Monday, April 30, 2012

Blackness in Art Museums

On my way to see the exhibition of African American art at the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson, I found a book titled " Exhibiting Blackness: African Americans and the American Art Museum" at the Menil Collection's bookstore in Houston. Published recently by University of Massachusetts Press, it is written by Bridget R. Cook, art historian, presently professor at the University of California, Irvine.

In her introduction, the author gives a detailed overview of the following chapters and how she chose key events in the art world to make her point: the neglect of African American art (or Black art as opposed to White art) in museums.
The first chapter concentrates on two exhibitions which took place at the end of the 1930's, Exhibition of Sculpture by William Edmondson and Contemporary Negro Art. The author also describes the goal of the Harmon foundation and the unique exhibition in 1940 of Jacob Lawrence's work The Negro Migration at the MoMA, replacing these events in their historical, political, social contexts and discussing their impact.
Chapter 2 relates another key exhibition Harlem on my mind: Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900-1968  which brought controversy before its opening in 1969 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Chapter 3 discusses Two Centuries of Black American Art, an exhibition which took place at the LACMA in 1976 and was a response to the Met's exhibition.
Chapter 4 is about another controversial exhibition almost twenty years later, Black Male: Representation of Black Masculinity in Contemporary American Art staged at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1994.
The last chapter brings up a discussion about art, referring to the exhibition organized at the Houston Museum of Art Quilts of Gee's Bend in 2002.

The author comments at length on these events which are catalysts in African American art. She discusses the goals of the museum curators in sink with political events, local or societal upheavals (like 1968). Her sources are well researched and the end of the book provides a list of notes and references. 
The balanced discussion with numerous quotes analyzes the impact of the exhibitions on local community and their responses.
The conclusion is a dense discussion about the role of African American artists and the display of their works in art museums.
 Twenty-two colored plates and thirty historical photographs in black and white illustrate the text.
 Even after a short epilogue, it feels like the book ends abruptly and needs one more chapter to give a broader update concerning the status of African Americans and the American Art Museum.

photographs by the author
"Urban Towniw", 2001, Chakaia Booker, permanent collection NOMA
"Chevron 1957", Clementine Hunter, permanent collection NOMA
New Orleans Museum of Art during the exhibition "Beyond the Blues"                                                                              

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