Detroit Institute of Arts & Charles Wright Museum Collaborate on 1967 Rebellion Exhibitions

 

From Left to Right – Patrina Chatman, Curator of collections and exhibitions, Charles Wright Museum of African American History, Valerie J. Mercer, Curator of African American art and head of the General Motors Center for African American Art, Detroit Institute of Arts, Kathy Locker, Program director/Detroit, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Juanita Moore, President and CEO, Charles Wright Museum of African American History and Salvador Salort-Pons, Director Detroit Institute of Arts.

Art of the Rebellion and Say It Loud are coordinating exhibitions to commemorate 50 years since July 23, 1967, when African Americans took to the streets of Detroit to express their anger and frustration with the injustice of law enforcement. To many people, and supported by the then media establishment, the events on 12 Street and Clairmount were conventionally referred to as the Detroit Riots, both in Detroit, Southeastern Michigan and around the country. Over the course of five days, more than 2000 buildings were destroyed, 7,200 people were arrested, 43 people killed and over 1,100 injured.

Jim Hubbard, Woman Sitting on Ledge, 13 x 19 B&W 35mm 1967

At the DIA, African American Art Curator Valerie Mercer explains that a number of the 34 works on display emerged from black art collectives that in some cases aimed to instruct a community whose self-identity was in rapid flux. “Harlem’s Weusi collective felt we African-Americans needed to learn more about African culture,” Mercer said, “which is hard for us, since it’s typically not taught in schools.”

Salvador Salort-Pons, DIA director said, “The commemoration of the 1967 Detroit rebellion provides an opportunity to call attention to the talented and often overlooked artists who were reacting to the struggle for social, political and racial justice during the 1960s and 70s. The DIA’s collaboration with the Wright Museum lays a foundation from which we are building a strategic and lasting working relationship that will help bring our community closer together.”

Wadsworth Jarrell, Three Queens, Acrylic on Canvas, 1971

At the Detroit Institute of Arts, Art of Rebellion features 34 paintings, sculptures and photographs mostly by African American artists working both collectively and independently in the 1960s and 70s. Artists in the collectives: Spiral, Kamoinge Workshop, Harlem’s Weusi, AfriCobra, and Black Arts Movement, created art for African American audiences that asserted black identity and racial justice with the Detroit rebellion of 1967 as background. The exhibition also includes works by artists who were not part of a collective and artists working in later decades who were inspired by art from the Civil Rights Movement.

Wadsworth Jarrell, Revolutionary, Acrylic on Canvas 1972

The work of Wadsworth Jarrell is prominent in the DIA exhibition in that it captures a color depiction of African American figures using a kind of alphabet soup to communicate a variety of literary messages. Wadsworth Jarrell is an African-American painter, sculptor, and printmaker who was born in Georgia then moved to Chicago, Illinois, where he attended the Art Institute of Chicago. He is a founding member of AfriCOBRA, a collective of African American artists formed in Chicago in 1968 as a response to the Civil Rights Movement. Its members inspired black pride by exploring and defining a black visual aesthetic that would reflect the style, colors, cool attitude and rhythm associated with their culture. AfriCOBRA artists focused on the social and political issues that affected their communities and were committed to making art that was understandable, relevant and accessible.

Allie McGee, Apartheid, Mixed Media on Masonite, 1984

Detroit artist Allie McGee, whose work is represented by the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art, is featured with a large abstraction, Apartheid. The work highlights his use of angular shapes and splatters of paint to evoke tension. McGee often used sticks in place of brushes to obtain the effect he wanted. The title refers to the oppressive political system that existed in South Africa. The Civil Rights and Black Power movements inspired many African American artists to address the fight for civil rights faced right here in Detroit.

Norman Lewis, Untitled (Alabama), Oil on Canvas 1967

The outline of a hooded Klansman near the center of this painting converges with sharp angles suggests tension. The title Alabama was code for the complicity of that state’s government in the oppression of African Americans throughout the community. Strong composition and the black and white motif further supports the overall symbol in this oil-on-canvas work.

Elizabeth Catlett, Homage to Black Women Poets, Mahogany, 1984

Elizabeth Catlett’s wooden sculpture Homage to Black Woman Poets is carved from one piece of Mahogany and pays tribute to black women poets, such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Jikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez and Maya Angelou. Catlett is widely recognized as a contemporary sculptor known for her focus on women subjects.

Titus Kaphar, For Tryvon, Amadou, Sean, and Mike, Calk on Asphalt, 2014

The Chalk on Asphalt drawing by Titus Kaphar in 2014 brings the recent events across the country into the narrative that exists today. The images depict three black boys, perhaps those who were lost to injustice and informs the audience that the events surrounding a young black man like Trayvon Martin live on inside each and every one of our consciences.

The Charles Wright Museum partnered with the Detroit Institute of Arts to create parallel exhibitions — the DIA’s Art of Rebellion: Black Art of the Civil Rights Movement opened on the same day as Say It Loud. Both are part of a community-wide reflection of the 1967 Detroit Rebellion. More than 100 local institutions will participate in this commemoration, led by the Detroit Historical Museum. The Charles Wright Museum began its remembrance of this complicated and painful historical experience with the unveiling of Detroit artist Charles McGee’s landmark outdoor sculpture United We Stand at the Museum in July 2016. The Detroit Art Review covered that event, and I spoke with McGee, a fellow artist with whomI exhibited more than once. He said, “It’s about togetherness…living together in peace.”

“Artists have a way of bringing moral clarity and promoting empathy,” said Juanita Moore, president and CEO of The Wright Museum. “They can often articulate the emotional truth of a situation in a way that breaks through our mental barriers and opens us to new perspectives in a way that other forms of communication cannot. This new exhibit will both show how some of the most significant African American visual artists have interpreted and resisted social inequities over time, and broaden the historical narrative and dialogue around the 1967 Rebellion.”

Gordon Parks, Police State, B&W, 35mm, 13 x 19″ 1997

Born in Fort Scott Kansas, at the age of 25, Gordon Parks was struck by photographs of migrant workers in a magazine. He bought his first camera for $7.50 at a Seattle pawnshop and taught himself how to take photos. He started in the fashion industry, but Parks went on to become the first African-American photographer for Life and Vogue magazines. Parks once said, “People in millenniums ahead will know what we were like in the 1930s and the important major things that shaped our history at that time. This is as important for historic reasons as any other.” In this photo Police State, the image is more about capturing a moment that delivers a blunt and literal statement to his audience.

Roko, The King of Montgomery, Oil on Canvas, 28 x 38″ 1988

This mixed media painting by the artist Roko comes from a mug shot of Martin Luther King, one of many, taken by police departments during the Civil Rights period. Known nationally for his dramatic portraits, Roko relies on deep colors and black line to capture the downtrodden state of his subjects. As part of this exhibition, it is well known that Dr. Martin Luther King led Marches in Detroit, such as the Walk to Freedom March down Woodward Ave, in 1963, the precursor to his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Washington Monument just two weeks later. It drew crowds of an estimated 125,000 or more making it “the largest civil rights demonstration in the nation’s history” at that time.

Senghor Reid, Broadcast News, Mixed Media 1971

Detroiter Senghor Reid develops paintings that explore the connections between culture, art and social sciences as in his work “Broadcast News,” with its black-stenciled letters on bright yellow background or “The ’67 Riot Did Not Take Place.” Since he was born in 1976, maybe for him, these events did not take place. He earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and a Master in Art Education from Wayne State University. A recipient of the prestigious ArtServe Michigan Governor’s Award for an Emerging Artist in 2001, Reed was a Kresge Artist Fellow Recipient in 2009.

Postscript

On Monday morning, July 24, 1967, I remember being notified to leave work and go home until further notice. Some people had heard about an overnight disturbance in Detroit, but it wasn’t until I got home that I saw the news stories on our black and white TV. ABC news anchor Bill Bonds was reporting live on a civil disturbance near Clairmount and 12th Street that had broken out when police raided an unlicensed after-hours bar on the city’s west side. When I was allowed to return to work the following Friday I was surrounded by jokes from  fellow white suburbanites.  I remember being ashamed and disgusted by these pathetic displays. I had no true sense of what was going on then, but now I realized that although there was blatant racism on both sides of my extended families, my parents had met as professional dancers and worked with artists of all persuasions. These people were made up of all races and sexual orientation. Many lived in my home from time to time during my formative years of high school.

At the time, I didn’t understand the true depth of what happened that summer, but it came to form the foundation of my values as a grown man: All people were created equal, and to quote Martin Luther King, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Art of Rebellion has been generously supported by the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan and the Whitney Fund.

Say It Loud is the recipient of a prestigious Knight Arts Challenge Detroit grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Detroit Institute of Arts

Charles Wright Museum    

Kara Walker @ Toledo Museum of Art

Kara Elizabeth Walker is an African American painter, silhouettist, and print-maker, who  explores race, gender, sexuality, violence, and identity in her work. This exhibition is Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War.

Kara Walker, Installation image, courtesy of Toledo Museum of Art

In 1866, the magazine Harpers Weekly published its Pictorial History of the Civil War, a hulking two-volume set which anthologized its prior five years of war reportage, replete with over a thousand illustrative woodcuts. American artist Kara Walker, known for her unsettling and often violent depictions of the antebellum South, “annotates” fifteen illustrations from the series by superimposing silkscreened silhouettes atop the unfolding dramas depicted in the original woodcuts, interrupting the narrative and re-contextualizing the images.

On view at the Toledo Museum of Art until October 22, this small but worthwhile exhibition features all fifteen silkscreens from Walker’s Annotated Pictorial History of the Civil War (2005), newly acquired by the TMA. There’s a helpful curatorial statement on the wall introducing the series, but from that point onward, viewers are just given the title of each work, so each image must be confronted on its own terms. Furthermore, they’re intentionally displayed without any obvious beginning or ending point, subverting any chronological narrative structure.

Tara Walker, Installation image, courtesy of Toledo Museum of Art

Walker’s calculated use of the silhouette harkens back to the antebellum-era popularity of the silhouette portrait in genteel society. But the silhouette is also loaded with associations of physiognomy; Walker’s silhouettes typically confront 19th century racial stereotypes though heightened exaggeration, caricaturing the caricature. Her silhouetted forms and figures also conscientiously reference Rorschach tests, the interpretations of which are fluid and in which there’s continual interplay between positive and negative space. In these lithographs, this interplay is dramatically heightened since the negative space consists of dramatically enlarged images from Harper’s Pictorial History.

Here, Kara Walker combines her art with characteristic wit and verbal irony; her “annotations” in this case are the silhouetted figures which place in the foreground that which was marginalized in Harpers–of the Pictorial History’s 1,000+ illustrations, just over a dozen contained any African-Americans, and only three images referenced slavery (possibly more, depending on what constitutes as a reference). Yet Walker’s annotations do the exact opposite of what we would expect of a marginal note, confounding, rather than enhancing, the narrative of the original woodcuts. Her figures sometimes mask out the entirety of the original subject. Other times, they re-shape the original narrative. Some even interact with, react to, or participate in the events portrayed.

Her annotations are allusive; neither side in the conflict is framed as having the moral high ground. In one instance, a silhouette seems brutally torn apart by the cannon-fire from the Union artillery in the original woodcut. In another, Union troops triumphantly march in parade-formation into Alexandria, Virginia, greeted by cheering figures, but Walker inserts figures of her own in the foreground; one shakes its fist at the sky in what might be exasperation or rage. Another seems to try to scurry away and hide.

Kara Walker, Cotton Hoards in Southern Swamp, courtesy of Toledo Museum of Art

These images aren’t flippantly dismissive of the many lives that were indeed lost during the Civil War, rather, they challenge the visual narrative of the conflict as presented by Harpers. Some of its depictions of African-Americans (such as Cotton Hordes in a Southern Swamp) stoop to cruel and abusively dehumanizing caricature.   This is especially disconcerting when weighed against the book’s claim in its preface (which appeared in both volumes) of authenticity and impartiality. For reference, incidentally, featured in this exhibit are an original copy of the 1866 Harpers text and a screen which allows us to compare Walker’s annotations with the original illustrations from which they derive.

One should enter this show ready to be unsettled and at times disoriented. Yet we can always confidently approach Kara Walker’s work assured that she’ll have synthesized both fine craftsmanship with a well-thought out concept, reminding us along the way of the sad ironies so tragically present in America’s history. And her work has continued relevance– competing political narratives vocalize ever more shrilly in print and electronic media, but Walker’s Annotated History suggests we not accept any unscrutinized narrative, de facto, as truth’s final word.

Toledo Museum of Art    Through October 22, 2017

 

The 57th International Venice Biennale through Detroit Eyes

Aerial Image of the Venice, courtesy of the Venice Biennale

I attended the Venice Biennale for the first time in 2015 and visited the Arsenale location, which was an all-day event, so this time I attended the Giardini location and other venues throughout the city.

The Venice Biennale was created by a resolution of the City Council in April 1893, which proposed the founding of a “biennial national artistic exhibition” to take place in the following year to celebrate the silver anniversary of King Umberto and Margherita of Savoy. The event, in fact, took place two years later, opening on April 30, 1895, and is known most commonly within the art world as the oldest large-scale international contemporary art exhibition.

Although there are two major sites for viewing art, there are many satellite venues throughout the city. This year’s curator, Christine Macel, has called it an exhibition inspired by humanism. She says, “This type of humanism is neither focused on an artistic ideal to follow nor is it characterized by the celebration of mankind as beings who can dominate their surroundings. If anything, this humanism, through art, celebrates mankind’s ability to avoid being dominated by the powers governing world affairs.”

The Viva Arte Viva 57th Venice Biennale offers a route that unfolds over the course of nine chapters of artists, beginning with two introductory realms in the Central Pavilion in the Giardini, followed by seven more realms to be found in the Arsenale and the Giardino delle Vergini. There are 120 invited artists from 51 countries around the world; 103 of these are participating for the first time.

Lorenzo Quinn, City Sculpture, Courtesy of the Detroit Art Review, 2017

 

Early in May 2017, contemporary artist, Lorenzo Quinn, unveiled his new monumental sculpture at the Ca’ Sagredo Hotel, Venice. The installation, part of the Biennale, showcases Quinn’s artistic progression and his experimentation with new mediums and subject matter to transmit his passion for eternal values and authentic emotions. This sculpture was located right next to my Vaporetto stop at Ca D’ Oro.

Quinn addresses the human ability to change and re-balance the world around us – environmentally, economically, and socially. The sculpture has both a noble air as well as an alarming one – the gesture being both gallant in appearing to hold up the building while also creating a sense of fear in highlighting the fragility of the building surrounded by water. “I wanted to sculpt what is considered the hardest and most technically challenging part of the human body. The hand holds so much power – the power to love, to hate, to create, to destroy.” says Lorenzo Quinn.

Sam Gilliam, Drapes, Courtesy of the Venice Biennale 2017

With so much work at the Venice Biennale, it’s probably easier to focus on American artists, a Russian artist and one artist in particular from Detroit.

Sam Gilliam, whose work has been exhibited at the N’Namdi Contemporary Center in Detroit, was born in 1933 and has been known for his color field painting, especially during the 1960s when Abstract Expressionism came of age. As an artist who has experimented with draped-painted canvas, he has also worked with iridescent acrylic, handmade paper, steel and plastic material. His large draped work, Yves Klein Blue, 2016, is the introductory work at the entrance of the Central Pavilion on the Giardini campus.

 

Sam Gilliam, Screen Models lll, 60 x 110, Mixed Material on Canvas, 2014

An example of a hardedge canvas, Screen for Models III, he uses striped off tape, letting color bleed through various levels of under-painting. He has said he is inspired by everything; his own history, the books he reads, the lifetime of traveling and the examples set by artists who came before. In a recent interview, he talks of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, Monet’s Water Lilies and Countee Cullen, whose poem Yet Do I Marvel provided the title of the new piece for the National African American museum. Sticking to one style, Gilliam says, never struck him as a good idea. “There are theories in art, just like in music,” he explains. “You switch from Little Jimmy Dickens to Bob Dylan and Miles Davis to Art Blakey.” Gilliam received his B.A. in fine art and his M.A. in painting from the University of Louisville in Kentucky. He has taught at the Corcoran School of Art, the Maryland Institute College of Art and Carnegie Mellon University.

 

On the Giardini campus, and exclusively representing the United States is Mark Bradford, at the U.S. Pavilion. While many pavilions have multiple artists’ work, Bradford is the artist selected to represent the United States at the 2017 Venice Biennale. The multi-room installation is a narrative that reflects on the artist’s trajectory, using everyday materials that embody social meaning. Tomorrow Is Another Day, reveals how individual lives are also history in the best sense of the word. Upon entrance, we are confronted with the first space being occupied by a bulbous mass that hangs from the ceiling with a red and black surface made of layering commercially printed-paper and blasting it with a pressure hose. Spoiled Foot pushes the viewer to the periphery of the room, leaving the viewer literally on the margins, inviting human touch.

Mark Bradford, Spoiled Foot, Mixed Materials 2016

Mark Bradford, Go Tell It to the Mountain, Mixed Material, 2016

The African American artist, best known for his large-scale abstract paintings that examine the class, race, and gender-based economies that structure urban society in the United States, Bradford’s richly layered and collaged canvases represent a connection to the social world through materials. Bradford uses fragments of found posters, billboards, newsprint, and custom-printed paper to simultaneously engage with and advance the formal traditions of abstract painting. Mark Bradford was born in 1961 in Los Angeles, where he lives and works. He received a BFA (1995) and MFA (1997) from the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia.

McArthur Binion, Installation image, courtesy of the Detroit Art Review

I was surprised to learn the McArthur Binion attended Wayne State University for his BFA in 1971 just as I completed my graduate work there. He moved on to complete his MFA at Cranbrook Academy, the first African American to do so and had a solo exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Arts. In 1973 Binion moved to New York and was soon curated into a group exhibition by Carl Andre at the Irving Sandler Gallery. In the early 90’s, he moved to Chicago to teach at Columbia College, and in isolation from the public, developed his emotionally based abstract paintings. Since 2003, Binion has been producing his DNA series, using a kind of geometric grid rigor with a minimal approach to abstraction. His childhood began in Macon, Mississippi, where he began picking cotton at the age of three and was one of eleven children. It was moving to Detroit to help his family survive that made his abstractions personal. He says in his statement, “I’m making abstraction personal. It’s taken me fifteen years to learn how to do it. Painting and sculpture are an old man’s game. To call yourself an artist, you have to earn it.”

McArthur Binion, DNA Black Series, 2015

Like many successful artists that fit the modernist profile, Binion makes work that is a study in oppositions: line and shape, figure and ground, image and abstraction, copy and original, color and black & white. His modus operandi is to somehow magically blend an assault of binaries into a single, unified emblem of the unique and complicated self.

Taus Makhacheva, Tightrope, Video Projection, 58m, 2-15

Taus Makhacheva, Tightrope, CU Angle, 58m, 2015

Among the sea of work at the Biennale, there were many video projected images and cinematic creations. I have selected one here by the artist Taus Makhacheva, born in Moscow, Russia who has a background in film-making. In her video, Tightrope, 2015, she records an activity from several angles, enough to convince you this is not a green screen performance against a live action background. The professional tightrope walker Rasul Abakarov carries 61 paintings, one at a time, from one side of a ravine to another, over an expanse of about a hundred feet and elevated many times more. Makhacheva is a Russian artist trained in London and mostly living in Dagestan where she explores the tension between tradition and modernity. Most of her work is performance-based, as she analyzes the body as a supporting structure, often challenged in off-limits situations. Makhacheva was born in Moscow in 1983. She studied at London College of Communication and the University of the Arts London. In 2007, she completed a BA program in Contemporary Art at Goldsmiths, University of London. In 2006, she graduated in World Economics from the Russian State University for the Humanities.

Tom Parish, In My Solitude, Oil on Canvas, 2015 Image Courtesy of the Artist

There are fifteen satellite shows to see during a visit to the 2017 Venice Biennale. One is the solo exhibition at the Madonna dell’Orto, Il Polso dell’Acqua, by Detroit artist Tom Parish. Nestled away in the neighborhood of Cannaregio, is the fifth exhibition for the Detroit artist, whose work continues to capture the urban water-laden landscape of Venice. The longtime Professor Emeritus of painting at Wayne State University in Detroit, journeyed to Venice some thirty years ago to discover subject matter that filled his curious and esthetically provocative imagination. For years his painting developed as architectural abstraction, with a formality that includes the ancient buildings juxtaposed to water and light. Parish’s recent work, on display in Venice, In My Solitude, combines his strengths: a composition that stretches out spatially and draws on elements of abstraction, and his command of painting the reflection-struck water swirling in the turbulent canals.  There have been four major exhibitions of Tom Parish’s Venice work, one in Chicago in 2010 at the Gruen Gallery, and three in Venice, Italy. This new work – Il Polso dell’Acqua – is the fifth exhibition and the second at the historic Cloister of the Church of the Madonna del Orto in Cannaregio, Venice.

The Viva Arte Viva, 2017 Venice Biennale, in a world full of conflicts, where art bears witness to the most precious part of what makes us human. It is the ultimate ground for reflection, individual expression and freedom. The fine art presented is the favorite realm of dreams and utopias, a catalyst for human connections that roots us in both nature and the cosmos. Many see art as the last garden to cultivate above and beyond trends and personal interests. It stands as an unequivocal alternative to indifference. The role, the voice and the responsibility of the artist are more crucial than ever before within the framework of contemporary debates. It is in and through these individual initiatives, like the 2017 Venice Biennale, that we find the hopes and dreams of tomorrow.

2017 Venice Biennale