Where are We Now? Revisiting Black Male
*All cited comments are from comment books accessible to exhibition visitors and the contributors are anonymous/illegible unless stated otherwise in the endnotes.
"I found the box and the gold tennis shoes to hit the closest to home. The box because I put myself in it and wondered if I could/would ever get out. When I did I found the goal 'gold' shoes to fill."1
Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art traveled to the Hammer Museum on April 25, 1995, from the Whitney Museum of American Art. After its opening at the Whitney, a dialogue was initiated by the curator, Thelma Golden, who is now the director and chief curator of The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York. Black Male was a seed—a catalyst for further introspection into the ways in which black masculinity is addressed in contemporary art, and how this work is informed by stereotypes and falsities of black masculinity that have saturated popular culture for centuries. The exhibition included a reading room, and a comment book was available to visitors to express their responses to the show; a total of five spiral-bound notebooks were filled during the run of the exhibition. It is in the pages of the comment books that the impact of Black Male is perhaps most honestly expressed. And interestingly, through a forum which offers anonymity, many chose to identify themselves.
"Speaking as a black male…"
"From Steve yet another white guy" […] Another one? Stop please!!"
Black Male’s comment books provide insight into where we were in regards to conversations about race, identity, and stereotypes, and also how far we’ve come by allowing us to reflect on the social climate in 1995. Visitors expressed themselves through illustrations, poetry, and text that spoke to their experiences as art museum visitors and members of the Los Angeles community during a precarious time in the city.
"From a black male that needed to see that someone somewhere was working on interpreting us beyond our so many deadly stereotypes."
Two years prior to the opening of Black Male, the Getty enacted a multicultural initiative as a response to the tumultuous political climate and lack of diversity in cultural institutions across Los Angeles. As an art history student and a Getty Multicultural Undergraduate Intern, I’ve noticed an increased effort to contribute to the accurate representation of historically marginalized groups, but I wonder, how far have we really come?
"Still not enough" "Great start" "One step forward" "Thanks for starting the dialogue"
Black Male was not an exhibition that only included black artists, nor was it exclusive to men—rather it featured a diverse makeup of 29 artists including Mel Chin, Carrie Mae Weems, Renée Cox, and Robert Mapplethorpe. Black Male greeted museum visitors with Fred Wilson’s Guarded View—four headless, black mannequins dressed in typical museum guard attire. Jeff Koons’s repurposed Nike poster of Michael Jordan as Moses reiterated black hyper-masculinity, a stereotype explicitly addressed in Jean Michel Basquiat’s Untitled (Famous Negro Athletes) from 1981. While Michael Jordan is not Moses, and every museum guard is not black, "the reification of race is most apparent in the stereotype."2 The importance of Black Male lies in its ability not to debunk stereotypes, but to shed light on their systematic conception.
"Where is all the art by black artists at? Where’s it been? Why don’t we take a look at it? Why not mix it in with white and Asian and Mexican art? Hey, a group show!"
A frequent criticism in the comment books is the lack of female representation. However, black femininity was not merely present, but arguably integral to the exhibition’s conception and presentation. It began with Thelma Golden—the Whitney’s first black curator—taking a space made for some and incorporating the perspectives of many. While representations of black women were not emphasized, their voices were heard as she occupied the Whitney Museum and the Hammer with artists such as Adrian Piper, Lorna Simpson, Dawn Ader DeDeaux, Alison Saar, Pat Ward Williams, and the aforementioned Carrie Mae Weems and Renée Cox. All of which paired eloquently with bell hooks’s "Feminism Inside: Toward a Black Body Politic," an essay in the catalogue which addressed the black body.
"Hopefully black female is not far behind…"
For the duration of the exhibition, there was also an expansive video program, featuring films by Charles Burnett (who was part of the L.A. Rebellion group of filmmakers), Spike Lee, and Marlon Riggs. The Blaxploitation films of the early 1970s and their contribution to the stereotypes of black masculinity were integral to the development of the exhibition, and particularly to the film program. By contrast, films by Riggs, Lee, and Burnett allowed black men to author their stories rather than be subjected to fictitious representation. The dialogue initiated by Black Male exceeds the frame of institutional critique by engaging with conversations that extend beyond the art museum, implicating the film industry and other forms of mass media.
"Any exhibit that gets people talking is good for us all."
Black Male was provocative—evoking feelings of anger, disappointment, sadness, and even embarrassment from visitors, but a consensus was reached in the exhibit’s depiction of reality.3 The anger felt by visitors was warranted. One should be concerned with such a narrow-scope of representation particularly when it mirrors society.
"… at least in this particular instance Art Imitates Life."4
Contributions by artists who addressed the particulars of the social and political landscape in Los Angeles made Southern California an ideal venue for Black Male. For example, Danny Tisdale’s Rodney King, Police Beating from the Disaster Series (1992). The work consists of nine still frames from the viral video that captured the police beating of Los Angeles resident, Rodney King Jr., a black man whose abusers were exonerated in a Simi Valley courtroom. David Hammons’s Injustice Case (1970) and Carl Pope’s Some of the Greatest Hits of the New York City Police Department: A Celebration of Meritorious Achievement in Community Service (1994) were unfortunately also applicable to Los Angeles. Pope’s work consisted of some trophies distributed to officers, commemorating justified homicides throughout New York City, and the LAPD was under scrutiny in the aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Hammons’s body print represents a figure who is hogtied, gagged, and framed by the American flag. He questions the tangibility of the American dream and whether or not justice is truly for all by juxtaposing an oppressed figure with the symbol for America.
"This exhibit stepped out and into places and on toes… What the fuck is positivity anyway, is it always sayin' YES?"5
The conversations introduced by Black Male are as appropriate today as they were twenty-two years ago. Police brutality has become increasingly visible in the United States, and over the past seven years, cases such as Eric Garner and more recently, Philando Castile, have resulted in community efforts to raise awareness and express their anger over these incidents.6 Artists, too, have continued to express their dissatisfaction through their artwork. The Times Thay Ain’t A Changing Fast Enough (2017) is a recent painting by L.A.-based artist, Henry Taylor, which represents the death of Philando Castile. Taylor’s painting is a contemporary history painting, referencing a subject unable to pose for him. He used a cell-phone video recording that made this image available to the masses. Taylor memorializes Castile’s death, superseding the ephemeral nature of the video or digital image and reattributing a permanence to the action with a painting.
"We will never be equal until America recognizes all of me. Until it realizes that freedom doesn’t mean they can put on my culture without paying me forty-acres and a mule."
Los Angeles institutions like the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) and the Hammer Museum have begun to incorporate programming or exhibitions to create forums where race, identity, and politics can be addressed. These programs have reinvigorated conversations that came to the fore during the L.A. riots in 1992 and were foregrounded again by Black Male in 1995. Earlier this year, the Hammer hosted a series of programs titled The L.A. Uprising: 25 Years Later, which opened with a screening of Spike Lee’s Rodney King followed by a discussion on law enforcement. The series concluded with a timely screening of the more recent documentary, Do Not Resist, which profiles the militarization of law enforcement following the deaths of young black men like Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin. At MOCA, Kerry James Marshall’s retrospective, Mastry, reinvigorated conversations about the absence of black artists in the art historical canon. During its time in Los Angeles, Mastry received an unprecedented reception that spoke to the rarity of the occasion. The singularity of a retrospective encompassing not only a black artist but representations of black people is telling of the slow chug of progress in the institutional context.
"Harriet and Frederick planted the tree. Martin and Malcolm got the shade. What will you and I do with the sacrifices they made?"
Will these programs and exhibitions encourage other institutions to expand the art historical narrative into one that encompasses historically marginalized people? Is it wishful thinking to hope that the Hammer's forthcoming Adrian Piper retrospective will encourage more retrospectives of women of color? Or, will we return to regularly scheduled programming after it closes? Maybe when people of color aren’t limited to mere pages in the chapters of American history textbooks, the number of historical art exhibitions depicting their experiences will equate. The intention of continuing the discourse initiated by Black Male is to encourage the dialogues foregrounded by this exhibition not to wane, but to fester with the fervor at the necessity of confronting the truth.
"I didn’t like what I saw—the denial has been uncovered. Thank You."
1. UCLA Theatre Playwright, 1995, Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art, Box 3, Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center. Exhibition files (University Archives Record Series 776). UCLA Library Special Collections, University Archives.
2. Hamza Walker, “Domino Effect,” The Renaissance Society, 2008.
3. These emotions were most frequently expressed in the comment books.
4. Bruce Thompson, May 28, 1995, Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art, Box 3, Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center. Exhibition files (University Archives Record Series 776). UCLA Library Special Collections, University Archives.
5. UCLA Theatre Playwright, 1995, Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art, Box 3, Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center. Exhibition files (University Archives Record Series 776). UCLA Library Special Collections, University Archives.
6. “Expanded Homicide Data Table 14,” Federal Bureau of Investigation: Uniform Crime Reporting, accessed June 1, 2017, https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2014/crime-in-the-u.s.-2014/tables/expanded-homicide-data/expanded_homicide_data_table_14_justifiable_homicide_by_weapon_law_enforcement_2010-2014.xls.