“BAM/BLM: Black Arts, Black Lives,” by Karl Kusserow for the Italian art publication Finestra sull’Arte
“BAM/BLM: Black Arts, Black Lives," by Karl Kusserow for the Italian art publication Finestra sull’Arte, looks at the welcome challenges to artistic and museum orthodoxies in light of Black Lives Matter and the earlier Black Arts Movement. "BLM has ignited and continues to inform a broader reassessment of entrenched racist, sexist, and colonial beliefs and structures throughout American society—including in the art it has valued and how it is displayed and understood.” Find the English translation below.
When New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) reopened its doors last October following the completion of a major expansion, it heralded not only the inauguration of a dramatically larger facility, but an equally comprehensive reboot of the art on display and the thinking underlying it. Director Glenn D. Lowry foretold the change, telling the New York Times in February, “the usual gets supplanted now by the unexpected.” Board chairman Leon Black elaborated that, whereas previously “the museum didn’t emphasize female artists, didn’t emphasize what minority artists were doing, and it was limited on geography . . . now they really should be part of the reality of the multicultural society we all live in.”
As it played out, reviews of the new MoMA were generally positive, less for the building than the way it had been populated with art of far greater diversity, unsettling the modernist orthodoxy the museum had itself institutionalized. Among the initial installation’s most remarked upon innovations was the series of provocative juxtapositions of canonical works with resonant pieces by artists formerly outside the mainstream—none more so than the placement of Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907), a mainstay of MoMA’s collection, adjacent to American People Series #20: Die, a canvas completed sixty years later by African American artist Faith Ringgold and acquired by the museum only in 2016 (fig. 1). The earlier work, with its radical disavowal of traditional composition and perspective, is considered a landmark of Western art. Ringgold’s painting is a landmark of another, hitherto less heralded type—the socially engaged art of the Black Arts Movement (BAM), a term coined by writer and activist Amiri Baraka for the loose coalition of politicized Black artists dedicated to racial identity and uplift, with which Ringgold was tangentially affiliated.
Picasso’s painting depicts prostitutes on display before the gaze of artist and viewer (what’s more, the surveilling figure at left was until the final version a man), and as such is socially regressive in content, even as its formal terms are revolutionary. Die is the opposite: there was little formally new about it in 1967, and yet the subject is utterly progressive in its cautionary portrayal of the specter of interracial violence and its future effects. Three pairs of racially disparate male figures, themselves attired in black and white, engage in bloody struggle while three women—also racially varied and wearing skin-tone dresses that heighten their exposure and vulnerability—seek to quell the violence and protect the mixed pair of children clinging together beneath them. In showing aggression by both races, and women as the heroes seeking to constrain it, Ringgold departed from the more partisan, macho character of much BAM art, yet Die also reflects the shift from the hopeful integrationist impulse of the civil rights movement of the early 1960s to the strident tenor of the oppositional, nationalistic Black Power movement, a stance in keeping with BAM precepts.
Ringgold was inspired in making Die by Picasso’s Guernica (1937), which remained in the United States from 1939–81, awaiting the return of republican government to Spain. Hence the installation of her seminal painting alongside another Picasso icon makes a certain historical sense. Comparing the politics behind Guernica and Ringgold’s work is instructive: Picasso’s painting was a commission for the Spanish Republic and reflected his leftist leanings (he was a staunch supporter of the French Communist Party), but, as is often said about the artist’s political commitments relative to his own ambition, he was ultimately a party of one, “Yo, Picasso.” Ringgold’s practice by contrast is pervasively informed by the politics of race and gender and a desire to see them improve. As another BAM affiliate artist, Betye Saar, has stated, “It is my goal as an artist to create works that expose injustice and reveal beauty.” Clearly for her, as for Ringgold, ethics and aesthetics are of similar import in their work and lives.
That Les Demoiselles d'Avignon and Die might now share the same gallery in the citadel of modern art, and each be considered of enduring importance, is due in significant part to the progress of another movement known by an acronym similar to BAM’s. Black Lives Matter (BLM) was founded in 2013 by three women activists in the wake of mounting extrajudicial killings of African Americans, especially by the very police meant to protect citizens. BLM has ignited and continues to inform a broader reassessment of entrenched racist, sexist, and colonial beliefs and structures throughout American society—including in the art it has valued and how it is displayed and understood.
Ringgold’s art anticipated all of this, as she even seems to have foreseen the more particular affiliation of her work with Picasso’s—but, characteristically, on her own terms. A “story quilt” from her 1991 series Dancing at the Louvre shows Picasso painting before his masterpiece, himself mostly naked like his subjects (fig. 2). However, now there is another figure inserted between the artist and Les Demoiselles: an exuberant Black woman, in an intervention that confidently insists on her inclusion, her belonging, in the narrative. And looming above Picasso like a guiding spirit is a figure from African art, as if to affirm the influence of such material on his practice more strongly than he allows in the masklike features of Demoiselles’s two rightmost women.
At my own museum not far from New York, the Princeton University Art Museum, we have a much earlier painting, in some ways similar to Demoiselles but mostly worlds apart. Completed around 1787 by American artist Henry Benbridge, probably on commission from one of the sitters, it too shows a small cluster of standing and seated women, in this case members of the Hartley family of South Carolina (fig. 3). Their decorous bearing and elaborate costume contrasts markedly with the Demoiselles’s splayed nudity, underscoring the wealth and privilege of the Hartley women, and the young ladies of Avignon’s lack of it. As plantation owners in Carolina rice country, the Hartleys' riches were undoubtedly derived from slavery, the debasement and subjugation of one human being over another for no other purpose than profit, and, in America, for no other reason than race. It is our original and indelible sin.
When our museum has its own reopening a few years from now, after a building transformation even more pervasive than MoMA’s, and inhabits a new facility designed by British-Ghanaian architect David Adjaye, we will install Benbridge’s painting next to a work that, like Ringgold to Picasso, speaks meaningfully to its neighbor. This work, also from South Carolina—though made inland from the Lowcountry plantations, in the Edgefield District known for its stoneware pottery—is a masterful storage jar by David Drake, an enslaved African American, who completed it on the eve of the Civil War (fig. 4). Exceptionally, Drake somehow learned to read and write, though each was illegal for slaves, and even more remarkably was allowed to adorn his wares with inscriptions. Ours states simply, “Princeton College in New Jersey.”
We will probably never know why Drake scratched these words onto the shoulder of his hefty jar. Perhaps someone he knew, from a family that might literally have owned him, attended the school far to the north. For whatever reason they exist, Drake’s words stand as a poignant assertion, however modest, of his selfhood and his capacity, against all odds, to read, to write, and to express himself through word and craft. What the Black Arts Movement, and Black Lives Matter, has and is helping us to reaffirm, is that art and the museums that display it need not—should not—be about aesthetics alone, about the visual and formal innovations like Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. They can and should also be about the social, and innovations of the spirit, which inform, empower, and bind together Faith Ringgold’s dynamically evocative painting and David Drake’s quietly expressive jar. Each is important, and beautiful.
John Wilmerding Curator of American Art, Princeton University Art Museum