To New York audiences, a flashing neon sign that reads ME/WE has become as synonymous with Glenn Ligon as it is with its home at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Now, its presence in San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) has transformed the gallery space into a subtle facsimile of one of New York’s most revered institutions. In Black Refractions: Highlights from the Studio Museum in Harlem, curators delve into the Studio Museum’s collection to share its history of community engagement, education, and support of artists.
Ligon’s installation, titled “Give us a Poem (Palindrome #2),” has graced the lobby of the Studio Museum since 2007, until the museum’s closure last year in preparation of its 85,000 square foot expansion. Since then, the sign and other select works have hit the road, traveling to six cities in 2019 and 2020, with San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora as its first stop.
In addition to Ligon’s sign, the MoAD show opens with “Moussakoo,” a 1968 light installation by artist Tom Lloyd. When the Studio Museum originally opened in 1968, they featured Lloyd’s abstract work in a solo show titled Electronic Refractions II; the museum’s selection of electronically-programmed lightbulbs fastened into colorful mosaics raised the collective eyebrow of New York’s art community, which was expecting to see a showcase of expressly Black, figurative work. At its onset, the Studio Museum challenged viewers to think beyond traditional definitions of Black art, and for decades, museum directors have continued to push the museum and its collection to new heights, cementing its place in the art world while solidifying its commitment to Black artists.
The traveling collection spans multiple mediums, generations, continents, and ideologies, refusing to allow one style or theory to define the art created across the Diaspora. Lloyd’s work anchors MoAD’s Black Refractions to the Studio Museum’s inaugural show, a historical footnote that sets the stage for the diverse works shown in the exhibition. Works by late legends Beauford Delaney, Alma Thomas, and James Van Der Zee hold court with current contemporary work by Juliana Huxtable, Titus Kaphar, Adia Millett, and Shinique Smith, in a dense overview of Black art and its unequivocal relationship to the Studio Museum over five decades.
Of the 50 artists represented in Black Refractions, many participated in the Museum’s foundational Artist-In-Residence program, which provides artists with studio space, support, and essential community engagement. In the show, works created by artists during their residency are prominently displayed. For many artists, the program was pivotal to their artistic development, and through the work they created during their residencies, we see some of the catalyzing moments that changed the trajectory of their careers.
While an artist in residence at the Studio Museum in 2001, Kehinde Wiley began his portrait series with the prophetically titled, “Eminence, Conspicuous Fraud #1,” featuring a young businessman with a glorious halo of dreadlocks that appear to have a life of their own as they emerge from the subject’s head and envelop the canvas. Wiley’s early style, seen on this canvas, evolved to his well-known Old Master paintings that fuse religious and pop culture iconography, presenting lush portraits whose Black subjects are awash in regal opulence. The artist’s iconic style is immortalized in his 2018 portrait of President Barack Obama in the National Portrait Gallery.
Some Artist-in-Residence works mark important career milestones: Mickalene Thomas painted “Panthera” during her 2002 residency, which became the first work the artist ever sold. The rhinestone-embossed painting features a black panther enveloped in a gold shimmer and a lush imprint of bright fuchsia-colored lips. These materials echo throughout Thomas’s body of work, which has become a celebration of the Black woman as both muse and subject on canvas. Fusing contemporary portraiture with photography, video, and sumptuous immersive installations, Thomas captures the strength, beauty, and vitality of the women around her, reinforcing the importance of being seen, both inside and outside of the gallery.
Other works are vibrant snapshots of Harlem itself. Jordan Casteel’s “Kevin the Kiteman” (2016) was painted from a photograph taken of a beloved kite seller who would dance in a Harlem courtyard visible to the artist from her studio space during her 2015–2016 residency. The piece was one of a series of contemporary portraits Casteel painted to celebrate the Black men she regularly encountered in her Harlem neighborhood.
MoAD’s programming also extends the Black Refractions narrative beyond Harlem through a solo show by Studio Museum Artist-In-Residence alum Sadie Barnette. The artist weaves a Bay Area thread into the history of the Studio Museum, using her signature glittered motifs to transform the museum’s ground floor entrance. In Phone Home, Barnette created a pink and gold-bedazzled living space using photography, family ephemera, and found items that recontextualize her childhood memories and her family’s history. MoAD describes the show, which runs concurrently with Black Refractions, as “a continuous exchange between two centers of Black artistic production,” further illustrating that the Studio Museum’s mission as “the nexus for artists of African descent” isn’t limited to a single geographic space.
The Studio Museum’s influence extends beyond Harlem through the curatorial talent it has cultivated, the academic institutions that benefit from its school partnerships, and through its Artists-in-Residence alumni. As much as Black Refractions is a story of the Studio Museum’s past, it’s also writing the story of its future as they continue to expand their programming beyond gallery walls.
Black Refractions: Highlights from the Studio Museum in Harlem was curated by Connie H. Choi and organized by Emily Kuhlmann. Sadie Barnette: Phone Home was curated by Emily Kuhlmann and Soleil Summer. Both exhibitions run through April 14, 2019 at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco.