She’s So Articulate
June 10- July 19, 2008
She’s so Articulate: Black Women Artists Reclaim the Narrative, co-curated by Washington collector Henry Thaggert and Jeffry Cudlin, Director of Exhibitions at the Arlington Art Center, presents eleven African-American women artists who elevate the concept of personal narration. The inviting organization of this exhibition located on two floors in handsomely renovated galleries brings together artists from San Francisco, New York, Boston New York and the Washington DC metropolitan area. By means of a variety of visual and aural experiences, the viewer is drawn through the exhibition much like the pages of a book – one that has been sequenced with provocative, irreverent, humorous, challenging, socially relevant and emotionally disturbing material. Rather than a formal academic focus, the exhibition favors an open-ended approach, one that leads us to consider the rewriting of history and rewriting of narrative of the black community in particular. It provides broad insights about the role of narration in contemporary life and allows us to balance and contrast what we know and do not know about black identity through the reflective vision of these women artists.
A small well-written catalogue with essays by Henry Thaggert and Jeffry Cudlin goes far in exploring powerful arguments for narration as a contemporary strategy and throws up much dust thrown for us to consider. First, the exhibition attests to careful research by Thaggert who recognizes scholars and artists Dr. David Driskell, Dr. Floyd Coleman, Dwayne Rogers, Hank Willis Thomas and Dr. Gwendolyn Dubois Shaw, —all significant figures in both African-American art circles and in the broader history of modern and contemporary art. In his essay, Thaggert states “ We have created a laboratory of sorts, choosing works that seem to engage in a dialogue with one another…to create a sort of meta-narrative.” The title that refers both to well-articulated stories and to the phenomena in which a black person is complimented not for the substance of what she says but for how she says it, the tongue-in-cheek “she’s so articulate” also hopefully signals to a knowing audience that the exhibition embodies a sort of double consciousness. Cudlin offers that these eleven women artists are operating in a museum sphere in which the standards of making and presenting art still largely serve the interests of white male artists. The artists of “She’s So Articulate” are operating in a hostile environment, and they speak in the codes of an art world that to this day does not necessarily serve their needs or reflect their histories.
Most importantly Thaggert, a passionate art advocate, developed this project from visceral response to artist Kara Walker’s important role and over arching contribution to narration, while at the same time wondering if Walker has “become the poster child and sole emissary for black female narrative art”.
Walker, an African-American artist won a 1997 MacArthur genius grant at age 27 and was recently featured in a one-women touring retrospective exhibition garnering much attention and success. Walker’s work uses large black paper cut-outs to depict stereotypical portraits of antebellum slaves, all performing and being led into acts that leave the viewer with a residue of distinct traumatic experience. Other African-American women have challenged this work. Led by artist Betye Saar (b. 1926) these women see Walker “betraying black Americans by representing slavery in a degrading way,” bring up the issue of who can use racist language legitimately. Thaggert questions whether Walker’s prominence and the content of her work somehow dilute other African-American voices.
She’s so Articulate attempts to illustrate Thaggert’s belief that “contemporary artistic concerns of black women artists are broader than the Color Purple- type survivor’s narrative concerning slavery, Jim Crow and segregation. I also hope this project explodes the romantic (and somewhat dismissive) idea that black female artists consistently and exclusively assume the role of a burdened protagonist who evolves to self-realization through art.”
Thaggert and Cuddling first select African-American women who choose to investigate their own identities through discerning role-playing. They recognize the seduction of Washington, DC artist Renee Stout’s new PowerPoint A Rootworker’s Day, as an intimate revelation of her alter ego, Fatima Mayfield. In one broad stroke, with the help of some humble time-based media, Stout expands the idea of narrative art by revealing herself at home in the actuality of her assumed role. The curators similarly selected Renee Cox’s "Raje" photos, which are technically perfect and embody the show's goals--black women aggressively and affirmatively rescuing the narrative tradition. In the large digitally manipulated photos, Cox’s alter ego not only survives victimhood but also thrives and flaunts her black female power as a super heroine. Holding hands with altered icons Aunt Jemina and Uncle Ben, Cox explodes larger than life from the frame of reference, freeing racial stereotypes appearing on our food labels.
Other artists Thaggert selects toy with standards of black feminine beauty promulgated by popular culture. In lauren woods's video, The Teenth of June, found footage of the Miss Texas pageant is manipulated in order to create a tense unsettling experience about how the selection of beauty is made. Co-curator Cudlin argues that the captivating footage awakens “our all-too recent history of segregation and violence that seem to appear just below the surface of contemporary life.” Nadine Robinson’s White We is made of synthetic hair coiled around a speaker that plays excerpts from Diana Ross 1975 movie Mahogany, in which we hear a recording of Ross dancing and laughing as her character, Tracey Chambers, is discovered and reinvented by a white male fashion photographer. Artist Djakarta offers a recording titled Last Taboo, a haunting autobiographical piece in which an unidentified male narrator reads a letter Djakarta received at age 13 – from a prison inmate. Sexual innuendos arise in a series of unsuitable questions to the young girl providing us with an examination of how our culture early on objectifies women, at increasingly younger ages.
Two artists in the exhibition take on a globalized view, working across cultural boundaries, altering visual motifs, materials and space itself. Cudlin explains that Torkwase Dyson aims to reclaim lost pre-colonial African identity by using affordable mass produced objects (earring cards, rhinestones, yarn, and sequined decals for sweat shirts) created in the third world and intended for consumption by an African American audience. Her large wall installation Oil and Fauna Don’t Mix alters these materials into an imagined world shaped by vignettes of octopuses, polar bears, and dinosaurs, cavorting in a landscape of toxic bubbles, industrial smoke stacks and jagged icy peaks. Nekisha Durett's homage to Japanese screens, manga and anime with an ambiguous fairy tale in which human and animal character fill an entire room – in a way not dissimilar to a Kara Walker installation. In a dimly lit room, Disney-esque animals, humans disguised as bears and an ominous hatchet, lodged in a tree stump, confront us. The installation is at once strange, frightening and charming.
On the more collective side of consciousness regarding the fragility of identity are Stephanie Dinkens and Erika Ranee. Dinkins’s installation Americana I features video footage of a woman walking a ledge someplace in the wilderness of the American West, projected onto a large tapestry of waxed printed pages of Ralph Ellison’s seminal novel, Invisible Man. We fear for her fall. Erika Ranee is the only traditional painter in the show. She creates canvases that are densely glazed florally ornamented and joyfully splattered, all containing underlying images of black female figures as seen in hip-hop music videos, pornography, and mythological figures. In her artist statement she writes, “…I stashed the offending evidence deep into my files, hoping that it would vaporize into thin air like those dudes on Star trek…but it kept flashing back.”
Lastly in homage to stewardship, Maya Freelon Asante, once mentored by feminist Faith Ringgold, presents an 11-foot-tall mythical figure pieced together from scraps of tissue papers, somewhat resembling a large colorful quilt perched between abstraction and representation. Faith Ringgold herself is represented by Who’s Bad (with images of Michael Jackson, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks), a storyquilt that collapses the borders between popular culture, fine art and history using the magic of sewn textiles to keenly transform our awareness of iconic figures.
It is interesting to note that this exhibition is being shown at the same time that Kerry James Marshall’s exhibition Black on Black has opened at Jack Shaiman. Marshall focuses on the over used kitsch portrayal of popular romantic black story telling, particularly the relationship of lovers. The exhibition enables him to powerfully comment on his perception that that narration of our times leaves us feeling a certain absence of the personal voice.
In She’s so Articulate, however, the artist/ women practitioners layer images derived from many traditions and take ownership of their personal stories to grapple with reclaiming narration. Perhaps, in a hope to move into the future free of any stereotypical designation of black artistic expression in mind —possibly not the artists’ first choice, but certainly the only one that is viable for the magnitude of their questioning - they investigate contradictory representation and brilliantly create arresting new imagery.
Footnote: A catalog with essays by the co-curators and statements by the participating artists is available from the Arlington Art Center, www.arlingtonartcenter.org