More Art Reviews Please
Updated: Jul 15
This Fall I had the opportunity to enroll in University of Washington’s Black Embodiment Studio with Dr. Kemi Adeyemi, as part of my course requirements for my MFA at Seattle University in Arts Leadership. In this conversational style workshop a mixed group of Literature, Poetry, Journalism, Gender Studies, and Dance postgraduate students are instructed and encouraged to dissect the business of art writing and engage in the practice of writing specifically about black art. Though I use critiques and reviews to shape my art viewing experience, never had I thought of actually using it as a tool to promote social change or promote the artistic excellence of artists I believe in. There are many art reviewers that have the opportunity to travel the world to give their expertise on what is or is not “good” or relevant. However in my research I was hard pressed to find many black women on the list of acceptable mainstream opinions. Frontrunners like Taylor Renee Aldridge with ARTS.BLACK and Jasmine Weber with Hyperallergic are reigniting the excitement and importance of not just black art, but black people talking about black art. A point made by Shantay Robinson, on the blog Black Art In America, sums up how black art has always been at the forefront of black revolutions.
“Without black art critics, the Black Arts Movement might have been a moment in the wind. But because of critics we are able to appreciate the vitality and force of artists of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Journals such as Liberator, The Crusader, and Freedomways provided conversations around the art being produced. Because of critics, the movement traveled from New York City and New Jersey out west to Chicago and on to the Bay Area. Because of the word, the work of black artists around the country was able to be understood and appreciated.”
Well, that is enough for me to value writing about the art that I surround myself with, which is most often black art, but also a mix of projects by people of various marginalized communities. How can I do something meaningful with this work? Pause. I take a pause, and remember I am at step one, and that first step is simply to write. Hopefully these musings will inspire you to seek out exhibits you would normally ignore, or look at art through a different lens. So let’s begin.
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story.” Maya Angelou
This is the wall text to introduce you to the work of the artists of “In Plain Site” at the University of Washington’s Henry Art Gallery on November 22, 2019. The exhibit will be available for viewing until April 26, 2020. Lead curator Shamim M. Momim, decided to have you enter the show with a bang, by featuring the sparkly home mecca created by Sadie Barnette. Oakland born Barnette has permanent collections at the Guggenheim Museum and the Brooklyn Art Museum. She has used her work to reflect traditional African American life through the lense of spectacular hope. Her work is a unique mix of interior design, collage, and found items saturated with metal flake and hues of pink, gold, and silver. Barnette describes her work as “an abstraction in service of everyday America.” This everyday America that she speaks of is unapologetically black and undeniably fabulous.
When you enter the room where her exhibit is showcased you are transported to an explosion of glitter walls, furniture, and household items situated like a 1950’s living room. The exhibit is delightfully named “Room to Live In.” To the right of the entrance the wall is adorned with a wallpaper that has a pattern of ancient hand carved African combs or what we would consider today “afro picks.” The combs face different directions that create familiar geometric patterns on the wall. Each comb is decorated with a pink ribbon around the handle and shadowed in a way that feels like they are floating off the wall almost as if you could grab one and use it right then and there. Centered on the wallpapered wall is a large black and white photo of a black woman lounging on a couch similar to the one it hangs above. The exhibited couch, however; is covered in a futuristic silver iridescent fabric that picks up the life of the bright pink dominating throughout the space. You then find this futuristic pop of joy in all of the pieces strategically placed throughout the space like crushed glittery soda cans discarded or an old television memorialized in sparkles.
On the other side of the room enlarged F.B.I. reports are centered on a bright pink metal flecked wall. This piece is entitled “Untitled (Agitator Index).” Each report has information spray painted out with neon pinks and purples in order to reflect the innocence of the names the paint is covering. Sadie Barnette's father founded the Oakland chapter of the Black Panthers in 1968; his name was Rodney Barnette. Here one must acknowledge the personal as political, while faced with a jarring uncomfortability in the space, her space. White patrons who stood in amusement and merriment with the right side of the room’s whimsy, looked to the other side perplexed and quickly removed themselves from the area as they began to comprehend what was being displayed.
The bright colors and sparkly surfaces of both pieces can be appreciated on different levels depending on your relationship with the subject matter. Some people will see the space as a kaleidoscope of colors and textures that show American life from a child’s point of view. While others may see their own childhood reimagined through the hopeful eyes of Sadie Barnette. Is it afro-futurism? Is it pop art? Categorizing Barnette’s work as either of these would be a misunderstanding of her admiration of the beauty of the resiliency of blackness in America.