explains, Ramm received his name from Jamel-Z, a member of the Nation of Gods and Earths (or “Five Percenters”) he knew as a teen. (Rammellzee changed his name legally, too, in 1979; in accordance with his wishes, those who know his prior identity keep it secret.) Later, gentrification plays a part: A few years before he died, the Laight Street building was sold for condo conversion, and Ramm had to put his works in storage and move to a more conventional setting — an apartment in Battery Park City.
He died, however, back in Far Rockaway, where it all began. Perhaps his lifelong outsider instinct stemmed from his roots in this distant outpost of the city, with its high density of housing projects way at the end of the A train. The art, oral histories, videos, and ephemera in “Rammellzee: Racing for Thunder” can’t help but summon nostalgia for a time when the city was rougher, more raw, its public culture infused with outer-borough grassroots brilliance and improvisational futurism instead of corporate programming. But you can’t wallow with Rammellzee. He was always looking ahead, formulating the next theory, plotting his next surprise attack on conventional thinking, setting the letters free.
‘Rammellzee: Racing for Thunder’
Red Bull Arts New York
220 West 18th Street redbullartsnewyork.com
Through August 26
Deep below the convulsive surface of the daily news flows a strong, slow current of Black thought that quietly informs our culture while drawing scant attention to itself. Its writings are often scholarly, its art shown away from the big-ticket venues or unavailable on digital platforms. This current is not involved in insta-reaction to the latest political or cultural outrage; it takes the rise of Trumpism seriously, of course — dead serious — but also in well-worn stride, for it knows too much to be surprised. Its exponents pop up at conferences or gallery talks, but you won’t catch them on E! or MSNBC. The work is intellectual, and just as much, spiritual. You might say it’s got soul.
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What is the work about? It is about Blackness — or, to adopt the distinction that the essayist Greg Tate himself borrows from Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Blacknuss — being and thinking and living Black, under this category that white supremacy invented and its agents relentlessly police; within the community of affect and action thus organized; yet spilling out of the boundaries, as humans will. This is Blackness in the longue durée. It admits paradox and contradiction. Its politics are fluid and plural. It is hip to punk rock and Abstract Expressionism just as it is to slave narratives and the Quiet Storm. It is an open, welcoming thinking: The portals are everywhere once you see them — in the art practice of Kara Walker, for instance, or when conceptual filmmaker Kahlil Joseph teams up with Beyoncé to make Lemonade, or in the way the analysis and poetics of scholars such as Saidiya Hartman, Fred Moten, or Christina Sharpe have seeped into experimental art. But it’s on you to seek it out, to slow down and pay attention. That is part of the work.
All this makes the generous exhibition by Arthur Jafa now on view at the Harlem flagship of the gallery Gavin Brown’s Enterprise a particular treat. For a good thirty years Jafa, a filmmaker by original craft, has been a nodal figure in Black thought — known to all as “AJ” — in collaboration and conversation with the likes of Kerry James Marshall, Carrie Mae Weems, bell hooks, and Spike Lee.
But it’s only last year that Jafa, who is 57 and based in Los Angeles, drew sustained attention from — let’s be frank here — white media, behind Love Is the Message, The Message Is Death, a seven-minute collage of footage from newscasts, police cameras, church, hip-hop, nature, that distills Black joy and pain in an emotional kernel scored by the Kanye West song “Ultralight Beam.” A powerful work that landed with heightened urgency right after the 2016 election, Love was an art piece: Museums have collected it (it is currently on view at SFMOMA in San Francisco), and you won’t find it online. Indeed, much of Jafa’s work takes effort to find. This was not always his choice: His breakout as a cinematographer, Daughters of the Dust, the 1991 film by Julie Dash, only arrived on streaming platforms last year, despite its critical status as a transformational work in Black American cinema.
The current exhibition is titled Air Above Mountains, Unknown Pleasures, a mash-up reference to Cecil Taylor and Joy Division that signals the artist’s catholic inspirations. It is an invitation to experience Jafa’s work across forms — film, photography, sculptural installation, performance — and, for those who met him through Love, to understand his method at a molecular level. Here, on the gallery’s second floor, is a long film on a wall-sized screen, akingdoncomethas, made (mostly) of footage of preaching and music from Black churches, long passages that eventually intercut and intersect, to lyrical effect, with visuals of the recent Southern California wildfires. For one hour on Saturdays, this is replaced by something with the opposite pace and energy: looped screenings of Apex, a hyperkinetic short set to a frenetic electronic track. Among the photo-based installations on the ground floor, one decomposes Apex film into its component images: whereas in the film they rush through at high speed, here they are mounted on aluminum and lined up—apparently in scattered order—along a grid with their .jpg filenames preserved like thumbnails on a computer desktop. Peruse at leisure the album covers (Marvin Gaye, Grace Jones, Big Black, Pulp), sci-fi stills, historical figures and celebrities (Angela Davis, Michael Vick), cartoons (Mickey Mouse, Jessica Rabbit), weird deep-sea fishes and other organisms, to form your sense of Jafa’s system of narrative through montage.
Elsewhere in the show are other methodologies. Unbalanced Diptych is just that, a black-and-white juxtaposition in different proportions of an archival image of a lynching in Duluth, Minn., in 1919, with a portrait of young armed men in a Los Angeles gang, with bars that black out their eyes. Two works are staged self-portraits in which Jafa performs as Mary Jones (née Peter Sewally), a Black sex worker and pickpocket in 1836 New York who was found, when arrested, to be wearing an elaborate leather vagina. One image, La Scala, finds the subject clothed, while in the other, Man Monster – Duffy, Jafa-as-Jones spreads his legs to reveal such an accessory, custom-made for the occasion. Nearby is Black Bottom, a black-and-white manipulated from a porno still, beckoning viewers to their own consideration of the politics of the Black pussy.
On the gallery’s top floor — in a sky-lit warehouse space of cavernous proportions — is something entirely different. Here, Jafa has taken four seven-foot tires — gargantuan things, made for monster trucks by a Colorado manufacturer — and laced each one with a mesh of iron chain; in lieu of hubcaps are abstract medallion sculptures that are 3-D printed from melted chains. These are industrial chakras, sacred shapes from the factory forge. They manifest one of Jafa’s obsessions, the culture of monster vehicles that has fascinated him since his Mississippi childhood, but the heavy manufacturing feel also evokes — at least for this viewer — America’s economic changes, notably the deindustrialization and transition to the service economy that Jafa’s generation watched unfold and that dashed so many Black middle-class aspirations. One stands near the wall, two out on the floor (one of these adorned with blue bandanas, Crip-style), and the fourth hangs by a hook from a gantry. The installation has a sound component: a loop of Teddy Pendergrass ballads that emit from floor speakers. The songs drench the room in a valiant but wounded masculinity, seductive and probably toxic, as authentic a product of late-industrial America as are the tires and gantry. It’s a spacious, yearning, open-ended work; a big mood.
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Gavin Brown’s gallery fosters lingering; the building has a kitchen in the ground floor exhibit space, for instance, where you might find water, coffee, snacks, and people passing the time. The laid-back feel suits Jafa’s work — particularly the film on the second floor, which runs a hundred minutes and is worth watching in full. A wide, inclined riser in the room allows you to stretch out as you do so, pulling you into the reverential energy. For all the found-footage splicing and art effects that accelerate toward the end, this is very much a work about the Black church, and from the first segment, with Al Green singing “Jesus Is Waiting” in 1974, it’s one passage of sacramental maestria after the next, whether it’s preaching by Bishop T.D. Jakes, the popular megachurch and television pastor, or praise and worship by the extraordinary singer and pastor Le’Andria Johnson. The film summons up a gamut of existential concerns — faithfulness, redemption, community — but also varying modes of worship, well before it gets to the wildfires, with their shots of animals emerging out of the smoke or night traffic in the Sepulveda Pass between the blazing hills. The hovering Biblical reference is Revelation, but Jafa is a collagist, therefore heterodox; his film sheds rather than accrues the certainties of dogma, as it builds toward an open question, a loud silence.
As Miles Davis taught, the silences make the music; without silence, there is no mystery. Jafa has stated the aim of making work on par with what Black music achieves: “Black cinema with the power, beauty, and alienation of Black music,” as he told Antwaun Sargent last year in Interview. His current show deploys performance and sculpture as added techniques, but consistent with the project. Blackness in America is the stuff of policing and politics, but Black life — Blacknuss, if you will — is transcendent, Jafa reminds us. Neither program nor ideology, it holds no absolute but liberation.
‘Arthur Jafa: Air Above Mountains, Unknown Pleasures’ Gavin Brown’s Enterprise
439 West 127th Street gavinbrown.biz
Through June 10
A stubborn fugitivity runs through the work of Adrian Piper, the conceptual artist and performer—as well as writer and philosophy scholar—whose career of more than five decades is the subject of a thorough, gripping retrospective this season at the Museum of Modern Art, Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965-2016.
Piper is always in two situations at once — an inside-outsider, never at ease, she is artist and academic, theorist and performer, impulsive improviser and ruminating self-examiner. Some of her works are naked self-portraiture, literal or through text that inspects her own psyche or family history. Others are challenges to the viewer, sometimes imperious, that she structures using photo, sound, and text to demand we audit our behavior and biases. At one point, the path through the exhibition requires you to traverse the Humming Room, an empty space where you must hum a tune in order to enter — you choose the tune, but you have to hum, and the guard is checking. The experience takes us deep inside and far outside of ourselves, a clue, perhaps, to Piper’s method and the tug of forces in her mind.
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Race is crucial here — and particularly, racial ambiguity. Piper, 69, who grew up in Upper Manhattan, the daughter of a lawyer and a college administrator, is of mixed race, and was light-skinned enough to generally merge into spaces of white privilege, including the world of New York minimalists and conceptualists that she entered as a young woman in the late 1960s, forging for instance a long-term friendship with Sol LeWitt. In this milieu she shed her teenage figurative experiments, as well as her loud color works made under the influence of LSD, in favor of a hybrid language mixing photography, drawing, text, painting, sound, and performance that she would refine over the years.
Yet she was acutely conscious of her Black origins and history: Her ancestors Philip and Nellie Piper had been owner and slave on a plantation in Louisiana but, unusually, married after the Civil War and settled in Ohio, among abolitionists. (Piper details this genealogy in a text-dense work on paper, Never Forget, made in 2016 and one of the final pieces in the exhibition.) Questions of racial assertion, projection, and unease, whether toward oneself or others, suffuse her work. But she deals more in queries than answers; in identity as process, not as fixed state.
Piper moved her base to Berlin, following a protracted legal and administrative conflict with her employer, Wellesley College, where she had been a professor of philosophy since 1990s but had also forcefully raised issues of institutional racism. These days she avoids the United States altogether, and did not bother to come to New York for her retrospective, nor for that matter to do interviews. (Indeed, she regards most art writing and criticism as somewhat pointless: “No talk that talks can substitute for direct, unguarded, and sustained exposure to the intuitive presence of the artwork on terms that cannot be talked at all,” she writes in the exhibition catalog, in a contribution that is mostly an essay on Kantian philosophy.) Despite the distance, however, she was closely involved in every aspect of the show’s preparation, and she offers warm praise to the curators, Christophe Cherix, Cornelia Butler, and David Platzker, in her introduction, calling the experience “the most profoundly fulfilling collaboration of my life.”
With its constant interplay of closeness and distancing, its emotional heat and intellectual coolness, Piper’s work can seem difficult at times, but rewards the kind of immersion that the MOMA show permits — ideally over several visits. The generous space the museum has allotted to the show, which spreads across the whole sixth floor, gives both the works and the viewer room to breathe.
For Piper’s devotees, this show has been a long time coming. I asked three of them — art historian John Bowles, author of the first monograph on Piper; pianist Jason Moran, who has collaborated with Piper; and social practice artist Chloë Bass, who considers Piper her chief inspiration, to describe how she changed their lives, and to pick a few favorites.
JOHN BOWLES, associate professor of African American Art, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; author of Adrian Piper: Race, Gender, and Embodiment (2011):
At first I was thinking about Piper in the context of several other conceptual and performance artists. But I ended up writing my first book just about her, because the more research I did, the more important and challenging I found her work to be. Whereas with the others, I got to a point where I felt like I’d figured it out. With her works, there’s an incredibly intense engagement with important moral questions about how we judge each other, how we present ourselves to other people, but mostly about how other people judge us based on what they think they see in us.
JASON MORAN, jazz pianist, composer, and interdisciplinary artist; collaborated with Piper on his album Artist in Residence (2006), and often works with visual artists including Joan Jonas, Glenn Ligon, Theaster Gates, and Kara Walker:
When I was introduced to her work, fourteen years ago, it became central because it demanded an understanding from within: that I as the artist would have to understand, and not be frightened to share what I thought I understood,my own work, in my own terms, under my own conditions.And that was a breaking point for me. Because rather than just shouting John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk over and over, it was, “Wait a minute now: There has to be a reorganization of why we do this.” For me Adrian shows up in this dense body of work, where she really understands her craft from multiple levels, and she expresses it in a way that made me want to dive deeper into my own practice, and share that. It was a new testament after working and learning with her.
CHLOË BASS, Brooklyn-based conceptual artist, assistant professor of art at Queens College, CUNY; has a solo exhibition, “The Book of Everyday Instruction,” at the Knockdown Center through June 17:
For me this is just personal. My mother is a visual artist and my father is a philosopher: Those are the poles of my life. And that somebody brings those together but also adds what has been the most resounding element of my own practice, because I come from theater and performance, which is the body, there’s nothing I can’t learn from that. Every time I see Piper’s work I learn, even when I don’t like the works. I’m hoping that I can take where she leaves off in terms of confrontation and continue with an invitation to intimacy that also asks us to try to change how we see, how we are, and how we live. And I don’t think I could do that if these works didn’t exist. It’s that simple.
Catalysis III (1970) In an early series of performances, Piper stepped onto the streets of New York in abstract costumes, in which she wore a shirt covered in white paint with a sign marked “Wet Paint,” and moved around the city, including shopping at Macy’s.
BOWLES: On one hand, it’s a project about objectification: She makes a spectacle of herself for other people to interact with — or to avoid interacting with. But in retrospect it’s impossible to think about the work without the context of race. In Catalysis III she wears a shirt covered in white paint, making a monochrome painting of herself. That choice of white makes me think about how much of her work is about whiteness, and about ways in which whiteness is policed in our society. Who gets the privilege, who gets to identify as white, who’s part of the in club?
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Bach Whistled (1970) This work is an audio piece in which Piper whistles several Bach concertos. In her own words: “At the beginning the whistling is relatively strong, clear, and on key. As the performance progresses it becomes weaker, flatter, and more like plaintive cheeping.”
MORAN: Bach is a titan of counterpoint, of melody, a kind of Holy Grail, but we rarely think of his music as casual. Adrian adopts it in an entirely different space, which is in the body. And she reads the melody through her whistling, which is, you know, above-average whistling. She reorganizes Bach that way. And that’s pivotal to me. Conservatory students need to understand songs in their repertoire like that — as central to the body rather than central to the canon. In the exhibition, the piece is set against the graph paper works she was making at the time. And Bach isn’t consistent the way graph paper is. She places Bach in that scope of the grid, and everything else oozes around it.
The Mythic Being (multiple works, 1973–75) A wigged and mustached male-presenting character that Piper imagined in 1973 and deployed in multiple settings: walking down the street in spontaneous performances; as the subject of photo projects; and as a kind of alter ego issuing various challenges and pronouncements. She retired the character in 1975.
BOWLES: The work of hers that first grabbed my attention, and was probably many people’s introduction, was her Mythic Being performances. What I found fascinating was the risk that she was taking: She’s altering her appearance and dealing with an audience that isn’t expecting performance, isn’t expecting artwork. And the performances really weren’t documented — the photos were made for creating other artworks, not to document the original performances. So we have to imagine it. She changes her appearance to look like a man, and in her writing she talks about feeling a certain freedom she doesn’t have as a woman, how she can walk around the streets of New York and not get catcalled, and imagine the freedom that men feel in their everyday lives. She writes of a certain kind of sexual liberation that she feels because she doesn’t have to be herself in the way people might expect her to be.
A Tale of Avarice and Poverty (1985) A photograph and text work that tells a complex family history centering on Piper’s grandmother and mother, and their alienation and distance from men in the family.
BASS: What I love about this, as someone who also works with family archival materials, is the challenge to think about how we write the people that we love into being. In this same period, in the 1980s, she’s making all these political self-portraits, which are also great works, but here she takes it away from herself and starts to imagine how this all came to be. I have no idea how much of this story about her grandmother is true or how much of it is fabricated. I don’t know when the picture is from — or is it even really her grandmother? In a way it doesn’t matter. The structure of the image to the pieces of text, the spaces that it builds, allows you to understand with a great deal of tenderness that this person has been positioned in a way that she did not choose. And that invites us to understand that we may be doing that to others, and that others are doing that to us.
My Calling (Card) #1 (1986–90) One of a series of business cards that Piper imagined and printed to hand out to people making casual racist comments at social events or to importuning men at bars, in lieu of having to speak to them directly.
BOWLES: I imagine it would be difficult to receive one of these cards. But there’s a video of a discussion where someone asked Adrian what it’s like to give one of these cards, and she said it’s devastating. Because people will assume she’s being aggressive by pointing out someone else’s racism. Still, what is so powerful about the work is how it tries to help the person who has made the racist comments understand their responsibility in perpetuating racism, and the responsibility to work harder. And by having batches of these cards printed each time the work is shown, she’s spreading the work exponentially. Anyone who wants to use these cards can use them. Lots of people have emulated this work, because the concept is so simple yet the gesture is so profound.
Safe #1-4 (1990) An installation in which happy group photographs of Black people in various celebratory settings are placed in the four corners of a room, conveying presence while assuring the viewer that he or she is safe.
MORAN: One part of what Adrian pulls out is that this work is central to everyone, it’s not just specific to any group of people. For me in that room, with these four pieces on the wall, it’s in a museum space but she just keeps sending the reminders that you’re not in there alone. Those photographs look a lot like pictures I have at home, or images I saw as a kid — you know, Black folk going skiing. It’s normalized within my understanding of who we are as people, and how comfortable we are in our environment. But the museum environment is another space. Adrian is raising the temperature, but always very calmly. It’s never shouting, it’s almost like a proposition to you, a reminder. I first saw this work years ago, and on seeing it again now, it still needs to be said. It’s a simple humanity that she’s demanding, in her very quiet way.
Ashes to Ashes (1995) A work that pairs an archival photograph of a couple — Piper’s parents—with a dense and harrowing text about the later years of their marriage when they faced decline and death from smoking-related diseases. Piper made the work after learning that a show she was to take part in was sponsored by Philip Morris, the tobacco company.
BASS: So much of Piper’s self-presentation is so controlled. Just look at the arrangement of this text. As a person who also spends a lot of time arranging text, this is a strong choice that I probably wouldn’t have the courage to make. You have the two figures of the parents, like twin towers, but also the two frames of the piece, almost as another twin towers. You can imagine that continuing to echo out: What is the next thing, where this becomes one tower in the following arrangement? And those parameters are different in each setting, depending on whether you’re experiencing the work in a book, in the way the exhibition is designed, or out in the world.
Adrian Moves to Berlin (2007) A video performance, projected at MOMA on a large screen, in which Piper is dancing in a plaza in Berlin, while numerous people walk by and watch, though no one joins her.
BOWLES: When I was writing my book and talking with Adrian, it was the tail end of her fights with Wellesley College, and when she moved to Germany. I have the sense that she felt restrained; that it was becoming difficult for her to make the kind of work she needed to do. And I love this video because it seems like such an expression of joy and freedom. I get the sense that this move to Berlin has been incredibly liberating. She’s found intellectual freedom and a place that’s more welcoming, where she found more respect than in America. That speaks to the importance of this exhibition as well, where her retrospective is getting an entire floor at MOMA, one of our most important museums. And watching this video of her dancing in the square, it’s almost like she’s extending an invitation to all of us, to join her in intellectual freedom and ecstasy.
‘Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965-2016’ The Museum of Modern Art 11 West 53rd Street moma.org Through July 22
A large limestone head of the Buddha, from eighth-century Thailand, presides at the entrance to the third-floor galleries of the Asia Society, its impassive countenance in keeping with the calm, studious mood that usually inhabits this institution on the Upper East Side.
But these days, something messy, unruly, even transgressive, has been taking place in a gallery space just a few yards away, within the Buddha’s peripheral vision. Here, inside a white-cube room that is essentially functioning as a black-box theater, the musician and performer Samita Sinha is channeling the contradictions of the South Asian psyche around gender and sexuality, in a series of intimateshows that burst with feral energy.
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The performances, which continue through this weekend, smolder — and that’s not entirely metaphorical. The show is titled This ember state, and a large pile of coal is the main item on set. A pivotal moment in Sinha’s performance occurs as she sinks herself into the coal, evoking a pyre, and specifically the myth of Sati, the goddess who self-immolated in sacrifice after her father insulted her husband, Lord Shiva.
What unfolds is atfirst tentative, then wrenching, then works itself out toward a serenity that feels provisional, complicated. There is some blunt nudity, as well as passages in which Sinha’s voice has a kind of primal — or is it transcendent? — anguish that feel even more naked. With spare mise en scène by Dean Moss and sound design by Cenk Ergün, the performance enfolds the audience — twenty-five people at most, on benches along the gallery walls, in subtly thickening layers of implication and intimacy.
“I couldn’t shy away from the reality of that place,” says Sinha. She means the sexual source that animates Indian culture with its dual tendencies to enshrine and abase women, and the competing repressive violence and generative possibility that ensue. She means, as well, the corresponding part of her body. Her project, the program notes, “deconstructs Indian classical music through the pussy … to re-imagine female spirit and flesh.”
“So much of my work comes from that place in the body — and in the mind, in the psyche, in culture,” Sinha says. “The physical, fleshy reality is where the charges are. The archetypes need to open from that place, literally, in order to make space. It’s what I teach in embodied vocal work: Nothing will happen without that root.”
A lifelong New Yorker — raised on Long Island, and based in Queens — Sinha has migrated her practice over the past decade and a half from the canon and discipline of Hindustani (North Indian) classical music to experimental terrain, making her as much a performance artist as she is a vocalist and composer.
The transition began around 2005, when she took part in a multimedia song-cycle project with an operatic feel by the late poet Sekou Sundiata, the 51st (dream) state. In 2012 she collaborated on a musical version of playwright Fiona Templeton’s The Medead, at Roulette; earlier this year she acted in Moss’s Petra, at Performance Space New York, the new incarnation of P.S. 122. Sinha also fronts an avant-rock band, Tongues in Trees.
But she has carried along her Indian vocal technique, and not just as a virtuoso instrument. Indian classical music has deep roots in courts and even deeper in temples; it is built, ultimately, out of the same elements as yogic practice. This is even more true of vocal performance. The Sanskrit syllables that Sinha intones early add “on”? in This ember state, and the breath work that follows, circle the void where body and sound originate.
“The tools for deconstruction are in the training,” Sinha says. “You have to sit with a phrase, isolate it, listen as closely as you can, then bring it back into the whole. The idea of taking it apart to re-create something — whether it be a body, an experience with other humans, a whole piece or form — is all right there.”
Sinha developed her Hindustani vocal technique in the traditional way, spending extended time in India in closeproximity to her teachers, including singers Alka Deo Marulkar and Shubhangi Sakhalkar. She grew proficient in the repertory of ragas, but sought a different approach. “Classical music has a refinement and stillness,” she says. “It doesn’t encourage physicality. The orientation — and beautifully so — is on listening. In an inverted way, that does teach a profound embodiment, if you let that awareness in. But it’s not discussed.”
The clues, Sinha found, were in the culture — often at the margins. “I started to understand that there are musical traditions in South Asia that are quite radical and embodied,” she says. She cites Baul folk music from rural Bengal, and qawwali, the devotional, quasi-ecstatic Sufi singing. “Baul music uses the yogic understanding of the body, this vertical radiating entity. In qawwali, when you see Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, you can see how the sound moves through him like a volcano.”
In her own work, despite its sexual anchoring, Sinha says she is not claiming a knowledge that only women can accede. “We work with the instruments we have, I guess. There’s something about the necessity of creating a language through the body that doesn’t feel to me exclusively female at all.”
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Still, This ember state, which the Asia Society commissioned to launch a new experimental series in contemporary art and performance, arrives in a moment when the politics of gender and sexuality are highly charged. This is true in India, where sexual violence and the rise of a militant Hindu chauvinism are weaving together in troubling ways, and in the United States, where the #MeToo unpacking has unfolded against the background of vulgar Trumpian misogyny.
Sinha’s performance proposes an interior resolution, a kind of turning inside out, but she also invokes the Sati archetype fully aware of this external context.
“Part of my practice is to be alive to the sensations evoked inside of me, for example, when reading the news, and being very present with that,” Sinha says. “With what I can make with that thing, how that sensation can be turned. The myth is a point of departure to think about these ideas in a pretty wild way.”
“This ember state” Asia Society 725 Park Avenue asiasociety.org Through April 22
The Village Voice is celebrating the season’s arts and culture highlights throughout the week of April 16, 2018. For full coverage to date, visit our Best of Spring Arts 2018 page.
According to Islamic tradition, the Prophet Mohammed observed that when one part of the body is wounded, the whole body feels distress. This idea is a metaphor: it enjoins all Muslims to look out for one another’s well-being. But for the Saudi artist Ahmed Mater, the comparison applies equally to another complex organism: Mecca, the holy city.
“It’s a beautiful way to think about the city,” says Mater, who has mixed documentary and conceptual methods to think about Mecca for the past decade. Mecca Journeys, an illuminating exhibition of his video, sculpture, and large-format photography at the Brooklyn Museum, has been extended to June. Mater, 38, is a prominent figures in a Saudi art scene that is gaining visibility. Raised in Abha, near the Yemen border, he lives in Jeddah, the busy port and commercial hub that serves as a gateway to Mecca. “Being Saudi, from a Muslim family, Mecca was always the center of our life,” Mater says. But he is also trained as a physician, with a specialty in community health, and the principles of that discipline inform his art. “The way my eye works is to look to the city as a body.”
Mecca is easy to get wrong—or to see through a narrow lens. For Muslims it is a spiritual destination, a place they are expected, if able, to visit at least once in their life on the five-day Hajj pilgrimage, which occurs in the last month of the Islamic year. Between Hajj and the lesser pilgrimage, the Umrah, which one can make at any time, some 10 million foreign visitors come to Mecca each year. Religious travel drives the local economy, and Saudi authorities encourage its expansion, aiming for 30 million visitors in 2030.
For non-Muslims, forbidden from entering the city, Mecca has long been mysterious, invested with all manner of Orientalizing fears and fantasies. And when Mecca makes the world news, it is usually due to a tragic event—the seizure by extremists of the Grand Mosque in 1979, for instance, or the stampede during Hajj in September 2015 in Mina, on the city’s outskirts, which according to media estimates killed some 2,400 people.
Today, digital culture has made Mecca easier to experience vicariously, thanks to the pilgrims’ Facebook posts and Instagram stories. But the Mecca that Mater documents is different. His concern is with the city, its year-round population of close to two million, its old and new neighborhoods, and the endless building frenzy that is constantly pressuring its environment and altering its shape. Mater’s Mecca is an immense sprawl: In images and video that he makes from above, aboard a police helicopter on patrol, the city pushes up hillsides and into valleys, the landscape and structures coalescing in a field of ochres and browns. These views recalls cities with similar topographies—Mexico City, or Caracas—and make obvious the challenges of infrastructure and ecology.
Mater’s Mecca is also a vast construction site. There are fields of cranes, areas marked for demolition, decrepit old quarters overshadowed by soaring new edifices. The pressure to expand Mecca’s visitor capacity means the past is under constant threat, as everything from working-class neighborhoods to sites with historical and religious meaning falls prey to real estate development. Looking down on the Kaaba, the black cube that pilgrims clad in simple whites circumambulate in an ancient act of devotion, is the huge, unlovely Abraj al-Bait, a complex of skyscrapers housing luxury apartments, malls, and an enormous hotel.
Atop the central building’s massive clock tower, 120 floors high, is a huge crescent mounted on a pillar base. In the heart-stopping highlight of Leaves Fall in All Seasons, a video that Mater made out of footage that construction workers filmed for him, we find ourselves on girders high up as the crescent is about to be mounted. A worker harnesses himself to the piece; the crane hoists him up, a tiny figure clinging to a giant sculpture as it dangles in the dusty haze.
It is an extraordinary moment; but just as affecting are the passages of workers on the ground, filming each other, conducting mock interviews laced with friendly jibes. These men are immigrants, from around the Arab world, from North Africa, from India, from Indonesia. Mater has spent time with them, visiting their work sites, learning their lives. He pays special attention as well to Mecca’s large Rohingya community, whose presence predates the current acute stage of the repressive conflict in Myanmar. One photograph is of a street made of steps up a high escarpment in the Rohingya part of town. There are vegetable stalls at the base in the foreground; going up, wires, air conditioning units, wall murals, litter, and assorted bric-a-brac fill the vertical streetscape. This Mecca is, simply, another city of the global South.
To enter the exhibition, the visitor walks around two large standing screens with video projections that give a sense, respectively, of the drive towards Mecca from Jeddah, and of walking among the crowds at night in the holy city. The road video is particularly rich: Along the highway are industrial areas, drab outskirt zones, advertising billboards, barren desert terrain, and finally the exit for non-Muslims and other non-Mecca traffic, the spiritual exclusivity of the place marked, in Arabic and English, in the banal visual vocabulary of highway signage.
Mater’s take on Mecca is, in some ways, a dispassionate one. Pragmatic and attentive to material conditions and processes, he documents buildings and their makers, commerce from street stalls to shopping malls, the simplicity of workers’ and middle-class homes and the parvenu interiors of fancy hotels. He is no fan of the construction spree, which has transformed the city’s aspect and leveled many of its landmarks in his lifetime. His distaste aims less at the sometimes vulgar esthetics that at the bigger problems: Neglect of context, erasure of history. “I expect much better architecture in this location,” he says. “It should be more related to the land, and the social fabric of the people.”
A large and beautiful book, Desert of Pharan: Unofficial Histories Behind the Mass Expansion of Mecca, offers an expansive set of Mater’s photographs of Mecca; its subtitle denotes his concern with acknowledging the labor and process of transformation while maintaining a record beyond the bulldozers’ reach. In some ways a preservationist, Mater collects objects in Mecca and installs them as sculptures, including one, in the Brooklyn Museum show, made of discarded old window frames painted in lively colors.
But this is not a pessimistic project. Rather, Mater is taking stock of the city, with a lyrical approach to photography and videography, attentive to both the built environment and its occupants, that adds a subtle political force to the work of documentation, and quietly suggests some possibilities. “Mecca has a lot of things gone, but a lot can be saved,” Mater says. The authorities have been responsive, he says. “The mayor of Mecca wants to do a lot of education about preserving Mecca so it can be an environmental and truly Islamic city.”
Mater has some influence: He is the first director of the Misk Art Institute, a new initiative launched by Saudi Arabia’s omnipresent crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, to develop arts hubs in the country and run exhibitions abroad. “There is a big energy of change,” Mater says, citing social reforms, such as women being finally allowed to drive, and the pressure of generational change. Mecca may be an inherently conservative site, with worship and pilgrimage inexorably woven into its meaning. But Mater reveals it—perhaps even to its residents—as something dynamic, contemporary, universal; a place materially and culturally connected to every other place. “I’m talking about Mecca as a city in the world,” he says. “This project for me is like a voice.”
The last time he made work in New York City, Banksy, the famous street artist, had trouble finding locations. “Most of the empty lots I planned to use have got condos built on them already,” the elusive British stencil maestro told the Voice in a rare interview in October 2013. That month, he put up one new piece per day, fomenting a scavenger-hunt energy as droves of fans quested around the city to spot and photograph the latest piece before the elements — or vandals — could damage it.
No scouting difficulty this time. Banksy’s first work in the city in five years is on the Bowery Wall, the seventy-foot surface at Houston Street and Bowery where Keith Haring once put a mural in the 1970s. Now a curated space, courtesy of the property owner, it has recently shown David Choe, Ron English, Brazil’s Os Gêmeos, Spain’s Pichi & Avo, and more.
On Thursday, a masked figure cloaked in white spacesuit-like overalls was observed standing on a lift, making black vertical tally marks in clusters of five on the white wall. A press release went out. The work is a collaboration between Banksy and the American street artist Borf, it explained. It is a tribute to the jailed Turkish artist Zehra Doğan.
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Doğan, a member of Turkey’s Kurdish minority, is one year into a nearly three-year sentence in Turkey. Her crime was to make a watercolor depicting a town in Turkish Kurdistan in ruins after combat between the army and Kurdish rebels. Perversely, the painting was based on a photograph the Turkish military itself had circulated. But its appropriation by Doğan, who is a progressive journalist as well as an artist, was not to the liking of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian regime.
“I really feel for her,” Banksy said in a brief statement to the New York Times. “I’ve painted things much more worthy of a custodial sentence.”
By Saturday afternoon, some 48 hours into its display, the work was in conversation with the city — for better or worse. Clusters of pilgrims gathered on the sidewalk and in the median traffic island facing it to snap the best views. A group of students from St. John’s University listened to a guide extol the site’s importance in art history. On the second-highest of the work’s four long rows of tally marks, Doğan’s face looked out over the scene, in a clever and attractive design: the vertical marks now prison bars, and the last one tapered to represent a sharpened pencil. Down near the sidewalk, the inscription FREE ZEHRA DOGAN beckoned passersby to remember her name.
The vandals, too, had shown up. Between the third and fourth row, an interloper had scrawled his identity in red spray paint nine times over — damage that would require a fresh paint job to remedy, which would no doubt invite recidivism. Such is the city.
The work remains elegant, if no longer pure. Its simple geometry contrasts with Banksy’s more common use of stencils — representing humans, dogs, rats, butterflies, flowers, fire hydrants, shopping carts — and the stark pathos of its appeal on behalf of a prisoner of conscience is a welcome moral improvement over the massive hoardings for fashion labels or alcohol brands that pollute whole walls in this part of the city.
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It will pass, of course — street art is transient by nature, and thus also, at least in some measure, by design. In her actual prison cell, Doğan can only make her own tally marks to count the days; her release comes in principle in December 2019. According to the press release, she has yet to learn of this venture. A campaign by PEN America invites the public to write U.S. authorities to urge them to demand her release.
A second Banksy has popped up a mile or so away, this one more in keeping with his brand, furtive and sly. A large stenciled rat — one of his fetish animals, and sadly fitting for New York City — has appeared on the face of a stopped clock on a derelict former bank building on the northwest corner of 14th Street and Sixth Avenue.
The hour hand of the clock is stalled above the rat’s rump, seeming to push it up the clock face in a futile circular motion. Here, too, street-art pilgrims and gawkers stand on the corner looking up and snapping pictures. Beneath the clock, homeless individuals sit with their belongings in the condemned doorway. All parties appear supremely oblivious to one another. Prisons, distress, exclusion, futility: The dots connect and the metaphors write themselves as shoppers stream past and an open-topped tourist bus chugs by.
UPDATE 3/17/18 1:00 p.m.: No confirmation on his Instagram yet, but Banksy seems to have struck again, this time in Brooklyn.
UPDATE 3/18/18 2:00 p.m.: And we have confirmation.
They found Emmett Till’s casket in 2009. It was under a tarp in a shed in Burr Oak Cemetery, outside Chicago. When they opened it, possums scurried out.
The casket had come out of the earth five years earlier. The U.S. Department of Justice had reopened the case of Till’s lynching in 1955 in Mississippi, and investigators had determined there had been no autopsy at the time. Once the procedure was finally done, Till was reburied in a fresh coffin, and the original one forgotten and left to decay.
Today, you can pay respects before the restored casket in the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. It anchors a two-room exhibit devoted to Emmett Till that has the air of a shrine. You traverse an anteroom with historical information and images, then enter the sanctum. The casket’s lid is open, as it was for the four days in September, 1955, when tens of thousands of mourners filed past it in the Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ on Chicago’s South Side.
Back then, Mamie Till had famously insisted on displaying her son unembalmed and unretouched, his face grotesquely mutilated and swollen, just as his killers, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, had made it. Unsparing photographs of the viewing and funeral ran in two Black publications: the national weekly Jet and the local Chicago Defender. They are often credited for galvanizing the freedom movement. Now, one of those photographs, showing Till’s destroyed face, lies beneath glass at the head of the open casket in the museum. You must stand on tip-toe and crane your neck to glimpse the image. The exhibit has the stillness and power of a martyr’s mausoleum.
President Obama inaugurated the “Blacksonian,” as the NMAAHC was promptly nicknamed, on September 26, 2016. The museum has been a major attraction ever since, with timed-entry tickets snapped up months in advance. I did not get the chance to visit until last fall, on a warm Monday in October, nine months into the Trump administration. The museum was thronged with African-American families, European tourists, school groups. Ferrying us down to the galleries, the elevator operator — Black, like almost all the staff I saw — let us know that the Emmett Till exhibit was the only part of the museum where photography was forbidden. This was at the request of Till’s family, she explained.
To stand before Till’s casket in this space was an emotional experience. It also brought some retrospective clarity to the biggest art controversy of 2017. A few months earlier, a painting titled Open Casket, by Dana Schutz, appeared in the Whitney Biennial. An abstracted rendering of Till in repose, emphasizing his tumefied head, it drew explicitly on the funeral photographs. It caused an immediate furor. Protesters stood vigil in the museum gallery. Four dozen artists and writers signed an open letter that called for its removal from the Biennial and recommended its destruction. The debate that ensued spilled out from art publications into the broader cultural conversation, with critics trading heated takes in major newspapers and magazines.
It seemed that the cultural milieu was about to engage with a crucial topic: Black pain under violent white supremacy, how artists and museums addressed it, and how viewers experienced this material. But almost immediately, the focus blurred. Argument shifted to the entitlement, or otherwise, of white artists such as Schutz to deal with Black subjects; and from there, to the ethics of taking down or destroying a work of art. Soon the debate coagulated into charges and countercharges that sketched the lumpy generalities of the culture wars: Who is allowed to make what? Why can’t white artists engage Black material? Is censorship ever justified?
Missing from this was Till himself. A rich and specific literature on the impact of the visual record of his life and death, the work of Black scholars, poets, and critics, went mostly unaddressed. His actual casket, and the method of its display in the Washington museum, did not come up at all (aside from a single passing mention by Roberta Smith in the New York Times). It was a striking collective omission, as if the cultural arbiters saw no link between the two viewing experiences. Till’s story, they seemed to imply, was a settled matter. Schutz’s painting and its reception had value as a case study — of cultural appropriation, of artistic liberty, of censorship, of curatorial practice, of institutional policy.
In the material presence of Till’s casket, the debate over the painting read like an elaborate act of avoidance — in the current climate, a critical failure. Till died in 1955, but historians are still studying details of the case, and some important testimonials are only now coming to light. His memory is intensely political, not least in Mississippi, where historical markers in his honor are recent, and frequently vandalized. He exists not only as a symbolic precursor to Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and other Black boys and men fallen to recent racist violence, but as a contested subject. All this went unaddressed, as if existing on a separate plane, while the debate over Open Casket inexorably moved its focus to the white artist’s position and the absolutes of free speech.
About Open Casket. The topic is apparent if you know the photos. The face, oversize and distorted, is a whirl of thick brown strokes, infused with a red undercurrent that duly evokes blood. The impasto accentuates the head’s swollen, uneven volumes. The artist has clearly studied the black-and-white photographs, but she has abstracted the details, and colorized the scene. A white shirt covers the torso. Edges of a black formal jacket cloak the shoulders. The head rests in a field of gold, suggesting a pillow, but also a halo. There is a red rose, the painter’s addition, upon the casket’s rim. The viewer’s position is looking down into the casket — interested and intimate.
“I made this painting in August of 2016 after a summer that felt like a state of emergency,” Schutz told Artnet after the furore broke out. She cited videos of police killings of Black men — she did not name them, but the deaths of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in St. Paul would have been fresh at the time — as well as mass shootings and racist rallies. “The photograph of Emmett Till felt analogous to the time: what was hidden was now revealed.” In a later statement, Schutz invoked Mamie Till: “I don’t know what it is like to be black in America but I do know what it is like to be a mother,” she said. “My engagement with this image was through empathy with his mother.”
In April 2017, three weeks into the furore, the New Yorker published a profile of Schutz by Calvin Tomkins. Clearly long in the works, it covered her whole career but the magazine framed it to address the controversy, with the title “Why Dana Schutz Painted Emmett Till.” In this telling as well, references to Till that Schutz heard in media discourse around police and vigilante killings of young Black men stuck in her mind. The article emphasized Schutz’s hesitancy and misgivings, as expressed in a conversations with Tomkins both before and after making the work. “I’ve wanted to do a painting for a while now, but I haven’t figured out how,” she told him at the outset. “It’s a real event, and it’s violence, but it also has to be tender.” Later she asked: “How do you make a painting about this and not have it just be about the grotesque? I was interested because it’s something that keeps on happening. I feel somehow that it’s an American image.”
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Tomkins met Schutz again after the painting first showed, without incident, in Berlin. “I don’t know if it has the right emotionality,” she told him. “I like it as a painting, but I might want to try it again.” She withheld the painting from sale; she did not redo it, however, and the Biennial’s co-curators, the independent curators Mia Locks and Christopher Y. Lew, selected it with several other of her works for the show. “I knew the risks going into this,” Schutz told Tomkins after the fracas erupted, quoted at the profile’s end. “What I didn’t realize was how bad it would look when seen out of context. Is it better to try to make something that’s impossible, because it’s important to you, and to fail, or never to engage with it at all? I just couldn’t do it any other way.”
“Black bodies in pain for public consumption have been an American national spectacle for centuries,” the poet and essayist Elizabeth Alexander wrote in the journal Public Culture in 1994. “This history moves from public rapes, beatings and lynchings to the gladiatorial arenas of basketball and boxing.” Prompting Alexander’s essay, titled “‘Can you be BLACK and Look at This?’: Reading the Rodney King Video(s),” were the 1991 video of King being beaten by L.A.P.D. officers that ignited the Los Angeles riots (or rebellion), and television news summaries of the ensuing trial, held in Simi Valley after the defense won a change of venue, and that found four officers not guilty. The King video was as ubiquitous as pre-Internet culture allowed. Terms used at trial to describe King — “buffed-out,” “bear-like,” “like a wounded animal” — would echo later: for instance, in the former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson’s description of eighteen-year-old Michael Brown, whom he killed: “like Hulk Hogan,” “a demon,” “grunting.”
“In each of these traumatic instances, black bodies and their attendant dramas are publicly consumed by the larger populace,” Alexander wrote. Her words only bear more force in today’s visual culture, where images of anti-Black violence by agents of the state or its self-styled deputies circulate from phone to phone at high speed. It is a more plural culture, with lower barriers to counternarratives and new digital spaces for contestation. But the core distinction that Alexander identified remains: “White men have been the primary stagers and consumers of the historical spectacles I have mentioned, but in one way or another, black people also have been looking, forging a traumatized collective historical memory which is reinvoked at contemporary sites of conflict.”
A section of Alexander’s essay focuses on Till. She cites authors who have devoted whole works to him — Bebe Moore Campbell, Toni Morrison, Gwendolyn Brooks, Audre Lorde — and others who relate in their memoirs how his story shaped their development: Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Shelby Steele, Muhammad Ali. The photographs are at the core of this influence. “Pictures of his limp, watersoaked body in the newspapers and in Jet, Black America’s weekly news bible, were worse than any image we had seen outside of a horror movie,” Hunter-Gault wrote. In Louisville, a teenaged Ali felt “a deep kinship,” then anger, on seeing photos of Till in Black papers. “In one he was laughing and happy,” Ali wrote. “In the other, his head was swollen and bashed in, his eyes bulging out of their sockets” — in fact, one was gouged out and gone — “and his mouth twisted and broken. His mother had done a bold thing.” Alexander concludes: “The Emmett Till narratives illustrate how, in order to survive, black people have paradoxically had to witness their own murder and defilement and then pass along the epic tale of violation.”
Alexander’s essay barely surfaced in the debate around Open Casket. Nor did a literary-psychological analysis of the photographs by Fred Moten in his 2003 book In the Break; nor did any of the earlier writings on Till that Alexander cited. Still, the influence of her line of argument was apparent in the protests and critiques. Soon after the Biennial opened, the artist Parker Bright took up vigil before the painting, BLACK DEATH SPECTACLE marked on the back of his shirt. (Other protesters soon joined him.) Writing together in The New Republic, Josephine Livingstone, the magazine’s culture writer, and Lovia Gyarkye, an editorial staffer at the New York Times, cited Claudia Rankine on Mamie Till’s decision (using Mobley, her then-married name). “Mobley’s refusal to keep private grief private allowed a body that meant nothing to the criminal-justice system to stand as evidence,” Rankine had written. This made possible the act of witnessing that Alexander identified as a thread of survival. “By controlling the way that his body looked, Mobley was able to define its legacy,” Livingstone and Gyarkye wrote. “Although he was taken from her, the way lynched Americans were taken from their families, she was able to invert the final stage of public murder, which is spectacle. Her action was both brave and a strikingly effective piece of visual rhetoric, accomplished in the depths of appalling grief.”
By this point, the artist Hannah Black had written the critique of Open Casket that would draw the most ire. Her letter, originally posted on Facebook, added to the critique of spectacle a dose of blunt political economy. “The painting should not be acceptable to anyone who cares or pretends to care about Black people because it is not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun, though the practice has been normalized for a long time,” she wrote. Mamie’s act made Till “available to Black people as an inspiration and warning. Non-Black people must accept that they will never embody and cannot understand this gesture.” Evidence for this was that “Black people go on dying at the hands of white supremacists, that Black communities go on living in desperate poverty not far from the museum where this valuable painting hangs.”
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Might Open Casket transcend the spectacle? Impossible, Black argued, from the moment Schutz chose to focus on Till’s dead body. “Non-Black artists who sincerely wish to highlight the shameful nature of white violence should first of all stop treating Black pain as raw material,” she wrote. Simply painting “a dead Black boy” did not clear the threshold. “The subject matter is not Schutz’s; white free speech and white creative freedom have been founded on the constraint of others, and are not natural rights.”
Other critics emphasized how, in basing itself on the photograph but then altering Till’s likeness, the painting did a form of violence to its subject. “Schutz has smeared Till’s face and made it unrecognizable, again,” Livingstone and Gyarkye wrote. For Hrag Vartanian in Hyperallergic, “the artist appears to have absolved herself by refusing to implicate herself in the image, preferring to let the history of the image, and her painterly additions, make her case for her.” “What Dana Schutz has done is to take that unobscured violence and make it abstract,” the scholar Christina Sharpe, the author of In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, told me in an interview for Hyperallergic. “Mamie Till wanted to make violence real. And that thing — white supremacy, violent abduction, murder — that Mamie Till wanted to absolutely make clear is abstracted in Schutz’s work, and in her defense of the work.” Later, the artist and critic Coco Fusco, writing in support of Schutz, would criticize this position as an undue attack on abstraction in art, as opposed to a discrete point about the Till imagery.
Roberta Smith, the New York Times critic, enjoyed the painting. “Ms. Schutz has been faulted for ‘abstracting’ Till’s gruesome wounds, yet her sliding brushwork guides our eyes away from them, suggesting a kind of shocked visual reflex,” she wrote. Linking Open Casket to another painting in the Biennial, The Times Thay Ain’t A Changing, Fast Enough!, by the Black artist Henry Taylor, that depicted the imminent death of Philando Castile (with a white hand holding the gun visible in the frame), Smith argued that both works possessed “a monumentality and a hand-wrought physicality that photographs generally do not attain.” The New Yorker’s Tomkins, in his profile of Schutz, was impressed as well. Open Casket is “a very dark picture — but it’s not grotesque,” he wrote. “The horror is conveyed in painterly ways that, to me, make it seem more tragic than the photograph, because the viewer is drawn in, not repelled.”
The obvious question — which viewer? — might have challenged assumptions about art audiences (or highbrow magazine readers), and offered a chance to bring more explicitly into the conversation the specific interpretive history and visual culture surrounding the Till photographs. But the train had moved on by then. Almost as fast as Hannah Black’s letter circulated, the debate shifted from her argument to her proposed remedies. Black demanded the Whitney remove Open Casket, and asked that it not be “entered into any market or museum.” But she also offered the “urgent recommendation that the painting be destroyed.” The call for removal and destruction proved the lightning rod that would alter not only the course but ultimately the subject of the debate.
“We all encounter art we don’t like, that upsets and infuriates us,” Roberta Smith began her survey of the situation two weeks after the Biennial’s opening. “This doesn’t deserve to be exhibited, our brains yell; it should not be allowed to exist. Still, does such aversion mean that an artwork must be removed from view — or, worse, destroyed?” She compared the criticisms of Open Casket to the objections of some older Black artists to the early works of Kara Walker, and to Rudy Giuliani’s campaign against Chris Ofili’s painting of the Virgin Mary partly made from elephant dung. She pointedly brought up the existence of Black artists and writers who were — in the words of Clifford Owens, one of them — “not down with artists censoring artists.” Smith raised an Instagram post by Walker that seemed to allude to the controversy, in which Walker pointed out that “the history of painting is full of graphic violence and narratives that don’t necessarily belong to the artist’s own life.” Still, Smith noted, “the injured black body is a subject or image that black artists and writers have increasingly sought to protect from misuse, especially by those who are not black.”
The most wide-ranging and sophisticated defense of Schutz was Coco Fusco’s essay in Hyperallergic, a long piece that brought up the history of anti-racist art by white people; the galvanizing outrage the Till photographs produced in many non-Black viewers; and the laudable authenticity of Schutz’s intentions, moved by the spate of police killings. “I would never stand in the way of protest, particularly an informed one aimed at raising awareness of the politics of racial representation,” wrote Fusco, a veteran of past battles such as the much-reviled 1993 Whitney Biennial, a cauldron of provocative art about racial and ethnic identities in which she had performed in a cage wearing a stereotypical Native American outfit. Still, Fusco drew a firm line. “I find it alarming and entirely wrongheaded to call for the censorship and destruction of an artwork, no matter what its content is or who made it,” she wrote. She added: “Presuming that calls for censorship and destruction constitute a legitimate response to perceived injustice leads us down a very dark path.”
The idea of destruction made some critics of Open Casket hesitate as well. When I raised the question with Sharpe, who had signed onto Black’s letter, she demurred. “I don’t have a strong personal stand on the destruction of the painting,” she said in our interview. “But I respect Hannah Black’s … call for the painting to be destroyed.” Livingstone and Gyarkye suggested reading the open letter’s call to destroy Open Casket not as the work of “book-burners doing the work of censorship,” but as a “call for silence inside a church. How will you hear the dead boy’s voice if you keep speaking over him?” Their logic was awkward but their instinct wasn’t off. Not only Till, but a whole historiography and critical stream relating to his death and depiction, were getting lost in the hubbub, covered in a cacophony of cries of cultural appropriation and counter-claims of illiberalism and censorship.
Illustration of this drift came in an essay by Zadie Smith in the July 2017 issue of Harper’s, reviewing Open Casket and the film Get Out. The first part, on the film, was astute and sophisticated, but the second part, ostensibly on the painting, was mostly an odd digression on mixed-race identity. Smith aimed her focus on Hannah Black. Neither she nor Black, she noted, were African-American; both were non-American (indeed, both are British) and mixed-race, or “biracial” in Smith’s term. Having seeded the implication that this somehow affected Black’s critical standing, Smith then brought up her own children with her white husband. Would they some day be judged “too white to engage with black suffering”? Smith noted the Biennial contained plenty of work by Black artists, and that other white artists had depicted Black suffering, including one work she’d seen in the Whitney. (Not in the Biennial, though she did not make this clear.) As to Open Casket, therefore, Smith found it hard to see “why this painting was singled out.”
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This blithe evacuation ended the critical cycle. The matter of Open Casket was never settled. The painting stayed up for the duration of the Biennial, with some added wall text noting the objections, and a message from Schutz confirming that she did not plan to sell it. In the summer, Schutz had an exhibition at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art; it did not include Open Casket, but some local artists and activists petitioned the ICA to cancel it on grounds that she profiteered off exploitation. Their initiative went nowhere.
By then, the art world had moved on to new flashpoints. In May 2017, Scaffold, an installation by Sam Durant slated for the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, drew objections from Native activists for its reference to the gallows on which the U.S. hanged 38 Dakota men in Mankato, Minnesota, in 1862. Durant listened, agreeing after talks to cede the work for the Lakota elders to destroy. (In this instance at least, destruction — and the interactions that led to it — became part of the work itself. But we view differently the mutability of an outdoor installation from that of a painting in a museum.) In October, the Guggenheim removed several works from its Chinese contemporary survey following objections to their use of animals. In December at the Met, Thérèse Dreaming, a 1938 painting by Balthus, took flak for its portrayal of a girl with underwear showing, given the painter’s reported taste for preteens. More generalities: Should art not disturb?
Assessments of 2017 in culture presented Open Casket as a kind of keynote for these controversies. For Julia Halperin and Javier Pes at Artnet, Schutz’s painting ignited “conversation about cultural appropriation, censorship, and who has the right to depict another’s suffering.” In the Los Angeles Times, Carolina Miranda counted it as the first salvo in a “maelstrom” of debate on race, gender, and power that forced a welcome reckoning on art institutions but “threatened to limit the freedom with which artists and writers conceive and experiment.” In her review of “10 Cultural Battles that Ruled 2017” in the New York Times, Jennifer Schuessler linked Open Casket to Get Out and Detroit, another of the year’s big movies, as triggers of debate over “who gets to tell a community’s story.”
“The Schutz painting and the debate around it are already a historical unit, one that seems new to the art world, and one that will change things,” Roberta Smith had written just ten days after the Biennial opened. But what was the takeaway? Through the fracas, Schutz maintained a low profile, declining to engage directly with her critics. The Whitney Museum kept quiet as well, letting the independent curators, Locks and Lew — both Asian-American — take the heat, for instance at a rowdy public discussion in April organized with Claudia Rankine’s Racial Imaginary Institute. The curators seemed caught off guard by the animosity Open Casket generated. Its inclusion, they wrote in a statement, acknowledged “an “extremely consequential and solemn image in American and African American history.” Schutz’s painting, Locks told the New York Times, functioned in part as a way of “not letting Till’s death be forgotten.”
Yet that was never the danger. Perhaps the New York-centric art world had forgotten about Till, and now, confronted with him, preferred to look away. But the fury over the painting only added to what was, in fact, a busy year in Till’s afterlife.
In Mississippi, you can drive through the Delta, along flat roads between catfish ponds and cotton fields. It’s all mechanized now, quiet and eerie, just the odd crop-duster buzzing overhead. You can pull over near a rickety church, walk into the cotton, pick a few bolls for yourself under a ruthless August sun. You might pass Parchman Farm, famous from the blues. It is still the state penitentiary, where John Lewis spent thirty-seven days in 1961 after he used a “white” bathroom in Jackson. These days it houses more than three thousand inmates. As you near a line of trees marking the presence of water, the sign at the bridge might say Tallahatchie. You may recognize the name of the river in which they dumped Till’s body after they mutilated him, shot him, and tied him with barbed wire to a heavy cotton-gin fan.
For fifty years there was not a single memorial to Till in Mississippi. Since 2005, private and public efforts have seen commemorative markers placed at key sites: the location of Bryant’s grocery store — now a crumbling ruin — in the hamlet of Money, where Carolyn Bryant claimed Till propositioned her; the riverbank spot where his mangled body washed up; the old courthouse in Sumner, where an all-white jury acquitted the confessed killers, who went on to lead unbothered lives. These markers are periodically defaced or riddled with bullets. Vandals shredded the one in Money in June 2017.
Earlier last year, major new information had emerged about the events that led to Till’s lynching. Most accounts agree that Till made a sound like a wolf whistle upon leaving Bryant’s store. But Carolyn Bryant, who was twenty-one at the time, testified at the trial of Roy Bryant, her husband, and J.W. Milam, his half-brother, that Till had grabbed her and made obscene comments. She repeated this claim to the FBI when it reopened the case in 2004. In February 2017, The Blood of Emmett Till, a new book by the historian Timothy B. Tyson, revealed that Bryant had finally recanted her version, in an interview with the author in 2008. “You tell these stories for so long that they seem true, but that part is not true,” she told Tyson. There were calls to prosecute Bryant, but the statute of limitations for perjury has expired. Her own memoir manuscript is locked away at the University of North Carolina, andcannot be read until her death or 2035, when she would be 100.
Three weeks before the end of 2017, Donald Trump jetted into Jackson on a Saturday morning to take part in the opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, the first such institution in the country to be sponsored by a state — let alone a state of the South. His visit was swift and regimented to avoid embarrassment. He gave brief remarks at a small, closed ceremony, then was whisked out of the building and back to the airport. But his presence and the resulting protests — Congressman John Lewis, the civil rights hero, and his colleague Rep. Bennie Thompson, the local representative, withdrew from the event — took the focus away from the museum and gave its opening a sour taste.
Lewis and Thompson returned for an unofficial second opening, this time without Trump, in February 2018. I attended that event, and visited the museum. It is a remarkable place. The story it tells of the freedom struggle in Mississippi, by means of texts, artifacts, audio recordings, and video installations, is dense, detailed, and free of euphemism — proving wrong those who believed no Mississippi state-run institution would tell the true story. In one alcove, a three-channel video feature narrated by Oprah Winfrey relates Till’s story, all the way to Carolyn Bryant’s belated admission. (I watched with a high-school group from Holmes County, in the Delta. “She burning now,” one student commented.)
A display outside the alcove includes the original doors of Bryant’s Grocery. As relics of Till’s martyrdom go, the doors bear less spiritual weight than the casket in Washington. But their presence adds to the accounting under way in Mississippi, where civic figures such as Myrlie Evers — the widow of Medgar Evers, who was slain by a white supremacist outside their Jackson home in 1963 — and former governor William Winter have done hard reconciliation work for many years.
Schutz told Tomkins that she didn’t anticipate “how bad” her painting would look “when seen out of context.” But what was the context? Tomkins implied that it was the artist’s thought process, in all its ambivalence and sincerity. For Lew, the Biennial co-curator, the exhibition was the proper context — as opposed to the Internet, where small-scale images of the work circulated. “When you’re standing in front of the painting, it’s a powerful experience — deeply sad, mournful,” Lew told Tomkins. Did the context include the Till sanctuary in the NMAAHC, which opened after Schutz made the work but before Lew and Locks chose it, and which the critics left out of their assessments? Perhaps the context that truly mattered was white supremacy and anti-Black violence, especially now, under the Trump regime.
But the clues to another context are there in Mississippi — the dogged memory work; the defiant pursuit of understanding; the constant menace of violence; an elderly widow and her shame. And the ghosts, always the ghosts. No part of Emmett Till’s story is complete. It cannot be complete until America’s sins are expiated, that moment we dream of yet can never fully reach. In that context, what can one painting resolve or take away? Open Casket is an earnest, lesser entry. It will grow and find its meaning in the shadow of more searing material, such as Audre Lorde’s “Afterimages,” which reads in part:
His broken body is the afterimage of my 21st year
when I walked through a northern summer
my eyes averted
from each corner’s photographies
newspapers protest posters magazines
Police Story, Confidential, True
the avid insistence of detail
pretending insight or information
the length of gash across the dead boy’s loins
his grieving mother’s lamentation
the severed lips, how many burns
his gouged out eyes
sewed shut upon the screaming covers
louder than life
the veiled warning, the secret relish
of a black child’s mutilated body
fingered by street-corner eyes
bruise upon livid bruise
and wherever I looked that summer
I learned to be at home with children’s blood
with savored violence
with pictures of black broken flesh
used, crumpled, and discarded
lying amid the sidewalk refuse
like a raped woman’s face.
The enemy was in sight. It was chugging back up the broad Mississippi, its majestic paddle wheel churning the waters, returning the day-trippers to the dock at the edge of the French Quarter. On the opposite bank, facing downtown New Orleans where the river’s curve forms the promontory called Algiers Point, Kara Walker was waiting.
Her antagonist was the steamboat Natchez, a tourist fixture of the Crescent City that purveys nostalgia for a gracious antebellum South — the belles, gamblers, and cotton traders traveling between market towns, steaming past forests and plantations. A replica of its nineteenth-century ancestors, the Natchez does harbor cruises, weddings, and special events. In 1988, when New Orleans hosted the Republican National Convention, nominee George H.W. Bush and family made their triumphant arrival aboard the vessel.
Now, under threatening skies on a mild Friday in late February, Walker, the celebrated artist who has made the violence and grotesque of America’s racial history her central theme, was about to deliver some counterprogramming, months in the making.
Clad in black T-shirts, she and her team busied themselves under a tent while an assemblage of collectors, curators, scholars, and other assorted art types milled around on the moist riverbank grass. At the gathering’s center, artisans versed in steam machinery tinkered with equipment inside a black-and-white rectangular box of Walker’s design. It was about twenty feet long and stood some fifteen feet high, resting atop four wheels, a small front pair and large rear pair, each with sixteen blond-wood spokes, giving the whole contraption the form of an old-time parade wagon.
Cut in black steel along the wagon’s four panels were silhouette sculptures in the style that for twenty years Walker has made her instantly recognizable hallmark, marshaling the tropes and archetypes of the Southern history of enslavement in assorted mise-en-scènes. The smaller panels were elegiac: One presented a Black woman in profile in the woods, her right arm lifted in accompaniment to her skyward gaze; the other showed a cotton field, a cloud of white bolls floating upward like bubbles against the steel sky.
The longer side panels were harsher. One had what appeared to be an enslaved family getting marched across a field by a monstrous overseer figure made of three individuals stacked piggyback, the top one wielding a whip. The opposite panel showed two captive figures carrying an outstretched third — a dead body? — while a fourth crouched above in the branches, legs spread apart, as if about to shower bodily fluids onto the scene.
A central opening profiled these fantastical figures against the device in the wagon’s middle: a row of shiny pipes of increasing length, akin toan organ. It was indeed a musical instrument — a calliope, which uses pressured steam to emit loud whistles. A wire ran to a keyboard that stood nearby, protected from the drizzle by an attendant with an umbrella.
Walker titled the whole montage the Katastwóf Karavan, or Caravan of Catastrophe, the use of Haitian Creolesignaling the mix of Caribbean and Southern histories that shaped New Orleans. Walker’s first public installation since the 2014 Marvelous Sugar Baby — the enormous Sphinx-like mammy figure that she built out of sugar in the now-demolished Domino factory in Williamsburg — the Karavan went up for the closing weekend of the Prospect.4 triennial, which ran for three months at multiple sites around New Orleans. The installation was freighted with layers of site-specific symbolism — none of it subtle if you knew a bit about local history, yet all of it obscured by years of avoidance or, at best, awkward notes in the narratives delivered by school curricula or tourist brochures.
Thus Algiers Point: Here, in the eighteenth century, traders warehoused disembarked captives — those who survived the Middle Passage — before selling them on the opposite bank in the markets that dotted the French Quarter and surroundings. This is where families were rent apart, humans assessed and packaged as commodities. Thus, too, Walker’s tableaux, relevant across the landscape of chattel slavery but especially here.
And thus the calliope, a direct retort to the one on the Natchez — “the OTHER calliope,” Walker called it on her handout for the event — and its sonic broadcast of a whitewashed history. Several times a day, the vessel’s instrument blares out to the city (there is no such thing as a quiet calliope) items from a hoary playlist such as “Old Man River,” “When the Saints Go Marching In,” “God Bless America,” and, yes, “Dixie’s Land.”
Invited to make something for Prospect.4, Walker had honed in on Algiers Point and, after hearing the Natchez a few times, the concept of a feisty riposte, a guerrilla action in the long asymmetric war against white supremacy. If the visual matter was distinctly hers, the sourcing of the Karavan described an America of workshops: steam specialists from Indiana; wheel-makers in South Dakota; metal fabricators in Kingston, New York; and a Michigan-based artisan, Kenneth Griffard, who custom-built the calliope.
And for the idea’s musical development, Walker turned to a fellow New York–based polymath with Southern roots (and fellow MacArthur “genius” anointee), the jazz pianist Jason Moran, whose multi-arts projects also bring forth hidden histories, from Thelonious Monk’s North Carolina roots to the life of mid-century jazz clubs in U.S. cities.
The original plan was for the Karavan to appear at the triennial’s opening in November, but it wasn’t done in time. Now it was ready to go, turning the closing weekend into a special event. Together, Walker and Moran had designed a playlist of Black liberation music for the calliope — from Negro spirituals to “Lift Every Voice and Sing” to Prince’s “When Doves Cry.” These would sound out, pre-programmed and controlled through a MIDI device, at scheduled times over the weekend. But on this Friday afternoon, Moran would play live, improvising to the weather, the gathering, and the return of his notes in the heavy air.
The audience of two or three hundred drew near as the calliope began to hiss, warming up as the water in its belly heated into steam. Walker stood back, keeping attention off herself. Moran — new to the calliope prior to this project — sat at the keyboard, wearing thick headphones, the umbrella sheltering him like a potentate from the intermittent rain.
Picking with his right hand, he played shrill one-note blasts; his left elbow traveled the low range, producing a mournful groan. Then he found a central rhythm — dum-da-DA-dum, dum-da-DA-dum — and worked around it awhile, gradually introducing melodies. Through the diamond-shaped opening in the side panel, above the steel silhouette being carried (to burial? to shelter?), the steam escaped in puffs. The sound was industrial, the notes abrupt and without the softness of decay. Moran jolted the melody with freestyle blares and moans, bringing to mind the shrieks and calls of the avant-garde saxophonists Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, or Marion Brown, abstract yet uncannily soulful.
And then it was over. The rain had strengthened; water dripped from the audience’s rain gear and drenched the clothes of those (like this correspondent) who were unprepared. From responses to the rehearsals, Walker and Moran knew that the sound had traveled across into the neighborhoods all along the river’s curve. The sun came out; as if on cue, a rainbow appeared. Vessels proceeded along the river: a behemoth Maersk cargo laden with containers; a long tanker escorted by a tiny tug. In a little while the calliope on the Natchez, berthed across the river, would do its usual reactionary thing. Most of the audience wandered back to the ferry terminal; some invitees headed to a cocktail party. Walker and Moran disappeared; there would be a second live performance the next morning.
What did it mean? For a moment, the team had voiced the ancestors, reclaimed the land. The katastwóf of chattel slavery and the American plantation economy, so inconvenient to our societal narratives that it does not have an agreed designation like the Holocaust or the Nakba (the Palestinian dispossession of 1948), was noted in sound and space at a site of extreme importance. The sanitized story delivered by the Natchez, by the tawdry French Quarter bars, by the distinguished plantation tours and blue-blood historical societies, had been rebuffed. Resistance had been insisted into this space.
It felt like a beginning. What happens next to the Karavan is not yet known, but there is work to do: land to purify, spirits to assuage. It may reappear in museums or festivals, but one got to imagining the Karavan moving alongSt. Charles, Louisiana, keeping pace with the streetcar; appearing dockside in Memphis, Charleston, or that capital of slavery finance, New York City; ambling through the Delta on Route 61, the “blues highway”; hooting outside bank headquarters, state capitols. It has wheels; it’s meant to move. It has pipes; it’s meant to shout. Bring it.