By Andrew Edmonson
Statements: African American Art from the Museum’s Collection is a stunning MFAH exhibition that takes the viewer on an engrossing journey through eight decades of art history and African-American cultural history, from 1935 to 2015.
Featuring painting, photography, sculpture, works on paper, and decorative arts, the exhibition spotlights 47 pieces from the museum’s collection of 900 works by African-American artists, ranging from historical luminaries such as John Biggers and Gordon Parks to exciting contemporary artists like Mequitta Ahuja, Trenton Doyle Hancock, and Kara Walker, with a strong focus on artists with Houston connections. As the nation struggles through a painful discussion of racial disparities in our criminal-justice system in the wake of the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castille, the ideas explored in several works in Statements resonate with even more power and relevance.
At the heart of the exhibition are five LGBT artists: Richmond Barthé, Mark Bradford, Nick Cave, Glenn Ligon, and Mickalene Thomas.
Richmond Barthé: Capturing the Spiritual Quality in the Human Figure
Opening the show is a sleek, irresistibly sensual sculpture from 1935, Feral Benga, by Harlem Renaissance master Richmond Barthé (1901–1989). In 1934, the artist visited Paris where he encountered the Senegalese cabaret dancer François (aka Feral) Benga and Josephine Baker at the Folies Bergère. A devout Catholic who was inspired throughout his career by the beauty of the black-male body, Barthe once observed, “All my life I have been interested in trying to capture the spiritual quality I see and feel in people, and I feel that the human figure as God made it is the best means of expressing this spirit in man.” In this work, suffused with a powerful homoeroticism, Barthé beautifully captures the leonine grace and languorous lines of the Senegalese dancer’s body in motion.
Glenn Ligon: Sounding the Distance from One Historical Moment to Another
After focusing on works of artists from the 1930s and 1940s who broke through institutional barriers to achieve a series of firsts, the exhibition moves into the tumult of the 1950s and 1960s as the civil-rights movement gained momentum. One of the iconic images from this period is Ernest Withers’ 1968 I Am A Man, Sanitation Workers Strike, Memphis, Tennessee depicting a phalanx of black men carrying signs declaring I Am A Man, protesting for a living wage and better working conditions, and asserting their basic human dignity, in the week preceding the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Thirty-two years later, New York conceptual artist Glenn Ligon looks back to this iconic moment in American history with his work Condition Report. As an intern at the Studio Museum in Harlem in the early 1980s, he had glimpsed a copy of Withers’ photo in the office of Representative Charlie Rangel. In 2000, he created a diptych, with two identical images of the placards carried by the striking sanitation workers. The version of the placard on the right, however, contains notations by a curator, documenting the cracks, smudges, and abrasions—a “condition report” detailing the physical decline of the work.
“I see them as not only documenting the aging of the painting,” Ligon has observed of the piece, “but the aging of certain ideas about the civil-rights movement, masculinity, and the distance between one historical moment and another.”
Ligon’s work has won fans in high places. He is a favorite of President and Mrs. Obama, and they selected one of his works for display in the private residence of the White House.
Mickalene Thomas: Venerating the Black Female Body
In stark contrast to Ligon’s chilly conceptualism are the lush bodaciousness and vibrant colors of lesbian artist Mickalene Thomas’ large-scale 2011 photograph, Lovely Six Foota. The work depicts a fierce, sensual African-American woman, arrayed in chic 1970s attire, trailing clouds of Black Power and feminist glory, as she looks boldly at the viewer with her blouse unbuttoned and her legs spread slightly. Thomas created this installation replete with 1970s furnishings and vinyl LP album covers.
“All of the women in my work have a profound sense of confidence and recognize themselves as the visible subject,” Thomas has said. “Their directness is filled with agency and self-knowledge. They have all the power and control to demand the viewer to meet them in their own space, rather than being exploited or scrutinized.”
“As a black woman who loves women, Ms. Thomas is in a double bind, and she makes the most of this to transcend it,” observed art critic Roberta Smith of Thomas’ work in the New York Times in 2012. “She celebrates, decorates, and really venerates the black female body by making it, and its lavish surroundings, bracingly tangible. She doesn’t so much depict a universal humanity as practically force it in the viewer’s place where it implicates, illuminates, and bedazzles.”
A graduate of the Pratt Institute and Yale University School of Art, Thomas has expanded beyond the world of museums and galleries into popular culture, working as a DJ, designing the cover art of Solange Knowles’ limited-edition EP True, and directing the HBO documentary Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman, paying tribute to her late mother and longtime muse, the fashion model Sandra Bush.
Nick Cave: A Shaman in Surreal Soundsuits
An artist who shares Thomas’ vibrant theatricality is Nick Cave of Chicago, represented here by one of his signature soundsuits. He created his first soundsuit—wearable sculptural forms based on the human body, comprised of found objects—in the wake of the Rodney King beating by four Los Angeles police officers in 1991, envisioning it as an emotional shield that conceals one’s race or gender while still expressing individuality.
“When I was inside a suit,” Cave observed, “you couldn’t tell if I was a woman or man; if I was black, red, green, or orange; from Haiti or South Africa. I was no longer Nick. I was a shaman of sorts.”
A graduate of the prestigious Cranbrook Academy of Art, Cave danced with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, created his own fashion line that he sold in a shop he ran for 10 years, and is today chair of the fashion-design program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. All of these disparate strands of his background are synthesized spectacularly in his soundsuits, which are seen to their best advantage when he performs in them in public spectacles and videos. His 2011 soundsuit featured in Statements is made of brightly colored braided rugs found in thrift stores in Chicago’s South Loop, sewn together to create a surreal, fantastical, vibrantly colorful sculpture.
Mark Bradford: Transmuting the Pain of the Los Angeles Riots into Hope
Another artist profoundly impacted by the beating of Rodney King and the ensuing rebellion in Los Angeles is Mark Bradford, winner of the State Department’s 2015 National Medal of Arts, the highest honor that the U.S. government can give for artistic achievement. In April, it was announced that he had landed another plum honor: representing the United States at the prestigious Venice Biennale, opening in May 2017.
Bradford was born in 1961 in South Los Angeles, and still makes his studio in the space where his mother ran a beauty shop in Leimert Park, one of the largest centers of the black middle class in America. He graduated from high school, got his hairdresser’s license, and went to work in his mother’s salon. Coming of age in the 1980s, his worldview was informed by queer and feminist politics during the developing AIDS crisis. After travelling through Europe, he enrolled at California Institute of the Arts in 1991, received his B.A. in 1995, and his M.A. in 1997.
In 2015, after his work had been featured in exhibitions across the globe, he had his first hometown solo show entitled Scorched Earth at L.A.’s Hammer Museum, which was described thusly: “Examining the moment and afterlife of the 1992 uprisings in Los Angeles, which he experienced from his studio in Leimert Park, Bradford has translated the outrage and lasting wounds of the riots into these new paintings.”
His monumental 2015 tableaux Circa 1992, which MFAH has recently acquired for its permanent collection, was also inspired by that seminal moment in American history. After the riots that tore Los Angeles apart, a church group issued signs declaring Rebuild South Central without Liquor Stores!/¡Reconstruir al sur Central Sin Negocios de Bebeidas Alcoholicas! Circa 1992 appropriates this phrase in a richly textured work featuring Bradford’s trademark mixture of painting and collage. It brings Statements to a transcendent conclusion, fusing a painful moment in American history with beautiful aestheticism and a message of hope for the future.
Statements: African-American Art from the Museum’s Collection is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, through September 25. The exhibition was curated by Alison de Lima Greene, with the assistance of Althea Ruoppo and John Semlitsch, for the museum’s modern and contemporary department. Admission to the museum is free on Thursdays.
Andrew Edmonson serves on the advisory board of The Oral History Project, which is capturing and preserving personal stories of the AIDS crisis in Houston, Harris County, and Southeast Texas.