At the center of Professor Bridget R. Cooks’ lecture, “Black Artists and Activism: Harlem on My Mind, 1969,” was the projected photograph and cover of her book, Exhibiting Blackness: African Americans and the American Art Museum. A curated endeavor—Cooks staged the photo which features her parents looking upon works of art, her own ghost-like image walking through the gallery, and a museum guard standing in the corner—she explained that this kind of curation was critical: she could find no photos of Black people in museum galleries.
This absence is not without historical imperative. The last of this season’s Humanities on the Edge lectures focused on “Post Revolutionary Futures,” Cooks’ examined the ways in which Black art, and by extension, Black activism, has been willfully misrepresented or excluded from mainstream American art museums. Her own image, as Cooks explained, a blurred figure in motion, speaks to both ideas of “absence” and “presence.”
This absence, fraught with the politics of race and anti-Blackness in the art world, excludes. It erases. It negates. Its presence, on the rare occasions it exists, captures a history of Black art, Black life, and Black community as spectacle, as cultural specimens to be examined and understood from a safe and objective distance. It is almost always, as Cooks later examines in depth, under the curation of the White gaze:
Group exhibitions, when including Black art, are about “being” Black
Black artists are not shown with other non-Black artists
When present, White artists are never identified as White artists
And therefore, Black art is never part of the permanent collection. It is made Other. It is distinguished in space, in curation, and in its location, as something different. It is peripheral: classified as a special exhibit, relegated to the sides or smaller galleries of the museum, or at worst, as Cooks pointed out, to the basement. At the heart of this dichotomous relationship between absence and presence is the politic of representation and the need for a richer and more diverse understanding of race and its relationship to power in regard to curation. For in this representation, there are pedagogical consequences that stem from presentation and interpretation. What then do patrons to a museum understand about the meaning of Black art? What are the larger consequences of a patron stating, as Cooks recorded, “I have never seen an exhibition of Black Artists.”
At the center of this critique, Cooks offered these methodological questions:
Which art works by African American artists are regularly on view?
How does knowledge of the artist’s race influence what you think and say about the art work?
What do the object’s labels for art works by African American artists say?
How are African American artists incorporated into the museum’s identity?
At the center of her lecture, Cooks offered these questions to examine the 1969 exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art of “Harlem on My Mind,” curated by Allon Schoener. This exhibit, as well intentioned as it may have appeared in terms of representation, was ripe with curatorial intent that continued and fostered a problematic blending of absence and presence. Absence: Diverting from its past curatorial practice, rather than include art by, about, and from Harlem, the exhibit showcased instead only photography. Presence: 200 hundred photographs hung from gallery ceilings representing decades of Harlem life. Absence: The social politics of the time, including the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Hutton, the anti-war movement and the Black Power movement. Presence: To help curate the show several committees were formed to make suggestions as to the aesthetics and purpose of the show. Absence: The actual agency and decision-making power of those committees to have any influence on the thirteen exhibits—they were curated by only Schoener himself. Presence: A strong, organized effort by Black activists with demands for more Black curators, better policy making, and a more viable relationship with the Black community. Absence: The Black Arts Council of Harlem withdrawing its support in protest of the exhibit itself.
Sadly, the list goes on. And despite the push for better representation by activists and protestors the opening day saw 10,000 visitors walk through the door of the Met. Only fifteen hundred of those visitors were Black, wanting to see, one can imagine, themselves in a major American Institution. Neither didactic or prescriptive, Cooks pointed to the complexities of representation, both in American Museums and among communities of color. Different and more effective strategies are necessary for Black visibility in American art. Ultimately, the questions of what is Black art? and who are Black artists? remain to be analyzed and put into an equitable praxis. At stake is the cultural capital of Black America. At stake is the child walking through the galleries, able to appreciate art and see herself represented in important and diverse ways. There is, ultimately, more room for presence in the 21st century, and within the current cultural climate, a need to eliminate absence, in its various and insidious manifestations.