Blackness on the Continuum
Renaissance: Noir investigates Blackness on the continuum of the historiographies of African American artists’ narratives that assert, individually and collectively, their state-of-mind and state-of-being Black. An existence, as coined by W.E.B. DuBois of “double consciousness”, where one is constantly combating the “isms” —racism, colorism, sexism, capitalism, colonialism, escapism, and criticism through the act of artistic activism.
In claiming agency over “otherness” and cultural emancipation from a Eurocentric lens, exuberant thought-provoking paintings, prints, photographs, sculptures, and conceptual works serve as chronological annals that delineate the social, political, and historical journey of the Black experience through intergenerational narratives that spam over 40 years of artistic production.
In deploying the power of Black subjectivity as the unifying force, imagery graphically documents the resolute spirit of African Americans as in the work of Ronald Jackson, whose paintings offer a commentary on the lives of resilient and dignified Southerners before the Great Migration. In Jackson’s nuanced and fantastical portrayal of Black rural life, figures are adorned with masks composed of flora and fauna—a device that conceals the identity of the subject, while revealing a gaze that beckons the viewer to contemplate “the intimate stories of Black people before they fled the South.”
Paintings and prints by Nelson Stevens emerge from activism and a commitment to rail against racism through a Black aesthetic that captures the ethos of the Black community. As a member of AfriCOBRA (African Commune for Bad Relevant Artists), a manifestation of the Black Art Movement of the sixties, Stevens’ work draws from the philosophical concepts and aesthetic principals of the artist collective to create culturally relevant work to uplift Black people.
The physiognomy of the Black male and its perceived threat to white society are concerns M. Scott Johnson, Felandus Thames, and Arvie Smith explore conceptually and figuratively in their work. Johnson’s sculptures carved from marble are birth in the subconscious state of atavistic memory and derived from Shona and Makonde sculpting techniques. The result, are works that embody the Black man’s angst while thematically “honoring the divine archetypes of a new Negro pantheon.” Thames’ conceptual works address stereotypical archetypes associated with Black male masculinity. Multi-colored hair beads and hairbrushes are the anachronistic weaponry in his arsenal as he probes questions of the “taxonomy of human difference.” Smith’s satirical paintings, unabashedly and unapologetically challenge racist tropes associated with the historic portrayals of Black men. In narratives interwoven with humor and seduction, Smith’s lionized figures are interlaced with imagery confronting the taboos of Black male sexuality.
The social and political construct of society drives the work of Wesley Clark and Larry Cook. Clark deploys conceptual works in an investigation of what America owes African Americans, and what they owe themselves. In drawing a direct correlation between reparations and Dr. Joy DeGruy’s theory of racial socialization, Clark examines socio-economic inequalities that plague the Black community – while stressing the importance of self-actualization. For Cook, photographs convey the complexities of Blackness through imagined idealistic urban settings. The use of backdrops airbrushed with luxury cars and liquor – are metaphors for consumer culture, driven by the desire to achieve status and wealth — offer escapism, an existence between the ersatz and Black reality.
Black body politics is the impulse that fuels the work of Tawny Chatmon, Alfred Conteh, Morel Doucet, Monica Ikegwu, and Delita Martin. In Chatmon’s photographs, hand-embellished portraits of Black children examine the “absence” of the black body in Western art. In a celebration of Black childhood, decorated and nuanced portraits inspired by Gustav Klimit’s (1862-1918) “Golden Phase” reinterprets history by elevating the black body from its historically subjugated position, to its rightful place.
Conteh’s draws inspiration from his southern roots when creating paintings and illustrations that explore the “economic, educational, and psychological wars being fought” by his community, against a society that politicizes and criminalizes their very existence. In confronting true and false narratives surrounding everyday black folks, Conteh’s emotive portraits are reminiscent of the erosive conditions that patent their lives.
Doucet’s printmaking is driven by his desire to expose environmental racism and marginalization of the black body. Through a merging of his Afro-Caribbean culture with flora and fauna, Doucet draws from the collective consciousness of his community in an investigation of the realities of climate-gentrification, migration, and displacement.
Ikegwu’s paintings of Black youth celebrate the nuances of black culture expressed through fashion that acts as the individual’s signifier. Offered as a counter-narrative to the negative stereotypes associated with expressions of a black cultural aesthetic, Ikegwu’s photo-realistic portraits capture the essence and beauty of Blackness.
In Delita Martin’s fantastical prints “Black women are magical beings that possess the power to transcend their skin and exist in otherworldliness.” Inspired by African diasporic spiritual and religious practices, Martin’s work is imbued with oral history, codified imagery, and allegories; and celebrates and reclaims a Black woman’s power and place in the natural and supernatural worlds.
Myrtis Bedolla, Curator