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Darkness Visible

The BMA Exhibits the Sights of Blackness

Body Politics: Emma Amos' "Models" claims a place for black women in the artistic pantheon.

By Lee Gardner | Posted 2/13/2002

Looking Forward/Looking Black

Baltimore Museum of Art through May 5

It seems there's only one thing more uncomfortable than dredging up several centuries worth of stereotypes, prejudices, distorted images, and misrepresentations directed at African-Americans by Europeans and European-Americans--and that's letting them lie. Wander through Looking Forward/Looking Black, a traveling exhibit currently on display at the Baltimore Museum of Art, and you will witness representatives of a generation of African-American artists coming to grips with this paradoxical legacy. Their rage, their contempt, their pride, and their bittersweet amusement is literally splattered all over the gallery walls.

The show's basic mission is made perfectly clear as you step into the first main gallery space and behold the enormous photographic tableau of Renée Cox's "The Liberation of Lady J and U.B." Cox--who also has a solo show running at C. Grimaldis Gallery through March 3--has become something of a cause célèbre in the art world for photographs in which she uses her own body to explore taboos related to race, art, religion, and sexuality. In "Liberation," she is a superhero come to free Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben from their long duty as beaming antebellum shills for the familiar products that make up the image's vivid background. Flanking Cox, they are reborn as a young black woman and man--fit, re-sexualized, not exactly stern but definitely not smiling and servile.

In Cox's "Hott En Tot," the mood is definitely not triumphant. The title refers to Saartjie Baartman, aka "The Hottentot Venus," an 18th-century African woman who was exhibited nude throughout Europe as a curiosity thanks to her ample buttocks. In Cox's black-and-white homage, the artist, nude and in profile, clutches to herself large plastic breasts and buttocks. Despite the amplified secondary sexual characteristics, it is Cox's ambiguous expression that draws attention. She appears sober and clear-eyed but not exactly defiant; the adjective that springs to mind is "knowing," as if by assuming Baartman's role for the gaze of strangers in a different century, she has understood something important about Baartman's experience, and perhaps her own. It is an expression that haunts you.

"Hott En Tot" is displayed in a gallery among other works seeking to reclaim and redefine black identity through photography, from Carrie Mae Weems' literal re-framing of 19th-century ethnographic photos as portraiture to Lyle Ashton Harris' outrageous gender- and race-bending series "The Americas," which features a nude black woman literally wrapped in the American flag and the artist himself done up in whiteface, lipstick, and a blonde wig. But save for Cox, the artists who create the strongest impact do their work outside the realm of photographic reality.

The seven oil-on-canvas paintings by Beverly McIver in the BMA gallery space devoted to Looking Forward/Looking Black are all, in some respect, self-portraits--but in each the artist paints herself as a black clown, festooned with gaudy colors and distorted, outsized features. There's nothing amusing or kitschy about McIver's work, though. "Sad Clown" shows off her terrific compositional sense and her brusque, stabbing brushwork in its depiction of the downcast title figure, who appears near-suicidal. The sad black clown seems to find solace in the embrace of a white lover in "Loving in Black and White #5"--until, that is, you notice the slice of watermelon McIver has dabbed into the background, its presence turning the scene into an acrid joke. Over a series of paintings of McIver and her sister--"Me and Rene #1," "Sad," "Crying," and "The Scream"--the clown figure's face morphs from a careful, almost delicate treatment to near-inchoate rage.

Kara Walker's work is built on similarly poisonous, self-hating images, but her art is more atavistic. Walker works with silhouettes, which were once used extensively for portraiture. (The exhibit's inclusion of a 19th-century Auguste Edouart silhouette rendering of an upper-class white family--each member carefully snipped from inky black paper--is a nice touch.) She also works with the sort of pre-Jim Crow racial stereotypes and exaggerations that have haunted African-Americans for decades, but she takes them to an absurd extreme that prompts both squirms and revelations. You literally can't leave the exhibit without passing by Walker's "Keys to the Coop," a dynamic linoleum-cut silhouette of girl with stereotypical Negroid features, grossly exaggerated. She is dressed in a frilly old-style dress and carries a chicken's severed head.

Alison Saar's two pieces are less provocative and contentious than those by Cox, McIver, or Walker, but they offer powerful statements nonetheless. In her vibrant woodcut "Sweeping Beauty," an almost-life-sized yellow-skinned woman is depicted upside down; her belly is swollen with child (or perhaps the power of creative potential), but her falling hair morphs into broom straw pressing against the floor, suggesting that her body is merely a tool. Saar's "Strange Fruit," offers another woman hung upside down, this time in three dimensions, constructed of what looks like scraps of old pressed-tin ceilings, with a rope around her feet. In sculptural form, the inverted position seems that much more of an indignity. The figure's hands clutch at her breasts and genitals; red lips, her only facial feature, mouth outrage.

Despite its placement in a mainstream civic art museum, the exhibit does not give the mainstream art world a free pass. In the foreground of Peter Williams' oil-on-canvas "Picasso and His African Mistress," a white male depicted in a slightly abstracted Cubist style encounters a female figure woman depicted in the slightly abstracted manner of traditional African sculptural form. Dubious stereotypical signifiers of blackness--from an erupting volcano to another piece of watermelon--litter the background, attesting to European artists' seduction by their own distorted and mistaken images of Africa and Africa-descended peoples. Emma Amos' acrylic-on-canvas "Models" contrasts the figure of a seminude black woman (taboo or misapprehended in traditional European art) with a Gauguin-esque Polynesian nude and a Greek nude (both acceptable, even revered).

Sadly, given all the powerful material, the exhibit's overall impact is undercut somewhat by a thrown-together feel, especially in terms of the installation. A small, low-ceilinged room off to the side, unmarked and unheralded, contains a hodgepodge of historical images, from three small outsider-art-ish drawings by Bill Traylor to early unposed art photography of African-Americans by James Van Der Zee and Gordon Parks (including three beautiful Parks prints from the museum's own collection) to two small but uncharacteristically individualized portraits of 19th-century blacks painted by white Southerner Maria Howard Weeden. Not only is this material poorly integrated with the rest of the exhibit, on which it does have bearing, but the work in the exhibit in general is hung in a way that sometimes seems a bit haphazard, or at least ad hoc.

But Looking Forward/Looking Black can't be dismissed; far from it. In the corner of the main gallery hangs Glenn Ligon's oil-stick "White #17"--an all-black canvas, from the BMA's own collection. Spend a few moments looking at it, and it becomes clear that there are lines of text covering the entire surface. Spend minute after minute squinting at it, and words and phrases begin to peer out of the murk: colorless . . . invisible . . . white people . . . whiteness . . . this problem . . . masks . . . confront the notion of white identity. Like the exhibit itself, the painting ultimately offers no answers, but it rewards pondering.

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