BAILA con Duende was reviewed favorably in the media on FOX NEWS GOOD DAY LA in the segment series called Out and About. Lifestyle reporter Mar Yvette interviewed artists Mark Bradford, Artis Lane, Lili Bernard, Derrick Maddox, and Isaiah Bernard Ferguson. Rosie Lee Hooks, Director of the Watts Towers Arts Center, spoke about the upcoming Drum and Jazz Festival. Dancers Roxanne & Juan Carlos Blanco were featured in a preview of the festival.
BAILA con Duende was the featured story in four scenes, totaling ten minutes, which aired every hour on GOOD DAY LA, from 6:00 a.m. to 9:45 a.m. on September 26, 2012.
Slide Show of Fox News Good Day LA Shoot, September 26, 2012 (PHOTOS Lili Bernard)
In the press, BAILA con Duende was reviewed favorably by ARTVOICES MAGAZINE (published in Los Angeles), TIKKUN MAGAZINE (published nationally) and OBJEXTS MAGAZINE (published in Berlin).
Tikkun Magazine is a progressive Jewish periodical, published out of Duke University Press, in print and online. This issue features an academic article on BAILA con Duende, a group art exhibited that I solo-curated at the Watts Towers Arts Center. The show ran from September 9, 2012 – January 6, 2013.
Published April 8, 2013 for Tikkun Magazine by Duke University Press
A VISUAL CRITIQUE OF RACISM
African American Art from Southern California
One of the most valuable functions of socially conscious art is its power to personalize and humanize what can easily become an abstraction. This power was evident again and again at BAILA con Duende, a recent Los Angeles exhibition featuring the works of seventy-four black artists.
A strong strain of social commentary ran through the exhibition, with many of the artists addressing issues of racism in their works. For example, in a 2011 photograph that focuses on the martyred fourteen-year-old Emmett Till, photographer George Evans reintroduces the iconic image of Till’s unspeakably mutilated, disfigured body following his 1955 murder in Mississippi. After authorities retrieved Till’s body from the Tallahatchie River, it was sent back to Chicago for the funeral. His mother, Mamie Till, insisted on an open casket, declaring, “I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby.” Jet Magazine published this gruesome image, exposing the horrific face of racial murder to a shocked nation.
Evans’s depiction of Till’s body more than a half-century later is a stark reminder of the all-too-recent past. Scarcely new to most African American viewers, its graphic presence in this show highlights the compelling message that history must never be forgotten. By forcing viewers to revisit the 1955 tragedy, Evans personalizes the violence of racism in recent U.S. history. Early twenty-first-century audiences must remember Emmett Till not simply as a distant symbol of injustice, but as a young man with hopes and aspirations, whose life was brutally ended because he was black in a white racist society. And to those who ask why now, so many years later, Evans’s work is a valuable reminder that knowledge of the past is both achingly concrete and crucially essential for present and future liberation.
Evans’s photography is just one example drawn from a wide and varied body of brilliant artwork that is often shut out by academic gatekeepers and ignored by art critics who consistently overlook exhibitions in African American, Latino, and Asian American cultural institutions and venues. Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945–1980, the highly publicized art initiative from which the BAILA con Duende exhibition emerged, was a meaningful step toward a proper valuation of the work of artists of color in Southern California, but institutional racism within the art world remains intense, and the road ahead is long.
Critical Recognition for Artists of Color
The Pacific Standard Time project, which occurred in Southern California from October 2011 to April 2012, was one of the most highly publicized art initiatives of the early twenty-first century. As a collaboration between the Getty Foundation and the Getty Research Institute funded, it sponsored exhibitions at more than sixty museums and other cultural institutions throughout Southern California. It documented the emergence of the Los Angeles area as a vibrant postwar center for cultural production and revealed Southern California to be an authentic rival to New York as a world arts center.
Pacific Standard Time featured work by many more artists of color and women than had appeared in previous mainstream shows, thereby enabling critics and scholars to revise their sectarian outlooks and broaden their geographic horizons. The large presence of controversial feminist artists augured well for a more inclusive vision of the visual arts in the next several decades, and many Asian, Latino, and African American artists were richly represented, including many artists who had rarely had the opportunity for major public exposure. In some cases Pacific Standard Time exhibitions represented the artists’ first significant presentations before large audiences.
The African American contributions to Southern California artistic ferment were an especially prominent component of the art initiative. The UCLA Armand Hammer Museum featured Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles, a survey of some of the major Los Angeles figures of postwar African American art, including David Hammons, John Riddle, William Pajaud, Betye Saar, Ulysses Jenkins, Noah Purifoy, John Outterbridge, Suzanne Jackson, and many others. California State University at Northridge showed a comprehensive exhibition of African American photography depicting arts, politics, religion, and family life in Los Angeles-area black communities after World War II.
I co-curated the most comprehensive show of African American art, Places of Validation: Art and Progression, at the California African American Museum in downtown Exposition Park, near the center of black Los Angeles. It featured both well-known artists and those who have been severely neglected in mainstream academic and journalistic criticism over the years. Places of Validation also presented documents and photographs about the alternative exhibition venues that have featured African American artists who have long been excluded from dominant museums and commercial galleries on racial grounds — sometimes explicitly.
Effects of the Pacific Standard Time Initiative
The exhibitions and associated public programs of Pacific Standard Time helped put artists of color on more mainstream national and international cultural maps. A serious issue, as always, is the follow-up: after the initial enthusiasm, what will be the future for the region’s artists of color? Some developments have suggested that the initiative helped generate more sustained attention and critical recognition for these artists. For example, the Hammer Museum’s Now Dig This! exhibition moved to Long Island City, New York, at MoMA PS1 (an affiliate of the Museum of Modern Art) through March 2013. This provided East Coast viewers a rare opportunity to see striking examples of the vibrant tradition of Southern California African American art.
In Los Angeles, the most exciting African American artistic development emerging from the Pacific Standard Time effort was BAILA con Duende, a massive group exhibition at the Watts Towers Arts Center that ran from early September 2012 until early January 2013. Curator and artist/activist Lili Bernard selected a stunning array of talent for this show. Its list of participants included internationally known figures such as Betye Saar, Mark Bradford, Kehinde Wiley, William Pajaud, John Outterbridge, Artis Lane, Samella Lewis, and many others. It also included several artists known widely and respected throughout the region, as well as younger men and women whose works join this burgeoning tradition of visual excellence.
BAILA con Duende was an appropriate name for this exhibition. BAILA, which means “dance” in Spanish, is also the acronym for Black Artists in Los Angeles, an organization that the show’s curator started in order to elevate the presence of African American art and artists in the region, especially with the mainstream arts institutions that have largely ignored the tradition for many decades. Duende means a sense of soul or spirit in Spanish, lending this exhibition its central theme. In a multicultural region like Los Angeles, and especially in an increasingly Latino venue like Watts, the title of the exhibition was especially fitting.
The exhibition contained works that reflect the formal and thematic diversity of African American visual expression. It highlighted paintings, prints, sculptures, videos, photographs, mixed media works, and other forms. It included political and historical topics, personal themes, spiritual reflections and expressions, abstract works, and many others. Overall, BAILA con Duende offered an impressive view of African American visual creativity in Southern California.
A Graphic Condemnation of Slavery
The artworks of BAILA con Duende’s curator, Lili Bernard, often explore her Afro-Cuban ancestry and issues of racism. One of her paintings appropriately occupied a prominent space in the central gallery and revealed the commitment to social change that pervades this exhibition. Caroline, a large oil painting from 2012, is the third in her series of Caribbean slave paintings. In that series, she adapts classical European paintings and uses her version to tell stories of Afro-Caribbean slaves. Bernard’s works are replete with Afro-Cuban folkloric and religious symbolism synthesized from Yoruba and Catholic traditions.
LILI BERNARD – Caroline by Lili Bernard. Oil on canvas. (lilibernard.com)
This artwork, which adapts Eduard Manet’s classic 1863 Olympia, is a tribute to Bernard’s dark-skinned great-grandmother, a servant for her wealthy, white great-grandfather — a typical “arrangement” of sexual exploitation during slavery in the Western world. The starkest details in this disconcerting painting are the steel muzzles that surround the heads of the artist’s great-grandmother and her great-grandfather’s white wife. Called “scold’s bridles,” they were cruel and humiliating punishment devices used on women. In this case, the bridle on the black woman ensured her silence in the face of rape and on the white wife to ensure her silence — or denial — about her husband’s sexual privilege as a white male slave owner. The wife also attempts to shield her child from this unsavory reality. The man’s smugness and arrogance as he dresses following the sexual assault reveals, in microcosm, the deeper malevolence of slavery generally. Viewers also experience such other despicable elements of slavery’s oppression as leg irons and other torture devices. Overall, Caroline is a devastating and effective visual critique.
Bernard’s other works in her series adapt iconic works from Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People to complement her powerful artistic response to historical injustice. The latter, entitled Carlota Leading the People, appropriates Delacroix’s masterpiece about the July 1830 revolution in France to tell the story of an Afro-Cuban woman, Carlota, who led a slave revolt in Mantanzas in 1843. She is the central figure, brandishing a rifle and a machete, and is accompanied by her compatriots Fermina and Evaristo, at the left of the painting. When she was captured, Carlota was dragged and quartered to death, a typically grisly fate for slaves in Cuba and throughout North and South America and the Caribbean who challenged their inhuman conditions. In the background are other Afro-Cuban slaves hanging, a warning to the enslaved of their fate if they decide to rebel. This visual representation of slave revolts (exhibited recently in another Los Angeles venue), so imaginatively depicted in Bernard’s adaptation of European classical art, has been a thematic staple in African American visual art for more than a century.
LILI BERNARD – Carlota Leading the People by Lili Bernard. Oil on canvas. (lilibernard.com)
One additional point about Bernard’s painting deserves specific attention. Carlota is presented as a conventionally attractive woman, a sensual black counterpart to Delacroix’s figure in his early nineteenth-century masterpiece work. Her image is a striking contrast to that of Carlota in a Cuban web-site, which depicts her as course and stocky, while acknowledging and celebrating her political courage and heroism. No actual image of Carlota’s from her 1843 rebellion is available, so Bernard opts to depict Carlota as a conventionally attractive woman, a vision that more broadly contradicts the view that activist women must be compensating for physical appearances deemed disappointing by those around them.
Jena, Katrina, and the American Dream
Like George Evans’s depiction of Emmett Till, Joe Lewis’s Hello . . . Jena Louisiana delivers a condemnation of racism with striking imagery. Only a few years ago, in 2006, the small Louisiana town of Jena was the site of a major racial incident that once again revealed the persistence of a Southern racist legal system. Six black teenagers were convicted for beating a white student at Jena High School after the same prosecutor failed to charge white teenagers who assaulted a young African American. More ominously, lynch nooses had been hung from a tree in the school courtyard, exacerbating racial tensions in the school and town.
JOE LEWIS – Hello from Jena by Joe Lewis. Giclee print.
Civil rights advocates saw the events, especially the prosecutions based on excessive charges, as the legal counterpart of the infamous lynching history that the courtyard nooses signified. Lewis’s artwork pointedly positions nooses in the background of the composition, an unsubtle reminder of the state’s long and dishonorable record of lynching against African Americans. Dominating the front of the work is the town’s name, in cursive style with lettering in chain — the classic material of oppression during slavery and Jim Crow–era chain gangs and racist incarceration in Louisiana. At the bottom, the artist includes the textual addition of “right to work,” the notorious anti-union legislation, common in the South, that restricts labor unions and increases the general right-wing atmosphere that breeds and exacerbates racist attitudes and practices.
One of the most imaginative politically conscious works in BAILA con Duende is Derrick Maddox’s It Is What It Ain’t: American Dream.” Maddox, a young artist professionally trained at the California Institute of the Arts, is deliberately confrontational with his unorthodox style. This work consists of approximately one hundred prints on white bread, an especially appropriate material for his incisive critique of American white power. At the center, sitting on a large plate, is a white bread slice emblazoned with “whitey world.” Verbally provocative, the artwork calls attention to various incidents, events, policies, symbols, and persons that reflect the domination of white power in America.
Several individual bread slices with printed messages and images are especially significant and especially telling. Directly under “whitey world,” for example, is the name “Obama,” deliberately with a line drawn through it. The implication is clear: millions of white Americans refuse to accept the legitimacy of a black president and commander-in-chief. Other bread slices reference “projects,” an allusion to substandard housing for millions of American minorities; a noose, the historic symbol of lynching and violence against African Americans; a $100 bill, a telling symbol of American capitalist priorities over human values; a widely reproduced image of a slave with visible scar tissue on his back, a reminder of the perverse cruelty of slavery and its violent heritage; and others. Additional images that do not appear in the accompanying illustration include Trayvon Martin and a helicopter — the ubiquitous police “ghettobird” that flies incessantly over black neighborhoods in Los Angeles. On the second floor of the exhibition, Maddox’s work places bread slices that spell out the letters W, A, and R, a grim reminder of the military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan that have cost the nation thousands of lives and billions of dollars.
Another young artist, Moses Ball, focused on the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in his contributions to the exhibition. Looters Will Be Shot starkly reveals the merciless response of the New Orleans Police Department, the National Guard, and other armed “defenders” of civil order. These men and women protected private property and gunned down desperate civilians, primarily blacks, seeking to survive in the face of monumental governmental negligence and indifference.
MOSES BALL – Looters will be shot! by Moses X Ball. An image of a Hurricane Katrina survivor painted on objects found on site in the aftermath of the hurricane.
The artist positions a strong African American woman, a powerful symbol of strength in the face of unspeakable adversity, in front of the Confederate flag, the longtime, inarguable signifier of racism and white supremacy. Pinned to the woman’s shirt are actual photographs of African Americans from New Orleans — the real victims of institutional neglect and callousness during the George W. Bush administration.
Ball’s works put a compelling human face on one of the major catastrophes of the early twenty-first century. Venerable Los Angeles artist William Pajaud, a New Orleans native, also contributed a Katrina artwork to this exhibition, entitled Eureka’s 2nd Cornet Silenced. His poignant depiction of an African American musician playing his horn, but slowly and inexorably sinking into the Katrina flood, metaphorically invites audiences to consider the deeper cultural tragedy of the Katrina debacle, which can only be reversed with a combination of American national will and African American resilience. The tragic neglect of that city by the Bush administration during the catastrophe itself (and well beyond 2005) included the destruction of magnificent elements of its musical legacy.
Looking Back to Africa
Throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, many African American artists have linked their efforts with the African motherland, viewing the continent as a powerful source of their visual creativity. BAILA con Duende included several works that continue this thematic tradition. Sculptor, painter, and multi-media artist Toni Scott contributed African Roots — Human Beginnings, Conceptions of Race, which identifies Africa as the origin of all human life. This sculptural work features a multi-rooted tree emerging from the head of a female figure, revealing the maternal nature of African nurturing. The tree’s branches extend upward and outward, like the African Diaspora itself. This work pays homage to her African ancestors and invites viewers of all races to develop a deeper knowledge and appreciation of African history and culture, a focus that is sadly lacking in most conventional educational institutions.
TONI SCOTT – African Roots—Human Beginnings, Conceptions of Race by Toni Scott. Hydrostone and wood. (toniscott.com)
Any artwork addressing African subject matter is deeply political in the United States, where most people are still fundamentally ignorant of African history, culture, and politics. Michael Massenburg, another veteran artist working in Los Angeles, contributed Fela Lives, a powerful African-themed mixed media work to BAILA con Duende. Massenburg’s work focuses on the iconic Nigerian musician and human rights and political activist Fela Kuti, whose music became political, reflecting his contact with the Black Panther Party and black nationalism in 1970s Los Angeles.
Back in Nigeria, Fela pioneered music called Afrobeat and increasingly used political lyrics that attacked the brutal Nigerian military. This made him a popular figure among millions of Nigerians and throughout Africa, but an enemy of the Nigerian regime. He was jailed and beaten, yet he continued to resist. He also produced anti-Apartheid music as part of the worldwide protests against the racist South African government. His early death at fifty-eight from AIDS brought an end to a brilliant and tumultuous career. More than a million people attended his funeral.
MICHAEL MASSENBURG – Fela Lives by Michael Massenburg. Mixed media: drawing, painting, and collage. (michaelmassenburg.com)
A Fela revival has since occurred, including new bands that reflect his Afrobeat musical influence, the reissue of his albums, and a successful off-Broadway production of a play entitled Fela. Massenburg’s artwork augments that revival and adds another artistic dimension to its vigor. Positioning the musician/activist with his back turned to the viewers, the title Fela Lives occupies the central space. Massenburg does here what many African American artists have done for well over a century: he uses his art to serve as an educational corrective, informing audiences of major black figures, especially African figures, who are largely ignored in conventional educational settings.
African American musical heritage has itself been a major theme in African American visual art for well over a century. BAILA con Duende features a veteran contemporary Los Angeles artist who continues this vibrant tradition. Dale Davis’s Horn Section, a 40″ × 50″ × 8′ assemblage, combines genuine silver, copper, and brass instruments imaginatively constructed into an artistic whole. This work, like many of his related musical-themed efforts, links him to the West African sources of African American musical creativity. Davis’s use of actual horns in this artwork underscores both the seriousness and the impact of the work. Viewers with an abstract notion of black musical heritage often pay closer and more affectionate attention to Davis’s works when they encounter the actual instruments. The way in which two of the instruments transcend the formal boundaries of the rectangular enclosure highlights how black musicians in Africa and the Diaspora constantly transcend their boundaries and their socially prescribed limitations, a metaphor for the African American population as a whole. Like many of the other works in the exhibition, Horn Section conveys a deeper social message even without the more overt content of such efforts as those of Lili Bernard, George Evans, Derrick Maddox, and Joe Lewis.
DALE BROCKMAN DAVIS – Horn Section by Dale Brockman Davis. Assemblage of silver, copper, and brass instruments. (dalebrockmandavis.com)
Exclusion from the Mainstream Media
BAILA con Duende was just one of several powerful art exhibitions that have featured multicultural artists in Southern California since the end of the Pacific Standard Time initiative — exhibitions that have attracted little critical attention from mainstream media sources in the Los Angeles area. This paucity of coverage, in turn, raises deeper, more troubling issues about the major gatekeepers of the art world and the continuing barriers that artists of color endure well into the twenty-first century.
Since its opening on September 9, 2012, BAILA con Duende has had only one brief television mention in conjunction with a broader neighborhood festival at the Watts Towers. The Los Angeles Times, which routinely reviews exhibitions in local, national, and even international venues, has also been absent from this massive show. Even during Pacific Standard Time, this major area newspaper covered the exhibitions at the mainstream venues and reviewed Now Dig This at the UCLA Armand Hammer Museum while omitting the parallel African American show at the California African American Museum. It did not go unnoticed among many African American residents and artists that the Hammer Museum is located in affluent white Westwood and the California African American Museum is located adjacent to a large impoverished Latino and black populace.
Too often, newspaper art critics ignore art exhibitions in alternative African American (and Latino and Asian American) cultural institutions and venues. The omission of hundreds of gifted painters, graphic artists, sculptors, and photographers of color in mainstream communication sources of all forms reflects the deeper structural problems perpetuating racial exclusion in the arts. A typical rationale is that such art exhibitions are narrowly tailored to specific racial and ethnic communities and would be of little or no interest to the “majority” population.
At times more blunt than their academic counterparts, newspaper and art journal reviewers often dismiss artists of color with condescending remarks about multicultural fads, racial hypersensitivity, and social and political content in art. This is a national phenomenon that goes far beyond the local media invisibility of BAILA con Duende. In New York, for example, a Wall Street Journal reviewer disparaged a major exhibition of the internationally respected African American artistic group Spiral at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2011 by writing that the exhibition “flourished as an exhibition about black history and racial, social, political, and artistic issues, but not really an art exhibit.” The critic continued by asserting that “art is made primarily by individuals alone in the studio; that a group mentality can hinder artistic development.”
This archaic nineteenth-century romantic individualism privileges a white male vision of the arts. It ignores the indisputable historical fact that artists express what is central to their lives, emotions, and personal histories. African American, Native American, Asian American, and Latino artists bring, and should bring, their lived historical experiences into their artistic productions. Many of those experiences involve oppression, discrimination, and struggle. Those creative productions deserve far greater exposure to the wider American public.
Academic Gatekeepers and Institutional Racism
Lack of media coverage is only one of the institutional barriers facing multicultural artists today. The culture of exclusion also involves the academic gatekeepers in the art world. It has increasingly become the norm for artists seeking entry into prestigious gallery representation, museum exhibitions, grants, and teaching positions in front-rank colleges and universities to earn a terminal Master of Fine Arts degree from an elite college or university studio art program. That objective is far more difficult even for accomplished artists of color. African American faculty in fine arts MFA programs are underrepresented, as they are more generally in elite faculty settings. Although exceptions exist, many black faculty members are those whom conventional white critics and scholars “anointed” as racial representatives, while others, many with comparable or superior talent, languish in obscurity.
The experiences of some of the artists presented in the BAILA con Duende exhibition are instructive and disconcerting. Lili Bernard’s MFA applications were rejected by both UCLA and the University of Southern California. UCLA told her that it was not interested in figurative art — a bizarre response to thousands of years of art history and a disrespectful attitude toward many African American artists who employ the human figure precisely to express their vision of life in a continuingly racist society. The California Institute of the Arts told Bernard that it was not interested in expressions of race. Fortunately, she obtained admission, with substantial financial support, to the Otis Art Institute MFA program.
Another artist featured in BAILA con Duende completed the Cal Arts MFA program but reported constant stress throughout his studies, during which he struggled constantly to justify his thematic focus to his faculty superiors. And another featured artist, who completed her undergraduate studio art program at UCLA, said she was regularly met with faculty hostility, even questioned why she was “forcing her culture” on her colleagues. White artists, rarely if at all, are questioned about forcing their culture on anybody, because whiteness is the norm. Another artist described how his studio art department at the University of Southern California gave him a list of local museums that failed to include the California African American Museum, a two-minute walk across the street from the school.
None of this is intentionally racist. The art scene in Southern California is hardly the Jim Crow South of a few generations ago. But these examples reflect a pervasive ignorance rooted in a deeper institutional racism that many white people are nervous to admit or discuss. When the University of Southern California art faculty distributed its list of art venues, no one intentionally decided to omit the art museum across the street. When professors teach American art history and fail to include Lois M. Jones, Elizabeth Catlett, Charles White, and John Biggers in their twentieth-century surveys, they do not maliciously exclude these iconic black artists from their syllabi. Rather, their incomplete knowledge of their own discipline reflects America’s profound educational deficiencies and reinforces its malignant racial history.
This multifaceted institutional racism affects artists of color throughout the nation. The road ahead remains long and hard. Although substantial progress has been made in the past thirty years, it still remains more difficult for artists of color to succeed in a society that is far from discarding the heritage of its racist and sexist past. There is a profound need for more exhibitions like BAILA con Duende and more ethnically specific museums, galleries, and other spaces. Equally important, a new generation of art historians and critics must supplant the conservative stranglehold that continues to prevail. It is high time for artists of color to receive recognition commensurate with the quality of their efforts.
Finally, it is important for us all to candidly acknowledge the role and limitations of the arts in the broader struggle against racism. The men and women represented in this essay are superb representatives of a longer tradition of socially conscious African American art. But art alone cannot feed the hungry, clothe and shelter the poor, or eliminate the scourge of racism in America or anywhere else.
Art’s Role in Social Struggle
Artworks such as the ones featured in BAILA con Duende are useful catalysts in encouraging audiences to examine the deeper structural racism in America, a task that may ironically be more difficult after the November 2012 reelection of President Barack Obama, which reinforced the widespread but inaccurate view that racism in America is dead and gone. One key element of this institutional racism has been the massive racism in the criminal justice system. Legal scholar Michelle Alexander, in her groundbreaking 2010 book The New Jim Crow, provides a devastating critique of the United States’ grotesque incarceration rates (U.S. prisoners make up 25 percent of the world’s prisoners) and of the disproportionate presence of African American men in federal, state, and local prisons and jails. Alexander details the horrific social and political consequences of this arrangement, which re inforces the historic Jim Crow laws and practices that dominated the national legal and political landscape from the nation’s inception through most of the twentieth century. These realities on the ground reveal an intractable institutional racism and are far more significant than the political success of President Obama and the high profile of a few African American entertainers, entrepreneurs, and athletes.
Alexander’s treatment of the criminal justice system is merely one aspect of a more depressing landscape of institutional racism. American education too remains largely segregated by race. Almost 60 years after the historic Brown v. Board of Education ruling, equal educational opportunities remain more theoretical than actual. School boards, state courts, lower federal courts, Congress, local and state political leaders, parents, real estate brokers, and the media have all, in different ways, ensured that most African Americans (and Latinos) still attend inferior schools. The dismal realities of the current political and economic systems, with their continuing disparities of wealth and power, have muted the earlier glowing promise of school integration. Moreover, in 2013, the conservative majority on the United States Supreme Court is poised to end affirmative action in higher education, reinforcing racial inequality and lack of opportunity throughout America.
Likewise, structural racism in housing, health care, and numerous other features of society remains a glaring reality for millions of people in this country. The arts can play a powerful role in highlighting all of these issues and in educating more privileged citizens about the problems that require urgent redress. The deepest importance of these creative works, however, lies in their contribution to the realization that only through political awareness, organization, and mobilization can racism and other evils be reduced and eventually eradicated. These works are a testament to that goal and to a more humane vision of social and political life.
Paul Von Blum is a senior lecturer in African American studies and communication studies at UCLA and author of a new memoir, A Life at the Margins: Keeping the Political Vision.
Copyright © Tikkun magazine
|ARTVOICES MAGAZINE REVIEW: The First Black Artists in Los Angeles Group ExhibitionDecember – Jan 2013 Issue Written by Catherine Wagley
WATTS TOWERS ARTS CENTER AND CHARLES MINGUS YOUTH ARTS CENTER CAMPUS Los Angeles, CA.
BAILA con Duende, curated by artist Lili Bernard at the Watts Towers Arts Center, spills over from the main Noah Purifoy galleries into the Charles Mingus Youth Art Center. It has a few slippery premises. First, it should be noted that “BAILA,” which you might assume derives from the Spanish verb for “to dance,” is actually Bernard’s acronym for “Black Artists in Los Angeles.” The rest of the title, “con Duende,” is Spanish for “with spirit,” though “duende” can apparently be tricky to translate. It has its roots in a word for “fairy” or “magic” or “magic elf,” and it can refer to authenticity or having soul. “Spirit” makes the most sense for Bernard’s show, however: Black Artists in Los Angeles with Spirit. The show’s subtitle, “The First Black Artists in Los Angeles Group Exhibition,” is tricky too. The particularly short press release, which says “the purpose of the exhibition is to reveal the breadth and diversity of the ‘Black Art’ Diaspora,” suggests it’s the first exhibition in which BAILA is being treated as a group. But of course, “Black Art” is in quotation marks for a reason. Of the seventy-three artists in the show, some have been known for decades or have only recently become known for work made decades ago. Others have some mainstream art-world clout, and have shown in museums. Others remain peripheral. Given this range, could “Black Art in L.A.” actually be a coherent thing?
Derrick Maddox, It Is What It Ain’t (The American Dream), 2012, Acrylic on White Bread and Mixed Media. PHOTO BY LILI BERNARD.
Seeing all of BAILA con Duende takes a while—it does indeed have “breadth and diversity.” If you start in the Watts Arts Center and go counterclockwise from the door, the first two works you will see are John Outterbridge’s Broken Tongues and Sacred Hymns and Joseph Lewis’ To Be Sold and Lent. Together they set the tone pretty well, mostly by not setting a consistent tone at all. Outterbridge’s roughed-up, wooden wall-hanging sculpture feels deep and battered, like a relic rescued from some rural place. Lewis’ precisely designed print parodies slave auction announcements. A white woman and her children will be available for purchase just in time for Christmas, it says in an old-fashioned font. BAILA con Duende stays discordant like this all the way through. On one back wall in the main building, a string of cutout photographs by installation artist Castillo shows the artist wearing only a sackcloth bag. This string of photos hangs beside a huge, regal painting by Toni Scott of three male figures amidst red and orange flames.
Enough would be happening in the exhibition itself without extra activity in the galleries. But the day I visited, the Watts Arts Center campus was hosting its annual Day of the Drum Festival, and writer Mary Bucci Bush spoke in the main gallery about her novel, Sweet Hope, a story of unlikely friendship between an Italian and a black family in the early twentieth century. When I walked in, she was answering questions from her small audience about prejudice against Italian-Americans for being darker-skinned.
At the same time, visitors milled around the gallery, and a wry, overtaxed gallery monitor tried to keep children from touching things, especially Derrick Maddox’s white bread slices, installed on a knee-high table. Messages and images of Tupac Shakur, George Bush, and other cultural figures had been etched into the bread, and one mother explained to her small son that “it looks like bread but actually it’s art” — maybe she didn’t realize it was bread or maybe she just didn’t think her son could comprehend how something could be both bread and art. “I don’t know why they don’t just put a rope around it,” the gallery monitor said of Maddox’s work at one point, talking to another Arts Center volunteer.
For a while, a young girl and her mother, or maybe her youngish grandmother, sat in front of Lili Bernard’s painting Caroline, 2012. In it, a black woman, presumably an early nineteenth century slave, sits in a shed, posed like Olympia from Manet’s notorious 1863 painting. Only, unlike sultry Olympia, she’s muzzled with a metal bridle, handcuffed, and crying, and a blond white man is unbuttoning his fly near her feet. A blond woman wearing a white bonnet and a black-and-white collared dress stares in through the shed window. She is muzzled and crying, too, and covering the eyes of the little girl who stands beside her.
I tried to imagine a mother and daughter sitting in front of a picture like this if it were isolated in a white, austere gallery without the art by over seventy other artists crowding in on it. I couldn’t. Somehow, the intense diversity of BAILA con Duende, the spate of different expressions of beauty and treachery of present and past, liberates individual artworks from any sensationalistic baggage they might have been saddled with otherwise.
This seems essential to understanding why BAILA con Duende works. Usually, big, over-ambitious shows have an exhausting, stifling effect. They pull together an overly wide, unwieldy community of artists in hopes of illustrating the zeitgeist or mapping out a certain movement. But if you’re paying attention, you know right from the outset that searching for a comprehensive explanation of what “Black Artists in Los Angeles” have to say is a fool’s errand. This show refuses to give one. The only fruitful way to engage with BAILA con Duende is to take the pictures and objects that interest you at face value, and try to understand why they matter.
GENERAL INFORMATION ON BAILA con DUENDE:
BAILA con Duende, curated by visual artist LILI BERNARD, featured the works of 75 Black Artists in Los Angeles (BAILA) at all levels of their careers – from legendary, celebrity, mid-career, and emerging, to those just starting out. World-renowned McArthur Genius Mark Bradford, along with celebrity artists Kehinde Wiley, Betye Saar, John Outterbridge, Artis Lane, William Pajaud, Samella Lewis, Charles Gaines, Henry Taylor, Joe Lewis, Ulysses Jenkins, Noah Davis and Rodney McMillian were among the talent who have came together in a show of solidarity, to display their works in this exhibition whose theme was spirit. The purpose of the exhibition was to reveal the breadth of diversity in content and artistic styles of the so-called “Black Art” Diaspora. The show ran from September 9, 2012 – January 6, 2013 at the Watts Towers Arts Center, Department of Cultural Affairs, Los Angeles, CA.
ARTISTS IN SHOW: Mark Bradford, Kehinde Wiley, Betye Saar, John Outterbridge, Artis Lane, William Pajaud, Samella Lewis, Charles Gaines, Henry Taylor, Joe Lewis, Ulysses Jenkins, Noah Davis, Rodney McMillian, Charles Dickson, Toni Scott, Dale Brockman Davis, Dominique Moody, Lili Bernard, Derrick Maddox, Isabelle Lutterodt, Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle, Vincent Johnson, Bernard Hoyes, Charles Bibbs, Joseph Sims, Duane Paul, Zeal Harris, Miles Regis, Castillo, Aaron Waugh, Rosalyn Myles, Carlos Spivey, Raksha Parekh, Steven J. Brooks, Teresa Tolliver, Lavialle Campbell, Yrneh Gabon Brown, Michael Massenburg, J Michael Walker, Anna Martine Whitehead, George Evans, Keith Mikell, La Monte Westmoreland, Donna Brown, June Edmonds, Silfredo La O, Wendell Wiggins, Moses Ball, Charla Puryear, Mark Broyard, Numa Perrier, Samuel Levi Jones, Milton Loupe, Ngene Mwaura, Donna Angers, AfraShe Asungi, Samuel Pace, Lisa Diane Wedgeworth, Angela Briggs, Enoch Mack, Ingrid Elburg, Buena Johnson, Sharon Barnes, Yohannes Tesfaye, Greg Pitts, Donald Bernard, Andre Ajibade, Miriam Moore, Kevin Thompson, Karien Zachery, Jim Starks, Jr., Liliane Lathan, Isaiah Bernard Ferguson, plus two artists in memoriam: Willie Middlebrook and Joseph Beckles.
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