Art

An Exhibition About Black Lives, with a Gendered Focus

Film Still of Patricia Silva's "Mass Swell," 2016, USA.
Still from Patricia Silva, “Mass Swell” (2016) (image courtesy the artist)

I Can’t Breathe, now on view at the Art Gallery at the College of Staten Island, is a dissonant show. The artworks’ conceits are dissimilar. Topical references vary. The sounds in the gallery clash. The work is ostensibly brought together under the exhibition’s title, which consists of the last words said to be spoken by Eric Garner as he was being choked to death by a New York City police officer; however, the work here, all of which is video or photography, only obliquely references that death. The connection is clearest with Patricia Silva’s “Mass Swell” (2016), which depicts footage of protests in Ferguson in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown, another black man whose body was extinguished by police officers. The rest of the work feels tangential to this theme of state-sanctioned violence enacted on the black, male body — especially given that all of it is made by women.

Nona Faustine is represented by several photographs from her White Shoes series (2013–15). In these images Faustine faces the viewer, half or fully naked, her body acting as a marker of the hidden labor produced by bodies like hers that underlies the context she inhabits; for example, she appears in front of the Lefferts Historic House Museum holding a cast iron skillet and confronting the camera with her gaze. Kara Walker is showing a two-part video, “An Audience / Rhapsody” (2014), which was recorded on the final day that her massive public artwork “A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby” was on view and the next day, as the piece was taken apart. Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa’s piece, “A Short Video About Tate Modern” (2003), gives an autobiographical account of being invited to an art-making workshop at Tate but finding herself unsettled by the invisibility of the black people laboring around her, in the kitchen or as guards; to this circumstance, she responds by making her own body disappear.

A video still from "A short video about Tate Modern" (2003) by Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa
Still from Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa, “A Short Video About Tate Modern” (2003)

The curator of the show, Siona Wilson, told me that it’s her intention to demonstrate the centrality of women in the #BlackLivesMatter movement, citing its formation by three women who, not incidentally, identify as queer. The convergence of queer politics with those of race and class is precisely what lies at the foundation of the idea of intersectionality — Wilson’s key organizing principle. Wilson, who’s originally from Yorshire, UK, wanted to bring an international, gendered, and queer dimension to the fierce battles being fought to keep black people alive. She also wanted to illustrate a dialectic of vulnerability: women’s bodies, which are often seen as more vulnerable than men’s, can have powerful agency when they choose to physically expose themselves to potential harm. They raise the stakes of protest and model bravery for an entire movement.

Installation view of Nona Faustine's photographs from her White Shoes series
Installation view, ‘I Can’t Breathe’ at College of Staten Island, showing photographs from Nona Faustine’s ‘White Shoes’ series (photo by Charlie Tagle) (click to enlarge)

These ideas do come through in the show, primarily by way of didactic text, but Wilson’s theoretical framework is not where the power of the exhibition lies. Each piece overwhelms the structure so that the show as a whole feels unfocused, almost scattershot, but still intensely moving. Accordingly, the viewer needs to be flexible. Emotional registers shift distinctly from work to work. Walker’s video depicts visitors who are, alternately, celebratory, embarrassed, or awed; they take pictures of “A Subtlety,” each other, and themselves, often drawn to the transgression of touching “naughty” parts of the naked form. Wolukau-Wanambwa’s work is almost devoid of emotion: words appear on the screen as the artist looks out, expressionless, and then we see her wrapped in a white sheet taped to the white wall. Faustine’s work is much more assertive and bold, putting her naked body in front of the audience to represent the history of the expropriation of black labor. Silva’s piece, meanwhile, features people who are anguished with the desire to be heard.

Kara Walker, still from "An Audience / Rhapsody (2014) Digital video with sound, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York.
Still from Kara Walker, “An Audience / Rhapsody” (2014), digital video with sound (courtesy Sikkema Jenkins & Co, New York)

In its profound, internal conflicts the show feels like an appropriate response to being under the threat of life-ending violence simply because of how you look to state authorities (and others). This circumstance is so devastating that the response by people of color is to answer with all the tools at our disposal, to try every form of argument and appeal — sometimes all of them together. When I first walked into the gallery, I heard a cacophony that arose from the clashing of the ecstatic soundtrack to Walker’s “Rhapsody” (Emanuel Chabrier’s orchestral work “España”) with a woman in Silva’s “Mass Swell” leading a call-and-response chant, her voice clamoring and raw, at the edge of break. The moment reminded me of a passage from Toni Morrison’s Beloved, in which the character Stamp Paid comes to a house populated only by women. He wants to enter, to make sure everything is alright, but hears noises he can’t make sense of. He hesitates, thinking he knows who’s inside: “The people of the broken necks, of fire-cooked blood and black girls who had lost their ribbons. What a roaring.” You’ll hear that roaring. Stamp Paid walks away from the house without going in. This show calls you to be brave enough to step inside.

I Can’t Breathe continues at the Art Gallery at the College of Staten Island (2800 Victory Blvd, Staten Island) through May 14.

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