In 2015 African American movie star Amanda Stenberg in a 4 minute video on cultural appropriation posted on her Tumblr page said, “What would America be like if we loved black people as much as black culture?" This question poignantly compiles the deeply troubling state of institution racism in America, and it’s totally illogical disparity at the political and social levels. America is a nation with deeply tangled roots in institutional racism against African Americans, with a simultaneously thriving art and entertainment culture built on the backs of the very people the nation puts down. There are brutal police shootings of black teenagers, and yet there has been a black president. In the nation with the world’s most prisons, black people are five times more likely to be incarcerated than white people. Yet, the cultural appropriation of black culture in music, high fashion, art, and literature is undeniable. From the abolition of slavery in 1865, through the civil rights movement of the 60s, the Black Panthers of the 70s, and the Rodney King riots of 92, the conflict is not new. Yet, it has reached an unprecedented peak.
Institutions and individuals alike can no longer deny the wholly unfair exclusion and lack of recognition of black culture’s impact on society. Art has always been the pathway for truth telling outside the institution, and now more than ever are black artists refusing to be ignored. So how do contemporary artists address this tug of war, to move forward in a struggle that seems to take one step forward for every three steps back? The answer it is to step out of the dance, self-reflect, and redefine what it means to be black. This requires intuitions to become self-reflective in acknowledging the gaping holes in exhibiting black artists, and in hiring black people to authoritative curatorial positions. It requires individuals to consciously acknowledge deeply embedded exclusionary beliefs and do the work to truly change them. It requires a lot of wrongs to be admitted to finally create the spaces for black artists to speak for themselves and be respected for doing so.
In art institutions the exclusion of African Americans has been a topic in the shadows for a longtime. Forget about galleries, who are always very late to the party of social justice and very early to the party of profits. Institutions, however, are designed to reflect historical, political, and social changes championing the great accomplishments of humanity. Institutions have great power in surfacing and normalizing social issues and in a way, this is their civic duty. This nearly total exclusion of African American artists begs the question asked by Maurice Berger in his 1990 Art News essay, “Are Art Museums Racist?”. Thirty years later, his essay could not be more relevant. It is evident that for the most part art museums have acted like other corporations in America, prioritizing the narrow interests and white bias of upper-class investors and clientele, and often acting with little regard to cultural preservation. The art institutions that are willing to confront the issue respond with dedicated exhibitions to African American artists, rarely integrating African American artists into their existing shows. Further perpetuating this segregation is the trend of specifically African American art institutions. Though in theory this is an efficient and quick way to level the playing field, does this method unintentionally absolve the already established institutions of their social responsibility to integration?
Many institution’s defense is the difficulty to place African American artists in the established canon of art history, a canon completely built on Eurocentric shaping of taste and importance that doesn’t properly consider the social and economic boundaries that shaped those tastes. Historically, African Americans did not have access to art departments in schools, and many museums were segregated for a long time. It seems that institutions would rather not rustle their brand or the scripted experience of visitors with works that might force viewers to learn something new, rather than validate their existing art knowledge confidence. All of this is desperately silly when we think of how the entire movement of Cubism was inspired by ceremonial masks from Africa.
This is a glaringly selective interpretation of art history, and one that needs to open its eyes. The role of the museum is to provide resources for public education, and this is the role it must take seriously in the context of institutional racism. Institutions must provide the platform and space for individuals to confront and reevaluate their own problematic attitudes towards people of color. Institutions must also walk the walk and do better in hiring people of color, so these expressions and educational endeavors remain authentic. More established museums could consider satellite operations in more diverse neighborhoods to stimulate inclusion. Berger concluded his 1990 essay with this:
“When it comes to the question of why we ignore the art of African Americans and other people of color, simply learning how to listen to others is not enough. We must first learn how to listen to ourselves, no matter how painful that process might be.”
This attitude was echoed by the late Marcia Tucker, founder of The New Museum in New York City, who stated: “Museum administrators have to reeducate themselves completely. We must read the new art histories; we must read theory in order to put ourselves in touch with all culture. We must learn to listen, keep our eyes and ears open and stop speaking for others.”
The high-profile success of a small handful of African American artists may allow the public to believe the status quo is shifting. In 2017, a painting by the late Jean Michel Basquiat sold for $110 million, becoming the most expensive work by an American artist ever sold at auction. Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald’s created the sensational hit of Barack and Michelle Obamas presidential portraits that now hang in the National Gallery. Martin Puryear’s sculptures were showcased at the 2019 Venice Biennale, making him the second consecutive African American artist to represent the US. He follows Mark Bradford who is a global star represented by Hauser& Wirth. Kerry James Marshall has recently toured a blockbuster retrospective around the United States. However, these stars are the anomaly still, and their work does not quite directly confront he social tensions of African Americans today.
Let’s briefly discuss the social tensions of racism in America, most prominently seen in the surge of police brutality cases that have sparked riots, marches, and urged political reform in the past decade. In 2012 Barack Obama was elected for his second term as US president, marking his position as highly deserved and far from an anomaly. This very same year a 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot to death by a police officer while walking down the street of an affluent neighborhood. Riots emerged almost immediately and later in the year after his shooter was acquitted of murder, massive protests swept the nation. Two years later while being choked by police officers, Eric Garner died gasping for air, begging to the officers that he was asthmatic. The viral video of his death was eerily reminiscent of the footage of Rodney King being beaten by police in 1992. Just months later, 18-year-old Michael Brown Jr, was fatally shot in Ferguson Missouri, allegedly with his hands up in surrender. Massive protests erupt, and Ferguson is declared in a state of emergency, as protesters are gassed by SWAT teams in the street, a scene immortalized in Robert Longo’s hyperrealist charcoal drawing of the heavily armed Ferguson police, Untitled (Ferguson Police, August 13, 2014). Nationwide protests ensue, yet eventually his shooter Officer Wilson is also acquitted. Three months later Tamir Rice, a 12-year old African American boy, was carrying a replica toy Airsoft gun in a backyard, and was shot to death by Timothy Loehmann, a 26-year-old police officer. The list goes on painfully and unending. MappingPoliceViolence.org is a resource of complied statistics and graphics expressing the gross disparity between white and black people shot and killed by police in America.
It is in this context that contemporary African American artists are working. Two contemporary artists whose work specifically acknowledges these tensions are Arthur Jafa and Adam Pendleton. These artists are working to redefine modern day blackness with open interpretation and encouraging the reconstruction of the individual’s relationship to black culture. Both of their works exude a full acknowledgment that the history of black culture cannot be denied, and cannot be replaced, but is what makes the culture the vibrant life force it is today. While Jafa works in a near real time present-ness of popular culture and Pendleton sources influence from a fragmented history of black culture, both artists are uprooting definitions, breaking molds, and giving audiences the space to reexamine their own deeply embedded conditioning around perspectives of black culture, encouraging individuals to develop new ways of thinking.
Arthur Jafa is an enigmatic figure, who oozes coolness and style. His articulate, calm, and welcoming demeanor invites listeners into his thought process, a process shaped by a lifelong affinity for in depth research on black culture. His work assembles fragments of culture found in newspapers, magazines, videos he has filmed himself and many he has found online. He seeks to let the material speak for itself, and let the viewer determine their own thoughts and feelings and hopefully come to new resolutions. Though it is not Jaffa’s intention to preach or directly educate, he is a facilitator. He provides the visual platform for viewers to rethink the personal bias and prejudices that come up when they are faced with the work. In that, is the lasting transformation of cultural opinion.
Jafa was born in 1960 in Mississippi, his childhood classrooms being among the first integrated. He has an immediate awareness of the invasion of other people’s projections and implied perceptions on him and his blackness. He shares that, very early on, he was determined to break free of the “monolithic blackness” imposed on African Americans. That, though the black population of Mississippi were integrated, they were a collective “other”, and treated as such. Jafa’s professional career blossomed through working with cinematography in films, such as “Eyes Wide Shut” by Stanley Kubrick. He is also famous for directing music videos and art centric documentaries for Jay-Z, Solange Knowles, Beyoncé, and Spike Lee. However, to focus solely on this aspect of his career, is to feed into the concept of monolithic blackness he tries to confront.
He is passionate about black representation in visual art and his work can be seen as a missing link in how black culture is represented and how it is received. Jafa’s work underlines just how crucial it has been to civil rights to turn the camera back upon the white gaze in order to make the world see, reflect, and believe, not just mindlessly consume. In addressing the disparity between the consumption of black culture in America, Jafa states:
“On one level, I’m happy for it because I think black people should feel entitled, too, but that’s just not realistic. It’s not keeping it real. It’s not really seeing this for what it is, and I think that’s super critical. This whole idea of seeing is believing.”
If seeing is believing, Jafa champions video works as the ultimate visual delivery. In a strange parallel, when the 1965 voting-rights marchers in Selma, Alabama were run down by policemen, those were streamed on the evening news when Martin Luther King Jr. said, “We no longer will let them use their clubs on us in the dark corners… We are going to make them do it in the glaring light of television.” Jafa uses video, often taken from the internet readily posted by real people to harness pop culture and to reflect us back to ourselves, resulting in an improvisational, “visceral, truth-telling art”.
Milestones in Jafa’s highly esteemed oeuvre include his documentary Dreams are Colder than Death (2012), and art world earthquake Love Is the Message, The Message Is Death (2016). Love is the Message is a 7-minute-long masterpiece of a vast spectrum of found footage tracing the African American identity through contemporary imagery. The video displays spliced videos of historic events, black superstars, and anonymous individuals in both ecstasy and despair. The video acts a poignant remainder of the multitude of individuals with manifold identities and unaccountable differences that collectively define modern Blackness.
Pushing this concept to the edge, Jafa delivers his masterpiece The White Album 2018-2019, which won the Golden Lion Award at the 2019 Venice Biennale, the highest honor of the event. The White Album 2018-2019 is a 40-minute montage of found footage from the internet. Video segments include the white supremacist Dylan Roof leaving a church in Charleston, South Carolina after murdering nine people at a Bible study in 2015; Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange (1971); a white man on a curb in handcuffs repeatedly screaming “nigger” at his black female arresting officer; Alana Thompson aka Honey Boo Boo; Erykah Badu; O.J. Simpson; German “cybergoths,” dancing to hiphop; a man bleeding to death on the road while being attacked during the Rodney King riots (1992); a white bearded man demonstrating how quickly he can reload the multitude of guns he is carrying. The video investigates the tensions between the violence and the extremism of white supremacy, but also displays tender videos of the white people in Jafa’s life that he loves and respects. By doing this, he confirms that the video is not intended to present a resolution or to divulge his personal stance on the matter, but is meant to antagonize the reality of contemporary racism while breaking it up with safe landing zones in the avalanche of white madness that is on display. Emphasizing the lack of resolution, the black person is no longer the subject to be analyzed, and the work is rather about opening the dialogue to every possibility of interpretation for each individual viewer. What is more, is by using footage found online, Jafa confirms the power of the internet as the communal brain of contemporary culture. Jafa has cited as a central influence Nam Jun Paik’s prediction that:
“The culture that is going to survive in the future is the culture you can carry around in your head.”
Jafa maintains a techno-capitalist iteration of Paik’s thinking; that the culture that is going to survive lives on the internet, as the internet today is deeply entangled with the modern human beliefs and emotions.
Adam Pendleton’s work echoes the concept that the best resolution is no resolution, because where there is no resolution there are endless possibilities of outcome. Pendleton’s work uses fragments of language, phrases, and speech to deconstruct history and reconfigure it in the present, while handing over all reigns of interpretation to the viewer. His work often references 20th century artistic and political movements including Dada, Minimalism, the Civil Rights movement, and the visual culture of decolonization. Pendleton has pioneered the form of Black Dada, a theoretical conceptualism of blackness geared towards abstracting ideas around black culture, a culture so often boxed, limited, and defined by those outside of it. Pendleton’s work liberates black culture, by designing an experience of present-ness around his work, by resurfacing the past and letting it evolve in the ever expanding now. Backing away from a neat chronology, Pendleton’s work uses images and narratives that echo the past but bringing the reverberated sound right to the edges of the present, and curiously follow it to the endless possibilities of the future. This theory is also prominent in the works of the late great James Baldwin who said:
"We used to think of history as the realm of the settled as an inalterable past, as a nightmare. That was the legacy that bequeathed us by the past century’s catastrophes. But while we can never redeem what has been lost, versions of the past are forever being reconstructed in our fabrication of the present”.
Pendleton is only 36 years old, and yet has already filled his oeuvre with rich, vibrant, meaningful works in his sever signature style. He is set for a large-scale multimedia installation at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City this summer. He often works with installations, creating cohesive environments for which the artwork is merely “a point of departure”. He is more interested in creating a site of engagement and from there, “finding a mid-space location, which is maybe how revolutions start.” Many of his exhibitions carry this atmosphere, of the artwork spilling over its frame and continuing on the walls they are hung from. In 2015 Pendleton participated in the Belgian Pavilion of the Venice Biennale, with a group of artists whose work examined or deconstructed, in one way or another, colonialism and decolonization. He devoured his delegated white cube, covering the walls in black and white silkscreen murals, with one prominent wall displaying Black Dada Flag (Black Lives Matter), 2015, a work made in direct response to the eponymous movement following the shooting of Trayvon Martin. The work depicts a not quite legible black and white spray painted script of “Black Lives Matter”. Prior to this exhibition he had one solo show, and since he has had fifteen worldwide. Pendleton’s 2018 exhibition “Our Ideas” at Pace Gallery in London was an incredibly cohesive show of his various mediums including murals, paintings, drawings, a video work, and two wall sized grids of works on Mylar each composed of around 30 parts. Pendleton also curated the Pace booth at the 2018 Frieze Masters.
Pendleton’s signature style, grounded deeply in thoughtful and provoking social theory, renders him a cultural stature not soon to fade. His work remains educational, informative, aesthetic, and evolving. The artworks alone hold all the trappings of modernist art glory, easily envisioned on the walls of institutions and collectors alike. Having a show at the MoMA proves his ability to break decade old molds of what is shown in established art institutions, and he is no token black artist. He himself has stated his acknowledgement of how much work there is to be done about institutions incorporating more black artists, and sees himself as just the beginning. His work is beautiful and enticing, but his ability to capture the social atmosphere of the present day is what makes his work unforgettable. This is an artist not here to sell paintings, but to encapsulate the present in a way that can be deeply engaged with and perspective changing. Interestingly, as Jafa seems impossibly current and realtime savvy of popular culture, Pendleton has an old soul, and as a young person acts a sage, a guide for contemporary viewers in understanding the larger picture of the greater timelines of black culture, and point us to a very distant future, one still very much worth fighting for.
Jafa and Pendleton’s work both demonstrate that history is not a distant unchangeable nightmare, but the foundation of who we are and talisman of what we can be. We see where we have been to know who we are, and only when we know who we are we can reconfigure, reimagine, and elevate the possibilities. We are greater than ourselves alone, we are the compilation of many great people, people who fought for humanity and succeeded. As these greats did for us, we owe it to the future to reject limits and fight for the impossible beauty of the unknown future. Our contemporary world is so well connected, we are alive on the internet, avatars who can be whomever we want. When we harness the past, learn from it, and reshape in the endless possibility of the present, the future will be inclusive, colorful, and meaningful for everyone.