Installation view of Abstraction in the Black Diaspora at False Flag Gallery Photograph courtesy False Flag Gallery

When I see Abstraction in the Black Diaspora at False Flag gallery I think about what Lowery Sims said to me years ago when I asked her about the historical basis for a young cohort of Black artists using abstraction to signal a distinctly political Blackness: “If you take the track that abstraction came out of African art, then we are just claiming our birthright.” The work here, co-curated by the artist Tariku Shiferaw and curator and artist Ayanna Dozier, confidently lays claim to this inheritance.

Tariku Shiferaw, “Kenya” (2020) Acrylic on canvas, 72 x 108 inches (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

This sense of rightfully belonging to this aesthetic and cultural form comes through in pieces like Shiferaw’s “Kenya” (2020), which mimics the Kenyan flag but renders the horizontal bars of color in freehand swirls of red, green, and black, with the central Maasai shield and crossed spears made visible by selectively masking parts with white paint — suggesting that the tools for defense become apparent under the imposition of whiteness. Ashanté Kindle’s “The Crown” (2020) assembles a black set of squares daubed with acrylic and spackle to give an aerial view of what might be 360-degree waves radiating out from the crown of a Black man’s head — a sensual and surprising vista for me. Hair also shows up in Adebunmi Gbadebo’s “Da Da” (2015) where short locks supported by wire jut out from the wall in a line to form a kind of column with aspirations to be endless.

Ashanté Kindle, “The Crown” (2020) acrylic and spackle on canvas 120 x 120 inches (photo courtesy False Flag)

It is one thing to assert one’s right to something and quite another to act as though it already belongs to you. Dozier has done the former in writing a long (80 pages) and rather anxious catalogue text that argues for this work not needing to “outwardly critique systems of power,” since it “does so through the critical ontological refusal to participate in anti-Blackness, and through … reinterpretations of reality.” Too often in the art scene, essays of overwrought and labored scholarly argumentation are produced to prove that work legitimately belongs to a movement or genre. Here, the work palpably validates the artists’ birthright claim because they act from that place of ownership.

Adebunmi Gbadebo, “Da Da” (2015) Human hair locks and wire, 3x x 120 x 5 inches (variable)

Abstraction in the Black Diaspora continues through December 20 at False Flag Gallery (11-22 44th Rd,
Long Island City). The exhibition was curated by Tariku Shiferaw and Ayanna Dozier.

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a former senior critic and Opinion Editor for Hyperallergic, and is now a regular contributor to it and the New York Times. In 2020, he won the Rabkin Arts Journalism prize and in...