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Sex & Low Beach
by Vivian Liu
The reminders began in early February: an ad for the John Jay Black Heritage Month Dinner, a special Black History Month Google banner. More surprising was a friendly reminder to “Celebrate Black History Month with Chase Bank!” in response to my four-digit PIN code. ATM transactions have always been unsettling, but suddenly, they were more puzzling than ever. I couldn’t help but wonder what Chase Bank has to do with Black History Month, or what Black History Month even means. How exactly does one “celebrate” the history of our country’s largest minority?
Though many would agree it seems impossible to remove “Black” from “Black History,” just how the history of black men and women continues to influence us today is unclear. The idea of divorcing a group from its history and redefining its identity is complicated—its importance has been recognized by countless writers and thinkers. But more recently, and most vividly, it has been recognized in a new way: by the artists of the post-black movement.
The term “post-black” was coined by Thelma Golden, curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem. Though the exact definition is debated, it generally denotes those artists who renounce the identifier of “black artist” while still attempting to conceive notions of black identity through their art. Post-black artists’ aim is to change the dialogue about race and culture by subverting the norms—they refuse to be defined by their “blackness” and instead aim to be unconfined by static understandings of black art, and thus black culture.
In a 2009 TED talk, Golden discussed “how art gives shape to cultural change,” citing some of her most famous exhibitions: “Freestyle,” “Frequency,” and “Flow,” all of which are also celebrated as definitively post-black. Her aim in curating these exhibitions was “to try and question the idea of what it would mean, now, at this point in history, to see art as a catalyst: what it would mean to see art at this point in history, as we define and redefine culture.” At the time, she used the term “post-black” to define those artists who “start their work now, looking back at history, but start in this moment, historically.”
The Studio Museum in Harlem boasts an impressive collection of post-black art. At its entrance, an American flag painted in Pan-African colors is an immediate indicator that the artwork inside will challenge pre-existing norms. The exhibit “Fore,” showing until March 10, does just that. Following in the footsteps of “Freestyle,” “Frequency,” and “Flow,” it is determined to refresh the dialogue surrounding culture and its relationship to art. Included, for example, is a series of multimedia pieces depicting black Barbie-like dolls, underscoring the aesthetics of the doll world—a world in which the black woman has long been underrepresented.
History has also been reinterpreted by Glenn Ligon, who did a series of paintings for “Coloring” at the Walker Art Center in 2000. The inspiration for “Coloring” came from a series of 1970s coloring books “with a specific political agenda behind them,” Ligon explained. The books were clearly meant to “normalize images of Black Americans, to make them part of history,” but Ligon imagined that for the children doing the coloring, “none of that matters.” Ligon gave the books to a group of three-year-olds in Minneapolis. One child proceeded to color lipstick and eye shadow onto Malcolm X. Ligon did just the same—on a blown-up silk-screen version of the coloring book image. The painting depicts a black American from the unbiased, naïve perspective of a child. The question raised is whether the painting is still about being black, and whether any portrait of a black person can ever avoid being about blackness. It’s a complicated question, but the post-black movement nonetheless looks to answer it.
It might be difficult for some to understand how art so devoted to the representation of a race can at the same time refuse to be identified by it. Dexter Wimberly, an independent curator in Brooklyn, explains, “A lot of Black art we got to see in the media was ... somehow connected to civil rights, somehow connected to racism, somehow related to political and social touchdowns in African American history.” We were therefore only given an incredibly narrow glimpse of the “Black Experience.” Post-black artists want to tell a different story. Wimberly neatly summarizes post-black artists as “rooted in but not limited by” their race. There is no paradox.
Wimberly highlights the difference between content and intent: namely, that the former does not always indicate the latter. He offers the example of an artist who “makes a portrait of [him- or herself]. They happen to be a black artist. In one era, let’s say the late ’70s or early ’80s, their intent could have been to make a significant statement on blackness; to show that blackness, in all of its glory and beauty, can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with any other standard of beauty.” For too long, it was assumed that if the content was black, the intent was somehow to agitate for the civil rights cause. Wimberly continues, “however, today, an artist could do a portrait of [him- or herself] and happen to be black, and their intent is to make a commentary on the War on Terror. They have absolutely no thinking in the creation or presentation of the piece on the racial politics of America.” Now that we recognize the possibility of a black point of view that is not ingrained in the fight for equal rights, black artists’ stomping ground is considerably broader.
In response to the post-black movement, artist Katalin Halasz from the University of London created a “post-white” performance piece called “I Love Black Men.” A white woman enters the exhibit space, completely naked. She proceeds to write “I Love Black Men” on a chalkboard. She does so over and over again, until she collapses from exhaustion about three hours later. Halasz explains, “You never see such thing as ‘white art.’ If art is done by a white artist, it has always been called simply ‘art.’” But could there be “white art?” In “I Love Black Men,” race is made salient through the single word “black,” and suddenly the woman’s whiteness is obvious. Suddenly, it’s a piece about being white in a post-black world—at least this is what Halasz hopes.
Such responses prove that the post-black movement is making waves. For better or worse, “post-black” has become something of a buzzword, as demonstrated by the 2013 New York Magazine article “How To Make It in the Art World.” Among suggestions ranging from practical to ridiculous, “Be Young, Post-Black, and From Chicago” is semi-satirically placed at number four. There is a danger to the media throwing terms like “post-black” around so indiscriminately; such coverage risks turning incredibly important movements into sound-biteable fads.
In a 2007 article from African American Review, author-philosopher Paul C. Taylor explains that the prefix “post” is symptomatic of a generation with an “impulse ... to posterize.” That is, we want to semantically mark the start and end of an era. The implication of “post-” is huge. As Shantrelle Lewis, curator of the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute puts it, “How does one place him or herself beyond a state that existed, perhaps since the beginning of time, and definitely the origin of humanity?”
Furthermore, there is the danger of what Nana Adusei-Poku, a lecturer at the University of Zurich working toward her Ph. D. in post-black art at the Humboldt University, calls “neoliberal self-conception.” When one labels another (or oneself) as post-black, Adusei-Poku feels he or she “undermines” the achievements of black artists past by claiming that only post-black artists are “beyond the problems of institutional racism.” This suggests that all “pre-black” art is inherently tainted and influenced by racism, and therefore not made with the creative freedom that post-black artists claim to enjoy. Pre-black art is essentially deemed less artistic: This “undermining” may in fact reinforce the problem of racism.
Lewis expressed another concern: “You can’t separate yourself from your blackness and then cry racism when the big bad racially-constructed society wolf comes knocking at your front door.” Before we can fathom the idea of a post-race world, we need to question if we are even living in a post-racist world.
In a time when self-identification has never been so pluralistic or subjective, it’s important that we update our understandings of racial identity by looking at artists who are pushing the boundaries set by history. The Studio Museum in Harlem, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts—these are no longer places to simply look at art, but to reflect on ourselves and engage in a dialogue about the perception of whatever race we may identify with. The best part, of course, is that the discussion doesn’t have to end for any reason—especially not by the first day of March.
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