Hold: A Meditation on Black Aesthetics

Melvin Edwards (American, born 1937), Curtain for Friends, 2015. Color lithograph on two sheets. Princeton University Art Museum. Museum purchase, Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921, Fund. © Melvin Edwards /Artists Rights Society (ARS), New YorkTogether, the Miracles’ 1962 hit song “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” and the Staple Singers’ 1972 track “This World” provide the soundtrack to this exhibition. If you listen closely to both songs, you might be able to hear a subtle leitmotif in Miracles lead singer Smokey Robinson’s plea to “hold me, hold me, hold me” and the Staple Singers’ refrain “my mind / holds this world / in its hands.” Here, the music attunes us to the resonances of the word that organizes this exhibition: “hold.” Possession, embrace, and the many other meanings that ring out from “hold” make it a useful concept-metaphor for thinking about the diverse expressive forms that gather under the banner of black art.

Wangechi Mutu (Kenyan, born 1972, based in the United States), Chorus Line, 2008. Watercolor and collage on paper. Princeton University Art Museum. Museum purchase, Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921, Fund. © 2008, Wangechi MutuDuring the 1960s, black artists and intellectuals embraced the idea of a black aesthetic as an ideological alternative to Eurocentric notions of beauty and taste. Since then, black aesthetics has served more broadly as a site of convergence across the African diaspora, weaving a history of placelessness and belonging, support and constraint, holding and being held. From the modernist sensibilities of the Harlem Renaissance to the surrealist imaginaries of Négritude, from the social realism of the Black Popular Front to the nonrepresentational dispositions of black conceptualism, black artists have articulated different visions of black aesthetics in order to meet the needs of different places and times.

Rather than narrowly defining a genre or mode of expression, this exhibition explores how black creativity has functioned as a generative resource throughout the African diaspora, inspiring alternate ways of seeing, living, and being together in the world. It seeks to place art objects in relation and to explore how they speak to and interanimate each other. Think of the sharp touch of a blade’s edge and how this sensation links Wangechi Mutu’s Chorus Line (2008) and Melvin Edwards’s Curtain for Friends (2015). It is not difficult to draw out a thematic continuity in both artworks, say that of violence; however, when the works are placed side by side, it is more a feeling that emanates from Mutu’s female forms and Edwards’s barbed wire and chain. The brutal associations of Edwards’s print rematerialize in Mutu’s process of cutting and pasting found photographs over watercolors to create exposed, acrobatic figures. Meanwhile, we can imagine the fused bodies in Mutu’s Chorus Line gathering for a final bow behind Edwards’s Curtain for Friends as if to suggest a mutual bond that emerges on the other side of violence. The works touch each other within a field of echoes and sensations that cannot be reduced to the logics of representation.

In addition to the sociability among objects that gather in black art’s name, “hold” conjures histories of displacement and captivity that have engendered black life and haunt African diasporic artistic expression. “Hold” serves as a reminder of Édouard Glissant’s description of the hold of the slave ship as a space of creation and negation, the site where blackness was born, a “womb abyss.”

Hold: A Meditation on Black Aesthetics brings together a wide array of art objects in an effort to approach black aesthetics as an open question, as an assemblage of creative forms held together by the promise of always moving outside the grasp of any single definition.


Nijah Cunningham

Cotsen Postdoctoral Fellow, Princeton Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts; Lecturer, Department of African American Studies and Department of English