City fun in the distance
in the still humid air
with some light moisture
left from the morning.
After decades of spotty acquisitions and token
exhibitions, American museums are rewriting the
history of 20th-century art to include black artists.
The painter Norman Lewis rarely complained in public about the singular struggles of being a black artist in America. But in 1979, dying of cancer, he made a prediction to his family. “He said to us, ‘I think it’s going to take about 30 years, maybe 40, before people stop caring whether I’m black and just pay attention to the work,’ ” Lewis’s daughter, Tarin Fuller, recalled recently.
Lewis was just about right. In the last few years alone, his work has been acquired by the National Gallery of Art in Washington; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. This month the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts opened the first extensive survey of Lewis, an important but overlooked figure in the Abstract Expressionist movement — and a man who might well have been predicting history’s arc for several generations of African-American artists in overcoming institutional neglect.
An untitled oil on canvas, from 1949, by Norman Lewis.Credit Estate of Norman W. Lewis, Courtesy of Iandor Fine Arts, New Jersey. After decades of spotty acquisitions, undernourished scholarship and token exhibitions, American museums are rewriting the history of 20th-century art to include black artists in a more visible and meaningful way than ever before, playing historical catch-up at full tilt, followed by collectors who are rushing to find the most significant works before they are out of reach.
An undated portrait of the artist Norman Lewis, who died in 1979. Credit Willard Gallery Archives “There was a joke for a long time that if you went into a museum, you’d think America had only two black artists — Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden — and even then, you wouldn’t see very much,” said Lowery Stokes Sims, the first African-American curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and later the president of the Studio Museum in Harlem. “I think there is a sea change finally happening. It’s not happening everywhere, and there’s still a long way to go, but there’s momentum.”
The reasons go beyond the ebbing of overt racism. The shift is part of a broader revolution underway in museums and academia to move the canon past a narrow, Eurocentric, predominantly male version of Modernism, bringing in work from around the world and more work by women. But the change is also a result of sustained efforts over decades by black curators, artist-activists, colleges and collectors, who saw periods during the 1970s and the 1990s when heightened awareness of art by African-Americans failed to gain widespread traction.
In 2000, when Elliot Bostwick Davis arrived at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, as chairwoman of its Art of the Americas department, there were only three oil paintings by African-American artists in the wing, she said, and not many more paintings by African-Americans in the rest of the museum’s collection. “I had to deal with a lot of blank faces on the collections committee, because they just didn’t know these artists or this work,” said Ms. Davis, whose museum has transformed its holdings in the last several years.
Over just the last year, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Dallas Museum of Art and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., have hosted solo exhibitions devoted to underrecognized black artists. Within the last two years, the Metropolitan Museum has acquired a major collection of work by black Southern artists, and the Museum of Modern Art has hired a curator whose mission is to help fill the wide gaps in its African-American holdings and exhibitions.
A More Even Playing Field
In interviews with more than two dozen artists, curators, historians, collectors and dealers, a picture emerges of a contemporary art world where the playing field is becoming much more even for young black artists, who are increasingly gaining museum presence and market clout. But artists who began working just a generation ago — and ones in a long line stretching back to the late 19th century — are only now receiving the kind of recognition many felt they deserved.
Like Norman Lewis, most of these artists showing up for the first time in permanent-collection galleries — including the painters Beauford Delaney, Alma Thomas, Bob Thompson, Aaron Douglas and William H. Johnson — did not live to see the change. But others, like the Los Angeles assemblage sculptor Betye Saar, 89, and the Washington-based abstract painter Sam Gilliam, 81, are witnessing it firsthand. The Chicago painter and printmaker Eldzier Cortor, who worked in New York for many years and died at 99 on Thanksgiving Day, lived to see his work featured in the inaugural show of the new downtown Whitney Museum. Mr. Cortor had been fielding curators’ inquiries with increasing frequency and donating pieces he still owned because the market had ignored them for much of his life.
“It’s a little late now, I’d say,” he observed dryly during an interview last month in his Lower East Side studio. “But better than never.”
Eldzier Cortor's 1982 work “Still Life: Souvenir No. IV.” Credit Eldzier Cortor, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery
Betye Saar’s “Dat Ol’ Black Magic” (1981). Credit Corcoran Collection, The Evans-Tibbs Collection, National Gallery of Art And while it was bad enough for male artists, black women faced even steeper obstacles. “We were invisible to museums and the gallery scene,” Ms. Saar said.
Through the rise of Modernist formalism and, especially, as abstraction took hold, black artists were often at a disadvantage because their work was perceived by the white establishment as formally “lesser” — too often figurative and too narrowly expressive of the black experience.
But even abstract artists like Lewis, who resisted pressure from within the black art world to be more overtly political, were eclipsed — in part, paradoxically, because when curators did seek out black artists’ work, figuration helped them check off a box. “Up until about five years ago, when curators came to us, they were really only interested in narrative works that showed the black experience so they could demonstrate in no uncertain terms to their visitors that they were committed to representing black America,” said the New York dealer Michael Rosenfeld, who has shown work from black artists and their estates for decades. One indication that serious change is afoot, he said, is that more and more museums are seeking prime abstract works by black artists.
Ann Temkin, chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, said that even within MoMA’s strict vision of Modernism, there were black artists — like the abstractionist Alma Thomas — “who would have absolutely, comfortably fit into the narrative.” But the museum bought its first Thomas works only this year.
“It’s pretty hard to explain by any other means than to say there was an actual, pretty systemic overlooking of this kind of work — with some truly wonderful exceptions, but exceptions that prove the rule,” she said, adding that the way the museum was making up for lost time was by actively buying works, “putting our money where our mouth is.”
Lowery Stokes Sims, the first African-American curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and later the president of the Studio Museum in Harlem. Credit Damon Winter/The New York Times Museums Make Up Ground
A handful of institutions — among them the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Newark Museum and the Corcoran Gallery of Art (now closed) — have been regarded as ahead of the curve. As others make up ground with gathering speed, said Edmund Barry Gaither, director of the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists in Boston, “I think what we’re seeing now is the aggregation of forces that have been in motion for at least the last half-century.”
He points to black collectors and historically black colleges, like Howard University and Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University), which were buying work when few others were. Another force was the founding of the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1968 and pioneering exhibitions that began to change the conversation, like one Mr. Gaither organized at the Museum of Fine Arts in 1970, “Afro-American Artists: New York and Boston”; and “Two Centuries of Black American Art,” curated by the scholar David C. Driskell in 1976 for the Los Angeles County Museum.
The shows pushed “curators and historians to admit there was a whole body of art out there they hadn’t known,” Mr. Gaither said. “They showed how a discussion about African-American art is inseparable from a discussion of American art. One can’t exist without the other.” And slowly — far too slowly, he added — the seeds that were sown changed academia and curators, of all races, who are now in charge of permanent collections and exhibitions.
Gavin Delahunty, a Dallas Museum of Art curator who recently organized a show devoted to Frank Bowling, a Guyanese-born abstract painter who has long worked in New York, said a growing number of curators emerging from graduate programs since the late 1990s felt “like we were educated to address an imbalance in representation.”
Museums are expanding their collections of 20th-century artworks by overlooked African-Americans. What artists do you think they should include and why?
“And it’s very natural to me that it’s what we should be doing now in our positions,” he said, adding, “I think there’s a real sense that the doors are pretty wide-open now.”
Mr. Axelrod, who donated and sold most of his American collection to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 2011, added: “As we became exposed to it, more collectors came to the same conclusion: There are great pieces out there. These are great artists. Why haven’t I seen them before? And I’d better get them now before they’re all gone.”
A basketball hoop as light fixture by David Hammons sold for $8 million in 2013, putting him among the most expensive living artists. Credit David Hammons, via Phillips
While the market is catching on, it is doing so slowly and unevenly. Auction prices for the most sought-after contemporary black artists are very strong now when compared with their peers. A David Hammons basketball hoop as chandelier sold for $8 million in 2013, putting him among the most expensive living artists. Paintings by Glenn Ligon and Mark Bradford have recently sold for more than $3 million, and Kara Walker, whose pieces exploring the horror of slavery are tough sells for collectors’ homes, has approached the half-million-dollar mark. But prices for critically successful artists who came of age earlier, even as recently as the 1960s and ’70s, still lag behind what many dealers think they should be. Mr. Gilliam, who represented the United States at the Venice Biennale in 1972 and whose draped canvases have had a strong influence on younger painters trying to rethink the medium, has only recently broken $300,000 at auction, though works by Mr. Gilliam on view recently at the Frieze Masters art fair in London were priced at up to $500,000.
“I’m sorry, but I really believe that if he were a white artist, you wouldn’t be able to afford him now; you wouldn’t be able to touch him unless you had several million,” said Darrell Walker, the former professional basketball player and coach, who has collected works by Mr. Gilliam, Norman Lewis and other black artists for more than 30 years.
As the gauge begins to move toward correction, more collectors and museums are scrambling to find the best works. “The prices are now well beyond what I could do without major financial sacrifices to buy just a single painting,” said James Sellman, who, along with his wife, Barbara, has been collecting work by self-taught black artists like Thornton Dial for decades.
Mr. Sellman is on the board of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation in Atlanta, which last year donated a major collection of 57 pieces by African-American artists from the South to the Metropolitan Museum, a gift Thomas P. Campbell, the Met’s director, called “a landmark moment” in the museum’s evolution. (It came 45 years after a widely derided Met exhibition, “Harlem on My Mind,” which was intended to celebrate the cultural history of black Americans but contained no work by painters and sculptors with flourishing careers in Harlem.)
Kerry James Marshall’s “Untitled (Studio)" (2014). Credit 2015 The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Kerry James Marshall
A show organized around the Souls Grown Deep donation is being planned by the Met, and next fall, at its new Met Breuer building, the museum will host a retrospective of the work of the highly sought-after contemporary painter Kerry James Marshall, making for perhaps the most concentrated focus on work by African-Americans in the museum’s history.
But Ms. Sims has been around long enough to know that the art world does not always move in a consistent direction, and warned that such progress in many ways remains fragile. “The canon is like a rubber band,” she said. “You can stretch it, but there’s always the danger it’s going to snap back.”
Thelma Golden, the current director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, said, “Yes, things are better.” But, she added: “What we need to continue to understand is that the exhibition and collection of this work is not a special initiative, or a fad, but a fundamental part of museums’ missions — and that progress is not simply about numbers, but understanding this work, in the context of art history and museum practice, as essential.”
When you’ve spent 30 years wearing a gorilla mask, as the women known by the aliases Frida Kahlo and Käthe Kollwitz have, certain behavior becomes second nature. So there were Kahlo and Kollwitz, two of the pseudonymous founding members of the Guerrilla Girls, the activist, feminist art collective, preening and posing at their 30th anniversary party and retrospective in May. They sipped prosecco through straws (their gorilla lips wouldn’t allow much more) at the Abrons Arts Center on the Lower East Side, while guests gazed at walls lined with the posters protesting elitism and bias that first shook the art world in the 1980s. “Do Women Have to Be Naked to Get Into the Met Museum?” one provocatively asked. The Guerrillas’ name tags identified them as pioneering dead female artists (like Alice Neel, the portraitist, or Zubeida Agha, the Pakistani modernist) whose legacies they hope to continue.
After three decades as masked crusaders for gender and racial equality in the art world — and increasingly, everywhere else — the Guerrilla Girls have lately been enjoying a victory lap. Last year, the Whitney Museum of American Art acquired the group’s portfolio of 88 posters and ephemera from 1985 to 2012, documenting the number of women and minorities represented in galleries and institutions, including the Whitney itself.
“To me, they are art world royalty,” said David Kiehl, the Whitney’s curator for prints, who helped persuade the museum to acquire their work.
The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis also bought the Guerrilla Girls’ entire collection of posters, in numbered prints, which were originally plastered on walls, phone booths and galleries in SoHo. And the posters still pop up in gallery districts, calling attention to disproportionate representation in the art world and wage inequality. The Walker is planning a Guerrilla Girls exhibition for January.
Olga Viso, the Walker’s director, discovered the group as an art history student in the 1980s. “I remember feeling such pride that there were female artists out there giving voice to these concerns that we were sensing and feeling,” she said, adding that coming of age with the Guerrilla Girls “totally shaped who I am and the artists I worked with.”
Gloria Steinem, too, is a longtime fan. “I think they’re the perfect protest group,” she said, “because they have humor.” One poster cataloged the advantages to being a woman artist: “Working without the pressure of success; knowing your career might pick up after you’re 80; getting your picture in the art magazines wearing a gorilla suit.”
Membership has fluctuated over the years, from a high of about 30 art-world women to a few handfuls of active members now. Some women left the suit behind, seeking recognition under their own names. Others became professors or real estate agents. But most have remained committed to anonymity, filtering in and out of the crew and fretting about what it meant to be part of the world they were lampooning. “Some of us wanted a piece of the pie, and some of us wanted to blow the whole pie up,” Kahlo said. “We agreed to disagree.”
They still exhibit and share work in places like Reykjavik, Iceland, London and Sarajevo — their next appearance will be in September at the Printed Matter’s N.Y. Art Book Fair at MoMA PS1 — and lecture at colleges, where their campaigns are part of women’s studies and art history classes.
Today they seem prescient: They long ago took aim at issues that are flash points now, like gender bias in Hollywood, and racism in the gallery world (“Guerrilla Girls’ definition of a hypocrite?” read one poster. “An art collector who buys white male art at benefits for liberal causes, but never buys art by women or artists of color.”) Co-opting the look and feel of advertising, they were social media-friendly and selfie-ready before those terms existed. Though other activist groups, like the newly formed anonymous collective Pussy Galore, have taken up the cause, the Guerrilla Girls say their mission is far from over. “They’re as valid today, and needed today, as they were 30 years ago,” Mr. Kiehl said, “because what they’re talking about is still going on.” The June issue of Art News, edited by Maura Reilly, founding curator at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum and current chief curator at National Academy Museum, took stock of the state of women in the art world. It found that, despite some gains, the majority of celebrated artists are still white and male, and that discrimination exists from the top down in cultural institutions.
What follows is an oral history of the Guerrilla Girls and their big-footed leaps across the cultural world, recounted by the Girls themselves, their art-world contemporaries and younger artists they inspired, as well as curators, dealers and museum directors who were witness to their insurrection. These are excerpts from the conversations.
Dawn of the Apes
The Guerrilla Girls galvanized into action in response to a 1984 survey exhibition of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art. Of 165 artists represented, fewer than 10 percent were women or minorities, they found.
KäTHE KOLLWITZ [NAMED AFTER THE GERMAN PAINTER WHO DIED IN 1945] The Women’s Caucus for Art, I think, called a demonstration. A couple of us went and we walked around the picket line, and no one stopped. No one cared. Everyone went right into the museum.
FRIDA KAHLO At that time, I think a lot of women and a lot of artists of color were taking their situation personally, thinking that they lacked something that the system wanted, not realizing that there was a systemic problem. The system did not want us.
ALICE NEEL We just knew that there was something terribly wrong, in our gut. Art in America had these annual reports [a national listing of gallery and museum rosters], and we sat and we counted. It was worse than we thought.
KOLLWITZ Suddenly we realized, people think whatever’s in the museum is the best stuff, and if you’re outside the museum complaining, you’re just a bunch of untalented people. And at that moment came this other realization: There’s got to be a better way, a more contemporary way, an in-your-face way, of breaking through people’s preconceived notions and changing their minds.
KAHLO Käthe and I would sit in bars, and we realized that the more we laughed and made fun of the art world, the better we felt. And then we realized that maybe we should take this sensibility and start investigating the art world, just calling people out for discrimination. The first meetings were so empowering. They still are.
In April 1985, the Guerrilla Girls hung their first poster, naming (and shaming) the major artists who showed at male-dominated galleries; they were quickly branded rabble-rousers. In “Guerrillas in Our Midst,” a 1992 documentary by Amy Harrison, prominent artists and dealers decried the group as talentless, careerist victims. But they soon found a loyal audience and gained supporters, including the New York Times critic Roberta Smith, who was among the list of critics singled out in one poster for not covering more female artists, a failure Ms. Smith acknowledged. “The Guerrilla Girls are not art critics; they’re social critics,” she wrote in The Times in 1990, commenting on the group’s emphasis on numbers and disinterest in issues of quality.
KAHLO How can you really tell the story of a culture when you don’t include all the voices within the culture? Otherwise, it’s just the history, and the story, of power.
By the Numbers
The Guerrilla Girls arrived at a moment when the art scene was embracing a new theatricality and becoming more pointedly political, globally. Performance and street art were going mainstream. The Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher eras witnessed cuts in funding for public projects, including support for artists. The economic strategies contributed to the art-as-investment-and-speculation boom. Dissent was brewing.
As evocative as their animal faces and sticker crusades were, the Guerrilla Girls’ greatest contribution may have been in something simpler: the act of counting. They were not the first artists to employ data in their work, but they were among the most visible, and direct.
KAHLO One Sunday morning [in 1989], a group of us went to the Metropolitan Museum with little notebooks. We were going to count naked bodies and female artists. It was only when we hit the 19th century, that early modern period, when sex replaced religion as the major preoccupation of European artists, did we get our statistic: Only 5 percent of the artists were women, but 85 percent of the nudes are female.
They repeated the count in the modern wings at the Met in 2005 and 2012, and the numbers were hardly different. Other posters enumerated the number of women in solo shows in the city’s major museums (zero or one each in 1985; 1 to 2 in 2015) and blue-chip galleries.
MAURA REILLY, CURATOR They’ve greatly influenced the way that I think, in particular the idea that counting, the literal counting of male versus female, is a feminist strategy. And I know it’s much more complicated than simple statistics, but it’s a great way to open the conversation.
Has Anything Changed?
DAVID KIEHL, CURATORIAL STAFF AT THE MET FROM 1973-1992 [At that institution,] I don’t think these issues [of gender and racial parity] came up a lot. When I got to the Whitney [in 1993], the curatorial staff was heavily women; we would have meetings where they would talk about things like, oh, we need to do more African-American this or women that. The system has changed. The Met, that world has changed. Artists that I could never get into the collection they’ve gotten into the collection, younger artists.
KAHLO We go back to the Met because we expect that it’s going to get better. And the progress that we’ve discovered is that now, there are fewer women artists, but more naked males. [Laughs]
This summer, Pussy Galore, inspired by the Guerrilla Girls, reprised the group’s original gallery report card, finding that the Mary Boone Gallery, for example, which showed zero women artists in 1985, had upgraded slightly, to 13 percent women.
RON WARREN, DIRECTOR AND PARTNER, MARY BOONE GALLERY However they tallied up these percentages, it really doesn’t look at the full picture of what the gallery is doing. We’ve had a lot of women in group shows; our entire spring season this year has been female artists. To simplify it into percentages is really doing a disservice to the cause. We actually show a Guerrilla Girl [under her own name].
CINDY SHERMAN, ARTIST I remember all their posters, in SoHo, seeing them everywhere. It just opened my eyes more and more to being aware of how museums show less women. I definitely see that they’ve had an influence in the art world, but it still has a ways to go.
ZUBEIDA AGHA, GUERRILLA GIRL I think a lot of people think that this issue was solved. A lot of galleries have almost an equal distribution on their roster. But their one-person or two-person shows, they’re mostly male. All the women get stuck in group shows. So what artists really need to sell their work, to help their career, that is still going to the men.
Follow the Money
The Guerrilla Girls’ notoriety helped fuel debate but didn’t translate to financial success. Their work is in 60 cultural institutions, but even the full portfolios were priced at only a few thousand dollars. Most of their income comes from speaking engagements.
ROMAINE BROOKS, GUERRILLA GIRL Whenever we went on gigs, our expenses would be covered and we’d sell posters and sometimes we’d take poster money and have a nice meal. But nobody did it for money. We did it for the camaraderie and the thrill of it.
MS. REILLY Their work is essentially free. You can pay $20 and get a Guerrilla Girls poster [online]. There is no limited edition, which is antithetical to a museum collection. I had to propose [buying the posters] in an acquisition committee meeting at the Sackler Center and they were like, well, why does this have value? I had to make an argument as to why we had to have this work in the collection.
KOLLWITZ Now we’re the darling of so many museums, and it’s totally bizarre. Should we be happy and excited? Annoyed that it took them so long? I don’t know. We care more about the street stuff, but museums have a great audience.
In the spring, the Guerrilla Girls were invited to the opening of the Whitney at its new building in the meatpacking district, and they came, en mask. Not long after, they projected a message about income inequality on the outside of the building: “Dear Art Collector/art is sooo expensive!/even for billionaires/we totally get why/you can’t pay all your employees/a living wage.” (The museum had been tipped off to this act.)
KOLLWITZ We want our work to be preserved as an antidote to all the market-driven art that museums collect to make their trustees happy.
KAHLO We would always talk about whether what we were doing was politics or art. A lot of museums would ask that question, and we could never agree on it. We realized that 20th-century art has always been about politics. We didn’t want to take the place of individual, named women artists, but on the other hand, if they were willing to admit the problem and maybe even asked us to do something why shouldn’t we do it? We don’t accept every invitation that comes our way. We have to not feel compromised.
Behind the Mask
Membership in the Guerrilla Girls continues to be by invitation only; new members come in as others cycle out. But all must adjust to life as an ape.
ROSALBA CARRIERA, RETIRED GUERRILLA GIRL [NAMED FOR THE VENETIAN ROCOCO PAINTER] I’m the one who thought of giving Guerrilla Girls names [of dead artists]. I stepped back because my life got very complicated. I felt that the first years were most important, because that’s when we broke ground. When I started the Guerrilla Girls I had an infant son and I put the mask on and my son went, ‘Where’s Mommy?’ I’ve always felt like I was a spy. What I did as a Guerrilla Girl, I did as a Guerrilla Girl, not as myself.
OLGA VISO, WALKER ART CENTER They’ve figured out how to productively disagree, in ways that sometimes feel uncomfortable but can always be turned into something. Because after all those years they still challenge each other, and they obviously feed off that.
SADIE BARNETTE, ARTIST-IN-RESIDENCE, STUDIO MUSEUM IN HARLEM I was basically born at the same time as the Guerrilla Girls. I think it’s a really interesting time to be a woman artist and a woman of color, and what they did was a first step – just for them to point their fingers at the situation is a revolutionary step. It’s not a level playing field, but I don’t think of it as closed doors, because I think there’s a subversive power in making new doors.
KAHLO You know, wearing this mask gives you a certain kind of freedom to say whatever you want. I completely recommend it. If you’re in a situation where you’re a little afraid to speak up, put a mask on. You won’t believe what comes out of your mouth.
AUTHENTICITY CITY Clayton Patterson and Elsa Rensaa
Curated by Ted Riederer
June 19 – August 14, 2015
By Jeffrey Cyphers Wright
Pictured: Installation shot featuring Clayton Patterson’s “Blue Boy And Pinky In The House” 1976, Mixed media
Dressed in his signature Goth/punk regalia and sporting gold teeth and a long, gnarly beard, Clayton Patterson has the beaming mien of a gangster wizard — or a super hero of the urban spectacle.
Best known as a contrarian/documentarian for his important Tompkins Square Riot footage, Clayton Patterson is much more than a filmmaker and legendary freedom fighter. As you may know, he is also a designer, historian, publisher, archivist, prolific photographer — and, it turns out, a startlingly original artist. He and his long time companion, fellow collaborator and fine artist Elsa Rensaa, are the subjects of a blowout show at Howl Happening.
Patterson’s photographic documentation (he’s reportedly taken over 100,000 photos) is well known. This show included a sampling of those iconic portraits of exuberant adolescents, tattooed gang members, masked drug dealers and other denizens of the LES.
Patterson’s art speaks to the street. It’s as if he’s stitched parts of downtown New York into quilts. And he and Elsa have literally stitched designs (including his trademark skull) onto clothing and caps, recalling a motorcycle club aesthetic or military souvenir jackets.
Also in this show were a dozen or so impressive sculptures. Recognizing the entropic pressures on society, Patterson redirects the energy he encounters. First, he gathers shards of culture from the streets and then he creates new contexts for his found materials. Old steamer trunks, boxes, balusters and drawers become stages for operatic tableaux. Toy soldiers glow under a black light. Knives provide rhythms to chaotic juxtapositions.
These assemblage pieces combine Joseph Cornell’ fairy tale charm with the anti-sentimentality of Robert Rauschenberg’s “gluts” that “simply wanted to present people with their ruins.”
If Patterson incorporates the ruins, he also revitalizes them, resurrecting detritus and giving it new life. More recent affinities would include the Wunderkammer aspect of Joe Coleman’s freak art/museum collection and the Fusion Art of Shalom.
In one of Patterson’s pieces, a manikin recalls a boardwalk fortune- telling machine. A gypsy spirit pervades. Like magic portals in an arcade, these works suspend belief. They will draw you in to their mysterious overtures. One of them would look terrific in a museum. I could definitely see one holding up next to a sculpture by Louise Nevelson or Marisol.
Mr. Dany LAFERRIÈRE, having been elected to the French Academy in the place left vacant by the death of Mr. Hector BIANCIOTTI, there came to take meeting Thursday, May 28, 2015, and delivered the following speech:
Ladies and gentlemen of the Academy,
Let me tells you my only encounter with Hector Bianciotti, the one I chair succeeds the number 2 of the French Academy. First a long digression - there will be others in this tale-like speech, but do not worry too much that old storyteller ruse, we will find ourselves with each clearing. This is Legba which allowed me to trace Hector Bianciotti disappeared before our eyes dazed summer 2012. Legba, the god of voodoo pantheon of which we see the silhouette in most of my novels. On the sword I wear today it is present by its Veve, a drawing associated with it. Legba This allows a mortal to pass the visible world to the invisible world, and then return to the visible world. It is the god of writers.
This December 12, 2013 I wanted to be in Haiti on this wounded earth, to hear the news of my election to the most prestigious literary institution in the world. I wanted to be in this country after a terrible war of France colonial slavery was then placed on the door while keeping his tongue. These warriors had nothing against a language that sometimes talked of revolution, often freedom. That day a man crossed Port-au-Prince, perhaps Legba, questioned me about immortality academicians. He seemed disappointed to be told that it is the language that transcends time and not the individual who speaks, but that this language only endure if it is spoken by a relatively large number of people. He left muttering: "Oh, always words ..." It is believed that in Haiti know things about death than other people do not. Death is there more mystical than mysterious.
Here one remembers Hector Bianciotti as a generous, elegant and cultured. Three qualifiers returning as soon as I learned somewhere between the French Academy. "At that chair? "" Hector Bianciotti. "" Ah, I is answered, you are lucky! It'll be easy to speak well. This is a good writer and a courteous man. "I hear these laudatory comments to Port-au-Prince, Brussels, Montreal and especially in Paris. Usually comes to such a ceremony to celebrate the newly elected, but many people are here tonight to hear what I have to say about Hector Bianciotti. I pass the exam?Instead of appearing before you, I would rather see the French writer from Argentina to understand this strange coincidence that brought us together on this chair.
* * *
As in a novel by Proust that he does not often called, preferring Alberto Savinio, but the great shadow extends his work can be seen in the incessant Bianciotti memory exercise where the details accumulate and analyzes are scrambling to cover the sometimes intimate music that connects faces to landscapes. Half a dozen of themes recur almost every book father's farm, the monotonous pampa he drew closer to the classical sounds of the milonga local, a Fellini family, actually closer than Kusturica Fellini, with big shots like the grandmother who show a taste for cinema, always hurried departures, wandering in the big cities, returning with its procession of confused emotions, circular time calling these stunning rehearsals, all this looks like a child who refuses to get off the ride despite growing fear. His insatiable curiosity and keen sense of the details and report a feverish kind concerned. The unpredictable his use of the adjective in a sentence otherwise conventional recalls Borges.
It is this elegant man through and through who gave me an appointment at the Grand Splendid, a hotel that I thought luxurious but turns out "third class, as a benevolent name, but in reality if not the last at most-last order. " You can read this note in the Treaty seasons reminiscent, for the title at least, to one of these glossy magazines and perfumed paper which awards stars to hotels, cities, souvenirs, cloths, the screens, the flies, pink and even omissions. Bianciotti Imagine Hector publishes chronicles and the owner of the Grand Splendid does not make him pay the rent and meals hoping he would write an article that will restore luster to this hotel downgraded. There he is hiding since his disappearance of the Parisian landscape.
I find in the small library, sitting comfortably in a chair covered with plastic "of a chemical red." He interrupted his reading to greet me with a resigned smile. If I meet Hector Bianciotti today is to show him that unless a brighter successor there between us such strong ties that could justify such a choice. If the French team won the World Cup in 1998 is because his clairvoyant coach had favored a certain cohesion among the players in this collection of stars at his disposal. Bianciotti coming from Argentina, one of the great football countries, can not be offended by this comparison. I have a doubt because I just noticed that there is not a single football in all his work.The writer who can now read the thoughts of other splits a slightly relaxed smile as that with which he had welcomed me. Then he slowly settles on the small table Borges book he read about Buddhism when I arrived.
I would enter fully into my argument when I saw pass that figure recognizable by his swollen cheeks and weary look of a man who has weathered many storms. This is Oscar Wilde. The owner of the hotel follows the stairs with a tea set on a large pink cabaret. I look at this man prematurely aged by an unjust trial of manners to return to Bianciotti offering me sweet eyes and pure delicately placed on a bare face. So begins the evening with Mr. Bianciotti. If I have fallen behind in the presentations is that I am in the company of a man who has an infinite time, which is not the case, I will take into account.
It is undeniable that this chair number two that we share a destiny US. Borges, your favorite writer, and this for various reasons, bluntly describes the differences between America and Europe. In surveys he presents two writers poles apart. On one side Valéry, Valéry your beloved, let us say so admired because I do not know if we can love Valery, and on the other, Walt Whitman.For Borges, "Valery symbolizes infinite addresses, but also infinite scruples; Whitman, a vocation almost incoherent but titanic felicity; Valéry personifies gloriously the labyrinths of the mind;Whitman, the interjections of the body. Valery is a symbol of Europe and its delicate twilight;Whitman, the US morning. "If some points in this duel of personalities you seem excessive, I know you share with me this extravagant idea that a well-written text contains its own truth.
I pulled the chair to find number 2 next to great minds like Montesquieu some of Beauvoir Jean-François, Marquis Chastellux. This intellectual, friend of Voltaire, was also a man of a certain bravery that participated in the American War of Independence under the command of Rochambeau. Allow me to dwell a moment on the name of Rochambeau. If the father was the American War of Independence to the side of Washington and is known as the winner of Yorktown, if the father was thus on the safe side, the son was the worst executioner sent to Santo Domingo will become Haiti after the defeat of Napoleon's army in Vertières. It's him, François Donatien Rochambeau, who brought from Cuba dogs for hunting runaway slaves. Oh, dear Hector Bianciotti meet America and Europe was not always as civilized as the face-to-face Valéry and Whitman imagined by Borges. You, you tell, an elliptically course, the miserable condition of these Indians that eventually employ as laborers on their own land. This one has only to see violence so heavily present in the daily lives of small farmers sometimes from Piedmont to imagine the fate of the first inhabitants of this land.
I do not know if you've been lulled, child, as I was in Haiti by the wars of liberation, and if Bolivar counted for you as it has meant to me. If so, know that he spent three months in Haiti, from 24 December 1815 to 31 March 1816. Exhausted and defeated, he sought help from the General Petion, then president of the young Haitian republic. Haiti was the only country in America to understand such passion for freedom. After his stay Petion provides him a boat, men and weapons. In return he asked him to free the slaves of the conquered countries on behalf of Haiti.These stories have fed my imagination, and every time I meet a South American, my first instinct is whether it is aware of this episode. You do peep in your work, preferring the family history to national history - a view that I share with you. Perhaps because life was too hard for those Piedmontese farmers so that they are concerned about any national sentiment. Besides these ideological notions annoy you unless it is the populism of Peron and his wife Eva you shot portraits of a jubilant ferocity.
I wonder if Dumas counted for you, and it lit up your childhood as it did to mine. If I speak of Dumas is because it has also held that chair. Even if it was not for the Dumas Three Musketeersbut his son, the author of La Dame aux Camelias . Anyway Dumas have deep roots in Haiti since it's a "nigger" as the name of the time, which gave birth to General Dumas, the grandfather of our friend Alexandre Dumas son. I must emphasize that the name does not come from Dumas father, the Marquis de La Pailleterie, but the mother, a young slave named Marie Louise Césette Dumas.These Dumas have the bright blood of these musketeers who dared confront our Founder Cardinal Richelieu. Child, I was the side of d'Artagnan, now I fall behind the Cardinal. Time plays us of these towers.
I add that Montesquieu, with its critical and ironic comments on slavery, could easily end up in an American history textbook, since slavery is the basis of prosperity of this continent. This chair is the seat of so many adventures related to the America that I will not be surprised if one day become the American chair of the Academy.
* * *
Ah, childhood, she keeps coming as in many writers, but in your memory it takes an epic dimension. Your descriptions are so terrifying they make me regret my childhood bright beneath a serene grandmother. You fluff in this disturbing work a litany of woes: a dry land, a taciturn and violent father and a mother constantly seeking a place to shelter from the wrath of her husband.She had only to get pregnant because the father was sensitive to the idea of increasing the workforce. In this ceaseless carnival paraded the float of the grandmother. At that veiled look we feel everything this woman mean to you: first resistance to your father, which earned him a being queen in exile. The grandmother, as innocent in his wickedness that pest, saved you from trouble while offering your best character. His many races in the sometimes muddy pampas in search of more hospitable farms where his other son could host it after a dramatic break with your father. I wonder if this larger than life was not a loving attempt to get closer to the South American literature in your eyes too colorful. Because your grandmother could easily find in the novels of Garcia Marquez. Your other characters are required, not by images but by that classic style that makes you a French writer, and this before you have thought of writing a French novel. I must say that differently from other South American countries, Argentina is still putting in the wake of a sober Europe to the imagination restrained by scholarship and analysis. Ah! that childhood, you have heard so much each time adding new details. You described, in different lights, each room, each piece of furniture, every face. The exiles do it to make towards the end, when all is darkened, they can find the way back.
* * *
You guessed right away, dear Hector Bianciotti that the brutal world of the peasantry organized by labor and violence was not yours. And you had to constantly leave. In this you are like so many young people. The scene of departure, except that it is moving, tells us nothing new about the characters. They are around a table. The mother, head down, looking at the father. The father, leaving a large notebook in which he noted everything you need it, you swear to pay your debts.You are there, stunned by so much pettiness. I know it ends up looking like the one we hate, especially toward the end. You finally hit the road, relieved, knowing that you will never return to this remote village where you lived a childhood so sad. You did not know yet that does not leave his childhood. And the trip only makes sense with the return. We know you feel hungry, you have seen, in the pampas, kiss the ground, the trees like animals. And a farm boy, Florencio. Your mother seemed helpless before such a frenzy. These pages about the birth of desire seem to me the best of your work.
These years will be decisive, as they say, as you discover together the literature, girls, boys, poverty, freedom and politics. It betrays his friends and family for money or to avoid prison. All these young people around you in Cordoba and Buenos Aires trafiquent with power. They are both angels and demons. One of them will betray you and save you by allowing you to take the boat to Europe. At what point did you realize that all these hurtful stories, all these failures in love, all these rebuffs, these humiliations were the seeds of a work to come? When have you felt that the harsh conditions in which you live are the source of this elegance that impresses these aristocrats crossed on your way? To this millennium ease haves opposite you with incomparable grace, by all accounts, your poor universe material goods but rich in nuances. With this special gift for writing, it seems that books have flourished at your fingertips ... Your smile faded told me it did not happened. Conquering Paris is easy for anybody if I believe Balzac, let alone a young Argentine came from the depths of the pampas.
In What the night tells to the day you confess something that touched me deeply because I felt you bare that time. Good use of writing you notice with lucidity "violence that continues to inhabit me and discipline currently handling of the pen." This man was affable that you are so steeped in violence. One would think that you were holding your mother this mastery of feelings and this flow of the narrative. This is true but it was calm in appearance as it is the bitterness of the father who irrigate your sentences. You never embroider when it comes to him, you go live. It's his face contorted always looming in the background work.
* * *
The owner, who seems aware of your habits, we just brought the coffee that time. You welcome with that smile behind which you hide so often. She filled our cups and makes you a nod as if to remind you that it is still awaiting this article appreciative customer who will return part elsewhere. I see you, with some pleasure, a slight taste of kitsch that emerged from your first novel The golden deserts as yet severe Maurice Nadeau wanted to edit. Your literature already gave off a strong seduction based on this uneven mix of femininity and masculinity. I imagine you at the time, lying on a couch in a narrow room to stick the stars to your favorite authors. A passion in words, I read because I wanted to visit your personal library, confirms to me that you are one of those rare writers who prefer to read a good book rather than write a bad. I still believe the library is the true home of a writer. The seat of the first emotions of the one who looks at the world through the window. I notice you brought here a few of your favorite books. I guess we travel light when going so far even if it takes the appearance of a small third-rate hotel in the heart of Paris. I'm not fooled by all this theater as not to hear the sound of customers who up the stairs to the bedrooms, or go see this man who looks too much like Alberto Savinio not be.
Suddenly I want to look at the books in me remembering what you say of their authors. On Borges, you told with youthful gaiety, I remember this walk in Paris. You stopped for lunch, and at the end of the meal when we brought the fruit basket, Borges dismissed mangoes to choose the bunch of grapes, "I do not like modern fruit," he made. Adolfo Bioy Casares, a man full of fantasy, you wrote that he "hoped to succeed one day a book of an undefined kind, which would collect thoughts, fragments that would be primarily a friendly book. A book you add that individual travelers would find their trips randomly, in a hotel room. " Here Victoria Ocampo. You wear a special affection for him have shaped the contemporary Argentine literature by bringing together around the magazine on writers such different temperaments and talents if shimmering. In his passionate correspondence with Victoria Ocampo, unveils the Roger Caillois: "You are a savage.Your sweetness itself is a wild animal gently. "This oxymoron fits like a glove, dear Hector Bianciotti. You never let yourself throw your partner as you do not want to embarrass him. Sabato says that it is currently writing a short book. "An autobiographical account? "You ask him. "Oh, you he meets, every work is autobiographical; a Van Gogh tree is the portrait of his soul. "This is my opinion because I feel you as in your novels in your essays. And of course, at the end of the radius, your dear Alberto Savinio with whom you have never stopped talking. About him you murmur, "It is his voice that keeps us right in his inexhaustible fantasy, his erudition, his humor, the art of the paradox that handles like no other, and wisdom , its old, its ancient wisdom, the wisdom of a Greek arrived too late in this world ... "If I have done these many citations it is mainly to hear your music so personal, and this scholarship running on Ridge phrases - all backed by an inner fire constantly fed by painful memories.
* * *
How handsome you are, Hector, I wondered what was your relationship with your face. I speak from the portraits you saw in the media. Only once I have seen your face in motion. It was this issue of Apostrophes when you were Umberto Eco company. You wore a gray suit and a beautiful blue shirt. While wearing (you can feel that you do not often tousled hair), sparkling, shiny, you were in high spirits that night. Umberto Eco observed that writing, whatever the subject, eventually serve as a mirror. And following our report with the mirror we seducer or seduced. I imagine seduces you rather than trying to seduce. You seem quick to love even if reciprocity is not ensured. You, I saw in the television show, a way to reach your face to your partner as if to say that you have nothing else to offer. You love to please, and if you are too broke to buy a bunch of flowers is your energy or your soul you offer.
You have the nostalgia of the house of God. The God of the mother because the father is a disbeliever. You have found in the person of Fr. Benoît Lobet someone to discuss your doubts, himself warned some in reserve. Yet on the issue of faith you are a terrifying gravity. We believed you even fundamentalist, when you are just honest. If you like the ritual because they allow the emotion to cross centuries without losing its strength or freshness. Between the love of the mother and the harsh law of the father seemed obvious choice, but a furtive smile tells me you do not see things so categorical.
* * *
At the heart of your aesthetic, this idea of beauty that dates back to the farm. You have been struck by the photo of a lady dressed in red in the catalog of one of your aunts. There is always in these remote corners of the world where life is meaningful only through work, a being who is passionate about useless. This aunt seemed to live only for the catalogs she received in the mail.During the heavy hours of the afternoon, she flipped. One day, standing near her, you noticed the lady in red. More than the lady herself is the emotion she caused in you that has withstood time.You were there the day your father lashed to this strange way of life by tearing all catalogs before throwing them into the fire. You saw, horrified and unable to move, the flames reach the lady in red. If literature can not save the beauty of the flames, she does not deserve all the sacrifices we made for her. This says much the helplessness of the child against the power. And since you cabrez before any authority.
The other event that has touched you deep is of course the death of your sister. Is it true? Still, the emotion is there, before our eyes. You sister was a seamstress and your writing is approaching this art. Sometimes you embroider until the baroque, but not there. Before death you become sober suddenly tremble as you discover the fragility of this triad that supported family building: the courageous mother, father-thunder and fantasy mate. Remove the fantasy and everything collapses. The father is bleeding to death as meaningless.
Later, the father dies. And, like me, you learn his death by phone. This is the fate of the exiles. You write: "When you told me on the phone the father's death, I had imagined a cemetery in disorder."We think of all road traveled to get away from the father, and now he must take the road in the opposite direction. I have not experienced the hatred of the father, I experienced his absence, and the shock it did to my mother.
Yet you have experienced extreme deprivation periods in your debut in Rome and Paris.Situations so agonizing financially than you were right to let you go, but that taste of elegance always kept you among the living. Returning from a literary conversation in a salon in Paris or Rome, where you have a long discussion of Valéry or Tomasi di Lampedusa Giuseppe, you take the trouble, before bed, wash the only shirt you owned for put to dry in the little room where you stay. Your childhood was so rough that you disgusted manual labor.
* * *
Dear Hector Bianciotti, this rage so buried in you but whose traces are evident in your stories reminds me of Haitian poet Edmond Laforest. He was born in 1876 and died in 1915 in Jeremie, Haiti known in the city of poets. It is a country where one has to justify his life by publishing at least one book of poems. Laforest was to Jeremiah when the Americans landed in July 1915. In protest against such aggression, he drowned in his pool with a dictionary Larousse neck. If Laforest died resisting dandy, you put a lot of style in your life and also in your writing. For anyone else it would be too much, but at home we feel such a deep sincerity that she ends up seducing the reader, and all those who approach you. Honesty even in the artificial attitude - remember me Cocteau sometimes. Like the opera, you love Italy, browsing the museums, but you never forget that behind the old family farm found this little cemetery that your father once described as "cross pens." This brutal metaphor in his way or form has never left you.
Arriving at the hotel I noticed the reception desk of your two titles among the most beautiful:Love is not loved and The Not so slow love . Photographs of stars of telenovela pinned everywhere make me fear that the owner, the woman "obese, inquisitorial and fair" according to a note scribbled in pencil in one of your books, is expected to read romance novels in rose water. This is the kind of misunderstanding amusing. I was told here and there with your humor, your playful spirit, that we see too rarely in your work. In the photos: sometimes stuffy, always serious, you give the impression of a sad man to those who do not know you or have you not known at the right time. In a resounding article by Claude Roy where he qualifies you for "elegant vagabond", he also noticed in your pride so great that it prevents you from yelling - I quote "so great is the pain that grips you."
You tap your energy to two different sources: the aforementioned pride and ambition to master French better than anyone. You hesitate until one day your alter ego Angelo Rinaldi convince you to write in French that novel you carry within you for so long: Without the mercy of Christ. All your subjects are there again present, although This time the narrator is not looking directly at the camera, hiding behind some Marèse Adelaide. The course is no different, except for Strasbourg-Saint-Denis, the Paris street where lives Marèse Adelaide. The goal this time is twofold: a French novel and a great novel. It appeared in 1985, when I published How to make love to a negro without getting tired . These two books, at least by their titles, are clearly not intended for the same audience. But the Association of the Blind of Montreal asks me to read that year Without the mercy of Christ for his audience. It was the first time I launched into such an adventure. It was also the first time my name touched yours. After this speech, we do leave more.
* * *
You come back often, dear Hector Bianciotti, on this first metaphor heard your father's mouth. I recall once again the scene who founded your sensitivity and somehow your spirituality. You are with your father in the garden when it shows the small cemetery designated as the "Cross pen" while adding that it is here, in this life, everything goes and it n ' there is nothing else after. The image is rough but it is also powerful because you lived so long. It is not far from the Villon Ballad of the Hanged, although far from the Prayer to Our Lady .
"The rain has washed us and débués And the sun dried and blackened. Magpies and crows us with hollow eyes, And torn beard and eyebrows. "
Your father has been as close as you are Villon Valéry.
I would like to present a strong man who does not fear death, but cry for love. Its language is closer to your father than you. It is a rough tongue that was once one of the kings of France. His name is Gaston Miron. You are the two faces of the same coin America. You are the one who is gone, he is the one who stayed. Here is his poem Companion of the Americas :
"Québec my land my land bitter almond My breath homeland in the tuft wind I thee difficult and poignant presence with a large wound to the front space in a living reeds agony face I speak with words Knotty our endurance We thirst of all waters of the world We are hungry all the lands of the world in the auction of freedom debris jam Our position lights come on out to sea The grandmother prayer to our fingers faltering La shiny poverty as irons our ankles. "
By listening to the poet I see your father, your mother weeding this arid land and the cohort of agricultural employees. Moreover he finished saluting them:
"Hi to you my poetry territory Hi men and women Fathers and mothers of the adventure. "
You left them to be able to greet your European way. In the refined language of those who expelled them from Europe. You became a celebrity in Argentina because you are known in France. But you are sad, and it is with this feeling that you wrote your most beautiful pages. Those of the death of your sister or sister of the narrator, is the same, those about the tenderness of your mother, especially those on your father so different from you early and so like you in the end.
* * *
We each have dreamed of this return to finally write a book on this topic. Yours is, in fact, all your work. René Depestre, who lives in Lezignan-Corbieres for years, says his writing table overlooking Jacmel, his birthplace. Émile Ollivier, who spent much of his life in Montreal, Quebec says it is day and Haitian night. It is a strange animal that lives outside its native land. His exile status allows him to weave a literature that is not quite over there, neither quite here, and that's where all his interest. If your themes are Argentine, your style is French. One of the most significant contributions of exile in literature, it is the concept of the return. All the more interesting that it is impossible in reality. The starting point is not returning because the movement is constant. These exile writers have given new meaning to the word travel.
You have learned so much in this life so rich in various adventures, and without seeking to avoid traps as you are fearless. But an unknown feeling awaits around the corner: the nostalgia of the homeland. We never thought that this world so brutal you miss one day. Many South American writers you had opened the way to Paris. You have followed in their footsteps, as if it were a migratory flock. You became the chronicler of their wanderings. Whenever one of them publishes a book, you present it immediately to your readers. Some became friends, because "friendship is a South American passion." Borges, of course, but also Ocampo sisters, Macedonio Fernandez to his death, the Uruguayan Felisberto Hernandez and Juan Carlos Onetti, Clarice Lispector Brazilian, universal Argentine Alberto Manguel, the Mexican Octavio Paz, Ernesto Sabato, the other blind Buenos Aires, the Cuban Severo Sarduy, and anyone, much less known, you have helped to make their first steps in this Paris that requires to succeed in the appetite of a Rastignac. They have not all made the trip, but they all dreamed. Not to sink into depression, if it were possible to avoid it, we need something other than ambition, perhaps this human warmth which is called affection. So here Leonor Fini and his many cats, especially Silvia Baron Supervielle.
Tonya M. Foster’s well-built house of words, A Swarm of Bees In High Court is a rather grand one with many rooms. Belladonna has placed these poems in a handsome volume with cover art by Wangechi Mutu. Max Ernst’s painting, A Swarm of Bees in the Palace of Justice at The Menil Foundation in Houston provided a jumping off point for her consideration of shape and color, colored by myriad experiences from an erotic encounter in which the speaker reflects while her lover sleeps his satisfied sleep to bullets and basketball. Bees argue in the rooms of this artful house. They question power. They find sweetness. Change direction. Upend expectation. Find the Queen imperious to pleading or lack of sweetness. Foster’s poems be like that.
In/Somnia is for this reviewer, the most emotionally compelling section of this book. The post coital lovers make for an easy apprehension, but then Foster is not interested in easy apprehension. “Again to t/his sweat. Now sleep./But not for her—sleep.” Words are cut up, punctuation is almost too precise. The speaker’s insomnia reveals or conceals depending on where one is in the poem, anxiety, anger, vulnerability, pleasure, like picking the cuticle—gross, but it’s your own finger.
Can running her
finger, like a hiss along
t/his clavicle trip up
affection? Full of sleep
This is a poet for whom sound is an important ingredient in the poem’s architecture. Finger . . . hiss—those short vowels and intense consonants. The sleepless lover is either remaking herself in her “dramas, get chased round the block/by rabid white dogs or “She’s come to take this/as survival gospel/for sub’urban souls”. In/Somnia is a great introduction to Foster’s formal structure—like many contemporary poets she uses tercets and word play is very important. The sounds, puns, how the stanzas are arranged on the page contribute to a holistic sensibility—one self-referential, but also abstract, a kind of first person/third person face off in which the reader is kept a discrete distance. We can see the figures, make out gestures, have an understanding the tableaux, but there is much I do see, hear, can’t make out. That wakefulness after love making is the blues in its greatest mystery—what did the lovers get, and what is always missing?
Color becomes a motif throughout the book, particularly red. Red for blood, for flower, for rage, for love. And with red, she explores couplets and quatrains (lyricism’s favored stanzas):
red culled from rubia or madder root lends the hermit majesty, (the woman infamy),
red culled from sawdust of the brazilwood tree primped a pope’s robes, pimped pus(sy),
red culled from clay, from crushed cochineal, kermes, from worms dried and ground,
red culled from cinnabar mined by the enslaved, the imprisoned, not-I’s,
The color Black allows for an interesting contrast: “Blackity-black girl” who hears “Voice of a woman on tv offers her sick roommate medicine.” And another “Voice of a woman on a corner: “Stick your thumb up your ass. Smell it.” Black women as healers, soothers, aspirational shills (oh Oprah) in contrast with that “Blackity—black girl” who is simply tired of the shit, oh which will be that Queen? Who hears “the hive of sound/”As if beats blind us.”
Foster narrates the external anxieties meted out in communal theater—the streets, the basketball courts of Harlem, and other urban enclaves where Blacks mingle for good and ill. The “Bullet/In” section focuses on the missiles that meet too many bodies in urban spaces such as Harlem. Again, the poet effectively uses tercets. Her diction is high court street—one thing you learn living in this city is how well versed many young people are with the courts, with police procedure because all too often they have found themselves in court. As the poet notes, “bullets can/Blot a page, train an eye to/follow and often followed are “Bodies of young men—site specific installations—streets, stoops, corners, cells.” Black bodies male and female too often are found violated in this society. The ordinariness of this violence is enraging and Foster has found a way to explore that rage, “beats blind us.”
The Belladonna Collaborative is bringing out important work by African American women poets from highly diverse backgrounds including Latasha Diggs, TWERK and R. Erica Doyle’s proxy showing poets whose use of language is breathtakingly daring. Now, Tonya M. Foster’s A Swarm of Bees in High Court is added to this vital list.
Foster’s imaginative work glories in language’s ambiguities, discords, emotions and logic—she allows that imaginative thrall to explore race and gender and political dysfunction. Foster has taken from one work of art and found correspondences in a Harlem apartment, a New Orleans childhood, early morning television commercials, a lover’s sated face, the sounds of bullets and basket balls, bees, and the colors, red, brown and black to make a powerful debut collection that will be read and re-read for years to come.
It was 1970, a year after Steve Cannon’s novel, “Groove, Bang and Jive Around,” was published, that he used proceeds from its sale to buy a three-story townhouse on East Third Street, just east of Avenue C, with a brick facade and a hospitable stoop.
Over the decades, that stoop became a gathering spot where Mr. Cannon and friends, including many from the nearby Nuyorican Poets Cafe, held wide-ranging conversations that lasted all night. Those freewheeling discussions moved indoors in 1991, when Mr. Cannon turned parts of the building into a gallery and salon known as A Gathering of the Tribes. There, he and others published magazines and organized readings and art exhibitions.
“It became a center for poets, musicians and artists from all over the world,” Mr. Cannon said. “People realized they could be themselves there because it gave the feeling of being at home.”
Faced with debt, Mr. Cannon sold the building in 2004, with an agreement that he could continue living and holding events on the second floor. That arrangement began to fray in 2011, and last year Mr. Cannon, 79 and blind, moved out of his home of more than 40 years.
The photographer Gaia Squarci spent several weeks documenting life inside the Tribes gallery. Her images show Mr. Cannon’s comrades arriving for final farewells, helping to pack books and using saws to remove a section of wall that had been painted by the artist David Hammons.
Mr. Cannon moved into an apartment a few blocks away. He has continued to organize readings, but they are now held in other places. Friends still visit to work on an anthology of art and poetry that Mr. Cannon is putting together or to discuss their own projects. Sometimes, he said, they reminisce about the good times on Third Street.
“It’s the same spirit here,” he said, “Only there’s less room and fewer people stopping by.”
Few TV shows have created as much fervor within the Asian American community as Fresh Off the Boat. Between the coordinated hashtags, back and forth pre-release debates and the constant scrutiny on the smallest of details, it’s easy to forget that this is a network sitcom. Based on the memoir of chef Eddie Huang, Fresh Off the Boat has morphed into a call for change and symbol of pride for the Asian American community.
I had the opportunity to attend the live community screening of the show at The Circle in New York. The nightclub-turned-theater easily hit its 1000-person max capacity with stars Hudson Yang, Eddie Huang and Randall Park mixed in with community sponsors and excited fans. I also attended a talkback for the fifth episode which included a panel featuring Father-of-actor Jeff Yang, Gothamist Co-founder Jen Chung, Comedian Jen Kwok and Entertainment Weekly Staff Writer Ray Rahman. These viewing parties extended beyond the boundaries of New York, cropping up in every city that had some sort of Asian American presence. For a Netflix-in-bed TV viewer, you could say that I’ve been swept into the hype of things too. It was impressive that so many people were excited to watch a show, but even more so that Asian American journalists, celebrities, artists and anyone else invested in the Asian American community were passionately fighting for the show.
It’s easy to see why. As the first Asian American-centered network show in 20 years, Fresh Off the Boat was a breath of fresh air. The show was met with a shower of praise soon after debuting. People were enamored with how cute Forrest Wheeler and Ian Chen were as Eddie’s brothers, Emery and Evan. Critics quickly cited Constance Wu, who plays Eddie’s mother, as a breakout star. The packed crowd at The Circle cheered and booed as little Eddie navigated a white-dominated neighborhood that was all too familiar for the attendees.
This was extraordinary, but also sad. Strip away the cultural significance and you’re left with an above average sitcom, one that certainly wouldn’t warrant the intensive discussion that this show is receiving. Questions on how accurately the protagonist captures the Asian American experience and what ethnicity the writers of the show are would never appear with the same regularity for other sitcoms like Modern Family or New Girl.
But the cultural and historical significance of Fresh Off the Boatcan not be ignored. During the packed event at The Circle, Eddie Huang makes it clear that we shouldn’t have to be having these large campaigns and events. And it’s true. It’s great that the Asian American community is coming together to push for the success of this show, but Fresh Off the Boat shouldn’t be an anomaly. Eddie Huang shouldn’t be the only Asian American story being told. Fresh Off the Boat shouldn’t be the only Asian American story we see.
Unfortunately, since that’s the reality of current circumstances, it’s brought in a range of emotions from various demographics. The unfamiliarity of the situation have some people clamoring that it’s racist. There’s been many productive--and not so productive--conversations on the title usage, portrayal of Blacks, and authenticity to the source material. Just as with how Huang expressed his desire for the release of a new Asian American show to be less of a spectacle and more of a commonplace occurrence, I hope some of these conversations will be common knowledge next time around.
From comments by friends and feedback from both of the events I attended, the consensus by the Asian American community is one of delight that a show is willing to chart experiences we’ve felt, that it had characters relatable to our plights and that was willing to make jabs at issues we face. Fresh Off the Boat was relatable. This is what’s so sad about this situation. TV characters and tropes are designed to be relatable. The fact that it took this long for a show to address the needs and wants of the Asian American community demonstrates how far removed the American media system is from where it should be. We have such small representation in mainstream media that we need to place a huge burden on this show, hence the critical comments and apprehensive anticipation. Thankfully, the show has so far delivered as promised, and the community has responded in kind.
Perhaps since every move was judged by a magnifying glass, five episodes in, Fresh Off the Boat remains a biting, funny and relatable Asian American story. The next big hurdle is to keep the momentum going, having more minorities take up the directing, writing and producing roles, leading to more stories like Fresh Off the Boat. This is just the beginning and I’m excited to see what comes next.
LOOKING AT SEEING: DAVID HAMMONS AND THE POLITICS OF VISIBILITYBY Andrew Russeth POSTED 02/17/15
David Hammons photographed on September 2, 1980, in New York City. ©TIMOTHY GREENFIELD-SANDERS, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED/PORTRAIT COURTESY THE PHOTOGRAPHER Last spring, Mike Spano, the mayor of Yonkers, New York, a city of about 200,000 that shares a border with the Bronx, delivered his State of the City Address at City Hall. After describing Yonkers as a destination for “new-economy” companies—a developer of shared workspaces, a brewery, and a wine-storage business—he announced that the artist David Hammons would be opening an art gallery in South Yonkers. Hammons, who lives in Brooklyn, was in the audience.
To most eyes, this must have seemed like a fairly ordinary moment, a fine bit of municipal pageantry. However, for anyone who knows Hammons’s reputation in the art world, it would have been an astounding sight.
The African American artist, now 71, has, for the past few decades, been famously, willfully, inaccessible. He is one of the most influential and in-demand artists of the past half century, but he has not had gallery representation, often sells work straight from his studio, rarely agrees to shows, and has given very, very few interviews in the past two decades. The New Yorker’s Peter Schjeldahl was one of the chosen journalists, but even Schjeldahl admitted that, when a misunderstanding about where he was supposed to meet the artist scuttled their first planned talk, “I weighed the odds that I was being treated to a custom-designed artwork.” The appearance of a new Hammons work, in a group show or benefit, has the feeling of an event. The news spreads quickly.
Turning up at Yonkers City Hall seemed like a distinctly uncharacteristic thing for Hammons to do. Perhaps, I thought, he was having a change of heart. And so I tried to get in touch with him. I called the collector Lois Plehn, who I was told serves as Hammons’s gatekeeper. “David is not going to do any interviews about the project,” she told me kindly but firmly, when I finally reached her. Higher Goals, 1986, mixed media, 5 units, heights 20'–35'. PINKNEY HERBERT/JENNIFER SECOR, COURTESY PUBLIC ART FUND, NY Though Hammons guards his privacy, much of his best-known art has been, in its way, resolutely public, albeit ephemeral. As a young artist in Los Angeles in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he gained attention for his one-off body prints—made by pressing a grease-covered body (usually the artist’s own) to paper, then sprinkling the paper with powdered pigment—that anticipate performative works to come.
Hammons moved to New York in 1974 and in 1981, in two separate actions, he threw tennis shoes over and urinated on a hulking new Richard Serra sculpture that had been installed in fast-gentrifying Tribeca. In the winter of 1983, he staged his Bliz-aard Ball Sale, hawking snowballs at Cooper Union, New York’s then-free art school. In 1985, as part of Creative Time’s last “Art on the Beach” outdoor sculpture show before the site was swallowed up by Battery Park City, he built Delta Spirit, a wooden shanty house decorated with bottle caps set in the shadow of the World Trade Center towers. And in 1986, he installed a number of his Higher Goals pieces—basketball hoops soaring 20 to 30 feet off the ground—in Cadman Plaza Park in as-yet-ungentrified Brooklyn.
These public pieces offered up a succinct map of societal systems in flux that now seems shockingly prescient. Last year, Cooper Union, whose founder, Peter Cooper, once declared that education there be as “free as air and water,” began charging tuition, having saddled itself with huge debts from an overambitious building project. Brooklyn, where Hammons once asked people to dream bigger, now has the least affordable housing stock in the country. (Harlem, where he first created those hoops, has been hit with its own condo boom. “Harlem is under attack,” he told Deborah Solomon in the New York Times in 2001. “White folks want it back.”) Untitled, 2014, mixed media on canvas and blue tarpaulin, 137" x 123". ©DAVID HAMMONDS/COURTESY WHITE CUBE
Hammons’s actions and temporary structures are preserved as photographs and films, but also as stories, which may be filled with apocrypha. He made $20 selling snowballs, or sold out, depending on what you read. As the writer Greg Allen has pointed out, various accounts of Hammons peeing on the Serra (the work is called Pissed Off), say he either got arrested or was threatened with arrest, or was issued a citation. Hammons has made an art of rumor.
Ambiguity has entered Hammons’s art in an even more purposive, physical way of late, as in his much-discussed 2011 show at L&M Arts in New York. The exhibition consisted of a number of punchy, swirling abstract paintings partially obscured by found tarpaulins or plastic sheets—the stuff of makeshift shelters, and the street—or, in one case, a hulking wooden armoire.
Hammons has also covered luscious drawings made with Kool-Aid powder with curtains that can be lifted only under certain conditions. When one was shown at MoMA in 2012, visitors had to make appointments to view the work with a museum staffer and enter through a different entrance.
“[T]he efficiency, quantity and immediacy of information and information-systems has placed art and the artistic gesture at risk of being identified, categorized, digested, cannibalized and made into information before it has a chance to begin being art,” the curator Anthony Huberman has written. “Curiosity is being castrated by information.” Hammons’s paintings exemplify a considered response to that condition. They confront you with a sustained refusal, cloaked in beauty.
I have heard the criticism from some that Hammons’s recent works, particularly these half-hidden paintings, are too directed at the art world—that they lack the incisive political bite, not to mention the gutsy aesthetic panache, of his “Spade” sculptures of the 1970s, his assemblages made with materials like hair and chicken bones and wine bottles, and his black, red, and green African-American Flag (1990).
To be sure, Hammons’s output of the last two decades has not been as overtly engagé, but it is no less directed toward specific ethical ends. As information overflows and as surveillance networks expand, his works increasingly block, or withhold, information, addressing the politics of visibility, of who and what can be seen and explained. This preoccupation with seeing was enacted most literally in his Concerto in Black and Blue (2002), for which he left the Ace Gallery in New York in pitch darkness, giving visitors little blue flashlights to navigate the space.
Hammons’s most recent exhibition was a 2014 survey of work from the past ten years, at London’s White Cube gallery, which had him manipulating the conditions of display, of being seen, in new ways. One had the feeling of walking through an exhibition mid-installation, or even while it was being torn down. A security gate was partially lowered, and the lights were dim on the top floor, where a few of Hammons’s basketball drawings—sheets of paper on which he has forcefully bounced dirt-covered balls—were on view. On an otherwise blank wall was a rectangular void in the dust and dirt, as if a painting had been removed. Ceiling light covers were missing. Four recent paintings, hung with tattered rags and plastic sheeting, were on view. One was placed across a concealed door to the gallery’s loading dock. The door’s drywall skin had been partially stripped away, exposing the opening to the public. It felt inappropriate to be there.
There was also a surprise inclusion—a humble little Agnes Martin painting, with repeating stripes of white and pale red, blue, and yellow, hanging on its own wall. Such inclusions have become a hallmark of Hammons projects. There was the Miles Davis painting that he offered to the 2006 Whitney Biennial in lieu of contributing his own work, which effectively undermined the curators’ authority. Then there were the works by Donald Judd, Joan Mitchell, and Yayoi Kusama, which were included in an Ed Clark show that Hammons curated at New York’s Tilton Gallery last year (all three were friends with Clark). He enters the institution on his own terms, taking authority as he pleases. David Hammons, America the Beautiful, 1968, lithograph and body print, 39" x 29½". COURTESY MOMA PS1/OAKLAND MUSEUM, THE OAKLAND MUSEUM FOUNDERS FUND
In an essay, Philippe Vergne, one of the organizers of that 2006 Whitney Biennial, termed the Davis painting a “premeditated enigma,” and added, “This event—not to be understood or understandable, not to be seen, but to be conceived as a verbal enigma—possibly insinuates that we are culturally, aesthetically, miles away from assuming the full consequences of its occurrence.”
“Hammons tries to make art in which white people can’t see themselves,” artist Lorraine O’Grady has said, and while that’s clearest when he’s using hair from black barbershops and items from African American culture, there is a similar negation in these new works. In them, he informs you that there are things that you cannot see, and that you cannot know.
It’s anyone’s guess what Hammons has planned for Yonkers. Perhaps there is a clue in the catalogue for his 1993 show at the Illinois State Museum in Springfield, Illinois, his hometown, in which he talks about having a private museum there, a place to show his work. It might also be a place to show other artists’ work—either a fully functioning commercial gallery or a nonprofit alternative space.
The week before Christmas, I made the trip to the gallery’s future site. The BxM3 bus dropped me off at Radford Street on South Broadway, the town’s main commercial strip. There’s a McDonald’s, a smattering of pizza places, a non-chain pharmacy, a few vacant storefronts.
The building that Hammons bought is a 5-minute walk away, past a few modest suburban homes and a block of public housing. It’s next door to the community affairs office of the Yonkers Police Department. There’s a storefront church and soup kitchen nearby, but otherwise it’s a sleepy section of town.
Hammons’s space, at 39 Lawrence Street, is a one-story brick building with tall ceilings, filling a lot that measures two-thirds of an acre, about 29,200 square feet. According to property records, an entity called Duchamp Realty LLC, which is registered to the artist’s home address in Brooklyn, bought it for $2.05 million in January 2014. Construction permits for roof repair, issued a few months before I visited and valid well into 2015, were plastered over a door.
Whatever the Yonkers gallery becomes, it will join many of Hammons’s works as a marking, and reconfiguration, of public space. Slipping just beyond city limits, it denotes a hallmark of our time: artists’ flight from the moneyed playground that New York has become. “I’ve always thought artists should concentrate on going against any kind of order…but here in New York, more than anywhere else, I don’t see any of that gut,” Hammons told the art historian and curator Kellie Jones in 1986, anticipating this moment. “Because it’s so hard to live in this city. The rent is so high, your shelter and eating, those necessities are so difficult, that’s what keeps the artists from being that maverick.” Perhaps “Duchamp Realty LLC” is another clue: one might see the gallery as an assisted readymade, a former industrial space redirected toward a new purpose.
On the day I visited the site, the sound of a jackhammer was ringing through the neighborhood. It seemed to be emanating from within the building, but there was no obvious way in. The gates were down and locked, and looking through the high windows, I could see the sky peeking through sections of the roof that were missing. I bought a slice of pizza and headed back to Manhattan.
Andrew Russeth is co-executive editor at ARTnews.
The Phoenix's by Xu Bin fly through the hollow halls of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine like Dragons above the hallowed grounds of Harry Potter's Hogwarts, though the sculptural creatures are in fact stationary and fill up most of the overhead space. Phoenixes mythically rise from the ashes and these were were created by the aforementioned Chinese artists detritus found at a construction site at which he witnessed conditions he deemed unsafe. Perhaps these giant birds having taken suggested flight. Also speak to New York City's great unfinished cathedral or the Gotham after 911 soaring anew and then again most likely Christ arisen as per their being placed in the seat of the Episcopalian archdiocese of New York.
Please come to a very special evening in honor of our new PBS documentary Language Matters with Bob Holman a film by David Grubin
Wednesday, January 21, 2015 at 6:00 PM at the National Museum of the American Indian 1 Bowling Green, New York City
What do we lose when a language dies? What does it take to save a language?
The one hour event will highlight excerpts from the film woven together with live performances by endangered language speakers, including Native American poets, a hālau hula (Hawaiian school of dance), the colorful legacy of Yiddish, and the tongue twisting poetry of the Welsh language. Afterwards, Bob and David will offer a short Q&A followed by a reception.
Please note: Language Matters with Bob Holman airs on PBS THIRTEEN onSunday, January 25th at 12:30 PM.
In partnership with THIRTEEN, Poets House, and the Endangered Language Alliance
For more information on events and airdates visit languagemattersfilm.com
Language Matters is a co-production of David Grubin Productions Inc. and Pacific Islanders in Communications. Produced in association with The Endangered Language Alliance. Major funding provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities with additional funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, the National Endowment for the Arts, and philanthropic individuals.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
New York, NY (December 19, 2014) – The Film Society of Lincoln Center will present Tell It Like It Is: Black Independents in New York, 1968–1986, a series of key films, starting with William Greaves’s seminal Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One and culminating with Spike Lee’s first feature, the independently produced She’s Gotta Have It which launched a new era of studio filmmaking by black directors. This program includes major works by some of the great filmmakers of this (or any) era in cinema. During this time, activist New York–based black independent filmmakers created an exciting body of work despite lack of support and frequent suppression of minority film production. Programmed by Michelle Materre and Film Society of Lincoln Center Programmer at Large Jake Perlin, co-presented by Creatively Speaking. Tickets will go on sale Thursday, January 15, 2015.
Dennis Lim, the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Director of Programming said, “This is a landmark program that sheds overdue light on an incredibly rich, varied, and undertold chapter of American film history. There are many groundbreaking works here by many singular figures, and we’re proud to present this essential series here at the Film Society.”
In early 1968, William Greaves began shooting in Central Park, and the resulting film, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One, came to be considered one of the major works of American independent cinema. Later that year, following a staff strike, WNET’s newly created program, Black Journal (with Greaves as Executive Producer) was established “under black editorial control” and as home base for a new generation of filmmakers redefining documentary. (1968 also marked the production of the first Hollywood studio film directed by an African American, Gordon Park’s The Learning Tree.) Shortly thereafter, actor/playwright/screenwriter/
Women filmmakers play a prominent role throughout the series, starting with the exclusive one-week theatrical premiere of Losing Ground, directed by the late Kathleen Collins, one of the first feature films written and directed by a black woman. Collins’s first film, The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy, also never released theatrically, will screen in newly remastered version created by the filmmaker’s daughter, Nina, along with a video interview with the filmmaker. Nina Collins will be on hand to present her mother’s films on opening night,February 6, along with co-producer/cinematographer Ronald Gray andLosing Ground star Seret Scott.
February 11, Madeline Anderson will present her films, including the classic I Am Somebody, her first documentary, as well as work fromBlack Journal. On February 13 filmmakers Christine Choy, Susan Robeson, and Camille Billops will discuss their work screened in the Women’s Work Program, a selection of films bringing to light the remarkable contributions of female storytellers and their image-making prowess. Trailblazer Jessie Maple, will be in attendance onFebruary 16 to present her films Will and Twice As Nice.
For their support and expertise, the programmers gratefully thank Pearl Bowser, Louise Greaves, Jane Fuentes, Marsha Schwam, Elena Rossi-Snook, Amy Heller, Dennis Doros and Ishmael Reed, and the filmmakers Jessie Maple, Charles Hobson, Madeline Anderson, Pat Hartley, Kent Garrett, Woodie King Jr., and Al Santana.
Thank you to Elena Rossi-Snook & Johnny Gore (New York Public Library for the Performing Arts), Nina Collins, Ronald Gray, Chiz Schultz, Anne Morra & Mary Keene (MoMA), Lisa Collins, Mark Schwartzburt, Amy Heller & Dennis Doros (Milestone Films), Shola Lynch (Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture), Kate Manion, Devorah Heitner, Brian Graney (The Black Film Center/Archive, Indiana University), Seret Scott, Nellie Killian, Marilyn Nance, Judy Bourne, Livia Bloom (Icarus Films), Roselly A. Torres Rojas (Third World Newsreel), Kazembe Balagun (Rosa Luxemburg Shiftung NYC), Chris Hill, Rebecca Cleman, Kristen Fitzpatrick (Women Make Movies), Jane Gutteridge (National Film Board of Canada), Liz Coffey & Haden Guest (Harvard Film Archive).
For sale at the Film Society, beginning February 6, in conjunction with this series: Bill Gunn’s Rhinestone Sharecropping (a novel) and Black Picture Show (a play), published by I Reed Press, and How to Become a Union Camerawoman by Jessie Maple, published by LJ Film Productions.
Black Journal Program
USA, 1968, digital projection, approx. 70m
The first nationally broadcast black newsmagazine, produced by William Greaves and hosted by Wali Saddiq and Greaves, was home to a who’s who of producers, directors, editors and cinematographers—Madeline Anderson, Kent Garrett, St. Clair Bourne, Charles Hobson, to name only a few—working in a diversity of styles: interviews, skits, commentary, investigative reporting, all with a degree of creativity and experimentation still unrivaled for TV.
*Wednesday, February 11, 6:00pm (Q&A with Charles Hobson, Louise Greaves, Kent Garrett, and Madeline Anderson)
*Venue: Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 West 65th Street
The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy
Kathleen Collins, USA, 1980, DCP, 50m
Kathleen Collins’s first film is an adaptation of a series of short stories by Henry H. Roth about three young Puerto Rican men whose lives are watched over by their father’s ghost. New York’s Rockland County serves as the setting for the magic that the urban-born trio encounters when they meet Miss Malloy, an elderly widow who owns a house in need of some tender loving care. Never released theatrically, airing only once on cable TV, and then disappearing from view, the film has been rescued and re-mastered by the filmmaker’s daughter, Nina and Milestone Films. Screening with a video interview with Kathleen Collins. A Milestone Films Release.
Friday, February 6, 6:30pm (Introduction by Nina Collins and Ronald K. Gray)
*Wednesday, February 11, 3:00pm
*Venue: Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 West 65th Street
A Dream is What You Wake Up From
Larry Bullard & Carolyn Johnson, USA, 1978, 16mm, 50m
Three black families, observed in their daily lives, their thoughts, values, and aspirations expressed on the soundtrack, and their different approaches to the struggle for survival in contemporary society and their methods of coping with the contradictory stresses placed on the individual in the family environment.
Young Filmmakers Foundation, USA, 1970, 16mm, 1m
A montage of faces from the Harlem community. Black Faces is courtesy of the Reserve Film and Video Collection of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, preserved with funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
*Thursday, February 19, 5:30pm (Q&A with JT Takagi of Third World Newsreel and Elena Rossi-Snook of New York Public Library for the Performing Arts)
*Venue: Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 West 65th Street
An Evening with Jessie Maple
A trailblazer and pioneer, Jessie Maple was the first African-American woman to gain entry in New York’s camera operators union, taking the case to court to fight discrimination after she was a member, and writing an invaluable book about her life and experience, How to Become a Union Camerawoman. After directing the film Will, and in need of a venue to premiere it, she and her husband Leroy Patton (also a cinematographer) built and founded the independent cinema 20 West in Harlem.
Jessie Maple, USA, 1981, 16mm, 70m
“I wanted to show the neighborhood—that everything was there, right in the neighborhood,” so says Jessie Maple in describing her feature debut. This is the story of Will, a basketball coach fighting demons, a full picture of dealing with modern urban life—uptown—is revealed. “No matter how low you are you can come back up. That’s what Willis. People can’t count themselves out that quick.” Preserved by New York Women in Film and Television’s Women’s Film Preservation Fund. Print courtesy of Black Film Center/Archive at Indiana University.
*Monday, February 16, 6:30pm (Q&A with Jessie Maple)
*Venue: Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 West 65th Street
Twice as Nice
Jessie Maple, USA, 1989, 70m
Maple’s second narrative feature uses an intimate story—the relationship of twin college basketball players—to examine the nature of sisterhood, competition, and friendship. As with her documentary work, Maple looks at everyday events and ponders the visible but especially the invisible.
*Monday, February 16, 8:45pm (Introduction by Jessie Maple)
*Venue: Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 West 65th Street
Ganja and Hess
Bill Gunn, USA, 1973, 35mm, 113m
Screened at Cannes in 1973 before being recut against the filmmaker's wishes for its U.S. release, Ganja and Hess was first made available years later in its intended version by independent distributor Pearl Bowser, and, now restored, is considered a classic. Conceived as a vampire tale, Gunn’s film is a formally radical and deeply philosophical inquiry into passion and history. “A film that was ahead of its time in 1973, and quite frankly, is still very much so today… maybe the rest of world will eventually catch up.” – Tambay A. Obenson. With Marlene Clarke, Duane Jones, and music by Sam Waymon. Preserved by the Museum of Modern Art with support from the Film Foundation.
Saturday, February 7, 5:00pm (Post-screening discussion with film scholar Pearl Bowser and Sam Waymon)
Sunday, February 8, 8:00pm
I Heard It Through the Grapevine
Dick Fontaine & Pat Hartley, USA,1982, 16mm, 95m
James Baldwin retraces his time in the South during the Civil Rights Movement, reflecting with his trademark brilliance and insight on the passage of 20 years. From Selma and Birmingham, to the battleground beaches of St. Augustine, Florida, with Chinua Achebe, and back north for a visit to Newark with Amiri Baraka.
*Thursday, February 12, 4:00 & 9:00pm (Q&A with Pat Hartley and Rich Blint at the 4:00pm show)
*Venue: Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 West 65th Street
I Remember Harlem
William Miles, USA, 1981, 16mm, 240m
“What really made Harlem ‘Harlem’” is what renowned visual historian William Miles, set out to explore when he produced and directed this epic work. Harlem has since become an intersection of cultures, classes, and colors that still maintains a distinctive sense of identity, which Miles lovingly illustrates with his personal connection and commitment to this epicenter of African-American cultural life. We lost this great voice in May 2013 when Miles passed away at the age of 82. Courtesy of the Reserve Film and Video Collection of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, preserved with funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
*Saturday, February 14, 4:00pm
*Venue: Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 West 65th Street
In Motion: Amiri Baraka and The New-Ark
St. Clair Bourne, USA, 1983, digital projection, 60m
This video portrait, filmed in the days leading up to Amiri Baraka’s appeal of his punitive 90-day sentence for resisting arrest following an argument in his car outside the 8th Street Playhouse movie theater, documents Baraka at his radio show, at home with his wife and children, and performing at readings. It is a delicate vision of a revolutionary who has grown quieter—though never at rest, and as sage as ever.
Screening with a performance by Leroi Jones’s Young Spirit House Movers, broadcast on Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant (USA, 1968, digital projection, 10m).
Amiri Baraka, USA, 1968, digital projection, 25m
Produced by Harlem Audio-Visual and part of the collection of cameraman and producer James E. Hinton at the Harvard Film Archive, this film, previously believed to be lost, depicts the activism, educational programs, and art taking place at the Spirit House community center in Newark, NJ. Digital preservation by Anthology Film Archives. From the James Hinton Collection at the Harvard Film Archives.
*Tuesday, February 17, 9:00pm
*Venue: Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 West 65th Street
Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant Program
USA, 1968-1971, digital projection, approx. 70m
Produced by Charles Hobson and aired on WNEW (better known as Channel 5), this weekly show was originally conceived by Robert F. Kennedy’s organization and community boosters to counter images of black neighborhoods as presented in the mainstream news. It is considered the first African American–produced television series in the USA. Hosted by Roxie Roker and Jim Lowry, the program reflected the home of 400,000 people as it transitioned into a new era, featuring open and unscripted dialogues with residents, guest celebrities, and, most notably, a powerful public forum with Harry Belafonte. This program will feature a selection of episodes, presented by Charles Hobson.
Sunday, February 8, 3:00pm (Q&A with Charles Hobson)
Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads
Spike Lee, USA, 1983, 16mm, 60m
Spike Lee’s NYU Masters program thesis (and the first student feature film ever selected for New Directors/New Films) is a precocious work from a major artist, irrefutable evidence that its maker would go on to become one of the greats.
A Place in Time
Charles Lane, USA, 1977, 16mm, 34m
Courtesy of the Reserve Film and Video Collection of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, preserved with funding from the National Film Preservation Foundation.
*Thursday, February 19, 7:15pm
*Venue: Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 West 65th Street
Kent Garrett Program
Two docs made for Black Journal, examining the perennial outsider status accorded to those ostensibly on the inside. In Central Harlem, at the height of the Black Power movement, a policeman discusses his role in and out of the uniform, contrasted with the experiences of a colleague in the LAPD. For African-American soldiers in Vietnam, the contradiction of being expected to defend liberties not granted at home is evident. Courtesy of the Reserve Film and Video Collection of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.
The Black GI
Kent Garrett, USA, 1971, 16mm, 54m
The Black Cop
Kent Garrett, USA, 1969, 16mm, 15m
*Friday, February 13, 8:30pm (Q&A with Kent Garrett andKazembe Balagun)
*Venue: Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 West 65th Street
The Long Night
Woodie King, Jr., USA, 1976, 35mm, 85m
One night in the life of a young boy on the street, encountering the denizens of mid-1970s Harlem, while commenting on Vietnam, marital discord, paternal relationships, substance abuse, schooling, and unemployment—in short, the life of an American family.
*Thursday, February 12, 6:30pm (Q&A with Woodie King, Jr.)
*Venue: Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 West 65th Street
Kathleen Collins, USA, 1982, DCP, 86m
Finally receiving a long-overdue theatrical run, Losing Ground, one of the first feature films written and directed by a black woman, is a groundbreaking romance exploring women’s sexuality, modern marriage, and the life of artists and scholars. But most of all, it is a great film, one that firmly belongs in the canon of American independent cinema in the 1980s. Sara (Seret Scott) is a philosophy professor and her husband Victor (Bill Gunn) is a painter. With their personal and professional lives at a crossroads, they leave the city for the country, experiencing a reawakening, both together and separately. Also featuring Duane Jones (Night of the Living Dead), the film is honest, funny, and wise. Losing Ground is a testament to the remarkable playwright, professor, and filmmaker Kathleen Collins, and a reminder of the immense talent that was lost when she passed away in 1988 at age 46. A Milestone Films release.
Friday, February 6, 1:00pm, 2:45pm, 4:30pm & 8:30pm (Q&A with Nina Collins, Ronald K. Gray, and Seret Scott at 8:30pm show)
Saturday, February 7, 3:15pm
Sunday, February 8, 1:00pm
*Monday, February 9, 1:00pm
*Tuesday, February 10, 3:30pm
*Wednesday, February 11, 1:00pm
*Thursday, February 12, 2:00pm
*Venue: Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 West 65th Street
Madeline Anderson Program
Madeline Anderson’s classic documentary I Am Somebody depicts the strength of, and the hardships endured by, a striking group of African-American women in Charleston, South Carolina. The program also features Anderson’s first documentary, as well as work fromBlack Journal. “I was determined to do what I was going to do at any cost. I kept plugging away. Whatever I had to do, I did it,” she said of her career. I Am Somebody is screening courtesy of the Reserve Film and Video Collection of the New York Public Library for Performing Arts, preserved with funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
I Am Somebody
Madeline Anderson, USA, 1970, 16mm, 30m
Integration Report #1
Madeline Anderson, USA, 1960, digital projection, 20m
A Tribute to Malcolm X
Madeline Anderson, USA, 1967, digital projection, 14m
*Wednesday, February 11, 8:30pm (Q&A with Madeline Anderson)
*Venue: Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 West 65th Street
Namibia: Independence Now!
Pearl Bowser & Christine Choy, USA, 1985, 16mm, 55m
A revolutionary political moment is captured firsthand by two independent women filmmakers shooting inside refugee settlements in Zambia and Angola in 1985. Depicting the significant role of women in this struggle for independence, this film explores the lives of exiled women workers attempting to free their country from illegal exploitation.
*Tuesday, February 17, 5:00pm (Q&A with Pearl Bowser, Christine Choy, Al Santana, and JT Takagi)
*Venue: Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 West 65th Street
One Last Look
Charles Hobson, USA, 1969, digital projection, 60m
This rare film of Steve Carter’s play features many of the leading actors of the era before they went on to achieve international fame, was shown on WABC in New York, and has not been seen since. An emotionally charged drama of family, friends, and former lovers confronting the ghost of the family patriarch at his funeral.
Tuesday, February 17, 7:00pm (Q&A with Charles Hobson)
Bill Gunn, USA, 1980, digital projection, approx. 110m
“What happens when a group of unbankable individuals tell their own stories? Actors who have final say over their speaking parts? A director found ‘too difficult’ for Hollywood? Two producers, who, having no experience, had the audacity to organize a production with the amount of money Hollywood spends on catering. Maybe less.” These questions by writer Ishmael Reed lead to the conception of this “meta soap opera,” the story of a Harlem couple, and their friends, made without “the middleman.”
Saturday, February 7, 8:00pm (Q&A with Ishmael Reed, Dr. Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor, and Sam Waymon)
*Tuesday, February 10, 1:00pm
*Venue: Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 West 65th Street
Let the Church Say Amen!
St. Clair Bourne, USA, 1973, 16mm, 67m
Voices of the Gods
Al Santana, USA, 1985, 16mm, 60m
A program on religion and ritual, highlighting two opposite ends of the spectrum in the role of religion in the black community. These modern classics represent two examples of the influential function and position that religious observation occupies as an essential part of African-American culture.
*Sunday, February 15, 7:00pm (Q&A with Al Santana)
*Tuesday, February 17, 2:00pm
*Venue: Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 West 65th Street
She’s Gotta Have It
Spike Lee, USA, 1986, 35mm, 84m
The one that changed the entire landscape of independent film and announced a genuine director-as-superstar, and the defining film of a new generation of American directors. But most significantly, She’s Gotta Have It possesses a confidence, vision, and grandeur of style that is almost as absent from the current independent film scene as the New York City where it takes place, only existing on film, and in memory.
*Thursday, February 19, 9:30pm
*Venue: Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 West 65th Street
St. Clair Bourne Program
Producing or directing more than 40 films in a 36-year career, St. Clair Bourne is inarguably the most prolific black documentarian of his time. Bourne authentically documented critical aspects of the black community—its culture, resistance, and activism—images of which would have been lost if not for his chronicling. If comparisons are necessary to understand the significance of Bourne’s work upon the broader landscape of independent film, think D.A. Pennebaker, the Maysles, and Jean Rouch. The films in this program find Bourne documenting black and Irish solidarity, representation in the Brooklyn Museum, and the options granted to high school students who want to attend college. St. Clair Bourne passed away at the age of 64; he would have been 73 this February. Something to Build On is screening courtesy of the Reserve Film and Video Collection of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.
The Black and the Green
St. Clair Bourne, USA, 1983, digital projection, 45m
Something to Build On
St. Clair Bourne, USA, 1971, 16mm, 29m
Statues Hardly Ever Smile
Stan Lathan, USA, 1971, digital projection, 21m
Sunday, February 8, 5:15pm (Q&A with Pearl Bowser, Crystal Emery and Sam Pollard)
Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One
William Greaves, USA, 1968, 35mm, 75m
A docufiction, a narrative experiment, a film about making a film, a crew without a director, a time capsule of New York, a barometer of the culture: process, form, and personality collide in Greaves’s classic, about which no superlatives can be overused and whose influence cannot be overstated.
Saturday, February 7, 1:00pm (Q&A with Louise Greaves and special guests)
Video Program – Free Amphitheater Event!
A program of video-based works that used television technology to bring public attention to Black American identity, through intervention, documentation, and parody, as in Anthony Ramos’s About Media, in which the artist uses his Portapak camera to turn a news crew’s visit to his home into media critique. Co-programmed by Rebecca Cleman and presented by Rebecca Cleman and Chris Hill.
Queen Mother Moore Speech at Greenhaven Prison
People’s Communications Network, USA, 1973, digital projection, 17m
Anthony Ramos, USA, 1977, digital projection, 25m
*Sunday, February 15, 4:30pm (Post-screening discussion with Rebecca Cleman and Chris Hill)
*Venue: Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 West 65th Street
William Greaves Program
One of Greaves’s greatest, From These Roots is a crash-course in Harlem history, told entirely through the use of still images—rarely has so much information been condensed so gracefully. Paired with two early, rare Greaves docs, showing the incredible range of his work. A tribute to the Harlem-born teacher, mentor, and filmmaker, who passed away in August 2014.
From These Roots
William Greaves, USA, 1974, 16mm, 28m
William Greaves, USA, 1959, 16mm, 30m
Wealth of a Nation
William Greaves, USA, 1964, digital projection, 25m
*Saturday, February 14, 8:30pm (Q&A with Louise Greaves)
*Venue: Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 West 65th Street
Women’s Work Program
A program from exemplary women filmmakers who were an integral part of the independent film industry during the period covered by this survey. The content of these women’s films are culturally and community-specific, and they tell stories of universal human interest, with social commentary at their core, effectively bringing to light the remarkable contributions of female storytellers and their image-making prowess.
Teach Our Children
Christine Choy & Susan Robeson, USA, 1972, digital projection, 35m
Hairpiece: A Film for Nappy-Headed People
Ayoka Chenzira, USA, 1985, 16mm, 10m
Ayoka Chenzira, USA, 1979, 16mm, 15m
Camille Billops & James Hatch, USA, 1982, 16mm, 30m
*Friday, February 13, 6:00pm (Q&A with Christine Choy, Susan Robeson, Camille Billops and Neema Barnette)
*Venue: Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 West 65th Street
FILM SOCIETY OF LINCOLN CENTER
Founded in 1969 to celebrate American and international cinema, the Film Society of Lincoln Center works to recognize established and emerging filmmakers, support important new work, and to enhance the awareness, accessibility, and understanding of the moving image. The Film Society produces the renowned New York Film Festival, a curated selection of the year’s most significant new film work, and presents or collaborates on other annual New York City festivals including Dance on Camera, Film Comment Selects, Human Rights Watch Film Festival, New Directors/New Films, NewFest, New York African Film Festival, New York Asian Film Festival, New York Jewish Film Festival, Open Roads: New Italian Cinema and Rendez-Vous with French Cinema. In addition to publishing the award-winning Film Comment magazine, the Film Society recognizes an artist's unique achievement in film with the prestigious Chaplin Award, whose 2015 recipient is Robert Redford. The Film Society’s state-of-the-art Walter Reade Theater and the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, located at Lincoln Center, provide a home for year-round programs and the New York City film community.
The Film Society receives generous, year-round support from Royal Bank of Canada, Jaeger-LeCoultre, American Airlines, The New York Times, HBO, Stella Artois, The Kobal Collection, Variety, Trump International Hotel and Tower, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the New York State Council on the Arts.
For more information, visit www.filmlinc.com, follow @filmlinc on Twitter, and download the FREE Film Society app, now available for iOS (iPhone and iPad) and Android devices.
For Media specific inquiries, please contact:
Film Society of Lincoln Center:
John Wildman, (212) 875-5419
David Ninh, (212) 875-5423
As the Black Lives Matter movement grew in reaction to the lack of indictments in the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, Michael Jackson's 1995 song "They Don't Care About Us" was resurrected at the grass roots level in many cities including Ferguson, New York, and California.
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"They Don't Care About Us" was denounced by The New York Times even before its release, and did not reach much of its intended audience because the controversy caused by the New York Times article would go on to overshadow the song itself. Radio stations were reluctant to play it and one of the short films Jackson created for the song was banned in the U.S.
Bernard Weinraub, husband of Sony Pictures Chief Amy Pascal, was the writer of the Times article.
"They Don't Care About Us" was Jackson's statement against abuse of power and the political corruption that enabled it. Two key events inspired the song:
In 1992, five white police officers who stood trial in Los Angeles for the videotaped beating of Rodney King were found not guilty by a jury with no African American members. Then, as now, there were riots and protests about longstanding policies of racial profiling and systemic police brutality.
The following year, Jackson, who had not been charged with any crime, was forced to undergo a humiliating 25 minute strip search by the same LAPD. The Santa Barbara District Attorney and police detectives arrived at Jackson's home in Los Olivos, California with a photographer who documented his private parts on film.
Black man, blackmail
Throw your brother in jail
All I wanna say is that
They don't really care about us
Bernard Weinraub's pre-release story accused Jackson of having "bigoted lyrics" in the song. He described the entire HIStory album as "profane, obscure, angry and filled with rage."
His piece touched off a firestorm of other negative media coverage. The criticism was disingenuous, as the lyrics were taken out of context and Jackson was very clear about his true intention. The critics were overwhelmingly white.
Many of Weinraub's email messages to Pascal were exposed in the Sony hack; one advised her to fire an executive which she promptly did; another stated outright that he had special access and influence with New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd.
Pascal was previously Vice President of Columbia Pictures, where Jackson, who wanted to star in films, had a motion picture contract that was never fulfilled. Later she became head of Sony Columbia Pictures. Jackson's recording contract was with Epic, a division of Sony.
Weinraub, who is now a playwright, was a respected New York Times reporter on the Hollywood beat until his relationship with Pascal created a conflict of interest that began to anger the subjects of his articles. Weinraub admitted to as much in his farewell column at the New York Times.
Weinraub's cozy relationships in Hollywood included David Geffen. Geffen had worked closely with Jackson, convincing him to replace his key advisors with ones hand-picked by Geffen, according to Zack O. Greenburg's Michael Jackson, Inc.
When the controversy over "They Don't Care About Us" arose, Jackson asked Geffen for public support, but he would not go on record. Jackson's manager, Geffen's pick Sandy Gallin, refused to speak on television. He fired Gallin and never spoke to either of the men again.
Geffen refused to be interviewed about Jackson for Greenburg's book.
Jackson and Spike Lee made two separate short films for "They Don't Care About Us." "He was not having good relations [with Sony/Epic]...there was friction there," said Spike Lee in a recent interview with Iconic magazine.
The first version, recorded in Brazil, features the Afro-Brazilian drumming group Olodum. If you're familiar with the song, this is the version you've probably seen. Already in production at the time of the controversy, it uses sound effects to obscure the objectionable words.
But the "Prison" version is a tour de force; Jackson had even more to be angry about. Jackson and Lee chose to film in a Long Island jail, said Lee, because "a lot of people in prison shouldn't be there. A lot of people are there for a much longer time too. In American prisons, there are more brown and black people than white."
All Jackson's frustrations seem to be on display in this raw and angry performance. Behold:
Jackson would not win though - at least not then: the Prison version was banned from American television.
Jackson would later go on to have a public feud with executives at Sony Music, accusing them of racism. His protests were eyed skeptically by many at the time.
One particularly vicious 1995 Newsday review of this song read in part: "When Michael Jackson sings 'They Don't Care About Us' you've got to wonder who he thinks 'us' is."
The Black Lives Matter protestors don't wonder.
[Updated for clarity 11:16 PM 18 Dec 2014: Weinraub's article specifically mentioned that Jackson used the words "Jew" and "kike" in the song. Weinraub's article did not mentionthat Jackson also used the words "If Roosevelt was living, he wouldn't let this be" thus decontextualizing it. The media coverage left readers thinking that the song was the exact opposite of its intentions. Nevertheless Jackson did not want to offend so he apologized and re-recorded swapping out those two words.]
Jackson was comparing racism against blacks to the racism experienced by Jews in Nazi Germany. He invokes two political figures: Roosevelt who went to war against Germany, and Dr. Martin Luther King who led the civil rights movement. Here are the key lyrics:
If Roosevelt was livin' / he wouldn't let this be, no, no
If Martin Luther was livin'/ he wouldn't let this be, no, no
on Twitter @dbanderson1
Two conversations, Friday, Dec. 12, late afternoon, dusk 1. Haitian cab driver, young man, beautiful
How are ya, thanks! This is terrific. Beautiful night…, where you from?
…I have two Haitian girls in my class—deux jeunes filles jolies, intelligentes, and ….how you say? funny!
Marant! Elles sont marant! …Been here since he was thirteen. Did some French school in Haiti. But here in New York he doesn’t speak much French. “I lost my culture.” Going to school again now. What are you studying? Oh he’s not studying in a school, just at the library. He goes there every day. Reads. So what do you study? Wanted to do criminal justice did two years in a school…. But realized there might be any jobs. Not jobs in courts, no jobs in police. Driving a cab now and studying on his own, not sure what, wants to learn something with his hands. He figures there’s always work for people who work with their hands. Tomorrow there’s a big march you know. Be terrible traffic. ? Millions March….. to protest the killing of black men by the cops…. He saw another march the other day, the traffic was stopped up and he got out of his car to see what was going on, he asked some people what was it about He doesn’t talk about that sort of thing with people…. you know I tell him I understand, he’s in the service industry Just yes sir, no sir….. I get it, that’s your business…. you make a living…. … So as we turn down 23rd st. at 8th Avenue he says, I gotta tell you a story. A friend of mine, my best friend, he drives a cab too and he was returning the taxi late one night to the lot in Brooklyn. There are so many taxis and so many cars of people who live there that often you have to park the cab far away, 10-15 blocks away. He parked the car and then he was walking to the lot. Two police cars pulled up one in front one behind they jumped out and one pulled out a gun. My friend he said, whoa like this he puts his hands up and the cops tell him to get up against the car. They ask him where he’s coming from and where he’s going and he says he parked his cab and he’s walking to the lot what is it what did I do? and they tell him that a store was just robbed in the neighborhood, they’re looking for a young black guy your age wearing jeans and dark coat. My friend he says something, whoa no that’s not me or something like that and they…. beat him. They beat him and they arrested him. They said he was resisting arrest. He was in jail for 6 weeks. At Rikers. I went there to visit him. Ohhhhhh that is terrible terrible place…. I was scared. They fined him fifteen hundred dollars. He had to pay. And they tried to take his license away, but the cab company didn’t do it. ….. OMG …. We pull up in front of the London Terrace Gardens. Thank God your friend is okay in the end thank God they didn’t take his license. He thanks me and says it was nice talking to you.
2. In the London Terrace Gardens visiting with Elsie and Teresa. We are drinking whiskey. Teresa tells the story of her son. Teresa: My oldest son he came here at 21 spoke no English nothing but he learn very fast and he study he went right into college today he is doctor, he is 40! But my younger son he was 12 when he came here. He real American guy. He study two years in the university but he didn’t want to do no more, so he decide he want to be a police. He want to help people protect them from bad guys. Now he a police! But Jessie, do you know anyone in police? My son he asked me, Mom I gotta get out of there. He work in housing project in Brooklyn. He only white face in whole place. All people hate him. He say he can see hate in their faces. He say everyone police get transferred out. But you got to know someone. He scared. I scared too. What he gonna do?
Text and photos: Jessica Slote, NYC, Dec. 12. 2014
by Jeff Grunthaner
The paradox of Chris Ofili New Museum Show, “Night and Day,” is the way he makes you believe “great art” without quotes exists, while simultaneously quoting from the great tradition of art as it exists in the Western tradition. Ofili is a painter who will routinely astonish you with a painterly bravura, while yet relying on traditional almost conventional pictorial strategies to compose his work. The overwhelming question is can an artist as skilled as Ofili, a black Londoner, who from a very early stage in career found success via Saatchi and the artists he collected, actually relate to the cannon is a way that matters? It’s not like the New Museum show, which echoes a show recently exhibited at the Tate, will make or break his career, but how does it contextualize itself in \New York? Is there an audience here perhaps more or less responsive than those found in other institutions elsewhere?
Chris Ofili’s career is rooted in a kind of hybridity that makes his extreme inclination for the conventional—a centered figure, generally a portrait—into something completely else. The intrigue lies not so much in the materials listed with the descriptions placed alongside his works, as much as the way he uses the materials. One has NEVER seen glitter or elephant dung used in this way. Not in a painting. And to be honest, if you have it owes everything to Ofili’s pioneering artistry. Few painters are as sensitive to the sculptural qualities of their media (oil, acrylic, what-have-you). This is what makes his paintings so wildly present, so absorbing in a technical way that TRANSCENDS THEIR SCALE. The genius of Ofili lies in his artistry, the solitude of a painter laboring on canvas. In this respect, he is quite possibly without peer.
And yet the genius of specialization can only go so far. Ultimately, what one looks for in a work, whether one is a disinterested connoisseur or a curious newbie to painting, is whether the art lives and breathes beyond the confines in which you take it in. Market aside, it’s unlikely that anyone will leave the Chris Ofili show feeling transformed—despite the artist’s dedicated commitment to incorporating aspects of the tradition in novel, personally expressive, even visionary ways. For the New Yorker, whether she be poor and struggling or comfortable and bourgeois, the theme of a black figure on canvas is not a startling innovation, to say the least. We meet this everyday when we transfer trains, which is not to say that every artist can rival Ofili in skill (few can, in my opinion). Nevertheless, THE MESSAGE BEHIND THE WORK, if message there be, lies in some dimly lit ether-realm of the facelessness of black folk trying to adapt to a society that rebukes them for reasons purely based on race.
Otherwise stated, Ofili falls flat in relation to the political import of his work, Of course, he’s know as a “political painter,” incorporating black faces into a space otherwise reserved for whites, and doing this in a way that vies, perhaps even outshines, their venerable classical models (at least to the mediated gaze of contemporary eyes). But what exactly is the space he inserts his figures into? It’s one thing to liberate the black figure into a space already carved out for it by the cannon; it’s another completely to give such figures their own freedom. To be sure, Ofili’s figures are not thematically restricted to representations of black folk—religious and pop-culture iconography plays a heavy role. Yet everywhere he seems to casually place the image of blackness into his pieces, juxtaposing it easily into the classical maneuvers of sculptural and cubist precedents.
This makes Ofili’s work feel all to comfortable and all-too-distant is light of current events in New York and the world around. There’s a sheltered, studio-quality to the paintings that makes them as aesthetically delightful as they are innocuous. What we’re impressed by is their skill, the way they resolve themselves into compositional gestalts. We don’t really see the world through them (perhaps due to Ofili’s penchant for the visionary), nor do we even witness a world that’s a plenum of plurality. Rather, “Night and Day” gives us an extended survey of how one artist’s practice relates and reflects—not so much redacts—the tradition of “great painting” in Western Art. Not only are Ofili’s paintings wholly rooted in the Western Cannon, but despite their “exotic” materials—elephant dung, most notably, but also glitter and other reflective materials—viewers are left with nothing or less than conventions. Brilliantly wrought, but utterly traditional.
It is exactly the denial of the reflective that makes Ofili the artist that he is. His work revels in surface, in the incorporation of exceptional and even symbolic media (elephant dung, glitter) into a wholly foreign tradition. True to his inspiration in hip-hop and other areas of pop culture, he initially tended to literalize these materials—as when he performed a David Hammonsesque performance work, pandering elephant shit to a public either indifferent or excited (he sold a few pieces, and even developed a piece out of it: “Shithead” (1993). But in the end Ofili submerges his materials into something unrecognizable. To be sure, there is tactility to Ofili’s use of elephant dung that feeds into the sculptural quality of his work. But this is not a political gesture so much as an aesthetic one. What I mean to challenge is Ofili’s importance as a “political painter.”
The contrast boils down to the expressivity of faces in Ofili’s work versus their expressivity qua paintings. In a work like “The Adoration of Captain Shit and the Legend of the Black Stars (Third Version)” (1998), Ofili paints a drugged-out looking figure against a visionary-psychedelic backdrop. The figure could be a boxer, or James Brown. Either way, it’s only an inspiration. Hands of praise or struggle emerge towards the figure. There’s no trace of reality in the portrait. The real-life model whom Captain Shit is based on simply isn’t there. The painting doesn’t speak to this world, but the world of pop-culture imagery. This is less a political move than a gesture. Remapping the iconography of everyday life can only take protest so far. What’s needed is to unmake images, to locate their historical origins, not merely create a pictorial confluence of different traditions melding together. Ofili, for his nonpareil artistry, doesn’t deliver this.