New YorkRichard Gray Gallery
Citing Black Geographies
November 17 – December 23, 2022
Citing Black Geographies arrives in New York after its run at Gray’s homebase in Chicago. Curated by Dr. Romi Crawford of the Art Institute Chicago, this show of fifteen artists’ work defies medium-specificity and presents the contours of “Black geographies,” topographies that lack smoothness and reiterate the variable space of Black experience.
Rashid Johnson's 35mm video Black and Blue (2021), greets the viewer on the second floor of the gallery. Johnson picks a home in the Hamptons (perhaps his own?) as the setting for the quotidian routine of a Black nuclear family in domestic serenity. In one scene, the family is at their dining room table, with the mother gently guiding the boy through his homework while Johnson reads Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. In another, the artist brushes his teeth in the gleaming bathroom, making intermittent eye contact with his reflection in the mirror. Revolving dreamily around the footage of the family unit are shots of picture books and sculptural objects that remind me of the source material in Johnson's other work. All pleasant enough, and yet a throbbing sense of unease permeates, like in other contemporary work that positions Black persons in spaces traditionally associated with exclusionary white affluence, such as Jordan Peele’s 2017 film Get Out. Similarly, here, the protagonist in the film has indubitably achieved significant material comfort and yet there seems to be some non-localized sense of friction. The work always reminds us that domestic bliss à la French doors and white-tile backsplashes in the Hamptons are, indeed, facets of the daily experience of some (very wealthy) Black people, yet the foreboding reflects back on a cultural history that expects white families in the Hamptons. In this site of conflict, what is successfully ambiguous is the protagonist's state-of-mind, and the film leaves me perturbed by its noncommittal stance.
Surfacing from a sort of light-dappled daze, I turn to the adjacent wall and encounter jina valentine’s Exhibit of American Negroes: Revisited (2021). The series itself is a re-translation of the data visualizations compiled by W.E.B. Du Bois for the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris. Among the various countries boasting of their accomplishments, technological feats, and ingenuity, Du Bois made use of the potential of infographics to function dually as aesthetic and authoritative documents to present African American contributions and advancements from home, school, and workplace to a worldwide audience, making a quantitative case for the inclusion of Black experience in how the United States presented itself to the world. With this piece, valentine updates Du Bois’s data visualizations, rendering, in blocky modernist opacity, the changes—or lack thereof—of the spaces and vocations of Black American life. Whereas Johnson presents the story of individual Black experience, what valentine recenters in focusing on Du Bois is the importance of abstracting human lives as a means by which Black Americans can be counted, and, therefore, “count,” as their stories are given quantitative specificity. Du Bois also counts himself in creating an intellectual lineage for valentine. The Exhibit, however, over a century removed from its source material, surfaces new stakes of statistical thinking, such as the use of data as a dehumanizing weapon that precisely bulldozes the individual stories and lives that are the centerpiece of liberal American achievement and freedom. An adequate question might be: when you are narrativizing life and possibilities in graphs, figures, and flow charts, where do you let people go?
Keeping in mind the universalizing drive to document the particulars of the entire world, we turn to a book bound in goat skin, encased in glass. Tavares Strachan’s the Encyclopedia of Invisibility (Whitewashed Maple #1) (2021) attacks the cultural authority of no more established a text than the Encyclopædia Britannica. Strachan has compiled a tome of 2,416 pages that include over 15,000 entries of people, ideas, and contributions often overlooked in or excluded from the Encyclopædia Britannica, a verso history to the official narrative’s recto. I think here about the important distinction of working within and with lost histories, not, as Ariella Azoulay says, as if they had, “ceased to compete with others,” but that they existed all along, in the margins. Six Thousand Years (2018), a grid of 396 pages, hung on the wall, allows me to see the contents of the book without touching it. In some ways a material expression of what today we might call a Wikipedia edit-a-thon, a mass event to improve Wikipedia’s coverage of marginalized people and subjects, encased and put on display, Strachan’s Encyclopedia asserts its sculpturality, leading to a cause-and-affect, where our cognitive pattern recognition striving to construct a linear narrative of history dissolves into a cosmos. What is deemed important, by way of inclusion in a book that more or less “averages” inventions, people, and ideas of “value,” drafts invisible barriers extending beyond the page and into spatiality. Strachan’s Encyclopedia functions as a potential manual for both envisioning alternate futures and revising abridged pasts.
I end here with Tony Lewis’s Untitled 4 (2015–ongoing). The work unfurls diagonally across the floor of the gallery, reaching almost wall-to-wall; the material is bunched up across the surface, creating wave-like interruptions along its smooth, sooty, dark-gray surface. From afar, it almost resembles a discarded piece of sheet metal. Lewis works with graphite powder atop flooring paper, a material utilized in construction, preserving a place under renovation from the trace of labor. The paper, originally laid out to fit the parameters of the room, gets folded, crumpled, and made sculptural. “Works-on-paper” wouldn’t quite encompass the element of performance inherent in Lewis’s process and on the part of the viewer. These “drawings” read as topographic, and prompt viewers to reconcile their own movements within the space of the gallery. Graphite burnished, rubbed, scrubbed onto the surface of the flooring paper allow it to be spatially modular and in direct contact—either wittingly or unwittingly—with the soles of the viewer. White creases intersect the surface, alluding to its past spatial permutations. Far from chasing fixity, Untitled 4 suggests the radicality in the idea of “taking up space” or as George Lipsitz notes, “to take place” as an active verb, a practice where constantly re-instated reconfiguration proves generative.
With the Encyclopedia of Invisibility, Strachan reminds me that it’s impossible to cite sources or refer to events in history if they have been left out of the record, like the suppression of Black and other voices from the story the United States tells itself. The intellectual lineage of valentine’s work relies on and is an expansion of her reaching into the past to engage with Du Bois, whose role in the citational history of Black thought is peerless. By updating his visualizations, valentine stands on his proverbial giant’s shoulders. Similarly, with his allusions, Johnson cites his own previous work in Black and Blue, a piece whose own title resonates with the jazz standard by Fats Waller, the opening scene of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), or even a mixed-media installation by David Hammons. In this citational abundance, I wonder about how the varied landscape of African American history can still cohere into a set of geographies; this mutability is exciting.
- George Lipsitz, “The Racialization of Space and the Spatialization of Race: Theorizing the Hidden Architecture of Landscape,” Landscape Journal 26, no. 1 (2007): pp.10–23, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43323751.