One of the places designated as a ‘must see!’ during my recent trip to the United States was the Studio Museum in Harlem: a site first established in the iconic New York district in 1968 as a space for ‘artists of colour’ from the USA, the global African diasporas and Latinx heritage communities to (in the words of the current Creative Director and Chief Curator, Thelma Golden) “share their gifts of provocation and insight.”
At the time of my visit in mid-February 2017 the Studio Museum’s main galleries featured the following four temporary displays and exhibits, arranged on three levels:
(1) Circa 1970 (November 17, 2016 to March 5, 2017) – a wide-ranging display of paintings, photographs and sculptures from the Studio Museum’s permanent collections illustrating the changing expression of African-American and wider African diasporan consciousness and socio-political activism by established and emerging artists during the years 1970 to 1979. As this period represents significant transitions in black and brown American lived experiences and agency following the civil rights era in the USA, the scope and subject-matter of the artworks was highly reflective of an increasing sense of confidence and assertiveness that came through in sublime portraiture and figurative work by artists such as Beauford Delaney and Romare Bearden, but was equally also revealed in more overtly political works about the history of the Black Panthers, the rise of Black feminism/womanism, and the art-political activism of AfriCOBRA (Coalition of Black Revolutionary Artists). This radical history was depicted in works by a diverse selection of artists: from Elizabeth Catlett-Mora (1915-2012) and Norman Lewis (1909-1979), whose portfolios commenced during the Harlem Renaissance and concluded in the 1970s; through to former Studio Museum ‘artist-in-residence’ LeRoy Clarke (b. 1938, originally from Trinidad and Tobago), and Chicago-born feminist artist Senga Nengudi (b. 1943) – two avant-gardists who both initiated their most innovative work in the latter years of that pivotal decade.
(2) The Window and the Breaking of the Window (November 17, 2016 to March 5, 2017) – an exhibition of hard-hitting typographic paintings, street photography and photo-portraiture documenting the history of public protests within African-American communities. The texts and images presented in the gallery reflected decades of documentation about how black communities in the USA, and African diasporans in the wider West, have risen up and spoken out with a strong collective voice against long-standing racialised injustices, acts of discrimination and cycles of violence meted out by police and other public officials whose unjust and biased policies and practices have blighted black lives throughout the African diaspora(s) for generations. Acts of protest and statements of resistance and resilience presented in works by (among others) Chris Ofili, Deborah Grant, Rudy Shepherd and Kerry James Marshall were some of the most powerful and provocative pieces in this bold, forthright and affirming display.
(3) Black Cowboy (November 17, 2016 to March 5, 2017) – a collection of photographic stills and looped documentary film installations that offered new insights about the hidden histories of African-American cowboys, ranchers and rodeo riders in the USA. The particular selection of works by contemporary photographers and video artists Ron Tarver, Deana Lawson and Chandra McCormick was accompanied by a highly informative interpretation narrative written by Associate Curator Amanda Hunt – skilfully articulating the long and proud history of these riders: from Civil War era ‘Buffalo Soldiers’ of the 19th century, through to 21st century rodeo riders displaying horsemanship in communities throughout Philadelphia, Oklahoma, Texas and Los Angeles. A significant aspect of this exhibition’s core purpose was to challenge the mythical depiction of the American cowboy that has been almost exclusively portrayed – and thus normalised – as white and male (typically in the image of John Wayne and the ‘Marlboro Man’).
(4) EXCERPT (January 26 to July 2, 2017) – a small selection of works exploring the way artists use (and have used) language and text as a form of resistance to traditional methods of historicising and dismantling ideas. Within this two-room display on the Studio Museum’s lower ground floor were works by, among others, Kara Walker, Lalla Essaydi and Ellen Gallagher.
A more detailed selection of artworks from the main exhibition, Circa 1970…
Returning to the main exhibition – Circa 1970 , curated by Thelma Golden – the following artworks represent my personal selection of some of the most impressive, poignant and ‘politically aesthetic’ exhibits on display:
Two works by Elizabeth Catlett-Mora (1915-2012): “Homage to the Panthers” (1970); “Watts / Detroit / Washington / Harlem / Newark” (1970). Linocut on paper. Photo: Carol Dixon
Some concluding thoughts…
Beyond the aforementioned temporary exhibitions, it was quite awe-inspiring to appraise other famous works from the Studio Museum’s more recently acquired collections created by some of the most high-profile, politically conscious, artist-activists of African descent working in the USA today.
Consider, for example, this light installation depicting the words”Me / We” – formally titled Give Us A Poem (Palindrome #2), 2007, by the Bronx-born, New York artist Glenn Ligon – which is on permanent display in the Studio Museum’s reception gallery. This bold and minimalist artwork references a famous response given by the boxer and global icon Muhammad Ali following a speech at Harvard University in 1975. According to accounts of the event, when Muhammad Ali was asked by one of the students in the audience to recite a poem to the Harvard gathering, the boxer famously replied with the words “Me, We” – thus succinctly referencing that his primary purpose in life was to use his fame, fortune and global recognition as a sporting superstar and prominent Muslim-American to speak up about securing and protecting human rights, equalities and freedoms for all African heritage people, as well as the rights of other black and brown ‘people of colour’ experiencing racialised discrimination and injustice world-wide.
I am delighted that I had an opportunity to visit this amazing museum and see for myself the outstanding collections amassed throughout almost 50 years of expansion and growth – from the Studio Museum’s early foundations in a temporary loft apartment (at 2033 5th Avenue) in 1968, to a more secure, 40-year history at its current address, 144 West 125th Street (from 1977 to the present day). I came away feeling simultaneously energised, inspired and uplifted by a superb selection of works that, together, were reflective of an increasingly emboldened, positive expression of black cultural identities and African diaspora histories. These thoughts and emotions were further heightened by an awareness that this institution, its collections, and its scholarly outputs over half a century, all combine to successfully symbolise the creative expressions and arts activism of confident African and Latinx heritage men and women exhibiting artistic and political agency in a world of increasing openness – primarily as a direct result of arduous, hard-fought (and still ongoing) civil and human rights struggles.
The exhibitions Circa 1970, Black Cowboy, and The Window and the Breaking of the Window, at 144 West 125th Street, Harlem, New York, all close on 5th March 2017; while EXCERPT continues until 2nd July 2017.
Further details about the above-mentioned exhibits and collections are also available online from the website of the Studio Museum in Harlem at https://www.studiomuseum.org/