It's the 21st century and a black president (well, bi-racial) sits in the Oval Office. Obama was sworn in the day after MLK Day; Aretha Franklin (and her hat) sang the national anthem; Dr. Joseph Lowery quoted "Black, Brown, and White" in his benediction. Obama's first full month in office is Black History Month. Suddenly, identity markers that have worn thin over three or four decades of identity politics start taking on a new and complex meaning. No, race isn't over; this is where it starts to get interesting.
If the world feels unprepared to understand what it means to be black in America in the new millennium, it's not because nobody's been talking about it. Take The Art of Living Black. This annual non-juried exhibition is in its 13th year at the Richmond Art Center (RAC), and it feels like a conversation that has mellowed with repetition; but one that continues because it's far from over. The show welcomes all comers -- artists of African descent, that is -- so I expected it to be something of a free-for-all, visually and thematically. Instead, I saw a display of work by artists in disciplined dialogue with each other and their world; a show unified by common inquiry rather than curatorial vision.
An RAC staffer confirmed that many of the over 70 participating artists showed there year after year, responding to each other's work. This is a kind of artists' community that many mainstream artists don't connect with; a community of color, rather than form, pursuing a social question rather than solely an aesthetic one. And this is a profoundly important resource at a moment in history when the rules are changing.
The Art of Living Black favors a narrative mode of painting and sculpture over conceptualism. The works speak directly to the viewer: none of them need an explanatory text. I saw a lot of faces -- more than anything I saw faces -- pulled partway into abstraction, geometrically fragmented, blurred, broken down into primary and secondary colors; a gallery full of distorted and dissected African faces. I saw almost no straightforward portraiture and almost no bodies in motion, the two modes -- I was powerfully reminded -- in which African Americans are usually depicted in the media.
Virginia Jourdan captured in "Lyn" -- a bust of a woman smiling in triumph on top of the massive volume of War and Peace -- my exact feeling of accomplishment after reading that doorstop. Latisha Baker burnt a delicate line drawing of a woman into wood (the technique is deliciously named "pyrography"). Makeda Rashid's "Lavender Thoughts" hints at further layers of complexity in the African American community, showing a young man examining his dreadlocks, while menaced or enticed by a lavender cloud above.
The modernist toolkit is very much in use here. Aside from more cubism than you can shake a stick at, I saw constructivist, impressionist, and even fauvist breakdowns of faces, figures, and scenes. Hilda Robinson's glowing pastel "Sista's" recalls Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec in its snapshot of two women in their club gear. Jason Austin's drawing "Soul" nods to both pop culture graphics and geometric distortion, partly depicting a singer at, and partly hiding him behind, his microphone. Jimi L. Evins, one of the show's standouts, transforms multiform fields of color into oceans, horizons, and prisons in "The Migration Series." An object lesson in what these tools are actually for: analysis, contemplation, a revelation of dictatorial narrative. A visual seminar on the black face and the black space.
The most delightful recurring theme, however, was the subtle visual irony running throughout the show, contrasting with occasionally clunky verbal jokes: Mark Dukes's "Holy Faces of St. Sambo" employs a bludgeoning written satire over a bizarrely funny parody of an Eastern Orthodox icon; Monica Clark's "King David" depicts in charcoal a cartoonish lion's face (a la "Lion King") with yellow human eyes, challenging and proud; Yasmin Sayyed's painting of the eye of a hurricane in a landscape is titled "Quiet Prayer."
It feels unfair to continue picking out pieces in a show so full of strong work, but I have to mention the display of beaded and painted stuffed dolls by Karen Seneferu. The dolls seem to represent boys the artist knows, their titles hinting at familiar relationships: "Flyboy," "Coolio Boy," "I Just Want Five Feathers." The beading patterns and feathers suggest a faux tribalism, but the wide-eyed, painted faces are purely contemporary. Like much of the work in The Art of Living Black Seneferu's dolls integrate multiple awarenesses: of the community's cultural history, of the artist's current milieu and the context in which the work is being produced, of the dangers of perception for artists working with beads and seeds (another popular theme in the show), and of the expectations of "urban" art.
I suppose you could say that this -- as much as anything -- is what The Art of Living Black is about: representing in art a complex consciousness. But I think that phrase is too general. The language of the exhibition is entirely visual, and very specific to its context. You have to see it, to hear it.
By the way, Obama is not forgotten. Deep into the show we see a painting by Milton Tuitt of Barack taking a picture of Michelle. Flanked by his two daughters, the president's face is hidden by the camera. It is their gaze in which Michelle is captured this time; it is the black man's eye in the viewfinder, black children who are the audience, the black woman lovingly beheld. This picture should be the caption for the whole show: it is not tables turning, but merely a question of who is observing whom, and what that makes them see.
The Art of Living Black runs through March 14, 2009 at the Richmond Art Center. The exhibition encompasses two weekends of open studios on March 7/8 and March 14/15, as well as satellite exhibitions and a self-guided tour. Don't neglect to check out the companion exhibition Barbershop and Beauty Shop curated by Herschel West, an interactive multimedia show about the culture of African American hairstyling.