Art in the Age of the Internet @ UMMA

University of Michigan Museum of Art brings the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art exhibition to its audience.

Penelope Umbrico, 33,930,694 Suns from Flickr (Partial) 9/05/17, 2006-ongoing, chromogenic machine prints. Courtesy of the artist. ©Penelope Umbrico.

In 1969, the United States Department of Defense harnessed groundbreaking technology to relay a message from a computer at UCLA to a computer at Stanford University; it simply read “Login,” but even that was enough to overload and crash the system.  For twenty more years, rudimentary Internet technology remained exclusively in the hands of scientists and government agencies until the creation of the World Wide Web in 1989, which radically democratized the Internet, making it accessible, comprehensible, and useable to anyone. It also irrevocably changed the way we experience the world.  Responding to the thirtieth anniversary of the World Wide Web, the University of Michigan is hosting “Art in the Age of the Internet,” a massive multimedia show which, like the Internet itself, is visually eclectic, immersive, and loud.

Three years in the making, this show first launched in 2018 at the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art, garnering substantial critical acclaim.  As one would expect given the subject, the show liberally makes use of video-art displayed on screens and monitors, but it also includes media ranging from painting, drawing, and photography to emerging technologies such as 3D printing.  The forty works that comprise the show are categorized in five sections: Networks of Circulation, Hybrid Bodies, Virtual Worlds, States of Surveillance, and Performing the Self.  Together they form an impressive ensemble of work by both emerging and established artists, including a few surprise-appearances by artists one might not immediately associate with the Internet, such as Cindy Sherman, but whose inclusion in the show makes perfect sense.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #463, 2007—08. Cindy Sherman, Chromogenic color print. Collection of John and Amy Phelan, New York. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York. © Cindy Sherman

Many works explore the increasingly reality-altering nature of the Web.  A large photograph of the perennially shape-shifting Cindy Sherman seems an apt metaphor for the way many of us might use social media to fabricate idealized narratives about our better selves via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or Snapchat (pick your platform) at the expense of authenticity.  Commenting on this photograph of women at a social gathering of some kind, Sherman states that the image “was inspired by the idea of party photos seen so often where people, desperate to show off their status and connections, excitedly pose have their picture taken with larger-than-life-sized smiles and personalities.”  The photograph was taken in 2007, the infant years of social-media, but Sherman’s collective body of work, decades in the making,  prophetically anticipates the way many of us (including presidents and world leaders) painstakingly curate our own images, ideas, and personalities on social media as we present our digital personas to the digital world.

An entirely different commentary on the blurring of digital and actual realities comes from Harun Farocki’s two-channel video Serious Games IV: A Sun with No Shadow, which explores how the US military uses virtual reality technology to prepare soldiers for combat and to treat soldiers who experience post-traumatic stress disorder.  One screen shows soldiers interacting with the technology as another screen relays to us the same simulated combat scenarios the soldiers see.

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, “Surface Tension”, 2007. ”Trackers”, La Gaïté Lyrique, Paris, 2011. Photo by: Maxime Dufour

The most compelling works in the exhibition are those that address government surveillance technologies; the disclosures in 2013 by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden lend these works considerable weight.  Rafael Lozanno-Hemmer’s Surface Tension is a deceptively playful interactive screen with an eyeball that follows viewers who come within a certain distance; one can’t resist the game of pacing back and forth in front of it, testing its speed and unerring accuracy.  But to work, this installation applies the same military camera used by American smart bombs to pinpoint targets during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The original iteration of this work was created in 1992, well before the creation of the NSA and the “surveillance state” as it exists today.

Trevor Paglen, “Autonomy Cube”, 2015. Plexiglas box with computer components. (MP# TP—95). Courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures, New York. @ Trevor Paglen

With just under a billion users, more people access the Internet in China than in any other country, but users in China can’t access sites like Google, Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, the New York Times, or thousands of other websites.  Addressing the Great Firewall of China, the country’s censorious implementation of Internet restrictions, artist and activist Xu Wenkai’s Gfwlist is a black, rectilinear monolith which, for the duration of the exhibition, will print out, in encrypted form, a lengthy sheet of  Web addresses blocked by the Chinese government.  In addition to raising awareness of the problem, the artist’s use of encryption suggests a potential way for activists to hack their way towards a solution.  On a similar note, American artist Trevor Paglen’s Autonomity Cube, straddling the boundary between sculpture, technology, and activism, is a functional Wi-fi hub that anonymizes user Internet activity and hides it from surveillance systems.  Though perhaps this work bends more toward pure technology than traditional art, it admittedly recalls some of the work of Bauhaus superstar Maholy Nagy.

Art in the Age of the Internet certainly doesn’t dispiritingly present the Internet as a negative phenomenon, inevitably ushering in a Big Brother State.  Today, anyone with an I-Phone is a potential news-reporter, and social media has been the impetus that has propelled movements ranging from the Arab Spring to #blm.  Driving the point home, a wall of monitors reminiscent of the electronic sculptures of Nam Jun Paik relays algorithmically-sourced footage from the Internet showing police brutality against people of color.  On the one hand, it champions the Internet as a medium that exposes and heightens awareness of the problem, though it also painfully suggests that things haven’t changed much during the interval between the pre-social-media days of Rodney King in 1991 and Tamir Rice in 2014.

A show like this could easily veer toward envisioning a bleakly Orwellian vision of the future. But Art in the Age of the Internet wisely refrains from suggesting that the Internet has been bad for humanity– to do so would be equivalent to railing against the printing press on the grounds that there’s been much bad literature.  After all, while the term “fake news” has only recently gained currency in modern political discourse, propelled largely by the ease with which (dis)information transmits over the Internet, readers can easily find rollickingly laughable gaffs without much difficulty in the Historiesof Herodotus and Pliny the Elder.   Rather, this exhibition dispassionately presents the Internet as an irrevocable facet of modern life, and, for better or for worse, the medium though which we increasingly look, learn, love, and live.

 

Art in the Age of the Internet is currently on exhibition at the University of Michigan Museum of Art through April 17, 2019

Charles White @ MoMA, NYC

Charles White: A Retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, NY

Charles White (American, 1918–1979). General Moses (Harriet Tubman). 1965. Ink on paper, 47 × 68″ (119.4 × 172.7 cm). Private collection. © The Charles White Archives. Photo courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries

If there’s a fearsome female gaze that can make Manet’s icy Olympia seem coy and puerile by comparison, it’s that of the determined Harriet Tubman, rendered in ink by Charles White during the height of the Civil Rights movement.  Famous for liberating hundreds of slaves during the Civil War, here she becomes a contemporary symbol for racial equality, and could, with little imagination, plausibly be seen among those marching on the front lines across Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.  She’s emblematic of White’s work, which unfailingly depicted black America with strength, regality, and dignity.

Born in 1918 on Chicago’s South Side, African-American artist Charles White began his career inauspiciously as a sign painter; he would later become one of the most accomplished draftsmen of his generation.  His style had extraordinary reach, ranging from the gently abstracted figures that peopled his WPA mural paintings of the late 1930s to his tight and refined graphite and ink drawings of the 1960s.  Charles White: A Retrospectiveis a muscular show that snugly fills half of the MoMA’s third floor with over 100 drawings, paintings, and other ephemera.  White’s first major show in 30 years, this traveling exhibition champions the enduring appeal of figurative drawing, and his socially-conscious subject matter keeps his work uncannily relevant.

Arranged chronologically, the retrospective begins with his early paintings, produced when White was a freshly minted graduate from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1938. His early mural Five Great American Negros is an early tour de forcethat established several of the tropes that defined much of White’s subsequent career. Painted when he was just 21 for a fundraiser for Chicago’s South Side Community Art Center, the painting celebrates Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, George Washington Carver, Marian Anderson, and Sojourner Truth.   The mural’s heaving landscape and figural distortions rhyme with the regionalist paintings of Thomas Hart Benton, but, as ever, White’s work also spoke to contemporary social injustices.  He painted the mural in 1939, the same year that gospel singer Marian Anderson was refused permission by the Daughters of the American Revolution to perform at Constitution Hall because of her race, and her inclusion in the work freights the painting with timely relevance and political weight.

Charles White (American, 1918-1979). Five Great American Negroes. 1939. Oil on canvas, 60 x 155″ (152.4 x 393.7 cm). From the Collection of the Howard University Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.© The Charles White Archives/ Photo: Gregory R. Staley

Charles White believed that artists had a moral obligation to contribute to social discourse, and to this end his work aggressively addressed racial injustice and economic disparity in America.  In the 1940s and 50s White produced soulful and moving works like There were no Crops This Year, a Steinbeckian depiction of a visibly distraught husband and wife; an empty sack which the woman holds is the only prop in the drawing, but it’s enough to tell their story.  And his poignant and incriminating proto-cubist Headlinesdepicts a visibly distraught woman flanked by a veritable blizzard of news headlines that reveal instances of racial inequality in America.  His use of collage and text mirrors the synthetic cubist experiments of Picasso and Braque, but here White masterfully harnesses the vocabulary of cubism and channels it toward social protest.

Charles White (American, 1918-1979). Headlines. 1944. Ink, gouache, and newspaper on board, 20 x 16″ (50.8 x 40.6 cm). Collection of William M. and Elisabeth M. Landes. © The Charles White Archives/ Photo: Gregory R. Staley

But while his works frequently addressed racial and economic inequality, White managed to avoid producing an oeuvre drearily burdened by politics.  His brightly painted Gospel Singers radiates joy, and the strong, pitchfork-wielding woman in Our Land (White’s witty response to Grant Wood’s American Gothic) radiates confidence, determination, and, above all, dignity.  

Music also played a significant role in his output, and he produced affectionate drawings of gospel singers Mahalia Jackson, Paul Robertson, and Bessie Smith.  White created cover designs for a series of jazz albums by Vanguard Records, and in 1965 his illustration for Gould: Spirituals for Orchestra received a Grammy nomination for best album cover.  But the musical collaboration this show especially highlights is that of Charles White and Harry Bellefonte, whose recorded voice croons uninterruptedly throughout the exhibition space.  Bellefonte commissioned works by White, often including them on his television show, and White responded with several portraits of the singer, head thrown back, utterly abandoned in music.  Fittingly, because of the close relationship White had with so many musicians, the MoMA has thoughtfully assembled a Spotify playlist of music inspired by the show—there’s everything from old spirituals to gospel music and James Brown.

In the 60s and 70s, White’s work continued to address social justice and civil rights, but his style became increasingly crisp, a marked departure from his previous abstracted depictions of the figure.  It’s a stylistic shift made apparent in his 12-part series J’Accuse (“I accuse”), a series of confrontationally large ink drawings collectively named after Emile Zola’s open letter to the French government in which Zola famously defended Richard Dreyfus, a Jew wrongfully convicted of murder.  The series’ title equated American racial inequality with European Antisemitism, but the drawings themselves refrain from directly referencing any instances of injustice.  Rather, White gives viewers affectionate and sensitively rendered portraits of black Americans, often set against a stark white background, and allows for their innate dignity to speak for itself.

Charles White (American, 1918-1979). J’Accuse #7. 1966. Charcoal on paper, 39 1/4 × 51 1/2″ (99.7 × 130.8 cm). Private collection. © The Charles White Archives/ Photo courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY

The final room in the retrospective includes several works from his acclaimed Wanted Posterseries, a cycle of 21 monochromatic oil-wash and lithograph works which emerged from White’s frustration at the slow pace of the implementation of civil rights in America.  Appropriating the imagery of old wanted posters for runaway slaves, all the works in this series mimic the texture of crumpled newsprint in arresting tompe l’oeil.  Barely-discernable stenciled-in words help the viewer navigate the meaning behind these ambiguous works; in one especially poignant image, a mother stands behind her son, both their faces registering utter sorrow; above her head hovers the form of an eagle and the word “sold.”

One of the final images viewers encounter is White’s iconic Black Pope. Closely resembling the Wanted Posterseries in its color and texture, the painting depicts a man wearing clothing reminiscent of priestly vestments, flashing what could be interpreted both as the peace symbol, or the sign Christ makes in icons while bestowing a blessing.  Barely discernable, “Chicago” is stenciled atop the image, and the figure wears a sandwich board which proclaims with calculated ambiguity: “NOW”– an all-encompassing call to action.

Installation view of the exhibition Charles White: A Retrospective.October 7, 2018–January 13, 2019. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Digital Image © 2018 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo by Robert Gerhardt.

Charles White: A Retrospective is a massive show made even more impressive when we consider that the overwhelming majority of these works are fastidiously rendered figurative drawings—there are no easy shortcuts to quickly fill wall space.  Furthermore, while his drawings are impressively large, they always reward close inspection with their varied stippled and hatched-in textures.  Today, his work hangs in many of America’s great museums—the Metropolitan, the Chicago Art Institute, and the Smithsonian, to name a few. But his legacy isn’t just the art he created, but the many students who emerged under his shadow, such as Kerry James Martial, who stated that Charles White believed that one’s work “should be in the service of helping dignify people.”  His work did exactly that, and this retrospective triumphantly speaks to White’s unflagging and determined mission to portray black America with the dignity it deserved.

Charles White: A Retrospective, through January 13, 2019 at the Museum of Modern Art, NYC, NY.

Abstraction & Politics @ UMMA

Sam Gilliam, Situation VI—Pisces 4, ca. 1972, polypropylene painted multiform. Williams College Museum of Art Museum purchase, Otis Family Acquisition Trust and Kathryn Hurd Fund. Courtesy of Joseph Goddu Fine Arts, Inc., New York. © Sam Gilliam

Visitors stepping out of the University of Michigan’s Taubman Gallery (currently paying host to a punchy and politically-charged exhibition of art of the African diaspora) who then wander in to the adjacent show, Abstraction, Color, and Politics in the Early 1970s,will perhaps find themselves in a gallery space austere by comparison, containing four allusive abstract paintings and sculptures.  It’s a highly conceptual micro-exhibition comprising works by Helen Frankenthaler, Al Loving, Sam Gilliam, and Louise Nevelson.  In spite of the show’s title, as political statements, their significance isn’t self-evident (something perhaps tacitly acknowledged by the interrogative opening line of the show introductory text: Can abstract art be about politics and identity?), but what the artists in this tactfully assembled ensemble have in common is their defiant refusal to conform to the art-world’s expectations of what their art should be.

Viewers first encounter a geometric abstraction by Al Loving (one of Detroit’s own, though he later lived and worked out of New York City). Influenced in the 1970s by the hard-edge color squares of Josef Albers, Loving’s Bowery Morning is a simple yet disorienting network of shapes which could be read variously as an ensemble of polygons or cubes.  Loving created the work in 1971, the same year he participated in the Whitney Museum’s highly controversial Contemporary Black Artists in America, a show which acquired notoriety when fifteen artists withdrew to protest the decisions made by the show’s mostly white curatorial staff.  But conspicuous by its absence in Loving’s work was any commentary on the social or political issues of his day.

Al Loving, Bowery Morning, 1971, acrylic on canvas. Courtesy the Estate of Al Loving and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York.

The same could be said of the work of Sam Gilliam, who in the 1970s began experimenting with abstract fabric constructions (as Al Loving himself increasingly began to do). Inspired by seeing laundry hung out to dry, Gilliam liberated his canvasses from their wooden frames, transforming his paintings into fully sculptural objects which hung elegantly from the wall like giant curtains, sails, and banners, a contribution to Abstract Expressionism that occurred long before Frank Stella began producing his own sculptural paintings which burst from the wall and crashed into the viewer’s space.  Here, Gilliam’s attention-grabbing Situation VI-Pisces 4,an abstract painting displayed like a massive banner incised with with deep drapes and folds,nearly fills an entire gallery wall with a blaze of crimsons and yellows, and it’s hard not to consider this as the show’s visual centerpiece.

Sam Gilliam, Situation VI—Pisces 4 (detail), ca. 1972, polypropylene painted multiform. Williams College Museum of Art Museum purchase, Otis Family Acquisition Trust and Kathryn Hurd Fund. Courtesy of Joseph Goddu Fine Arts, Inc., New York. © Sam Gilliam

Directly across from Situation VI, Louise Nevelson’s stately and characteristically enigmatic Dark Presence seems subdued and restrained in comparison.  Dark Presence is exactly that, a mostly rectilinear scaffolding of individual wooden forms which, all painted black, coalesce into a unified whole.  A work by the second-generation Abstract Expressionist Helen Frankenthaler completes this ensemble.  Her Sunset Corner is a representative color-field painting applying her “soak-stain” method, for which she covered the canvass in nearly translucent washes of water-thin paint.

Abstraction and Politics is a challenging exhibition that certainly doesn’t patronize its patrons, and the political applications of these four works is admittedly difficult to find without the helpful explanatory text which introduces the show.  But what these diverse artists have in common is their shared refusal to adhere to expectations regarding what African-American art or Feminist-art (choose your hyphenation) ought to look like.  Nevelson’s works in particular– in part because of their imposing scale and subdued color– gleefully bucked pervading stereotypes of sculpture by women, even eliciting sexist reviews by stunned critics, incredulous that such work could be executed by a female.  The show’s theme certainly works if we view self-determination as a political act, and if we approach these artists’ defiant refusal to conform to expected narratives as a reaction against the cultural climate in which they lived, then it’s possible to view these works as an understated form of protest.  To borrow a phrase from Sylvia Plath: through their art these artists simply asserted their right to live and work on their own human terms.

University of Michigan Museum of Art   Abstraction and Politics –  Through September 29, 2019

Charles Pollock: Modernism in the Making @ Broad Museum, Michigan State University

Charles Pollock: Modernism in the Making, installation view at the MSU Broad, 2018. Image: Eat Pomegranate Photography

We all know of Pollock, the aspirant artist who studied under Thomas Hart Benton in New York, gained experience painting murals commissioned by the depression-era Works Progress Administration, and became an acclaimed Abstract Expressionist.Or do we?  After all, most of us are likely more familiar with his younger sibling, Jackson, who also studied under Benton in New York, also made paintings for the WPA, and also worked in Abstract Expressionism, following the course laid by his older brother, Charles.

Through December, Michigan State University celebrates the work and legacy of Charles Pollock, who taught at MSU for almost 30 years (1942-1969) and retired 50 years ago.  Charles worked in abstraction, though unlike his brother, his work bends more toward color-field painting, occasionally evoking the misty canvasses of Mark Rothko.  Pollock was well connected with the driving artists and personalities of the postwar New York School, and he used his connections to acquire works of art and bring artists of America’s avant-gardeto campus.  Along with the paintings, drawings, and correspondence of Charles Pollock himself, this intimate one-room exhibition also offers a cross-section of the many artists and personalities that encompassed his broad social circle.

Before turning toward abstraction, his early work carried thick Social Realist accent.  Somber lithographs like After the Drought, portraying an eerily smiling cattle skull set against a bleak and unpeopled desert-scape, could easily serve as concept art for a film adaptation of a Steinbeck novel.  Similarly, his Man at the Well (1933) is hardly an optimistic portrayal of America as the land of opportunity; the empty bucket and the grim expression the on figure’s face together imply that this well has run dry.  Pollock also worked in graphic design, and it’s no surprise to see that he made the cover for an anthology of William Falkner, whose Sound and Fury viscerally gave the lie to the notion that America was a new-world Arcadia.

Pollock came to Michigan while working for the Works Progress Administration, and it was a set of mural assignments for the Lansing Water Treatment Plant and Michigan State University’s Fairchild Auditorium that brought him to Lansing.  Here, viewers can see an early sketch for his Fairchild mural; the completed work, conceived as a triptych, is still on view in the Auditorium.  The heroic imagery reveals the influence of Benton; implausibly muscular workers go about the business of making America great though brawn, brain, industry, and resourcefulness.

Charles Pollock, #95, 1967. Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, Michigan State University, gift of George F. Schwelinger in memory of Ella Schwelinger.

In the 1940s, Pollock turned toward abstraction.  Unlike Jackson, whose splashy drip-paintings seemed to suggest a haptic attitude of devil-may-care spontaneity, Charles’ paintings are, by comparison, orderly and restrained.  His #86 fills the canvass with a grid of vertically oriented rectilinear color swatches, recalling the vertically-oriented color field paintings of Barnett Newman.  And his #95 similarly offers viewers a serene grid of color fields, whose soft borders are suggestive of the color-field paintings of Rothko.

But the lion’s share of the gallery space highlights the artist’s connections with Abstract Expressionism’s famous personalities, many of whom he brought to Michigan State.  On view are photographs and correspondence  which reveal the extent of his reach, such as an invitation to famed art-critic Clement Greenburg, who came to MSU to deliver a talk.

Helen Frankenthaler, Untitled, 1950. Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, Michigan State University, gift of Clement Greenberg.

There is also an impressive selection of paintings and sculptures by names synonymous with the postwar American art scene: Kenneth Noland, Barnett Newman, Helen Frankenthaler, and others.  With the exception of an untitled metallic sculpture by Italo Scanga, consciously evoking a reductive human face, all the works on view are rooted in pure abstraction. The earliest work in the show is an untitled thickly-impostoed painting by Helen Frankenthaler from 1950, created just when Abstract Expressionism was enjoying its meteoric ascent in New York.  It’s scrubbed-in gestural tangle of circular forms shows the influence of Jackson Pollock, recalling some of his messily-painted figurative work prior to his development of drip painting. Frankenthaler become a driving force in the development of Color Field painting, influencing the likes of Kenneth Noland, represented here with a typically Noland-esque lozenge-shaped arrangement of concentric squares emerging from the center of a canvass.

Charles Pollock: Modernism in the Making, installation view at the MSU Broad, 2018. Image: Eat Pomegranate Photography

Modernism in the Making is a small exhibit, but it brings together an impressively muscular cross-section of A-list postwar artists, offering a snapshot portrayal of the emergence of Abstract Expressionism. Admittedly, it’s hard not to walk away just a touch disappointed that Charles never managed to procure for Michigan State a drip-painting by Jackson Pollock himself.  Put perhaps it’s for the best; the other Pollock has received plenty of attention—too much, really– and Charles and his circle certainly deserve their moment in the spotlight.

Broad Museum Michigan State University

Charles Pollock, Modernism in the Making runs through December 30; more information can be found here.

Beyond Borders @ UMMA

When colonial powers carved up the African continent, borders were drawn that indiscriminately sliced through culturally similar people-groups, and the inhabitants were subsequently viewed by Europeans to live in distinct, monolithic “tribes,” each of which lived in relative isolation.  Beyond Borders: Global Africa, on view in the University of Michigan’s spacious Taubman Gallery, emphatically makes the point that cultural exchange across African societies and between Africa and the West is and always has been fluid.

Gleaned largely from its own collection and supplemented by works on loan from the Mott-Warsh Collection in Flint, the art on view ranges from 19thcentury through contemporary, and spans across a diverse array media.  Collectively, as Laura De Becker articulates in the exhibition catalogue, they “illustrate moments of encounter throughout history, complicating the colonial idea that the African continent is made of up ethnic groups or nations with starkly defined, impermeable boarders, or that it stands at one end of a dichotomy comprising Africa and the West.”

Artist unrecorded, Kongo peoples, Vili group, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angola, Republic of the Congo, Nkisi(power figure), ca. 1800, wood, tukula powder and kaolin. University of Michigan Museum of Art, Gift of Candis and Helmut Stern, 2005/1.180.

Several sets of carved sculptural objects demonstrate thematic similarities that transcend colonial-era borders.  A selection of Minksi (Power Objects), though varied in form—ranging from representational to highly abstract—demonstrate the widespread belief that the sculpted figure could be spiritually potent and even intercede on behalf of the living.

Many of these works synthesize local traditions with European elements.  A pair of ceremonial shoes decorated with beads, for example, alludes to trade between Nigeria and Europe (most beads were imported from Venice). Furthermore, the beads create a mosaic of the British Crown, and it’s ambiguous if the reference, ingloriously appearing as it does on shoes, is understood to be a respectful homage or a wry and subtle insult to the colonial power.

Seydou Keïta, Untitled, 1956-57, gelatin silver print.

European faces make cameo appearances, carved into a Chokwe chair, for example, and European coins are inventively repurposed to decorate carved boxes and wooden figures.  Commerce and cultural exchange are addressed directly in a series of black and white photographs by Seydou Keita, hailed by many as the “father of African photography,” depicting anonymous residents of Bamako, Mali, posed with imported consumer goods that reveal the country’s rising middle class in the latter half of the 29thcentury.

Omar Victor Diop, Jean-Baptiste Belley (1746-1805), 2014, pigment inkjet printing on Harman by Hahnemühle paper. Courtesy of Mott-Warsh collection, Flint, Michigan and MAGNIN-A Gallery, Paris, © Omar Victor Diop

In a powerful pair of confrontationally large photographs, Omar Victor Diop recreates images of historically significant figures from the African diaspora.  Like the ever shape-shifting Cindy Sherman, Diop stars himself in his works, assuming varied roles.  Here, the artist recreates Samuel Miller’s portrait of Frederick Douglass, but modernizes it by brandishing a plastic referee’s whistle.  Sports paraphernalia invariably appears in his work, addressing the discrepancy between the celebrity status African athletes enjoy in Western countries and the xenophobic attitudes expressed by people in those same nations.  In a second photograph, the artist recreates a painting by Trison, posing as Jean-Baptiste Belley, a former slave who won his freedom after service in French army, and subsequently became a vocal abolitionist.  The soccer ball Diop poses with serves as a foil to his otherwise convincing 18thcentury regalia; just the same, the image, replete with the subject’s gentle contrapposto, really does seem uncannily as if a portrait from the Louvre has nearly come to life.

A painting by Kehinde Wiley lends a jolt of young and energetic star-power to this exhibition.   Known for his paintings that present works of art from the Western cannon reimagined to star black protagonists, here the artist borrowed the pose of a statue of Chief Obafemi Awolowo—a key figure in securing Nigerian independence from Great Britain—and transforms the figure’s outstretched hand into a black power salute.  Wiley’s work consistently manages to be emphatically contemporary, giving a fresh spin to the old masters, and giving the lie to the notion that traditional figure painting is dead.

Kehinde Wiley, On Top of the World, 2008, oil on canvas. Courtesy of Aishti Foundation, Beirut © Kehinde Wiley

Beyond Borders succeeds in offering a cross section across mediums and across time, demonstrating in small part the extent to which cultural exchange happened in Africa and continues to occur today through its diaspora.  Furthermore, the national conversation in recent years has increasingly placed borders (and walls) at the forefront of political discourse, giving the show a timely relevance.

UMMA  –  Beyond Borders runs through November 24.