Art and Mourning

The latest exhibition at New York’s New Museum presents a searing cross-section of work by Black American artists. Titled Grief and Grievance, it was the vision of Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor (1963-2019), a pioneering advocate of modern African art since the early 1990s, known for selecting and arranging works to elicit dialogues with wider themes such as colonialism, apartheid and black liberation. In 2018, under the overtly white-nationalist presidency of Donald Trump, Enwezor was invited to organise a major exhibition at the museum in Manhattan.

Already suffering from cancer, Enwezor was simultaneously preparing a series of talks for Harvard’s Alain LeRoy Locke Lecture Series on the relationship between black mourning and white nationalism, as expressed through contemporary black art. In his lecture drafts – which he was unable to present due to his declining health – Enwezor developed the spine of what would become Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America. The show would explore the ways in which Black American artists undertook the work of mourning – the creative processing of grief – in the face of a culture of “white grievance” weaponised by the political establishment. He compiled lists of artworks and contacted catalogue contributors, continuing to work on the show until the final month of his life, March 2019.

Upon Enwezor’s death, three of his closest advisors – curators Mark Nash and Naomi Beckwith alongside conceptual artist Glenn Ligon – were tasked with bringing his ideas to fruition. What results is both a tribute to Enwezor’s energy and insight and a lucid survey of the contemporary Black American arts scene. Including work by 37 artists spanning several generations, most of the exhibition’s constituent pieces were produced over the last decade, with a small number commissioned for the show. Three historical works provide thematic fulcrums for the presentation: Jack Whitten’s Birmingham (1964), Daniel LaRue Johnson’s Freedom Now (1964) and Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Procession (1986).

In a curatorial discussion accompanying the launch of the show, co-curators Beckwith and Nash spoke of the importance of abstraction as a compositional and conceptual device. Examples include Whitten’s (1939-2018) devastating document of a civil rights march in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. It consists of a plywood panel blackened with oil paint, topped with a layer of aluminium foil which is torn and peeled back at its centre. Underneath is a newsprint photograph of a policeman and dog attacking a protestor. Here, abstraction is used to reveal documentary realities.

Adopting a similar approach, Daniel LaRue Johnson (1938-2017) created Freedom Now by coating a badge featuring the eponymous slogan – produced by The Congress of Racial Equality – in black pitch, deluging it and gluing it to a square canvas. It’s one of a number of found objects gathered by Johnson on trips around southern and former-confederate states. Johnson uses the abstracting, obscuring effects of tar to suggest the gap between political hope and real-life possibility.

The selections of newer works on show promise to trace the legacies of abstraction across a range of genres and media, from photography and film – Lorna Simpson, Garrett Bradley and Dawoud Bey are amongst those featured – to music and sound art. One such example is Rashid Johnson’s (b. 1977) Antoine’s Organ, a framework of black steel scaffolding filled with an array of blooming vegetation. Plants sit alongside looping videos, piles of books and sculpted busts made from shea-butter. The work calls to mind the minimalist grids of Sol LeWitt and Agnes Martin, as well as the stark architecture of prison cells. Despite this, it contains a strong note of joy and hope. Concealed within the latticework is a fully functioning piano, performed at intervals by the classically trained pianist and producer Antoine Baldwin. As Baldwin plays suspended in the air, melodies float through the foliage.

Enwezor was clear that this exhibition should open at the time of the recent 2020 presidential election, offering a direct critique of the resurgent forces of racial bigotry which had defined the previous four years. Although this was pushed back by Covid-19, the exhibition catalogue was, at least, published in Autumn 2020 to coincide with Trump’s election defeat. Grief and Grievance unites artists who are synchronised towards a common objective of mourning. Their works powerfully navigate the traumas that continue to impact Black life in the US: what the Black Lives Matter movement has called “a national emergency.”

Grief and Grievance is at the New Museum until 6 June. Find out more here.

Words: Greg Thomas.

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