For those attuned to the current climate of political activism, a summer exhibit you won’t want to miss is Unfinished Conversations: New Work from the Collection at MoMA. It’s tucked away on the sixth floor, and visitors, mostly tourists, seem to wander around it, appearing slightly lost. Outside the gallery, on a seemingly unrelated wall, is some background information that describes the exhibit and its importance, which remains mostly ignored. But the text makes the show’s fierce political nature clear, stating: “The artists that make up this intergenerational selection address current anxiety and unrest around the world and offer critical reflections on our present moment.”
Take Andrea Bowers’s “A Menace to Liberty” (2012). It is a reenactment of a well-known 1912 Mother Earth magazine cover featuring Emma Goldman, which depicts an armored female figure holding a flag reading “PATRIOTISM” stepping on another female who is on the ground and clutching a flag reading “LIBERTY.” The original cover is radically feminist, and Bowers’s remake of it on its centennial is monumental. This is a giant re-drawing of the original lithograph cover, executed with black marker and using cardboard boxes as a canvas. The boxes evoke homemade protest signs as well as the idea of recycling — itself a method of political protest.
Elsewhere in the exhibit is Kara Walker’s “40 Acres of Mules” (2015), which was made at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement. It is an unapologetic reinterpretation of the famous Stone Mountain Park monument, which is dedicated to the Confederate leaders of the Civil War and considered the spiritual home of the Ku Klux Klan. Walker’s massive graphite triptych revamp is packed with references to past and present racist events, which shamefully still shape identity politics in this country.
Similarly captivating is Jonathas de Andrade’s “The Uprising” (2012–13), an experimental documentary about a horse race that the artist organized in protest of a City Council regulation banning horses from the central streets of Recife, Brazil. In the piece, a traditional folk singer responds in voiceover to the rhythm of the film with improvised verses. He speaks of encounters between rural folk and the city and evokes the memory of the laborers who built Recife. During the latter half of the film, when the rhythm accelerates, the singer drops the harmonies and transitions into a fast-paced and beautiful tirade about ownership of and access to public space.
Among the other pieces, some of the strongest are Egyptian Anna Boghiguian’s gouache and pencil drawings chronicling her personal experience of the Tahrir Square and the Egyptian revolution in 2011, and Cameroonian fashion photographer Samuel Fosso’s black-and-white portraits of famous black political figures.
At the far end of the gallery is the exhibition’s central piece, John Akomfrah’s “The Unfinished Conversation” (2012). This three-channel video projection chronicles the wide-ranging discussion Akomfrah conducted with the Jamaican-born British cultural theorist Stuart Hall before his death in 2014 from complications following kidney failure. Hall was a well-known radical intellectual of Marxist humanities, one of the founders of the New Left Review, and credited as the inventor of cultural studies. In Akomfrah’s film, Hall recites biographical anecdotes about his childhood and youth in Jamaica and his adult life in the UK, focusing on his personal search for identity based on his blackness, his Jewish heritage, and his mother’s racial prejudices. Akomfrah juxtaposes Hall’s stories with archival footage gathered from both Hall’s own collection and public archives. Hall’s search for himself and his life experience become the lens through which Akomfrah films such historic events as the British Invasion of Egypt, the Vietnam War, demonstrations in the UK after the murder of Antiguan immigrant Kelso Cochrane by white youths, and the assassination of Malcolm X. His voiceover also includes quotations from his favorite authors, such as Charles Dickens and Virginia Woolf, and sometimes fades into songs played by his favorite jazz musicians. There are tremendously painful moments in the film, such as the story of Hall’s sister undergoing electroshock therapy, and the racism he experienced within his own home. Akomfrah masterfully visualizes the emotional weight of Hall’s life, without interfering with his privacy.
Unfinished Conversations strives to depict today’s heavily charged political environment. It doesn’t just showcase art that is engaged with political struggle; it also exposes the personal, cultural, and historical roots of such struggles. It is a collection, one could say, of unfinished conversations about our present day, convened by like-minded souls from around the world.
Unfinished Conversations: New Work from the Collection continues at MoMA (11 West 53rd Street) through July 30.