#museums #race #representation #institutional critique
The recent controversy over Kelley Walker’s exhibition Direct Drive at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, and the departure of that exhibition’s curator, Jeffrey Uslip, was another reminder that museums are not built and programmed for all audiences alike. As this column has taken up questions of race in the museum on numerous occasions (and class in the museum, and gender in the museum), a comment on the St. Louis situation seems warranted. Public protests were mounted after audiences discovered that Walker’s artwork consisted of enlarged, appropriated photos of African Americans, smeared with toothpaste. Against the backdrop of outcries precipitated by the killing of Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson, the decision to feature a White, New York–based artist whose work takes up race in a manner that is provocative but not analytical seems almost comically ham-fisted. Still, both Uslip and CAM’s director, Lisa Melandri, have steadfastly defended the artist and the exhibition despite what appears to be a failure on the artist’s part to articulate any coherent justification or motivation for his work. Some observers are scratching their heads, wondering how this public-relations train-wreck could have been avoided. Others contend that racially insensitive missteps such as these are inevitable when the leadership of art museums across the country remains largely a hermetically sealed echo chamber of apologetic, but unshakeable, whiteness.
Simone Leigh’s installation in the Hammer Museum’s Hammer Projects series proposes an alternative to the typically White, upper-middle-class hegemony of the contemporary art gallery or museum. The central structure within her exhibition, Cupboard IV (2016) is a round hut made of raffia and stoneware that references the forms and materials of sub-Saharan architectures built predominantly by women. The hut is an early indicator that Leigh’s exhibition is shifting our notions of the “default” contemporary art viewer. Within the structure, a video plays of independent curator and choreographer Rashida Bumbray, dressed to the nines in a floor-length gold lamé gown, dancing furiously with bells around her ankles. The elegance, power, and grace of her body contrast with a mounting sense of exhaustion and futility as the performance goes on.
On an adjacent wall of the gallery, five sculptures from Leigh’s series Anatomy of Architecture (2016) passively adorn the exhibition space, bearing silent witness. Four of these are recognizable as sculptural busts, glazed deep black, with recognizably African American features. Their heads are crowned with dozens of tiny, colorful ceramic flowers. A fifth sculpture, second from the right, offers only a gaping void where a head or face would be. The effect is silencing, and violent. Delicacy and decoration contrast with erasure—the two polarities of the female condition. This work extends bell hooks’ concept of “an aesthetic of Blackness” beyond the home and private sphere into institutional space. In “An Aesthetic of Blackness: Strange and Oppositional,” hooks writes:
In one house I learned the place of aesthetics in the lives of agrarian poor black folks. There the lesson was that one had to understand beauty as a force to be made and imagined. Old folks shared their sense that we had come out of slavery into this free space and we had to create a world that would renew the spirit, that would make it life-giving. In that house there was a sense of history. In the other house, the one I lived in, aesthetics had no place. There the lessons were never about art or beauty, but always only to possess things.[i]
If the museum is the repository of our collective historical aesthetic, the actions of the CAM staff suggest that engagement with the institution’s African American neighbors was more about possession—of the narrative, of the moral high ground, of decision-making—than it was about “life-giving.”
She continues: “Critical theories about cultural production, about aesthetics, continue to confine and restrict black artists, and passive withdrawal from a discussion of aesthetics is a useless response […] Black artists concerned with producing work that embodies and reflects a liberatory politic know that an important part of any decolonization process is critical intervention and interrogation of existing repressive and dominating structures.”[ii] While Kelley Walker employs the rhetoric of “anti-aesthetic” in lieu of cogent social or political critique, Black artists do not have this luxury. Craft, technique, and awareness of the history of materials are very much in evidence in Simone Leigh’s work, which takes up subjects cast as inherently abject by the cultural mainstream for the fact of their unapologetic Blackness, but appeals on a technical and material level to curators and audiences who might otherwise marginalize the work and its message.
Questions of the body, its commoditization and exchange, are central to this work. African people and their cultural products have been commoditized for over 500 years, resulting in a worldwide condition of alienation between labor and its outcomes; cultural production is affective, or emotional, labor. Undercompensated and undervalued, art’s continued existence in a fully commoditized society points to the high intrinsic motivation of artists to produce objects of significance irrespective of whether the culture holds space for them. CAM chose to claim a space for Blackness and then fill it with white guilt. Simone Leigh takes the opposite tack, infusing a space customarily held for white cultural narratives with the boundless energy of Black community-building.
Hammer Projects: Simone Leigh is on view through January 8, 2017.
#Hashtags is a series exploring the intersection of art, social issues, and global politics.
[i] bell hooks, “An Aesthetic of Blackness: Strange and Oppositional.” Lenox Avenue: A Journal of Interarts Inquiry, vol. 1 (1995), 66.
[ii] ibid, pp. 69-70