(ENG) Behind Enemy Lines: Black Power & Taboo. On The Color Line: African-American Artists and Segregation at Musée du Quai Branly, Paris

— Kari Rittenbach

William H. Johnson, Joe Louis and Unidentified Boxer, c.1939-42, tempera, pen and ink on paper, c. 20.5 × 15.3 in.

William H. Johnson, Joe Louis and Unidentified Boxer, c.1939-42, tempera, pen and ink on paper, c. 20.5 × 15.3 in.

“And the *angel* food cake was the *white* cake, and the *devil* food cake was the *chocolate* cake!”
Muhammad Ali, 1971

“And true, unless one lives and loves in the trenches it is difficult to remember that the war against dehumanization is ceaseless.”
Audre Lorde, 1980

In his recent comedy special for Netflix, Michael Che Matters, released in the incredulous tumult following the latest U.S. presidential election, the New Yorker and Saturday Night Live cast member explains his unflappably “creepy” habit of streaming a certain category of erotic video from his laptop while on the subway:

It made me wonder, who’s the first black dude to star in an interracial porno, and how come we don’t all know him as the bravest motherfucker in Civil Rights History?… Jackie Robinson got death threats and he just played baseball with white people.[1]

Che’s dark humor plays (constructed) racial stereotype against both the fiction of contemporary cultural liberalism, which transforms the digital exploitations of the porn industry into a site of liberation; and the primal ideological repression of American history and its foundational capitalism, which simultaneously negates and perpetuates, in altered form, the institutionalized violence of two and a half centuries of slavery. His joke invites laughter because its theme—miscegenation—is well–known (and well fetishized) and the extremely consequential anxieties surrounding racial identity within the U.S. context are certainly no revelation. At the same time, the seemingly tenuous connection between the physical
virtuosity of the black male, as legendary professional athlete, and the coincident implication of his sexual virility also invokes a sickening precedent: the long, legally facilitated national tradition of corporal debasement and socioeconomic domination of black American citizens.[2] Che’s sex joke also pays homage to another tradition, more rich, and more colorful: that of American stand-up comedy, after Richard Pryor. Art historian Darby English has described Pryor’s pointed, “culturally specific” humor as moving “beyond the airing of dirty laundry to the point of an open-ended analysis of the stereotypes gathered at the intersection of race and sexuality”[3]—specifically in relation to the lyrical abstractions of Glenn Ligon. As a vibrant departure from the artist’s serious formal and conceptual treatment of Black American literary texts in thick layers of oil and acrylic, Cocaine (Pimps) (1993), and other Pryor works behave rather more satirically; skewering the Euroethnic[4] solemnity of New York School painting. Ligon’s marigold-in-vermilion letterforms sear Pryor’s unholy vernacular into a thirty–two inch square picture-plane:

N****rs be holding them dicks too…
White people go, “Why you guys hold your things?”
Say “You done took everything else, motherfucker”

Deployed in aesthetic terms consonant with Pictures generation-style “appropriation”[5]—and serving as devastating riposte to Richard Prince’s wan Monochromatic Jokes from the same era—Ligon smuggles Pryor’s savage wit into the white cube in a way that might be considered a formal gesture of institutional critique; one meted on the provocative spectrum of deadpan kitsch rather than via dispassionate academic discourse.
The Pryor canvases were first hung in the landmark exhibition Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art, organized by Thelma Golden at the Whitney Museum (on the heels of the critically denounced 1993 Biennial[6]). Writing on “Black Male” in The New York Times in the post-Civil Rights era—defined by O.J. Simpson and the videotaped LAPD beating of Rodney King—Michael Kimmelman assuaged art world skepticism while lambasting the museum’s “penchant for flamboyant political gestures”:
“Some people have even wondered aloud whether this is a subject for an art museum to deal with. The answer to that question, at least, is simple. Yes, it is.”[7]
Beyond the art on view, one minor way the museum attempted to handle the hot question of black American men relative to contemporaneous American art practice was by constructing a supplementary historical display at the close of the exhibition. Compiled by cultural historian Maurice Berger, this “context chamber”[8] highlighted the plight of the African-American minority population throughout U.S. history—presumably as an educational service for museum visitors, viz. the art audience, grossly unfamiliar with its terms.[9]


The many responses in the American art press to the shooting at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in early 2015 reinforced the significant cultural ties between the U.S. art world (predominantly New York City) and the European art capitals with which it broke in the mid-twentieth century. Though the satirical journal’s freely expressionist cartoons have little connection to Fine Art proper, Yve-Alain Bois, an author of Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism (2004) and Painting as Model (1990), later conceded in the pages of Artforum that he would have joined the “grotesque spectacle” of the Je suis Charlie protest had he been in Paris that January: “my visceral revulsion over the murders eclipsed my distaste for the gross political manipulation.”[10]
Here was a tragic event, in which twelve lives were lost, that struck at the heart of the art world. The radically violent vehemence of the perpetrators’ iconoclasm was pointedly directed against Charlie Hebdo’s draftsmen, in a terrifying act of anti-Western sentiment and chilling (final) judgment.
By the time Art Basel came around, much of the shock had worn off. Linda Yablonsky noted, with some gravity, in her “Scene and Herd” column:

Thursday real life broke through the clouds with news that a twenty-one-year-old white racist had massacred nine black people in a Charleston, South Carolina, church. Weirdly, the Art Newspaper ran a story with the headline, “Black Art Matters,” about escalating prices for works by black artists. “Can you believe it?” asked Salon 94’s Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn. “They left out David Hammons!”[11]

The incident in South Carolina, carried out in Charleston’s African Methodist Episcopal Church—the oldest of its kind in the American South, with the oldest historically black congregation south of Baltimore, dating from the era of slavery—claimed nine lives including an eighty-seven-year-old woman and a state senator.[12] The racially motivated slaying otherwise went unremarked in the art press; its color issue did not pertain (at all) to cultural notions of laïcité or practices particularly valued by the mainstream art world. While entirely unrelated to the traumatic Hebdo event, the A.M.E. massacre also provided no unfamiliar, ideologically inverted symbolism—as if proving the normativity of state-sanctioned terror against blackness, from which the Black Lives Matter movement had recently emerged. How could such a uniquely horrifying American event be so totally un-“relatable” to the elite world of high culture?
David Joselit had recently attempted to analyze the camera-phone footage of the choking death of Eric Garner (for allegedly slinging loosies) at the hands of NYPD on Staten Island in July 2014. The question of visibility that Joselit posed might be important for semiotics and contemporary theories of the viral media image, especially as these issues pertain to artists and other producers of spectacular image-based materials: “If such a visual artifact can so blatantly fail in the task of representation before the law, both politically, as the proxy for an absent victim, and rhetorically, as evidence, doesn’t this present a challenge to how we define the politics of art?”[13]
Joselit’s speculative position, naively, fails to acknowledge the very material historical problem of representation in encounters between the black body, power and the law that form the foundation of critical race theory.[14] In fact, his analysis skirts the ongoing political urgency of black death as hypertrophic meme, shared via twenty-first century mobile surveillance technologies. Under these conditions, life continues to be lived (and lost):

Every movement of his body is an unconscious protest. Every desire, every dream, no matter how intimate or personal, is a plot or a conspiracy. Every hope is a plan for insurrection. Every glance of the eye is a threat. His very existence is a crime against the state![15]

Michael Che’s absurd dig at Jackie Robinson is, of course, a joke about crossing “the color line”—as it pertains to racial progress against the systems of oppression and exclusion that anchor the class hegemony of U.S. society. This cultural advance, which takes place through exceptional representatives of minority racialized groups, is constituted as a form of vanguardism with respect to the categorical boundary of whiteness, along which line segregation occurs:

To be white is not a sign of culture, or a statement of biology or genetics: it is essentially a power relationship, a statement of authority, a social construct which is perpetuated by systems of privilege, the consolidation of property and status.[16]

Despite its ethical and ideological abstractions, the starkness of the color line—the axis that defines (and centers) whiteness—persists.[17] The abolitionist Frederick Douglass[18] is credited with coining the phrase, in his eponymous essay published by the North American Review in 1881, during the post-Civil War era that saw “Jim Crow” laws enforcing racial segregation enacted across the American South.[19] Douglass wrote, somewhat optimistically: “This superstition of former greatness serves to fill out the shriveled sides of a meaningless race-pride which holds over after its power has vanished.”[20] But as a clear point of historical contingency, the color line was made famous by W.E.B. Du Bois.[21] At the Pan-African Conference in London in 1900, he declared: “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line,”[22] a refrain later reiterated in his seminal socio-logical study, The Souls of Black Folk (1903).
The more “sinister”—more culturally taboo—means of crossing the color line relies on carnal desire, and the biological reproduction of the human subject. That is: sex. To deconstruct Che’s joke entirely, then, and expose its ultimate horror, would be to acknowledge the violent social censuring of the very threat of interracial sexual contact, commonly practiced throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Under slavery, the “rape” of white women by black men was a capital offense,[23] a form of racial subordination via sexual control that lingered long after emancipation in the practice of extrajudicial (mob) execution. James Baldwin articulated this fundamental American transgression far more disturbingly: “white men have lynched negroes knowing them to be their sons; white women have had negroes burned knowing them to be their lovers.”[24]
So we don’t know “the bravest motherfuckers in Civil Rights History” simply because they were terrorized, beaten, disemboweled, castrated, brutalized, burned, and/or dismembered outside of the courtroom, where their names might have entered the historical record.[25] They were lynched.


The Color Line: African-American Artists and Segregation, an ambitious exhibition held at the Musée du quai Branly in Paris last winter, critically transformed Douglass’s expression into a red thread tracing the historical trajectory of black visual art in the United States, after 1865. Organized by the French critic and curator Daniel Soutif, The Color Line arrived at an interesting cultural moment for both Europe and the United States, and with an important (implicit) question: How will the color line be drawn in the twenty-first century? The American electoral “whitelash” and the failure of neoliberalism at the end of the second Obama presidential term signaled that erasure of said line would not soon be likely.
Soutif’s prior exhibition at the Branly, a touring show that originated in Trentino and traveled to Barcelona, was not precisely conceived for Paris’s then-new (and controversial) museum of indigenous cultures (arts premiers), but rather a stopover.[26] Examining the effect of music on strands of early- to mid-century artistic production, from painting to photography and the graphic arts, “Le Siècle du Jazz” (2009) focused on the significant relationship between (black) revolutionary compositional forms (improvisation and virtuosity) and the development of aesthetic modernism. Paintings by Robert Colescott and Archibald Motley were shown alongside those of Piet Mondrian and Jackson Pollock.[27] For his first project commissioned explicitly by the Branly, then, Soutif was tasked with the topic of segregation, which he chose to examine from the point of view of artistic creation; as a result of his growing awareness of the missing story of Black American art (and artists) within conventional accounts of American art history previously presented in Europe.
To be sure, The Color Line presents a fresh (foreign) perspective on this fraught, often suppressed, or merely ignored issue of racial hegemony within the institution of Euro-American art, with its embattled critical history; presenting concepts (redlining, the one-drop rule, the lynching postcard) and cultural figures (The Crisis, Augusta Savage, Spiral) to a French audience for the first time. It is difficult to imagine whether such a vast display—featuring 600 objects and documents, drawn signi-ficantly from the collections of Dr. and Mrs. Walter O. Evans, and the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture—would be initiated by an American art museum, because of the general institutional revisionism surrounding this dark (not only art) history, and the bracing broad-strokes overview the show provides. Certain elisions that are helpful when introducing an unfamiliar history to a non-American audience might be subject to greater critical scrutiny in the United States; so too the stereotypically offensive Jim Crow-era vaudeville show posters and plain (if sparing) didactic use of the n-word in wall vinyls. The exhibition included the work of exclusively black American artists (and a few writers, musicians and filmmakers), who Soutif suggests happened to be “on the wrong side” of his titular discriminatory line.[28] Another interpretation might find “fostering black cultural identity … an essential component of the critique of white supremacy.”[29] The exhibition’s unflinching, chiefly chronological presentation of Black American advancement and repeated, often sadistic, beating back—was both dizzying and awfully powerful to behold.
Even today, contemporary art remains incoherently divided according to taste, culture, class, gender, and other markers of haute-bourgeois—or else nouveau-riche—connoisseurship that simplistically collapse identity and aesthetic for smoother social media circulation, ie. consumption.[30] The very notion of the avant-garde, which celebrates an Oedipal relationship to traditional forms of art-making, problematically assumes we all have the same father. In The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon wrote:

The Negro, never so much a Negro as since he has been dominated by the whites, when he decides to prove that he has a culture and to behave like a cultured person, comes to realize that history points out a well-defined path to him: he must demonstrate that a Negro culture exists.[31]

Counter to Branly director Stéphane Martin’s institutional prerogative to produce “experiences of wonder and recognition,”[32] Soutif does not shy away from printed matter and documents—first edition publications by Claude McKay, Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes illustrated by Aaron Douglas or Jacob Lawrence; back issues of Jet, Time, Life, and Ebony dating from the loaded Civil Rights era; record sleeves including Max Roach’s We Insist! (1960) and Public Enemy’s Hazy Shade of Criminal (1992); the FBI’s most wanted advertisement featuring two photographs of a twenty-six-year-old Angela Yvonne Davis—which recur through various phases of the exhibition, successfully contextualizing the artwork on view. By treating this musical, literary and cultural ephemera as a very basic facet of black cultural production, Soutif furnishes (however partially) the non-hegemonic discourses through which black artists worked—and not only as formal convention or belated pedagogical afterthought. The strength of this compiled material, which ranges from Paul Laurence Dunbar to Lorraine Hansberry to Paul Gilroy, although not directly accessible to the viewer, nevertheless forms an important corpus—even syllabus—that may yet be unfamiliar to many Americans. (Such are the exhibition’s thrilling disclosures.)
By starting his chronology in 1865, when the Thirteenth Amendment formally abolished American slavery, Soutif concentrates on nascent black American art practice as it might be freely pursued; with the potential to transform, if not only enter, the developing (white) American art world. This emphasis positions The Color Line as a counter-narrative to broadly nationalist modernisms, and is distinct from efforts by other scholars to explore the depth and intricate interrelation of black art practices not defined by the nation-state.[33] With only the spectre of slavery in Soutif’s historical frame, the pastoral and its other—the plantation—also yield here to the aesthetic texture and vibrant social milieu of the urban; very often Harlem, New York.[34] The role of Paris as a cultural capital and site of artistic exchange thus provides a not insignificant counterpoint—considering the marginalized artists and intellectuals who sought (and often found) recognition in the alternative French context. Henry Ossawa Tanner exhibited at the 1898 Paris Salon and the Musée du Louvre; Jean-Paul Sartre’s reception of his friend Richard Wright’s détournement (“There is no Negro problem in the United States, there is only a White problem”) was essential to Anti-Semite and Jew (1944); Robert Colescott studied under Fernand Léger; Nina Simone sang; and a much neglected Beauford Delaney died in poverty there.
The Color Line proceeds through a series of genealogies that maintain a straight calendar of the twentieth century: the formation of individual authorship (via literary memoir), the evolution of entertainment (Bert Williams in blackface and the early cinema of Oscar Micheaux, through to Harry Belafonte in Carmen Jones and blaxploitation), the founding of black sociology and political advocacy (Du Bois’s studies and direction of the NAACP–National Association for the Advancement of Colored People as well as Booker T. Washington’s Tuskeegee Institute), empowerment through athleticism (heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, Muhammad Ali); rare film footage of the Harlem Hellfighters returning from the Great War, followed by race riots, The New Negro (Alain Locke, 1925), and the Harlem Renaissance; lynching in the post-World War II era, the Northern Migration and urbanization; and finally, Civil Rights, black liberation, the rise of Obama, Kerry James Marshall, and black contemporary art.
There are several key moments, careful decisions, and minor disappointments, There are several key moments, careful decisions, and minor disappointments, as is inevitable in such a wide-ranging show — with artworks generally clustered according to the period in which they were made. An effective transhistorical exception here was the installation of works by David Hammons, whose African American Flag (1990) was positioned prominently near the exhibition entrance. The deflated rubber wall piece, Air Jordan (1988), was mounted near Jacob Lawrence’s poster design for the 1972 Munich Olympics, as well as sketches and paintings of boxers Joe Lewis and Jack Johnson made by Charles Alston, William H. Johnson, and Raymond Saunders. And the Calder-esque “floating” sculpture of wooden masks, Untitled (1995) bobbled in the re-circulated institutional air, mercifully guarding the exit.
A miniature recreation of W.E.B. Du Bois’s project for the (unfortunately ethnographic) 1900 Paris Exposition—photographically reproduced from the archives of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.—was stunning. Made in collaboration with students and recent graduates at Atlanta University, Du Bois’s “Georgia Negro Exhibit” suggested a convincing form of data abstraction. In brightly inked colors and hand-drawn Constructivist designs avant la lettre, this series of graph-paper “drawings” reported such under-studied information as: “Assessed Value of Household and Kitchen Furniture Owned by Georgia Negroes”; “American Negro newspapers and periodicals”; and “Negro Teachers in Georgia Public Schools” in looping spirals, pyramids, and wildly angled bars of color. The statistical designs were accompanied by specific figurative examples; several albums of Types of American Negroes, Georgia, U.S.A contained individual portraits that undermined then predominantly criminal representations of black Americans and directly contradicted the pseudoscientific studies of Francis Galton’s Life History Album (1884). (August Sander’s Face of Our Time was not published until 1929.) The gaze and pose of the unnamed sitters in Du Bois’s collected photographs also challenged the contemporaneous viewer’s own middle-class identity (and probable whiteness) by inviting her identification with, in some cases, surprisingly pale-skinned subjects.[35]
A suite of works on paper by Jacob Lawrence, including Woman with Veil (1937) and Harlem Diner (1938), provide evidence of the painter’s boldly saturated and abstracted figures in lieu of the (currently touring) Migration Series (1940-41), which was instead digitally projected in the gallery like an informational powerpoint, complete with voiceover commentary. Miniature bronzes by Augusta Savage such as The Harp, 1939 (produced to raise funds for a full-size, permanent sculpture for the World’s Fair), sardonic comics by Ollie Harrington (published in the black Amsterdam News and the Communist People’s Daily World), and a three-color linoleum cut by Elizabeth Catlett (Malcolm X Speaks for Us, 1969) credibly support the necessary argument for an expanded canon.
While there are some identifiable “missed opportunities”—Charles Gaines’s exacting musical manifestos played against the racist vaudeville posters, or Adrian Piper’s Cornered (1988) in view of Du Bois’s probingly racialized photographic portraits—and conspicuous artists absent from Soutif’s roster (Melvin Edwards, Howardena Pindell, Lorraine O’Grady), the exhibition remains for the most part thematically, perhaps nostalgically, concentrated around the Harlem Renaissance. For this reason, insights into the early Marxist tendencies of that era’s painters and writers become readily apparent; as in the message inscribed to Langston Hughes on the flyleaf of Negro: An Anthology (1934) and signed by editor Nancy Cunard: “Yours for the freeing of the Negro Race, that it may stand with the other races in the all-Soviet world that is one day to be.” By the exhibition’s final room, which boasts of an optimistic market moment, as well as a popular Basquiat, Hank Willis Thomas’s ham-handed mixed-media relief, Amandla, 2013, feels anodyne. After Emory Douglas, how did we end up here?
Although the selection of postmodern and contemporary artworks tended to be shrewd—Alma Thomas’s March on Washington (1964), Norman Lewis’s What Kind Are You (1968), Romare Bearden’s The Block II (1972)[36]—the condensation (or even elision) of a variety of critical art practices from the 1970s through the 1990s, including protests and interventions by the Black Blok Committee of the Art Workers’ Coalition (led by Tom Lloyd and Faith Ringgold), Chicago’s AfriCOBRA (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists), and complex performances or installations by Lorna Simpson, Adrian Piper and Rene Green constitute a rather substantial, if inevitable, omission.[37] Together, these more difficult propositions and unstable media formats might evoke a less digestible closing premise[38]—notwithstanding the prominence of black male artists, thematic masculinity (whether bolstered or assaulted), and militarized “progress” along Soutif’s generously unfolding Color Line. An almost misplaced work by Elizabeth Catlett, so late does it manifest in the exhibition chronology, transcends the imposed program and compulsory advance in a series of fifteen linocuts—The Negro Woman (1946)—that begin with cosmic affirmation (Je suis la femme noire) and traverse field work, slavery, oppression, and segregation to conclude with an always deferred future, nevertheless in view (Je suis en droit à un future égal aux autres Américains).
The unruly disruption of Catlett’s expanded timeline hinted to the always-already too late character of the exhibition’s historicism—however important its contextual lexicon. By re-examining the color line’s consequences with regard to the experience of the black feminist artist, would it be possible to undo false notions of historical forward progress (and violent compromise), to cease the (reproductive) labor necessary for capital exploitation, refuse the consumer demands of the debt society, and deny the art world’s thirst for surplus value? Is it possible—or even desirable—to merge critical art theory with (and through) critical race theory?[39] Despite Pryor’s obscene claim, there are some intellectual devices left.[40]
The final work on display in The Color Line, Mickalene Thomas’s Origin of the Universe I (2012), with its shiny acrylics and abundant rhinestones, literally drags the possibility of black female liberation through the painting’s lurid dispossession of her flattened (fragmented) body, under the gratuitous influence of Courbet. Thomas’s picture also recasts the gender parity of Che’s sex joke; though the ambiguously traced implications of fertility and erotic desire maintain a still more menacing undertone. But consider, in its place, Lyle Ashton Harris’s stylized photograph of Renee Cox as Venus Hottentot 2000 (1994), and her gaze, daringly angled towards the viewer, posterior obscured. Recall Saartjie Baartman’s early and specially lewd torment, and the decades during which her skeletal remains languished in the Musée de l’Homme. Where lines demonstrably constrain and multiply their bonds, history has little strength to repeat itself. The origin point of social death is conditioned ontological abjection; its (real) abolition urgently requires revolutionary practices of all kinds.

Michael Che Matters, still

Michael Che Matters, still

  1. [1] Michael Che Matters, Netflix Original, Dir. Osmany Rodriguez, November 25, 2016.
  2. [2] In tracing the criminalization of the black body through the legal negotiation of the black subject’s humanity vis-à-vis his status as property under conditions of chattel slavery, Saidiya Hartman articulates the norms of moralistic racial characterization—and racially motivated violence—buried deeply within the American psyche, that form the basis of its systems. See Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997: “In positing the black as criminal, the state obfuscated its instrumental role in terror by projecting all culpability and wrongdoing onto the enslaved. The black body was simply the site on which the ‘crimes’ of the dominant class and of the state were externalized in the form of a threat. The criminality imputed to blacks disavowed white violence as a necessary response to the threatening agency of blackness,” pp. 82-83.
  3. [3] Darby English, How to See a Work of Art in Total Darkness, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007, p. 247.
  4. [4] See Adrian Piper, “Power Relations Within Existing Art Institutions” (1983) in Institutional Critique: An Anthology of Artist’s Writings, ed. Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009: “Through art education, criticism, exhibitions, and other practices and institutions devoted to preserving and disseminating what I shall refer to as Euroethnic art, the socioeconomic resources of this class of individuals [the arbiters of critical hegemony] enable its practitioners to promulgate its fascinating but ethnocentric artifacts as High Culture on a universal scale,” p. 248.
  5. [5] A “class reunion” photograph of sixteen members of this tentative generation, including the critics Hal Foster and Douglas Crimp, was taken late last year to accompany Gary Indiana’s feature article “Back in the Frame,” published in: The New York Times Style Magazine, February 19, 2017. Online, the image circulated to sometimes pointed commentary that the allegations of cultural appropriation Pictures artists periodically face somehow make sense in clear view of the cohort’s shockingly consistent (white) racial identity, pace Indiana: “Their art was connected by an interest in examining power and identity in a media-saturated, politically uncertain age” (M2227). One need not subscribe to racial essentialism to question the broad (however vague) validity of this claim.
  6. [6] See: Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Silvia Kolbowski, Miwon Kwon and Benjamin Buchloh, “The Politics of the Signifier: A Conversation on the Whitney Biennial,” October 66 (Autumn, 1993): “The fact that modernism fought a battle to liberate images from a slavery to text, to a totally instrumental, illustrative task, doesn’t seem to occur to this generation,” p. 11.
  7. [7] Michael Kimmelman, “Constructing Images of the Black Male,” The New York Times, November 11, 1994, C7.
  8. [8] Homi Bhabha, “Black Male,” Artforum 33:6 (February 1995), p. 110.
  9. [9] Alongside the perceived political neutrality of art, Piper emphasizes that another ideological fiction of art institutions is the “delusion” that the art audience “is not socioeconomically determined at all but … rather responding to purely aesthetic imperatives” See: Piper, “Power Relations,” 267. MoMA produced a similar museological display for “One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series” (3 April–7 Sept 2015), providing additional artifacts and documents for the artist’s seldom exhibited masterpiece that indicated its position external to the museum’s standard narrative of modernism.
  10. [10] Yve-Alain Bois, “Taken Liberties,” Artforum 53:8 (April 2015), p. 227.
  11. [11] Linda Yablonsky, “Rite of Way,” Artforum.com, June 20, 2015, https://www.artforum.com/diary/id=52972.
  12. [12] Shooter Dylan Roof was sentenced to death in January 2017.
  13. [13] David Joselit, “Material Witness: Visual Evidence and the Case of Eric Garner,” Artforum, no. 53, vol 6 (February 2015), p. 204. A grand jury did not indict the officer involved in the murder, although the bystander who filmed the event is now serving a four-year prison sentence for unrelated charges possibly brought against him as a form of police retaliation.
  14. [14] Chris Chen, “The Limit Point of Capitalist Equality: Notes Toward an Abolitionist Antiracism,” Endnotes 3 (September 2013), https://endnotes.org.uk/issues/3/en/chris-chen-the-limit-point-of-capitalist-equality: “Two dynamics have reproduced ‘race’ in the U.S. since the mid-twentieth-century anti-racist movements: first, economic subordination through racialized wage differentials and superfluization, and second, the racializing violence and global reach of the penal and national security state. Most contemporary ascriptive racialization processes are to a great extent politically unrepresentable as ‘race’ matters because they have been superficially coded as race-neutral–disciplinary state apparatuses, for example, defined through discourses of ‘national security threats,’ ‘illegal immigration,’ and ‘urban crime.’”
  15. [15] Richard Wright, Native Son, Native Sons (New York: Harper and Row, 1940), p. 367.
  16. [16] Manning Marable, Beyond Black and White: From Civil Rights to Barack Obama, (London: Verso, 2016), p. 6.
  17. [17] See Chen, “The Limit Point of Capitalist Equality”: “‘Race’ has not withered away: rather, it has been reconfigured in the face of austerity measures and an augmented ‘post-racial’ security state which has come into being to manage the ostensible racial threats to the nation posed by black wageless life, Latino immigrant labor, and ‘Islamic terrorism.’”
  18. [18] Casual comments about Douglass made by the acting President of the United States during Black History Month (February 2017) implied uncertainty as to whether the statesman might still be alive, hinting the current administration’s bald ignorance of his influential historical legacy as a social reformer and anti-slavery advocate (among other critical issues and matters of state).
  19. [19] Against predominant American cultural ideology, Hartman emphasizes the “nonevent of emancipation” following the end of institutionalized slavery in 1865 “as insinuated by the perpetuation of the plantation system and the refiguration of subjection” (emphasis added). Hartman, Scenes of Subjection, p. 116.
  20. [20] Daniel Soutif, et. al, The Color Line. Les artistes africains-américains et la ségrégation, (Paris: Flammarion/Musée du Quai Branly, 2016), p. 21. (Unfortunately, the French translation does not preserve the cutting lyricism of the original.)
  21. [21] Valerie Strauss, “DeVos’s Education Department misspells name of NAACP co-founder in tweet,” Washingtonpost.com, 12 Feb 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2017/02/12/devoss-education-department-misspells-name-of-naacp-co-founder-in-tweet-and-gets-hit-on-twitter/ utm_term=.7797d23e4a8a.
  22. [22] Quoted in Marable, Beyond Black and White, p. 240.
  23. [23] Hartman, Scenes of Subjection, p. 84. See the chapter “Seduction and the Ruses of Power,” for a careful examination of the legal definition of rape with regard to chattel slavery.
  24. [24] James Baldwin in conversation with Dick Gregory, West Indian Student Center, Kensington, London, 1969. See: 2 Films by Horace Ové (BFI Productions, 2005) DVD.
  25. [25] An exception, here, is the critical story of Emmett Till; the representation of which has provided another set of controversies for the current Whitney Biennial (2017). See: Myisha Priest, “‘The Nightmare Is Not Cured’: Emmett Till and American Healing,” American Quarterly, 62:1 (March 2010): “Though Emmett Till was murdered only once, the body of ‘the boy who never died’ rises before us again and again, marking the utility of the injured black body to American self-making and the ways this riddles and warps the shape of justice, leaving it at best, distorted, ambivalent, and partial” (1).
  26. [26] A pet project of former President Jacques Chirac, Musée du Quai Branly merged the collections of the colonialist Musée de l’Homme and the Musée des Arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie within a building and institution designed to serve the “ecstatic primitivism” of a predominantly aesthetic (vs. ethnographic) cultural agenda. See James Clifford, “Quai Branly in Process,” October 120 (Spring 2007), pp. 3-23.
  27. [27] Arthur Jafa, “My Black Death” (2002), On the Blackness of Blacknuss, ed. Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, Troy (New York: Publication Studio Hudson, 2014): “Jackson Pollock’s practice couldn’t have been without Jazz. It’s indisputable that Pollock was very good at what he did but the problem arose, inevitably, because he didn’t know what he was doing. His genius, and I think it was genius, resided in his ability to transpose Jazz’s improvisational flow and trajection, an essentially alien aesthetic methodology, onto the practice of painting” pp. 6-7.
  28. [28] Daniel Soutif and alii, Les artistes Africain-Américains et la ségrégation, op. cit, p. 6.
  29. [29] Marable, Beyond Black and White, p. 83.
  30. [30] What might it mean that the influential blogger behind the “Black Contemporary Art” tumblr has had increased exposure in the culture and fashion press and on the public programming lecture circuit while remaining in an administrative—rather than curatorial—role at The Museum of Metropolitan Art? There is a wide gulf between PR and institutional change. Only five years ago, critic Ken Johnson wrote on “Now Dig This!,” the exhibition organized by Kellie Jones: “It divides viewers between those who, because of their life experiences, will identify with the struggle for black empowerment, and others for whom the black experience remains more a matter of conjecture” (emphasis added). See Johnson,“Forged From the Fires of the 1960s,” The New York Times, 26 Oct 2012, C24.
  31. [31] Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, 1963), p. 212.
  32. [32] Clifford, “Quai Branly in Process”: “Today, [Martin] argues, the world is technologically interconnected. People can access many sources of knowledge about non-Western societies: the museum does not need to provide comprehensive information, assuming that were even possible … Quai Branly ‘is making theater, not writing theory.’ ‘The priests of contextualization … are poor museo-graphers’”, p. 6.
  33. [33] For example, the routes of the transatlantic slave trade to Britain, the United States, and The Caribbean influenced Paul Gilroy’s work in The Black Atlantic (Harvard University Press, 1993) and the subsequent exhibition “Afro Modern: Journeys through the Black Atlantic” staged at Tate Liverpool in 2010.
  34. [34] Another important precedent for The Color Line is the groundbreaking exhibition “Two Centuries of Black American Art” (1976) held at The Los Angeles County Museum of Art on the occasion of the U.S. Bicentennial. Organized by Fisk University professor David Driskell, the exhibition spanned the years 1750-1950 and included 200 artists and 63 objects. An initiative of the museum’s first black board member, Robert Wilson, the curatorial staff at first rejected the exhibition proposal, citing lack of expertise in African-American art.
  35. [35] See Shawn Michelle Smith, Photography on the Color Line: W.E.B. Du Bois, Race, and Visual Culture, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004)
  36. [36] The American museum acquisition of works by these particular artists has only belatedly begun to take place in the twenty-first century, within the past two to five years.
  37. [37] Upcoming exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum: “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-85”; and Tate Modern “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power” (spanning 1963–83) will provide opportunity to examine this these two decades more carefully, though without the longer view onto the American century attempted at Branly.
  38. [38] Julia Bryan-Wilson, “No Time to Wait,” Artforum 54:10 (Summer 2016): “More art by black artists on the museum walls, more black staff, more black curators, more black trustees—though these calls have been persistently sounded, sometimes quite loudly, for decades, art institutions seem to turn their collective attention to questions of racial injustice only intermittently and reactively rather than systematically,” p. 113.
  39. [39] Thomas McEvilley, “Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief” (1984): “The fact that the primitive ‘looks like’ the Modern is interpreted as validating the Modern by showing that its values are universal, while at the same time projecting it—and with it MoMA—into the future as a permanent canon. A counterview is possible: that primitivism on the contrary invalidates Modernism by showing it to be derivative and subject to external causation.” In Primitivism and Twentieth-Century Art: A Documentary History, ed. Jack D. Flam and Miriam Deutch (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 2003, p. 340. Not only Matisse and Picasso, were influenced by the deracinated African masks at the Trocadero Museum—so too Marcel Duchamp.
  40. [40] Fred Moten, “Blackness and Nothingness (Mysticism in the Flesh),” The South Atlantic Quarterly 112:4 (Fall 2013): “This is what Afro-pessimism performs, in and as theory—an affirmative gesture toward nothingness, an affirmation of negation and its destructive force. It implies and demands a negative political ontology that is manifest as a kind of affirmative nihilism,” p. 774.
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► From the same author
Aggregation or mere dislocation. On the 9th Berlin Biennale and “Painting 2.0: expression in the information age,” mumok, Vienna in May #16
Eternal Return. On “Call and Response” at Gavin Brown and “Forever Now” at the MoMA, New York in May #14