Black folks like art too

30 Americans 1#BlackLivesMatter.

It has become the hashtag heard ’round the world, a reflection of the more visible rage and unrest that has been simmering in ‘urban’ (code for’black’) America ever since the tragedy that was Trayvon Martin, and then on through Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and the ever-thickening forest of dead black bodies planted in the ground by police brutality. Name another hashtag that has elbowed its way through the fracas to become a front row issue in the 2016 presidential debate. There isn’t one.

But black lives in America are about so much more than simply the rage and frustration with which too many whites are only recently becoming shockingly – and in some cases disbelievingly – acquainted. Being black in America, navigating the perpetually turbulent waters of a nation that still hasn’t quite figured out how to deal with us – or if it even wants to – is no simple task.

Which is where art comes in. Which brings us to the “30 Americans” exhibit, which brings us to the DIA, which winds up at the front door of One Nation Under A Groove’s Anointed Overlord of All That Is Funky, George Clinton. It is the artists who weave meaning out of the chaos.

This all fits together. Honest.

Valerie Mercer, who happens to be head of the General Motors Center for African American Art and also is the curator for African American Art, is visibly excited about the 30 Americans exhibit now on display at the DIA as she takes a guest on a tour through the remarkable showing of more than 50 artworks created by 31 of the most celebrated names in contemporary art today as well as a few emerging talents.

“The show is very much about African American identity today and the complexities of that identity and the fluidity of that identity as well as what it means to be American today,” she said.

The show is special not just because of the beauty of the art displayed, nor because of its particular significance and resonance at this point in time – not to mention the significance of its Detroit location – but because it is a show heavily supported by Black Detroit philanthropy. This is something which was already pointed out in last week’s edition, but which is important enough to bear repeating. Judge Damon Keith said the following in support of the exhibit:

“More than $200,000 has been raised by a local philanthropic community committee effort led by Juliette Okotie-Eboh, Reuben Munday, and Dr. Lorna Thomas, including a significant contribution from one of the exhibition’s lead sponsors, the DIA auxiliary Friends of African and African American Art. This extraordinary commitment will underwrite the costs involved in not only mounting the exhibition but also providing community programs during the entire twelve weeks the show will be at the museum.

“The fundraising committee, Tonya Allen, Bill Burdett, Mark Douglas, Linda Forte, Alyssa Martina, William Pickard, Roy and Maureen Roberts, Nettie Seabrooks, Suzanne Shank, Buzz Thomas, Delphine Tupper, Anne Watson, Rhonda Welburn and Barbara Whittaker, worked for more than six months to solicit supporters – some of whom have been engaged with the DIA and some who have not – to broaden the museum’s reach in the community.”

Far too often we hear the perpetual refrain that black folks don’t support their own, or black folks don’t support the arts, or black folks don’t…whatever. Yeah, well this would indicate something different from the accepted narrative about what black folks don’t do, and it deserves a reverential pause for acknowledgment.

What also deserves a bit of pause is when Mercer pointed out how certain ‘concerned’ white collectors tried to warn the Rubell Family, who own the collection, against organizing an exhibition on African American art and artists.

So what exactly did these Chicken Littles actually foresee? Were they worried that some of the homeboys might boost a painting or two and then haul them down to the local pawn shop? Perhaps maybe trade a sculpture for a crack rock? What exactly did they think was going to happen?

Thankfully their ignorance was ignored, although it might be worth pointing out that it is specifically this sort of ignorance that provides fuel for the kind of socially relevant artwork that you will find at 30 Americans. The right kind of ignorance can be peculiarly inspiring to the right kind of artist.

“To me what makes this so special in many ways is they’re [the Rubells] the first white collectors I know of who have such a prestigious collection to actually organize an exhibition of the contemporary African American art in their collection,” said Mercer, who also pointed out that the DIA is one of the few art institutions nationally with the level of staff and other requirements that was even equipped to handle an exhibit of this magnitude. So consider that.

What is also special, as is pointed out in an article by Mark Stryker in The Detroit Free Press, is that this may mark an effort by the DIA to become more relevant to the Detroit community in which it is anchored. This in some ways might mirror the same approach taken by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra once musical director Leonard Slatkin took the reins in 2008 and made noticeable efforts to anchor the DSO’s fortunes much more firmly in the identity of Detroit. Stryker points out critically that “Any ambitious exhibition of African-American art is long overdue at the DIA. It’s been 9 years since the museum last hosted a large-scale show devoted to black artists, and that too was a preexisting single-collector survey (Walter O. Evans Collection) rather than a homegrown show.

“The DIA hasn’t ignored black artists. There were two imported historical shows nearly 15 years ago devoted to Jacob Lawrence and black photographers, along with a homegrown 2007 solo exhibition devoted to the Ethiopian-born Julie Mehretu (who was raised mostly in Michigan), organized by former DIA curator Becky Hart. Mercer organized an in-house survey of the museum’s African-American collection in 2003 that blossomed during the DIA’s renovation into an entire suite of galleries devoted to African-American art. The DIA remains the only encyclopedic museum in the country with a curatorial department and galleries dedicated to black artists. (African-American art is also integrated into other parts of the permanent collection.)

“But given the commitment that the GM Center and permanent galleries embody and the fact that Detroit is nearly 80% black, the museum should be a more aggressive leader in exhibiting, collecting and researching African-American art.”

Point taken. Point received. Which, in a roundabout kind of way, explains why George Clinton is coming to the DIA to tell some real life tales on November 5 at 8 pm. As part of the 30 Americans tour, the DIA is hosting the appropriately-named Secret Society of Twisted Storytellers performance of “Tales from the Funk”, which will feature, in addition to Dr. Funkenstein, four other storytellers plus live music and dance from Detroit’s own Queen of the Blues Thornetta Davis and Gina Ellis, a longtime dance collaborator with choreographer George Faison.

A different kind of DIA for sure.

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