Black Portraitures II: Revisited @ NYU | Feb. 19 & 20

Black Portraitures II: Revisited is already sold out!

That speaks volumes to the importance of this series of conferences spearheaded by Dr. Deborah Willis. To say that the Black Portraiture{s} II Conference that took place in Florence, Italy (May 28-31) was phenomenal does not quite capture the artistic and intellectual vibrancy–chemistry really–of the dynamic scholars and artists that gathered there. Dr. Willis is the University Professor and Chair of the Department of Photography & Imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. She and her wonderful team of staff members from NYU, Harvard University, the Studio Museum in Harlem, among other institutions, executed a seamless conference experience from beginning to end.

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What an honor to be able to present again in New York on a fantastic panel of scholar-performers!  Out of Body: Composing Blackness through Sound, Music, and (Performance) Art with Matthew D. Morrison, Kwami Colemanand Imani Uzuri, moderated by jazz musician Hank Thomas, was one of my most fulfilling professional panels of my career.  Our panel this weekend will offer some new points of engagement for our audience with Jeff Rabhan of the Clive Davis Institute at NYU as our moderator.
Get yourself on the wait-list. We hope you can make it. The conference will also be broadcasted live. Be sure to keep on Twitter with #BlackPortraitures. For the full schedule, see: Black Portraiture[s] Program – Feb 19-20
A heartfelt THANK YOU to Dr. Therí A. Pickens, who offered her take on our previous panel in her blog post, “Scholar Fierce: Doing Dilettante as a Scholar.” Dr. Pickens’s gracious remarks include:

During this panel, I felt like I learned some pretty basic stuff about jazz (how to listen), black figures in classical music, and how to read art (whether sung or materially crafted). In those moments, worlds opened up. I don’t want to overstate the case by saying that the earth moved. However, the tectonic plates of knowledge I have (which tend to move slowly) quaked and changed the terrain of my knowledge… just a bit. 

C’mon, now. THAT has to convince you to check us out!

Out of Body: Composing Blackness Through Sound, Music, and (Performance) Art. 

February 20 at 9:30 a.m.-11 a.m:  NYU’s School of Law, Vanderbilt Hall, Tishman Auditorium. 40 Washington Square South, New York.

By listening to and engaging sonic histories and performances of blackness, this panel seeks to complement/complicate visual representations of blackness in Western art, as we consider how sound is articulated from, outside of, and onto (black) bodies through art, music, and performance. (Dis)Embodied acts of improvising and composing (of sound and identity), the “spirit” of sound, and the politics of (black) sound’s reception and circulation, will be themes that run throughout this panel.
Out of Body Panel
Kwami Coleman, Nikki A. Greene, Imani Uzuri, Matthew D. Morrison, and moderator Hank Thomas. Black Portraitures II Conference, May 30, 2015. Photo by Deborah Jack.

Azúcar Negra: Still Digesting Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety”

I’ve been struggling to put into words the kind of phenomenological experience I had going to see Kara Walker’s A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby. I don’t think I’m alone when I say that no amount of preparation could actually equip you. Just being there–anxious, confined, exhilarated and unsettled–has made one of the greatest impressions on me as an art historian woman of color.

Fallen Sugar Sculpture. Kara Walker, A Subtlety. Domino Factory. Brooklyn, New York. July 5, 2014. Photo by Nikki A. Greene.

Since my visit to the Domino Factory in Brooklyn on July 5, I cannot rid myself of Celia Cruz singing out her signature refrain: “¡Azúcar!”  Her hook is not a gimmick, but rather an affirmation of her blackness. A firm recognition of the labor of many black bodies that endured the Middle Passage to the Americas to harvest crops, including sugar cane, in places like her native Cuba. The Afro-Cuban proudly asserted in one of her many classic songs, “Azúcar Negra” (written by Mario Diaz):

Soy dulce como el melao’/Alegre como el tambor/Llevo el ritmico tumbao’/Y Africa en el corazon/Hija de una isla rica/Esclava de una sonrisa/ Soy calle y soy carnaval/Calle corazón y tierra/Mi sangre es azúcar negra/Es amor y es música/ Azucar azucar negra/Cuanto me gusta y me alegra/Azucar azucar negra/Ay cuanto me gusta y me alegra

I’m sweet as molasses/Merry as the drum/I wear the rhythmic tumbao’/And Africa in the heart/Daughter of a rich island/slave of a sunrise/I am street and I am carnival/Street, heart and earth/My blood is brown sugar/It is love and music/Black (Brown) Sugar Sugar / How much I love it and it makes me happy/ Black (Brown) Sugar Sugar / Oh how much I love it and it makes me happy*

The excitement of the long-awaited pilgrimage to Brooklyn to one of the most tweeted/blogged/televised/talked about installation of the year subsided once I stepped inside. Once I finally reached the Creative Time‘s sign fully announcing the exhibition, I smelled the molasses-dripped walls of the Domino factory before I entered. The scent enveloped me as I looked around at the vacuous space containing throngs of people navigating the rust and licorice-colored puddles that gathered in the unexpected sloping corners and passages around the carefully-placed sculptures of brown-sugared “children” holding baskets.

Mammy in waiting I knew the “Mammy Sphinx” awaited my inspection, but I only wanted to glance at her from afar. I had to first take my cues from those children, some made of resin coated in sugar, others made of pure azúcar negra (brown sugar) who marked a path from the entrance towards the gleaming white Mammy-in-waiting. For me, they set the tone in the Domino factory. Walker wisely chose to let the conditions of space, time, and the natural elements take their due course, leaving those pure sugar babies purposely neglected, fallen, and broken. Those sculptures were best described by the sound poet, Tracie Morris, who stated at the Free University – NYC event, “Subtleties of Resistance,” held within the factory that afternoon, that the looming sculpture was “a ghost watching over all those sweet dying children.” Paraphrasing Morris, she describe how “their tiny load bearing bodies literally melting on the factory floor and in the shadows are the real story of enslaved labor, suffering, death. She watches them – gaze fixed straight ahead – protecting them, bearing witness for them.” An eery, but apt description.

A number of other elements made me trepidatious about approaching the “Sugar Mama” because it took time to acclimate to the environment: the (anti)ceremonial procession on a street in Brooklyn, the heat of the blazing sun outside, the coolness of the darkened interior, the scent (oh the stench), the reluctant dampness of melting azúcar negra, and the sticky floors coated with it audibly marking each person’s step within.

My attendance was tempered by meeting a former Domino factory worker, Mr. Robert Shelton. I’d learned about his presence as a volunteer through an article written by Leigh Raiford and Robin Hayes in The Atlantic, “Remembering the Workers of the Domino Factory.” As we approached the Sugar Mama — I can’t stop calling her that — Mr. Shelton’s availability to speak about his work within the building mediated my own conflict between the hands of the laborers who earned a living since the factory’s opening in the 1856 until its fraught closing in 2004 and the “art” and its substance in the hands of Kara Waker. Yes, his very presence made the history of the factory much more palpable, palatable, and extraordinary.

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After being there, I do understand why one would yell  (“Why I Yelled at the Kara Walker Exhibit,” The Indypendent, June 30, 2014). I mostly sighed in my discomfort. It’s a tough piece, and it’s even tougher watching people in inappropriate poses at the expense of the representation of the very people victimized by institutions/systems that created versions of these kinds of “sugar mamas” and their resultant destructive forces. This, despite the public protests against such postering (“‘We Are Here’: People of Color Gather at Kara Walker Show”).

Indeed, the “Sugar Mama” was formidable. She took my breath away. But, what to do with the uneasiness of having seen a black woman’s body turned into a powerful, yet vulnerable monument to the legacy of sugar? What to do about an homage to the black, female body whose site(s) of power — her monumental frame (40′ x 70′ x 90′), her kerchiefed head, her exposed vulva — put on display for close observation, critique, and praise? The respectful and powerful introspection of the “Subtleties of Resistance” really did help to contextualize the installation with the set of readings/performances staged by Free University – NYC with original sound poetry by Tracie Morris, a reading of Frederick Douglass’s July 5, 1852 speech “What to the slave is your Fourth of July?” by Brian Jones, and Sofía Gallisá reading in Spanish of Abelardo Díaz Alfaro’s 1947 story “Bagazo.” (I wasn’t able to attend the workshop and film screening afterward. I imagine that was also immensely transformative for participants.) Being in the company of Wellesley colleagues, former students and other friends who just so happened to come through, I felt in solidarity with those who were willing to thoughtfully and courteously discuss the experience.

There are so many sentiments spoken and unspoken that must still be felt, expressed, sung, and written about. My friend and Wellesley College colleague, Dr. Elena Creef, who joined me on this journey, coined a term – “A Middle Sugar Passage.” Yes, we are travelers on a different kind of 21st century “Passage” wading through the structural failures of a post-industrial collapse of manufacturing in the United States. No, we weren’t taken against our will aboard a ship from our homeland into a foreign one, but we were made to feel like we swayed within the bowels of a vessel, with a single porthole provided in one of the walls to enhance that perception. Again, I ask, where do I — do we — go from here? …back to Celia Cruz perhaps.

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Very few pieces in recent history have done the kind of work to foster the conversations that I think this installation will engender for years to come. I’ve still got my work cut out for me. Research may answer some questions, but I may never be satisfied. That, I guess, is the brilliance of Kara Walker’s A Subtlety: or the Marvelous Sugar Baby an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant.

¡AZÚCAR!

BOOKS on sugar and slavery to the rescue. Photo by Nikki A. Greene.
BOOKS on sugar and slavery to the rescue. Photo by Nikki A. Greene.* Thank you to Andreina Castillo for help with the translation of the lyrics to “Azúcar Negra.”

* Thank you to Andreina Castillo for help with the translation of the lyrics to “Azúcar Negra.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 







 

 

Can You Paint FAITH?

Moe Brooker does! I’ve interviewed him, and I believe him. I’ve titled my talk, “To the Glory of God (TTGG): Moe Brooker’s Painted Faith” at the upcoming symposium, Faith, Identity, and History: Representations of Christianity in Modern and Contemporary African American Art,” sponsored by the Association for Scholars of Christianity in Art History (ASCHA). Here’s why…

Throughout his more than four-decade-long career in the arts, Philadelphia native Moe Brooker, has created a distinctive artistic language that calls out to viewers to not only look at his works as arrangements of patterns, colors, and shapes on canvas or paper, but also as investigations into the human spirit. His paintings are as multi-layered and complex as the people who have the opportunity to encounter them. Jazz music and his spiritual grounding, along with his general experiences as an African-American artist have contributed to the energetic, abstract mixed-media paintings. The painting process as a daily devotion for him, he asserts, is “almost like a prayer…and what passes through me is not of my own invention. It comes from the higher Being…It’s not church. This is my private worship.” You’ll have to come to the symposium to hear more (including a recorded duet between him and his wife, Cheryl). The Alumni Sales Gallery at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts will also feature Moe’s work. He’s an inspiration for his students at Moore College of Art & Design. See his poignant and engaging 2010 convocation at Moore (click here). Wouldn’t you love to be his student?!

The Symposium: On Friday, March 23 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art & Saturday, March 24, scholars will explain–and challenge–our understanding of how African American artists painted, sculpted, photographed, and plain ‘ol lived their faith through the expression of visual arts from the turn of the 20th century to the present. The symposium will take place in conjunction with the enthralling exhibition, Henry Ossawa Tanner: Modern Spiritcurated by my University of Delaware grad colleague, Anna O. Marley. Early registration for the symposium ends March 14! The exhibition closes April 15. You don’t want to miss this many Tanners in one room! The New York Times agrees. Read the review of the show.

For more on what I’m art historicizing about this spring, see What’s Next…

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