I told myself a useful fiction when I wrote the first few drafts of this essay: It makes a difference how I encountered the exhibition Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America. Initially I had written that there was a keenly felt distinction between the first time I visited and began viewing it from the top floor, working my way down to the lobby, and the second time when I started at the ground floor with Arthur Jaffa’s spliced-together video “Love is the Message the Message is Death” (2016) and Garret Bradley’s film transferred to video, “Alone” (2017). I said to myself that the experience of Jaffa’s and Bradley’s works — both of which evoke the range of rage, gasping disbelief, frustration, and despair that occurs in the experience of Black people in the United States — set a tone that carried me through the exhibition. That time I felt primed to feel my way through an art experience that holds out the promise of burrowing into the ground and exhuming the corpses that lie in unmarked graves scattered throughout the landscape of this country’s popular culture. And I was ready to look at and quietly mourn the many Black bodies that deserve to be mourned.
But the first time I saw the show I stepped off the elevator to confront Rashid Johnson’s “Antoine’s Organ” (2016), a massive installation composed of black steel, ornate rugs, potted plants, shea butter busts, books, and music in the form of a piano hidden in its recesses, and I felt real disappointment. I had seen the work when it was first installed at Hauser and Wirth and felt then, as I did seeing it again, that it has little if anything to do with grieving or with protesting injustice. More than anything else the work is a signifier of the socio-economic heft that Johnson can now wield. What makes his work stand out is that it looks expensive and given our cultural training we want to read significance and profundity into aesthetic boondoggles. This piece reeks of money and the economic wherewithal to bring massive installations like this into being. And this is the dangling thread that when pulled on, unspools the entire show.
On the third or fourth attempt at writing this piece I finally understood that it little matters what route I took through my experience. Either way, there are markers for how much this show feels like it depends on the rank, reputation, and prestige of the participating artists rather than the actual relevance of their work. To be clear, there are brilliant and feeling pieces from Kerry James Marshall, Carrie Mae Weems, Kara Walker, Simone Leigh, LaToya Ruby Frazier, and others. For example, Simone Leigh’s “Sentinel IV” (2020) with its radically tapered and condensed rendition of the female human form in darkened bronze and its hollowed-out, concave head evokes the ways that Black people have had to witness, time and again, atrocities that have hollowed some of us out. The work makes me think of the ways in which our agency is amputated by varying kinds of violence, and we are at times reduced to being mute witnesses. This piece and others get at the brutality meted out on Black people, the recognition of who is lost, and the enduring curative function of the rituals of mourning them. But much of the rest of the show feels like a cavalcade of A-list artists who are here mostly because this is that kind of show — one in which audiences will assume that because so much Black talent is assembled in one place the exhibition must be meaningful. I’m not sure who rooted this exhibition in this credo.
The show was first conceived by Okwui Enwezor, the first African curator to direct both Documenta and the Venice Biennale (after his death Naomi Beckwith, Massimiliano Gioni, Glenn Ligon, and Mark Nash completed the work). There is something courtly about the show they’ve assembled, something arch, as if only artists who have achieved a certain degree of prestige would be considered (to meet the high bar set by Enwezor). For the life of me, I cannot make sense of the inclusion of the work of Jennie C. Jones, Charles Gaines, Sable Elyse Smith, Ellen Gallagher, and Kevin Beasley except on these terms. While Gallagher’s ink, oil, and graphite abstractions are serenely lovely, with their washes of minty blues and aquatic greens, and though one piece “Aquajujidsu” (2017) suggests a dark face coming apart, the work here doesn’t meet or extend the putative theme of the exhibition. It’s as if the curators claimed they were holding a wake, but on the low, really they wanted a cotillion.
It feels necessary right now to have some kind of ritual, cultural intervention, particularly after the events of the last few years — the publication of the 1619 Project, the murder of George Floyd, the sustained protests formed in that wake of that seismic event, the Capitol insurrection, and the global pandemic brought on by the COVID-19 virus. It feels that somewhere someone is screaming right now. But Grief and Grievance doesn’t give coherence or perspective to these cries; instead it ultimately illustrates the ways in which notoriety and prominence in the field of contemporary art get instrumentalized by institutions that mean to address legitimate and serious concerns, which they think may not be adequately addressed without the power of this notoriety.
On the other hand the exhibtion On Protest and Mourning mounted online by the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute (CCCADI), demonstrates how a kind of emotional earnestness can be far more evocative though it lacks star power. The exhibition’s curator Grace Aneiza Ali, cites her own found insight that “Protest is a form of mourning; and mourning is a form of protest” as the foundation of the show, which seems like the intuition that could have impelled the New Museum exhibition. CCCADI has, in addition to the show’s online images and videos, provided what they call a “virtual dialogue series,” a suite of conversations with the photographers and filmmakers involved in the show along with guest speakers, and they’ve launched a 13-lesson curriculum designed to help middle school and high school educators make sense of the events surrounding the loss of Black lives at the hands of law enforcement. These added features feel like effective ways to intervene in the communities CCCADI serves to alchemize mourning and protest into dialogue and shared understandings.
The images here I’ve seen several other places. Jon Henry’s Stranger Fruit series that depicts mothers holding their bare-chested sons across their laps as the boys or men hang limp is a kind of contemporary pietà that has the Black mother stand in for the Virgin Mary and the son stand in for Christ. It’s a lovely historical turn that gets at how important each of these lost lives are for their communities. There is a great deal of street photography: protests, marches, vigils, memorials, shrines, and funerals. These seem to be images I’ve seen frequently in the past year, but here they have a potency because like the closed ranks of a phalanx, they march together. There are also images of a Black woman figure in woodland, among a copse of trees, twirling or dancing, becoming a blurred figure somewhere between this heavy sodden earth and that place where the soul is unburdened. The exhibition even features a soundtrack of 50 songs to help our bodies take this astral journey.
It isn’t fully appropriate to compare these two exhibitions because they have different ambitions, frameworks, and curation, but the difference between their ambitions is worth considering. One show yields too much of explorative spirit to the immediate satisfactions of pride, while the other has such an allegiance to the documentarian principle that it is less boldly imaginative. Where we are as people racialized to be Black is consistently and brutally constrained by grief, because to live in the United States as a Black person means being compelled to mourn people who I don’t know, but who nevertheless look like me. At the same time we hardly ever miss an opportunity to signify and exploit our (socio-economic class, ethnic, gender) differences.
Right now we do come together in grief and in protest, but it’s not like the concerted action of the church choir which always feels to me like a wave curling out of the sea: the same robes, voices engaged in singing the same hymn and raising it to the rafters, the same shimmying movement in rhythm with the song like a ripple in the wave. I keep hoping for this kind of cohesiveness and allegiance and then my hopes keep getting dashed on the rocky surf where the wave ends.