Last month the Museum of Modern Art in New York announced the appointment of noted scholar Darby English as a Consulting Curator in the Department of Painting and Sculpture. His charge? Beef up the presence of black artists in the museum. The announcement has understandably raised public questions as to how museums can and should relate to race in the year 2014.
I personally applaud MOMA and English for taking on the position, though having read his book How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness (2007) and his interview last week with Deborah Solomon of The New York Times, I think he and I might quibble on the why. English is quick to quote art critic Clement Greenberg: “You should never let a work of art get swallowed up in its category.” I agree with this sentiment and his book’s assertion that "black art" should not in and of itself be considered a distinct form of expression. But I also believe it bears repeat acknowledgement at this point in our history that black, while it may be a socially constructed category, is a valid and valuable one to belong to--both in terms of existence and production.
As a black woman, I don’t see any contradiction in saying: I seek equity but not colorblindness and I feel that post-racial chatter is just that—chatter—and damning to our country, our institutions, and our communities. Though it may not always be true, race remains among the most important lenses by which people—especially black people—see and are seen in America. How an individual elects to reflect the world around him is the essence of art making. That is not to suggest that blackness is the only lens or that its experience is universal--not lived the same, not distilled the same, not reflected the same. But as long as there are black artists, there will be black art. And like black artists, black art is multitudinous.
It is in a spirit of both diversity and distinctiveness that I have invited 30 black New Orleanians to respond to the exhibition “30 Americans” now on view at the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans through June. The works on display, all made by black artists, are drawn from the Rubell Family Collection in Miami. As an exhibition of privately collected works, “30 Americans” by definition says as much about its collectors, who I might add are not black, as it does about the artists, who are. And while its organizers chose to rationalize the blackness right out of the exhibition title “30 Americans,” we at Pelican Bomb wanted to offer a platform for openly exploring the critical implications of that missing word, re-inserting (or re-asserting) that blackness as a frame of understanding. By publishing a series of local responses mirroring the main construct of the show, the hope is that we might also reflect on what the exhibition can say to us all about manifold ways of seeing, highlighting the complexity of such intertwined issues as identity and representation.
Cameron Shaw is the Executive Director and Founding Editor of Pelican Bomb. Hers is the first in a series of responses to "30 Americans" that will run on Pelican Bomb between now and the exhibition's close.
"30 Americans" on view through June 15 at the Contemporary Arts Center (900 Camp Street) in New Orleans.