In this book, art historian Darby English explores the year 1971, when two exhibitions opened that brought modernist painting and sculpture into the burning heart of United States cultural politics: Contemporary Black Artists in America, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and The DeLuxe Show, a racially integrated abstract art exhibition presented in a renovated movie theater in a Houston ghetto.
1971: A Year in the Life of Color looks at many black artists’ desire to gain freedom from overt racial representation, as well as their efforts—and those of their advocates—to further that aim through public exhibition. Amid calls to define a “black aesthetic,” these experiments with modernist art prioritized cultural interaction and instability. Contemporary Black Artists in America highlighted abstraction as a stance against normative approaches, while The DeLuxe Show positioned abstraction in a center of urban blight. The importance of these experiments, English argues, came partly from color’s special status as a cultural symbol and partly from investigations of color already under way in late modern art and criticism. With their supporters, black modernists—among them Peter Bradley, Frederick Eversley, Alvin Loving, Raymond Saunders, and Alma Thomas—rose above the demand to represent or be represented, compromising nothing in their appeals for interracial collaboration and, above all, responding with optimism rather than cynicism to the surrounding culture’s preoccupation with color.
Heavy makeup, gaudy jewelry, dramatic hairstyles, and clothes that are considered cheap, fake, too short, too tight, or too masculine: working-class Black and Latina girls and women are often framed as embodying "excessive" styles that are presumed to indicate sexual deviance. In Aesthetics of Excess Jillian Hernandez examines how middle-class discourses of aesthetic value racialize the bodies of women and girls of color. At the same time, their style can be a source of cultural capital when appropriated by the contemporary art scene. Drawing on her community arts work with Black and Latina girls in Miami, Hernandez analyzes the art and self-image of these girls alongside works produced by contemporary artists and pop musicians such as Wangechi Mutu, Kara Walker, and Nicki Minaj. Through these relational readings, Hernandez shows how notions of high and low culture are complicated when women and girls of color engage in cultural production and how they challenge the policing of their bodies and sexualities through artistic authorship.
A profound book of essays from a celebrated master of the form.
“Darkness is not empty,” writes Teju Cole in Black Paper, a book that meditates on what it means to sustain our humanity—and witness the humanity of others—in a time of darkness. One of the most celebrated essayists of his generation, Cole here plays variations on the essay form, modeling ways to attend to experience—not just to take in but to think critically about what we sense and what we don’t.
Wide-ranging but thematically unified, the essays address ethical questions about what it means to be human and what it means to bear witness, recognizing how our individual present is informed by a collective past. Cole’s writings in Black Paper approach the fractured moment of our history through a constellation of interrelated concerns: confrontation with unsettling art, elegies both public and private, the defense of writing in a time of political upheaval, the role of the color black in the visual arts, the use of shadow in photography, and the links between literature and activism. Throughout, Cole gives us intriguing new ways of thinking about blackness and its numerous connotations. As he describes the carbon-copy process in his epilogue: “Writing on the top white sheet would transfer the carbon from the black paper onto the bottom white sheet. Black transported the meaning.”
In Crisis Vision, Torin Monahan explores how artists confront the racializing dimensions of contemporary surveillance. He focuses on artists ranging from Kai Wiedenhöfer, Paolo Cirio, and Hank Willis Thomas to Claudia Rankine and Dread Scott, who engage with what he calls crisis vision—the regimes of racializing surveillance that position black and brown bodies as targets for police and state violence. Many artists, Monahan contends, remain invested in frameworks that privilege transparency, universality, and individual responsibility in ways that often occlude racial difference. Other artists, however, disrupt crisis vision by confronting white supremacy and destabilizing hierarchies through the performance of opacity. Whether fostering a recognition of a shared responsibility and complicity for the violence of crisis vision or critiquing how vulnerable groups are constructed and treated globally, these artists emphasize ethical relations between strangers and ask viewers to question their own place within unjust social orders.
In The Cry of the Senses, Ren Ellis Neyra examines the imaginative possibility for sound and poetics to foster new modes of sensorial solidarity in the Caribbean Americas. Weaving together the black radical tradition with Caribbean and Latinx performance, cinema, music, and literature, Ellis Neyra highlights the ways Latinx and Caribbean sonic practices challenge antiblack, colonial, post-Enlightenment, and humanist epistemologies. They locate and address the sonic in its myriad manifestations—across genres and forms, in a legal trial, and in the art and writing of Xandra Ibarra, the Fania All-Stars, Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, Édouard Glissant, and Eduardo Corral—while demonstrating how it operates as a raucous form of diasporic dissent and connectivity. Throughout, Ellis Neyra emphasizes Caribbean and Latinx sensorial practices while attuning readers to the many forms of blackness and queerness. Tracking the sonic through their method of multisensorial, poetic listening, Ellis Neyra shows how attending to the senses can inspire alternate, ethical ways of collective listening and being.
In Dragging Away Lex Morgan Lancaster traces the formal and material innovations of contemporary queer and feminist artists, showing how they use abstraction as a queering tactic for social and political ends. Through a process Lancaster theorizes as a drag—dragging past aesthetics into the present and reworking them while pulling their work away from direct representation—these artists reimagine midcentury forms of abstraction and expose the violence of the tendency to reduce abstract form to a bodily sign or biographical symbolism. Lancaster outlines how the geometric enamel objects, grid paintings, vibrant color, and expansive installations of artists ranging from Ulrike Müller, Nancy Brooks Brody, and Lorna Simpson to Linda Besemer, Sheila Pepe, and Shinique Smith offer direct challenges to representational and categorical legibility. In so doing, Lancaster demonstrates that abstraction is not apolitical, neutral, or universal; it is a form of social praxis that actively contributes to queer, feminist, critical race, trans, and crip politics.
In 1927, the Chicago Art Institute presented the first major museum exhibition of art by African Americans. Designed to demonstrate the artists' abilities and to promote racial equality, the exhibition also revealed the art world's anxieties about the participation of African Americans in the exclusive venue of art museums—places where blacks had historically been barred from visiting let alone exhibiting. Since then, America's major art museums have served as crucial locations for African Americans to protest against their exclusion and attest to their contributions in the visual arts.
In Exhibiting Blackness, art historian Bridget R. Cooks analyzes the curatorial strategies, challenges, and critical receptions of the most significant museum exhibitions of African American art. Tracing two dominant methodologies used to exhibit art by African Americans—an ethnographic approach that focuses more on artists than their art, and a recovery narrative aimed at correcting past omissions—Cooks exposes the issues involved in exhibiting cultural difference that continue to challenge art history, historiography, and American museum exhibition practices. By further examining the unequal and often contested relationship between African American artists, curators, and visitors, she provides insight into the complex role of art museums and their accountability to the cultures they represent.
The Image of the Black in African and Asian Art asks how the black figure was depicted by artists from the non-Western world. Beginning with ancient Egypt—positioned properly as part of African history—this volume focuses on the figure of the black as rendered by artists from Africa, East Asia, and the Indian subcontinent. The aesthetic traditions illustrated here are as diverse as the political and social histories of these regions. From Igbo Mbari sculptures to modern photography from Mali, from Indian miniatures to Japanese prints, African and Asian artists portrayed the black body in ways distinct from the European tradition, even as they engaged with Western art through the colonial encounter and the forces of globalization.
This volume complements the vision of art patrons Dominique and Jean de Menil who, during the 1960s, founded an image archive to collect the ways that people of African descent have been represented in Western art from the ancient world to modern times. A half‐century later, Harvard University Press and the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research completed the historic publication of The Image of the Black in Western Art—ten books in total—beginning with Egyptian antiquities and concluding with images that span the twentieth century. The Image of the Black in African and Asian Art reinvigorates the de Menil family’s original mission and reorients the study of the black body with a new focus on Africa and Asia.
In Interplay of Things Anthony B. Pinn theorizes religion as a technology for interrogating human experiences and the boundaries between people and other things. Rather than considering religion in terms of institutions, doctrines, and creeds, Pinn shows how religion exposes the openness and porousness of all things and how they are always involved in processes of exchange and interplay. Pinn examines work by Nella Larsen and Richard Wright that illustrates an openness between things, and he traces how pop art and readymades point to the multidirectional nature of influence. He also shows how Ron Athey's and Clifford Owens's performance art draws out inherent interconnectedness to various cultural codes in ways that reveal the symbiotic relationship between art and religion as a technology. Theorizing that antiblack racism and gender- and class-based hostility constitute efforts to close off the porous nature of certain bodies, Pinn shows how many artists have rebelled against these attempts to counter openness. His analyses offer a means by which to understand the porous, unbounded, and open nature of humans and things.
In the thirty years since his death, Keith Haring—a central presence on the New York downtown scene of the 1980s—has remained one of the most popular figures in contemporary American art. In one of the first book-length treatments of Haring’s artistry, Ricardo Montez traces the drawn and painted line that was at the center of Haring’s artistic practice and with which the artist marked canvases, subway walls, and even human flesh. Keith Haring’s Line unites performance studies, critical race studies, and queer theory in an exploration of cross-racial desire in Haring’s life and art. Examining Haring’s engagements with artists such as dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones, graffiti artist LA II, and iconic superstar Grace Jones, Montez confronts Haring’s messy relationships to race-making and racial imaginaries, highlighting scenes of complicity in order to trouble both the positive connotations of inter-racial artistic collaboration and the limited framework of appropriation.
What meaning does the American public attach to images of key black political, social, and cultural figures? Considering photography’s role as a means of documenting historical progress, what is the representational currency of these images? How do racial icons “signify”?
Nicole R. Fleetwood’s answers to these questions will change the way you think about the next photograph that you see depicting a racial event, black celebrity, or public figure. In On Racial Icons, Fleetwood focuses a sustained look on photography in documenting black public life, exploring the ways in which iconic images function as celebrations of national and racial progress at times or as a gauge of collective racial wounds in moments of crisis.
Offering an overview of photography’s ability to capture shifting race relations, Fleetwood spotlights in each chapter a different set of iconic images in key sectors of public life. She considers flash points of racialized violence in photographs of Trayvon Martin and Emmett Till; the political, aesthetic, and cultural shifts marked by the rise of pop stars such as Diana Ross; and the power and precarity of such black sports icons as Serena Williams and LeBron James; and she does not miss Barack Obama and his family along the way. On Racial Icons is an eye-opener in every sense of the phrase.
The Sense of Brown
José Esteban Muñoz. Edited and with an Introduction by Joshua Chambers-Letson and Tavia Nyong'o Duke University Press, 2020 Library of Congress PN1590.H57M866 2020
The Sense of Brown is José Esteban Muñoz's treatise on brownness and being as well as his most direct address to queer Latinx studies. In this book, which he was completing at the time of his death, Muñoz examines the work of playwrights Ricardo Bracho and Nilo Cruz, artists Nao Bustamante, Isaac Julien, and Tania Bruguera, and singer José Feliciano, among others, arguing for a sense of brownness that is not fixed within the racial and national contours of Latinidad. This sense of brown is not about the individualized brown subject; rather, it demonstrates that for brown peoples, being exists within what Muñoz calls the brown commons—a lifeworld, queer ecology, and form of collectivity. In analyzing minoritarian affect, ethnicity as a structure of feeling, and brown feelings as they emerge in, through, and beside art and performance, Muñoz illustrates how the sense of brown serves as the basis for other ways of knowing and being in the world.