Jim Cogswell @ University of Michigan Museum of Art

Digital study for Cosmogonic Tattoos Installation at UMMA and the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

Jim Cogswell, Digital study for Cosmogonic Tattoos, 2016. Courtesy of the artist

The images that comprise Jim Cogswell’s frieze-like mural Cosmogonic Tattoos are lyrical, fanciful, and, at times, utterly bewildering. Anthropomorphic Greek amphoras sprout legs and scurry about. A hybrid harp/boat ferries its unusual passengers – expressive, personified hands— across surging waves. And ancient-looking architectural structures rise and collapse in post-apocalyptic ruins.

Occasioned by the University of Michigan’s bicentennial, the university commissioned artist Jim Cogswell to create a set of murals celebrating the holdings of the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) and the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology. Cogswell’s mural speaks to material exchange across cultures and the necessarily distorted histories and narratives that shape when artifacts are taken out of context and placed behind glass in museum environments. It’s an ambitious and highly conceptual cycle that manages to be both playful and cerebral.


“Cosmogonies,” Cogswell explains, “are our explanations for how our world came to be.”[i] His idea of a cosmogonic tattoo is sourced in the character Queequeg in Moby Dick, who bore a tattoo on his back depicting “a complete theory of the heavens and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth.”[ii]   For this site-specific installation, Cogswell created hundreds of vinyl images based on his paintings of 250 objects from the holdings of the Kelsey and UMMA. Affixing them to the expansive horizontally-oriented first-floor windows of each museum, he created a frieze of images which tell an ambitiously sweeping narrative addressing the migrations of ideas, artifacts, and people.

The narrative begins on the windows of the Frankel Family Wing at the UMMA. A ship full of anthropomorphic hands (derived from paintings within the UMMA), sail across a sea in a boat toward a promontory, only to endure a series of apocalyptic natural disasters. Taking what few cultural artifacts they can carry, these travelers embark on foot to find a new home. By design, the narrative breaks, and viewers must cross State Street and traverse a block north to view the rest of the mural at the Kelsey.

Jim Cogswell, Boats and Hands, 2016. Image courtesy of the artist

Here, we see more figures on migratory journeys. Architectural structures on promontories are erected, only to be destroyed by natural forces and invasion. The figures, always on the move, carry more cultural artifacts with them, and they themselves even metamorphose into complex mash-ups of disparate elements borrowed from multiple cultures: a Roman female torso sports the head of a goose derived from a Greek wine jug, for example. The narrative is like a obius strip, and ends with migrants on the move. Cogswell didn’t conceive of the Kelsey as a destination, but rather a “roundabout,” ultimately channeling the narrative—and the viewer—back toward the UMMA.

Every character, prop, and setting in this unfolding drama comes directly from Cogswell’s digital renderings of his paintings of artifacts at the Kelsey and the UMMA. But, like Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel, Cogswell’s images synthesize disparate elements from vastly different sources. A Greek kylix becomes the satellite dish on a radio tower, for example, and the radiating concentric rings of an Egyptian necklace becomes its transmission signals. Greek amphoras sprout wings derived from decorative Roman architectural elements. The seemingly random combination of elements calculatedly speaks to the mutability of cultural artifacts and their subjective meanings.

Jim Cosgwell, Study for Cosmogonic Tattoos, Working on site, Image courtesy of the Levi Stroud

While this sprawling horizontal collage of images seem utterly haptic, every element of the mural was impressively thought-out. For example, a rendering of Greek portrait bust from Cyprus is wittily placed on a window pane right behind the actual portrait bust itself. Like Cogswell’s own mash-ups, the bust reflects visual elements from multiple cultures (Greek and Egyptian), and even obliquely addresses migration: while the Mycenean culture declined, refugees from the mainland settled in Cyprus.

Jim Cogswell,  Study for Cosmogonic Tattoos, Working on site, Image courtesy of the Levi Stroud

Cosmogonic Tattoos worthily aims to make us consider the histories of objects across space and time, and their ever-changing meanings. The British Museum’s Elgin Marbles, as a case in point, would certainly carry different associations for visitors from London than visitors from Athens. And these contemporary associations would contrast vastly from the pride and patriotism that an ancient Athenian would have felt, gazing on the same marbles in situ, wrapping, as they once did, around the Parthenon. Furthermore, America’s current changing views toward monuments to the Confederacy suggests that such change can occur even within a culture, and rapidly at that.

Admittedly, Cogswell’s mural cycle, while certainly visually engaging, might be prohibitively cryptic to anyone unfamiliar with the artist’s statement of intent and the helpful explanatory essays in the exhibition catalog (itself nicely produced and beautifully illustrated). But perhaps there’s a certain poetry to that, as it rather nicely underscores Cogswell’s metanarrative concerning the mutability of images and their meanings.

Jim Cogswell, Woman Duck,  Study for Cosmogonic Tattoos, 2016, shellac ink and graphite on mylar. Image courtesy of the artist

[i] Cogswell, Jim, et al. Jim Cogswell : Cosmogonic Tattoos. University of Michigan, 2017.


University of Michigan Art Museum


African Bead Work @ Flint Institute of Art

Ubhule Women: Bead Work and the Art of Independence at the Flint Institute of Art

Zondile Zondo. I am ill, I still see Color and Beauty: Jamludi The Red Cow, 2012. Glass beads sewn onto fabric. 49 × 64 1/4 × 2 in. (124.5 × 163.2 × 5.1 cm). Private Collection.

In 1999, two South African women, Ntombephi Ntobela and Bev Gibson, established an artist’s community on a former sugar plantation in the rural outskirts north of Durban. The goal of the Ubuhle (Ub-buk-lay, Zulu for “beauty”) community was to use traditional bead-art as a way for women to develop a skilled trade and become financially independent. Since then, the work created by this small, tightly-knit group has experienced meteoric success and has been shown internationally, including an exhibition at the Smithsonian in 2013. Through the end of March, Ubhule Women: Beadwork and the Art of Independence ambitiously fills the spacious Hodge Galleries at the Flint Institute of Art, and is well worth the visit.

Zondile Zondo. Flowers for the Gods, 2012. Glass beads sewn onto fabric. 51 × 21 3/8 × 2 in. (129.5 × 54.3 × 5.1 cm). The Ubuhle Private Collection.

This is an exhibition that can only be experienced firsthand; the arresting luminosity of these textile and bead-works, much like the ethereal shimmer of light on a Byzantine mosaic, is entirely lost when reproduced in photographs. The Ubuhle women created a modern innovation on traditional South-African bead-art; they stretch textile (ndwango) across a canvass, into which they meticulously hand-sew tens of thousands of infinitesimal Czech glass beads. The completed result recalls Seurat’s pointillism, but enhanced with striking luster as the images reflect actual light. These ndwangos range from figurative to abstract, and the vibrant plains of color deny any sense of illusory depth. Visitors who lean in close will notice the artists frequently applied the beads in a complex array of circular patterns and spirals, another special-effect that doesn’t translate well in photographs.

Ubuhle Women comprises 30 works by five artists, and the subject matter is intensely personal, often making use of abstract symbols to reference autobiographical events. Some works pay tribute to those of the Ubuhle community who have died since its founding from HIV (about half its number); red ribbons are a recurrent motif. The time-consuming process of bead-sewing itself functions as a form of therapy and coping—just one panel can take nearly a year to complete. For the Ubuhle women, beading is both catharsis and a visceral way to make tangible the memories of those lost.

Nontanga Manguthsane. African Crucifixion, n.d. Glass beads sewn onto fabric. 177 1/2 × 275 3/4 × 16 inches (450.9 × 700.4 × 40.6 cm). The Ubuhle Private Collection & Private Collection

The culmination of the exhibition is the ambitiously-large African Crucifixion, a sprawling work comprising seven panels created by seven Ubhule women. Originally conceived as a visual focal-point for the Anglican Cathedral of the Holy Nativity in Pietermartzburg, South Africa, the work is a complex tableau that addresses specific local issues like apartheid and the HIV crisis, as well as broader, universal themes of life, death, and redemption. A suspended golden crucifix dominates the composition, flanked by a menacing Tree of Defeat (replete with vultures, representing politicians who feed off people) and the Tree of Life, comfortably situated in an idyllic, fertile landscape. In the panel depicting Mary and John at the foot of the cross, a white house in the background personalizes the image, uncannily reminiscent of Thando Ntobela’s reductive portrayal of the Ubuhle community in her 2011 work Goodbye Little Farm. The African Crucifixion is a triumphant and virtuosic demonstration of the potential of beadwork, every bit as grand and pathos-driven as an early Renaissance fresco.

Looking at these works, my initial response was to mentally liken them to comparable works of art with which I was already familiar; the bright, smack-you-with-color fauvist paintings of Matisse, for example (and there really is a resemblance).   But these ndwangos, as luminous as they are allusive, pugnaciously defy any easy comparison with any equivalent in Western art. Furthermore, they represent the power of art to—in a small way—affect real social change, as demonstrated by the determined effort of the Ubuhle women who, through their craft, achieved financial independence one glass bead at a time.

Ubuhle Women: Beadwork and the Art of Independence was developed by the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, Washington, DC in cooperation with Curators Bev Gibson, Ubuhle Beads, and James Green, and is organized for tour by International Arts & Artists, Washington, DC.

Flint Institute of Art  – through March 2018


Romare Bearden @ N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art

Installation image, N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art, All images courtesy of the Detroit Art Review

Black History Month during February is an annual celebration of achievements by African Americans and a time for recognizing the central role of blacks in U.S. history, a story that begins in 1915, half a century after the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in the United States. It was in September, the Harvard-trained historian Carter G. Woodson and the prominent minister Jesse E. Moorland founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), an organization dedicated to researching and promoting achievements by black Americans and other peoples of African descent.

George N’Namdi’s Center for Contemporary Art opens this new exhibition in celebration of the work of Romare Bearden, an African-American artist renowned for his collages and photomontages, a technique he began to experiment with in the 1950s, establishing his reputation as a leading contemporary artist.

Romare Bearden, Cora’s Morning, Collage and Watercolor, 11 x 14, 1986

Although influenced by modernists such as Henri Matisse, Bearden’s collages also derived from African-American slave crafts such as patchwork quilts and the necessity of making artwork from whatever materials were available. In this exhibition, he uses images from mainstream pictorial magazines such as Look and Life, and black magazines such as Ebony and Jet. Bearden inserted the African-American experience, its rich visual and musical production, and its contemporary racial strife and triumphs, into his painted collages, thus expressing his belief in the connections between art and social reality. Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso introduced collage into the modernist vocabulary. As a result, Bearden located a methodology that allowed him to incorporate much of his life experience as an African American, from the rural South to the urban North and on to Paris, France.

Romare Bearden, Salome with the Head of John the Baptist, 35 x 29″, 1974

From a series of prints called the Prevalence of Ritual, Bearden reconfigured age-old stories as allegories of modern life. In John the Baptist he drew on the biblical story of Salome, who had performed a dance for King Herod that so pleased him he offered to grant anything she might ask. At her mother’s urging the young girl requested the head of John the Baptist, who had spoken out against her mother’s marriage to the king. The masklike heads of the figures in John the Baptist blend West African and Egyptian visual traditions with a narrative about vengeance and naïveté.

Romare Beraten, Mecklenburg Memories, Collage and Watercolor, 14 x 17″

Drawing upon the recollections of his Southern roots for inspiration, Bearden conjured up both his childhood memories and the shared memories of his ancestors. Bearden absorbed the traditional rituals of the church, the hymns and gospels, sermons and testimonies; as well as the traditional rituals of the family, the music of the kitchen, the outdoor wash place and fire circle, which permeated his upbringing. The work in many of these watercolor/collage pieces is the flatness of the composition combined with the strength of strong primary colors.

Bearden’s career as a painter was launched in 1940 with his first solo exhibition in Harlem and then another, four years later, at the G Place Gallery in Washington, DC, while he was serving in the Army. In 1945, shortly after his discharge, he joined the Kootz Gallery on 57th Street and exhibited there for the next three years. He then traveled to Paris on the G.I. Bill in 1950 where he studied philosophy at the Sorbonne. In 1964, he was appointed the first art director of the Harlem Cultural Council, a prominent African-American advocacy group. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1972. He died in New York City in 1988.

Romare Beraten, Autumn of the Rooster, Lithograph, 18 x 24″, 1983

Romare Bearden’s museum retrospectives include those organized by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, NY (1971); Mint Museum of Art in Charlotte, NC (1980); Detroit Institute of the Arts in Detroit, Michigan (1986); Studio Museum in Harlem in New York, NY (1991); and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC (2003). His work is represented in public collections across the country including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Museum of Modern Art, New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Philadelphia Museum of Art, PA, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Studio Museum in Harlem, NY.

Romare Bearden – through March 31, 2018

N’Namdi Contemporary Art




Nabil Mousa @ Arab American National Museum

Flag of a Complicated Nation: Nabil Mousa’s Vision of the American Landscape at Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, MI

Image Courtesy of Artist

It is a complicated time in the United States, with polarizing politics pushing questions of what it means to identify as American. In truth, ideas of nationalism in most countries are increasingly complex, due to the up-tempo of immigration and displacement, and the generally more global nature of contemporary times. Flags, as a starkly graphic symbol of national identity, tend to fall short as representational entities for countries full of individuals with radically divergent backgrounds, experiences, and inter-cultural connections.

Nabil Mousa, American Landscape #38, Mixed Media on board, 24 x 96″, 2008

Perhaps this is why Nabil Mousa’s, American Landscape—a series that includes some 40 works produced by the artist between 2008 and 2012—feels so timely and resonant. Nine of these works are on display at the Arab American National Museum, and most of them incorporate the American flag, as a literal or symbolic material. The series is a way for the artist to reconcile his own questions of identity, both as a Syrian immigrant and an openly homosexual man. Mousa came to the States with his family in 1976, at the age of 12, and since coming out as gay, has been estranged by his family, according to their stringently Christian beliefs. It stands to reason that the flags he presents are emotional, messy affairs, with blurring lines, dramatic brushstrokes, mottled palette, and populated by little icons representing anonymous men and women of the LBGTQ+ community.

Jasper Johns, Three Flags, 77 x 155cm, Pigment & Warm wax, Image courtesy of the Whitney Museum

Flags in general, and the United States flag in particular, have a long history of use in contemporary are for their symbolic value. Jasper Johns first began to iterate the symbol with the encaustic painting Flag (1954-55), following his discharge from the United States Army, and returned to the flag as subject matter numerous times over the course of his career. Political artist Dread Scott first presented his controversial work, What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag? In 1989, prompting the passing of the “Flag Protection Act” in Congress. In protest, Dread Scott and two other artists burned a U.S. flag on the steps of the Capitol Building, which resulted in a federal court case that made it all the way to the Supreme Court in 1990. Artist David Hammons famously created the African American Flag, which is in the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art. Flags provide pre-loaded symbolism, and evoke strong feelings in those that choose to identify with them as a form of national identity, thus making them appealing to artists who question where they may fit in with such broad social representations.

Nabil Mousa, American Landscape, # 34, Mixed Media on oil board, 48 x 48″, 2009

As a member of (at least) two populations that are often vilified, singled out, or marginalized, Mousa has a great deal of personal experience in alienated nationalism to work through in his paintings, yet with American Landscape, he has chosen to present these themes using some of the most universal symbols available—aside from the flag, the majority of figures in Mousa’s landscapes are the male/female icons designating gender on public restroom doors. In Mousa’s context, these figures appear exclusively in same-sex couplings or groups; four women holding hands across an apocalyptic and bleak multi-media landscape in American Landscape #34 (2009), or dozens of men holding hands in rows that fill out the stripes of a 12-foot-wide American Landscape #1 (2009), which dominates the entire entry wall of the gallery, and, as the largest work, serves as the focal point of the exhibition. The figures seem to blend with flag behind them, suggesting their invisibility, and in many of Mousa’s works, the flags themselves smear and drip, or even fragment—as in the case of American Landscape #19 (2009), which incorporates cut-up pieces of an actual U.S. flag in the foreground, obscuring portions of the large-scale male figures in the painting, including the place where they are (presumably) holding hands.

Nabil Mousa, American Landscape #1, Oil on Board, 90 x 144″, 2009

In some ways, Mousa’s work at AANM might be trading in the bluntest symbolism, but the emotive nature of his brushstrokes and the frenetic energy of such bold and colorful works in a relatively small gallery space make the work personal and the exhibition space feel extremely dynamic. Perhaps this is a show that seeks to connect with those who feel excluded by the conventional presentation of the flag, which blithely assumes a one-for-all American spirit that is obviously not borne out in issues of policy-making, opportunities, justice, or social equity. With American Landscape, Mousa has complicated the flag, and in doing so, raised a new version, which seeks to include people whose American identities are more complicated than simple red, white, and blue.

Nabil Mousa, American Landscape, #20, Mixed Media on Board, 96 x 72, 2009


Nabil Mousa: American Landscape continues at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan through April 8.

Basquiat @ Cranbrook Art Museum

BASQUIAT BEFORE BASQUIAT: East 12th Street, 1979-1980

Jean-Michael Basquiat at Great Jones Studio, 1985

In the spring of 1971 when I had just graduated from Wayne State University with an M.A. in painting, I was making surreal landscape paintings. I had not heard of Jean-Michel Basquiat, of course, because he was only ten years old and attending St. Ann’s Catholic school in New York City. Soon after that he was bound for San Juan, Puerto Rico with his father and family for three years, before returning to Brooklyn and finishing high school.

And it wasn’t until the late 1990s when my son Julian Teachworth was finishing his senior year at The Cooper Union in NYC that he told me Basquiat’s work had influenced his painting. It was only then that I became familiar with his work, and that was ten years after his tragic death from a heroin overdose at the age of twenty-seven in 1988.

Andrew Blauvelt, Director of the Cranbrook Art Museum, said, “The exhibition and accompanying catalogue presents New York City in the late 1970s and early 1980s through the prism of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s art and provides a window into the art-rich time that he inhabited and impacted so profoundly. Ultimately, this exhibition will attest to Basquiat’s virtuosity in formation–the creative impulses that yielded a distinctive voice, but also the many diversions or paths he explored as he was developing a signature style.”

Alexis Adler, B&W photographic images of Basquiat performing in the apartment, 1979

Jean-Michel Basquiat first appeared in New York City in 1980 depicting street graffiti using neat block letters and his SAMO© tags on the surrounding streets of lower Manhattan. It was these early years when Basquiat started dating Alexis Adler and living with a close friend, Felice Ralster, that is the subject for this new exhibition at Cranbrook Art Museum: BASQUIAT BEFORE BASQUIAT: East 12th Street, 1979-1980 that opened November 17, 2017. Basquiat and Adler moved into a small apartment at 527 East 12 Street, commonly referred to as the East Village, and became part of the punk culture largely based around musicians and artists at the Mudd Club scene.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled, Acrylic and Oil Stick on canvas. 1984

It was at P.S. 1 in a group survey show, New York / New Wave where his work was a step above graffiti street art, as illustrated by his ability for putting things together: masks, words, marks and disconnected phrases. The exhibition included Keith Haring, Robert Maplethorpe, and Andy Warhol. The day after the opening he returned home to Brooklyn around 6:00 in the morning to proclaim to his father, “Papa, I’ve made it!”

Basquiat made money for paint and his share of the rent by selling T-Shirts on the street. 1979

Basquiat’s riff with his father and his association with Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf, led him to Club 57 and a strong and close relationship with who would become his mentor, Andy Warhol. Back then, Basquiat made his living by selling clothing on the street. On display at the Cranbrook exhibition are T-Shirts he transformed into living works of art to be worn and celebrated as part of his artistic practice.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled (Cadmium) Oil, oil stick, acrylic on canvas 1984

Looking back, I think we see Jean-Michel Basquiat as an artist who emerged from being a graffiti artist during the “punk scene” era, and then ended up as a celebrated artistic phenomenon. Skillfully, he brought together disparate traditions, practices and unconventional styles that established a baseline for artists to come. He was an African-Caribbean artist, who came along at a time when the art world was dominated by exhibitions of Minimal and Conceptual art.

Alexis Adler, Drawing by Basquiat on wall of apartment, Archival pigment print, 1980

Using an archival approach, much of this exhibition comes from the collection of Alexis Adler, and a visit to the exhibition Basquiat Before Basquiat deepens your understanding of this artist while simultaneously providing the viewer with a context of his early work in 1980s New York City. Concurrently, the museum is hosting exhibitions by Keith Haring, Maya Stovall and Ryan McGinness.

Alexis Adler, B&W photograph of Baquiat in the apartment, 1981

BASQUIAT BEFORE BASQUIAT: East 12th Street, 1979-1980, organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver.

Cranbrook Art Museum

Through March 11, 2018