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.
Cooks, B.R. (2011). Exhibiting blackness: African Americans and the American art museum. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.
Upon visiting Brazil, one might notice the perpetual image of a dark-skinned woman with blue eyes, and an iron mask and collar fastened on her face and around her neck. An iconic image that is often seen in Brazilian art and other manifestations, “Escrava Anastacia,” or the slave Anastacia, is also a popular figure amongst practitioners of both Brazilian Catholicism and Umbanda. The illustration seen below was originally a drawing of an unidentified Brazilian slave by French artist Jacques Arago which later came to be associated with the stories of Anastacia.
While it is unknown if she was a real person, there are several variations in the oral tradition that describe who she was, and most accounts agree that Anastacia was enslaved by a sugar plantation owner in Brazil, where she was subjected to rape and abuse by the overseer and many other white men. Her attempts to fend off these advances along with other acts of defiance were inevitably the cause for her punishment resulting in confinement to an iron mask and collar and her subsequent death. It should also be noted that, historically, enslaved people often were forced to wear iron masks for a variety reasons, one of which was to prevent any attempts at committing suicide by poisoning themselves through the ingestion of dirt.
Anastacia has come to represent many things to the people of Brazil. One perspective is that the emphasis on her blue eyes within the oral narrative is meant to detract from her Africanness and implies that if the eyes are the mirror of the soul, then Anastacia is good and saintly because she has a “white” soul. This belief reflects an obsession with whiteness (Dos Santos Soares, 2012, p. 84). But the most common representation of Anastacia is evidenced in the movement among Catholic women who have embraced her as a long-suffering character who was able to both maintain her virtue and forgive her attackers, despite the brutality that characterized her life, thereby making her worthy of sainthood. She has become synonymous with “the sufferings not only of slaves but of female slaves and black women in general” (Handler & Hayes, 2009, p. 37).
Dos Santos Soares, M.A. (2012). Look, blackness in Brazil!: Disrupting the grotesquerie of racial representation
in Brazilian visual culture. Cultural Dynamics, 24(1), 75-101. doi: 10.1177/0921374012452812
Handler, J.S., & Hayes, K.E. (2009). Escrava Anastacia: The iconographic history of a Brazilian popular saint.
African Diaspora, 2, 25-51. doi: 10.1163/187254609X430768
The Purdue Black Cultural Center is launching a new electronic publication – Culture Briefs. This fall, the Culture Briefs will be directly tied to the BCC fall semester theme “Gullah Folklore: (Re)membering Our Pathways Through Low Country Legacies.” This is week’s brief is written by the BCC’s very own librarian, Ms. Jamillah R. Gabriel.
The Purdue Black Cultural Center is launching a new electronic publication – Culture Briefs. The Culture Briefs are intended to educate the Purdue community on a variety of topics related to the African American experience. This fall, the Culture Briefs will be directly tied to the BCC fall semester theme “Gullah Folklore: (Re)membering Our Pathways Through Low Country Legacies”. The Briefs feature researched content while providing a quick overview of a highlighted aspect of Gullah culture. It is our hope that the Culture Briefs will serve to expand the knowledge of the reader and provide deeper insight into prevalent themes in African American culture.
We bring together the wonderfully diverse Purdue family by nurturing and presenting its rich African American heritage and experiences.