Exhibiting Blackness: A Book Review (Culture Brief, No.9, Fall 2014)

by Jamillah R. Gabriel

Culture Brief, No. 9, Fall 2014
Culture Brief, No. 9, Fall 2014

In Exhibiting Blackness: African Americans and the American Art Museum, Bridget R. Cooks takes a close examination at the earliest history of inclusion of African American art and artists in mainstream museums, as well as the beginnings of all-Black exhibitions. In the process, she lends a critical eye to exhibition strategies that were employed and presents an analysis of how these strategies have impacted African American artists.

The introduction to the book begins with a brief analysis of the first museum exhibition of art by African Americans, The Negro in Art Week, which took place at the Chicago Art Institute in 1927. Cooks asserts that this exhibition is “emblematic of the fraught situation of African American art in museums throughout the twentieth century.” So sets the tone for the remainder of the book in which Cooks looks at subsequent exhibitions and how each was problematic in its own way. She asserts that the state of African American art in museums today is essentially the legacy of past exhibitions such as An Exhibition of Paintings and Sculpture by American Negro Artists funded by the Harmon Foundation in 1929, Exhibition of Sculpture by William Edmondson at the Museum of Modern Art in 1937, and the Contemporary Negro Art exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1939, to name a few.

The crux of Cooks’ argument is that historically, art museums exhibiting African American art have used an interpretive lens that has painted Black people, and their art by association, as inferior. Additionally, early exhibitions also lacked self-representation by the artists themselves. These factors combined have created a racial hierarchy of difference and a standard of racial exclusion that still currently exists, according to the author. But she concludes that in order to overcome this obstacle, there should be continued Black resistance to the perpetuation of racial hierarchy (often via all-Black exhibitions), and that there must also be a consistent inclusion of Black artists in group exhibitions.

Cooks is thorough in her analysis of the early history of exhibitions of African American artists, chronicling the development of Black art in the museum world. This book is by no means meant to be a comprehensive treatment of all exhibitions of African American art; rather, its contribution is in the recognition of key exhibitions that have continued to frame how African American art and artists are treated in modern mainstream art museums of the 21st century. She provides a great introduction for those who have no prior experience with African American art, making the book indispensable as an historical overview. Particularly valuable is Cooks’ individual assessment of prime exhibitions and why each proved to be problematic for African American artists then and now.

Exhibiting Blackness provides a perspective that has not been explored in other similar books such as Negro Building: Black Americans in the World of Fairs and Museums or From Storefront to Monument: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement. Cooks’ offering is a fresh take on Black art and artists as they relate to the mainstream art world.

References

Cooks, B.R. (2011). Exhibiting blackness: African Americans and the American art museum. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

Exhibiting Blackness: African Americans and the American Art Museum

 

Just Limin’ in the Caribbean

by JT Talley

Note: This is the fourth in a series of blogs from students who participated in the BCC’s Fall 2014 Research Tour to Trinidad & Tobago on Oct. 10-15.

Limin’: Trinidadian slang synonymous with resting, relaxing, hanging out, or just chillin’. It falls in line with a culture of knowing and enjoying what you are, who you are, and where you are in the moment. And we definitely enjoyed ourselves in Trinidad and Tobago. During the Purdue Black Cultural Center’s research tour to these Caribbean islands, we were tasked with unmasking blackness in a culture of celebration. And Trinidad is widely known to be the founding country of the largest celebration on Earth: Carnival.

We got a taste of this celebration on the very first day. The same night we arrived in Trinidad, the Carnival Institute of Trinidad and Tobago gave us quite a show. They had us parade with them around Queen Savannah Park and introduced us to some traditional characters of Carnival. There was loud music, fire blowers, whips cracking, weird costumes, and beautiful women. The whole experience was confusing, scary (I’ll mention why in a moment), and EXCITING! It was exciting because you could feel the spirit of celebration in the atmosphere. It was scary and confusing, though, because everything was so new and different.

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It was hard to see and understand the point of some of the characters at first. There were devils, people in skeleton costumes with a collection of skulls, masked giants on stilts, and women holding babies looking for the father in the crowd. Especially being a man of Christian faith, I was not sure how to interpret the presence of devils and men with skulls. After letting myself be open to the experience, however, it all became clear.

These characters were not just for some random method of celebration, but rather played a double role in life lessons for the future generations. All the characters and all the costumes had a purpose of showing and teaching on having pride in one’s heritage and warning them about things such as drug usage, alcoholism, and teenage pregnancy. Everything seemed to have a purpose, down to the tiniest detail. And the artists embraced this purpose to the fullest extent, tying everything they did back to the character they portrayed.

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I mean, it really only makes sense when you think about it. Carnival itself has a great underlying purpose that many outsiders don’t seem to recognize. The people who started Carnival weren’t celebrating for no reason. It wasn’t some period of overindulgence before Lent, like in the European version made in an attempt to copy the originators. It’s a celebration of resilience of a people to overcome adversity. It’s a celebration of survival and freedom from the injustices of the olden slave days. And you can see this very clearly in their pride, in their performance, and in their speech. Because if you try to ask them who they are, someone will answer, “You know who I am. My name’s survivor.”

Experiencing the Mask

by Keturah Nix

Note: This is the third in a series of blogs from students who participated in the BCC’s Fall 2014 Research Tour to Trinidad & Tobago on Oct. 10-15.

While on the trip to Trinidad and Tobago a phrase that was stated stuck with me: “Look through the mask and see the expression of the people.” This was briefly said in a demonstration workshop we attended conducted by Matthew Wiley who portrays the traditional bat character in the Carnival celebration. For me, this phrase helps to contextualize the experience. When thinking about a mask, there are two perspectives, the one from the onlooker and the one from behind the mask. On this trip, we were able to experience both angles.

As an onlooker, we participated in a Carnival re-creation celebration at Queen’s Park Savannah in Port of Spain where we learned about the signature Carnival characters and their African origins and connections. This experience was enlightening because I was introduced to the history of Carnival in Trinidad. Learning that the origins of many of the characters are exaggerated representations of the slave masters and the slave experience was very interesting. For instance, the Blue Devil, a popular yet frightful character is a representative of the lost slave souls from the Middle Passage to the island and the ones who died and were killed working the fields. The Blue Devil goes around with a sticky substance on his or her body forcefully beckoning for money from crowd members and threatening to smear the sticky substance and blue paint over people. We found out that the sticky substance is molasses and it symbolizes the sugar cane fields in which the slaves had to work. The reasoning behind this character’s petitioning for money serves as the symbolic payment for those slaves and servants who never received payment for their endless work. It is a devil embodiment because many of the slaves viewed the White slave masters as the devil. This and other characters have similar roles chronicling the slave experience in the entire Carnival event.

A Blue Devil flame-blowing at the Carnival re-creation performance at Queen's Savannah Park in Port of Spain, Trinidad.
A Blue Devil flame-blowing at the Carnival re-creation performance at Queen’s Savannah Park in Port of Spain, Trinidad.

As part of seeing the mask from the inside, two workshops I believe helped with this are the Idakeda Group ‘s workshop on “Anansi and the Drum” and the Extempo workshop with Calypso artists “Short Pants” and “Lord Superior.” The Idakeda workshop was an intense 4 ½ hour session of learning about African storytelling in the Caribbean. In this workshop we engaged in song, dance, and acting to help foster a historical perspective to the slave experience. In the Extempo workshop we had an opportunity to hear and even engage in what would be considered freestylin’ but with a more political and international twist. This was fun because old and young Calypso artists explained the importance of Calypso in Trinidadian culture and we were able to feel the fun, lighthearted, and informational vibe extempo can possess.

One of my favorite days on the trip was when we went on a glass bottom boat in the Caribbean Sea to see the coral reefs. In certain parts of the sea the reefs form natural swimming pools where we had a chance to get off the boat and either snorkel or just play around in the water. After some major coaxing from friends, I ended up getting off the boat and into the water (I admit I was kind of scared because I didn’t trust my swimming skills, plus I was having sinus issues that day.) But, I must truly say that I am glad I got in the water! It was refreshing and awe-inspiring to stand and swim in the middle of the sea while looking out and seeing no land anywhere. It was a moment that I will cherish because I was literally a tiny spec in a massive ocean surrounded by water and sky. I could feel the magnitude of God’s power through nature.

A sunset picture of the glass bottom boat at Pigeon Point Beach, Tobago.
A sunset picture of the glass bottom boat at Pigeon Point Beach, Tobago.

These were just a few of the moments that I reflect on from my first trip to Trinidad and Tobago. While I understand that it is implausible to learn and experience every aspect about a culture or location in 5 days, I am appreciative of my experience because the exposure has helped to increase my interest in looking more at the social developments of culture and identity within this nation. I think that this trip has helped me begin to see the mask from an insider’s point of view and an outsider’s point of view so that I can better understand a rich heritage full of color, liveliness, soul, and the tradition of hosting the “Greatest Show on Earth.”