Present Black Experience
INTERVIEW WITH COLLABORATING CURATOR JARVIS DUBOIS
REPRISE: 40 to the Fore rethinks, remixes, and re-presents some of the groundbreaking exhibitions that emerged from our galleries over the past 40 years.
Of Present Bodies (2014) in response to Of The Black Experience (1983)
In 1983, Of The Black Experience brought together a diverse group of artists who were making work in response to identity. Of Present Bodies uses Of the Black Experience as an impetus to look more specifically at how black artists are dealing with identity through the photographic representation and performance of the black body. This iteration of the exhibition is organized in cooperation with curator Jarvis DuBois. Artists included are: Michael Platt (who was in the 1983 exhibition), Sondra Perry, Holly Bass, and Sheldon Scott.
Why do you think it’s still relevant to create exhibitions about identity?
I focus on social identities such as culture, gender, race, and sexual orientation. Too often, the experiences and voices of certain groups in mainstream exhibitions and art conversations are underrepresented at least, and misrepresented at worst. Identity politics is an issue usually avoided—it’s considered too complex, controversial, and messy. However, one of my goals through curating exhibitions is to explore this messiness and encourage discussions about how people see themselves in the world, as well as how others outside their group see them.
How do you think the shape of exhibitions that address identity have changed since the 1983 exhibition Of the Black Experience? Where we are now?
Since 1983, I feel that exhibitions addressing identity have become more focused by exploring specific themes within a particular identity. One example is the exhibition, When the Stars Begin to Fall: Imagination and the American South, currently showing at The Studio Museum in Harlem. This exhibition highlights African American artists, but focuses on ideas of blackness within a specific geographical region. Featured work comes from both professionally-trained and self-taught African American artists who are informed by and/or come from the American South.
In this digital age, we find ourselves in an amazing technological time, as evidenced by the prevalence of social media. New information is constantly evolving and access to a multitude of artists and exhibitions from all over the world is readily available. Artists now have platforms to create online communities that were just not available in 1983. Channels are now open for the free exchange of exhibition images, curatorial and artistic statements, artist biographies, and catalogs.
What exactly does the term post-black art mean?
“Post-black art” is a tricky label. It speaks to the notion of a younger generation of African American artists working beyond their group identity even though their work is often immersed in their blackness and cultural norms. The term is usually credited to The Studio Museum in Harlem’s current Director and Chief Curator, Thelma Golden, and artist Glenn Ligon, her personal friend and frequent exhibitor at the museum. “Post- black” was foregrounded during the museum’s exhibition, Freestyle (2001). According to the Freestyle curatorial statement, the term “identified a generation of black artists who felt free to abandon or confront the label of ‘black artist,’ preferring to be understood as individuals with complex investigations of blackness in their work.” Golden feels many black artists, who are often marginalized in the Western art canon, have sought to redefine what black art is and can be by creating a new language to explore its complexities.
Does this term or label have value or resonance for you as a curator?
I have considered the ideas behind “post-black” art and in a broader sense the notion of a “post-racial” society. However, both terms don’t truly resonate with my curatorial work inasmuch as they are not currently real states of being. Unfortunately, privilege and race still weigh heavily on how art and culture are presented and discussed. We do not live in a world free of racism and xenophobia. This is clearly seen in the threatening and hateful statements made about our President, Barack Obama (who many forget or disregard, is both white and black), the negative stereotyping in anti-immigration sentiments, as well as the fear of black males that leads to their frequent harassment and premature deaths.
What do you want viewers to take away from Of Present Bodies?
After visiting Of Present Bodies and viewing the installed works and performance, I hope that the audience will contemplate issues of privilege and the disparities that exist in the United States and beyond, in relation to education, employment, and career advancement. Visitors should also examine the representation of the individual black male and female body in relation to the larger black group and how those bodies are seen by others outside of the group. Like any other racial group, African Americans are not monolithic; although there is group connection, there are still nuanced differences in attitudes, ideas, and various modes of cultural expression.
Do you think artists and curators have a responsibility to address social issues in their work?
This is a complicated question that is often debated. I do not feel that all artists or curators necessarily have to take on the charge of social change in their work. I have chosen to generally address social issues in the exhibitions I curate. Therefore, the artists that typically resonate with me also tend to have a similar focus. I feel it’s important to address the topics and issues that move you, whatever your art medium or practice. There is a place for both the purely decorative and didactic in dance, music, poetry, vocal performance, and the visual arts.