The New Black Vanguard: Photography between Art and Fashion & Shirley Woodson: Shield of the Nile Reflections on exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Arts
For anyone laboring under the winter blues, two luminous new shows by Black artists at the Detroit Institute of Arts promise a quick, color-saturated cure — “Shirley Woodson: Shield of the Nile Reflections,” up through June 12, and “The New Black Vanguard: Photography between Art and Fashion,” which comes down April 17, 2022.
While the two exhibitions are very different – oil paintings by a Detroit artist vs. international high-fashion photos – they resemble one another in their fresh spirit and the undeniable sense that you’re witnessing something strong and new.
Take “The New Black Vanguard” first, a traveling show organized by Aperture, the photography nonprofit in New York City. This dazzling exhibition features the work of 15 emerging Black photographers from Africa and the African diaspora, working in places as disparate as Johannesburg, Harlem, Lagos, and London. Many of the images on display were drawn from fashion magazines, advertisements, museum collections, and social media. In a nice localizing touch, there’s also a DIA-curated section in the last gallery, “New Gazes – Detroit,” which focuses on six metro-area Black photographers.
Many of the artists here are pushing boundaries, both aesthetic and cultural, with all their might, engaging topics as diverse as colorism, gender expression and alternate concepts of beauty. Nancy Barr, who heads the museum’s Department of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs, calls the exhibition “inspiring,” and says she’s been gratified by “how easily visitors are connecting with the imagery and quotes from the photographers.” Given the punchiness and variety of pictures on display, that’s no surprise.
Start with Dana Scruggs. This Chicago-born artist, whose work has appeared in GQ, ESPN magazine, and Rolling Stone, has finessed the fine art of highlighting the drama in very dark skin, playing with an almost Caravaggio-like chiaroscuro that gives her work remarkable tone and depth. The models in question, of course, are the sorts who in an earlier, more-colorist era, would likely have been shunned as “too Black.” But in Scruggs’ prints, their chiseled features and sculpted bodies pass beyond mere beauty into something more profound — an almost mythic presence, simultaneously universal and individual.
Her 2018 “Nyadhour, Elevated, Death Valley, California” is one of the most captivating images in a show full of them. The lean, striking American model Nyadhour Deng wears a one-piece black swimsuit that virtually disappears against her skin in the blinding desert glare. She appears to be one-third of the way into a cartwheel – both hands planted in the sand, and one leg starting its aerial rotation. The odd, arched pose is echoed by the sharp shadow beneath. Set against sun-baked dunes, the composition reads more like contemporary sculpture than a fashion shoot.
Daniel Obasi, from Lagos, Nigeria, also creates something monumental with his remarkable tableau, “Moments of Youth,” featuring four young men fashionably attired in tropical colors, and shot from below as they balance precariously on the prow of a wooden vessel. This being a fashion shoot (first published in the journal Primary Paper), the bare-chested man in front in the 1940s-style slacks has a green, gauzy fabric wrapped about his black-marble torso, but while setting up a cool visual contrast, it does nothing to lessen the photo’s heroic vibe.
Color, in this case, strong pink, plays a huge role in Tyler Mitchell’s 2019 “Untitled (Hijab Couture), New York,” resulting in an image that’s both puckish and breathtaking. Its young beauty is encased, as it were, from head to toe by a garment made of huge, pink flower petals that form a sort of impenetrable shell. For all the hauteur in the young woman’s eyes above her pink-pink lips, Mitchell – whose September 2018 Vogue cover shot of Beyoncé was a first, remarkably, for a Black photographer – has created an intimate, albeit intense, portrait. So too with his “Untitled (Hat), New York, 2018,” a gender-bending study of a young man with challenging eyes beneath a large, tilt-disc hat of the sort favored by British royalty.
(Visitors who enjoy “Black Vanguard’s” intensely colorful display might also want to walk through “Black is Beautiful: The Photography of Kwame Brathwaite,” a black-and-white show of work from the 1960s that’s up at the museum through Jan. 16.)
For her part, Detroit artist Shirley Woodson, now in her mid-80s, has had quite a year. Last January, she was named the Kresge Foundation’s 2021 Eminent Artist, an honor that spotlights a lifetime of artistic achievement and community engagement, and comes with a $50,000 no-strings stipend. And earlier this fall, Detroit Artists Market hosted a career retrospective, “Shirley Woodson: Why Do I Delight,” which closed just before Halloween.
Now comes the artist’s first solo show at the DIA, “Shirley Woodson: Shield of the Nile Reflections,” with 11 brightly colored canvases guaranteed to staunch your seasonal affective disorder. As the title suggests, a river runs through almost all of these, Woodson’s testament to the spiritual and cultural significance of the Nile for Black Africans, both on the continent and in the diaspora.
Detroit artist Allie McGhee (whose solo show, “Banana Moon Horn,” is up at the Cranbrook Art Museum through March 20), calls Woodson’s richly textured style “a sort of bridge between abstract and Impressionism,” and there’s no denying her freely rendered, lush canvases pack a vibrance and hard-to-define emotional punch. Wielding vivid color, symbols and figures, Woodson creates bright, inscrutable canvases laden with totemic meaning. Interestingly, however, most of her female figures look out at the world with blank faces. The artist explains she doesn’t assign them features “because I think the viewer can become a part of the work using [their] own imagination.”
As it happens, Woodson – a longtime Detroit Public Schools art teacher with graduate degrees from Wayne State University and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago — has been working with the Nile for decades, seeing in the world’s longest river a metaphor for Africa and the African experience generally. With her 1984 “Shield of the Nile, No. 2,” a pair of women deeply immersed in water balance an oval shield between them. The two, apparently treading the rainbow-hued water, are also armed with arrows, suggesting a fierceness that calls to mind the legendary Amazons. Indeed, Woodson has said her figures were partly inspired in part by another mythic figure, Diana, Roman goddess of the hunt. But for all its possible symbolism, “Shield of the Nile” succeeds most extravagantly as a lavish color study whose warmth you can practically feel from across the room.
In “Flight with Mirror,” a 2014 work starring a determined-looking woman riding a horse through the waters, the artist has constructed a scene of seeming triumph, never mind the title, that underlines women’s power and innate creativity long ignored by a male-dominated cultural elite. Interestingly, this woman, unlike so many of her figures, is fully equipped with facial features. If you’re tempted to see Woodson herself in the painting, go right ahead.
Her longtime friend and protégé, the late Gilda Snowden — quoted in the Kresge Foundation monograph “A Palette for the People: The Vibrant World of Shirley Woodson” – put it as well as anyone: “Shirley deftly unites color, myths, historical references with a little bit of magic into works that are glorious renditions of what life could be and should be.”
“The New Black Vanguard: Photography between Art and Fashion” will be at the Detroit Institute of Arts through April 17. “Shirley Woodson: Shield of the Nile Reflections” will come down June 12, 2022.