Too Many Skeletons in the Closet to Box Me In: Understanding African Diaspora Art
An internationally leading and groundbreaking scholar and curator, Lizzetta LeFalle-Collins provides a powerful and compellingly argued thought-piece to accompany the publication of Stephane Lewthwaite’s Special Issue, “Art Across Frontiers: Cross-cultural Encounters in America.” Cutting to the heart of definitional issues vis-à-vis “African Diaspora Art” as a shifting and ambiguous designation, LeFalle-Collins not only traces its multiplicity of meanings but also debates the intellectual innovations of Robert Thompson in relation to the experimental bodies of works by David Hammons. Drawing on her curatorial work at the Museum of the African Diaspora, LeFalle-Collins writes not only of the politics of exhibition organization but of the politics of the review process as she fascinatingly comes to grips with the ongoing difficulties confronting artists of the African Diaspora.
Too Many Skeletons in the Closet to Box Me In
© 2012 Lizzetta LeFalle-Collins
The rubric of “African Diaspora art” serves as a generic label that invites endless questions and contradictions the more one seeks to understand its multiple meanings. By exploring the examples of Robert Farris Thompson, David Hammons, and the Museum of the African Diaspora, Jacqueline Francis’s article “The ‘Being and Becoming’ of African Diaspora Art,” included in the special issue “Art Across Frontiers: Cross-cultural Encounters in America” aptly illustrates how Africans and Blacks in the Americas and Caribbean became so tightly woven together throughout history. Robert Farris Thompson categorizes African-Atlantic culture as an “alternative classical tradition,” but in his sweeping assertions, he overlooks the degree to which interdisciplinary Black artists often adhere to certain aesthetic elements of the European and American art traditions in which they are trained. The exploration of Diasporic subject matter—including the history of enslavement, oppression and miscegenation—paired with the application of European aesthetic techniques offers proof of the double consciousness that informs the creative identities and artistic processes of contemporary Black artists. The practice of artist David Hammons and the reception of the Museum of the African Diaspora’s exhibition programming, offer further examples of the interdisciplinary approaches undertaken by many contemporary Black artists.
Published in the late 1960s at the apex of the Black Arts Movement in the United States and at the dawn of a new era of independence for many African and Caribbean nations, some of Thompson’s most important texts received an immediate warm welcome from Black social and political activists. For many US Blacks, the continent of Africa and post-colonial African nations became intellectual and physical epicenters for investigations into their cultural heritage and identity. Desiring respect and validation of their Africanness, they enthusiastically embraced Thompson’s scholarship. Africans on the continent may have been a bit more suspect. When Thompson, a respected scholar, pronounced this shared heritage, it was music to the ears of many Black Nationalists in the Black Atlantic. By way of example, the author points to Thompson’s consideration of visual plastic arts like sculpture. Thompson advocated looking at sculpture with an African sensibility–not ascribing to the compartmentalization of various art forms and instead believing them to be connected to each other as part of a whole aesthetic expression. This holistic approach to understanding the arts made perfect sense to Black Nationalists who were seeking affinities with African ancestors. Thompson’s theories and scholarship were thus readily embraced at a moment in history that was uniquely ripe for the absorption of his views—a couple of decades later, he may have been viewed as out of step, too dogmatic in his pigeonholing of Black creativity.
As Francis notes, David Hammons searched for ways to figure out the African Diaspora in his visual practice. Inspired by powerful West African garments with amulets that he saw at the Field Museum in Chicago in 1970 while attending a National Conference of Artists gathering, Hammons sought to inject that same sense of power into his early works, using his body as an individualistic signifier for his social status, political orientation, and “aesthetic of blackness.” In his 1969 essay The African Influence on the Art of the United States, Thompson attempted to elevate New World art expressions to the status of classical African art, or at least to establish a continuum of those forms. But Hammons was after something else. He was after a new form, one that recognized the hybridity of Black people and was not so tightly connected to the traditions of African art. Unlike Thompson, Hammons was not out to prove anything and was not looking to be embraced by Blacks or non-Blacks. He was an artful character in the streets by himself—although as the author points out, Hammons’ derision of the anti-art establishment and his ridicule of the art world hierarchy made him and his artwork even more compelling for the art world power brokers, and he deftly navigated his place on the sly in that world.
Early on, the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) was tasked with abruptly shifting gears as it evolved from an African American museum into a more complex and contradictory institution with a global focus. The breadth of what it meant to be a Museum of the African Diaspora was not fully realized when the museum opened its doors in 2005. The new designation was there, but the museum’s leaders were not yet totally on board—there was global thinking and national backsliding. I curated the two inaugural exhibitions. Two of the three artists in Dispersed: African Legacy/New World Reality were unknown to the power brokers of the museum. They only knew Berkeley artist Mildred Howard, and her work was more conceptual than what they were expecting. At one point it was suggested that I include more recognizable artists like Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence, and I was questioned about the type of work I selected, such as my decision to include installations. The second exhibition, Linkages and Themes was more acceptable because the works came from the Peter and Eileen Norton Family Foundation Collection. Although the Foundation made frequent loans to museums nationally and internationally, MoAD was the first museum to mount an exhibition of works curated exclusively from the Foundation’s collection.
Critics and visitors to the museum really didn’t know what to expect from this African Diaspora museum. The author of the article critiqued local reviewers as out of their league, including Sharon Mizota who reviewed Dispersed for SF Weekly and Kenneth Baker who took on a subsequent exhibition, Carrie Mae Weems’ The Louisiana Project for the San Francisco Chronicle. These reviewers had clearly learned from Thompson and his successors that Black Atlantic artwork was based in certain African traditions and followed an African trajectory. There were in fact other connections that bound these shows together, but one had to know how to access them. These exhibitions were comprised of conceptual works marked by embedded narratives that had been pondered, digested, reconfigured and extended. For me, booking Weems’ creative non-fiction Louisiana Project was the perfect way to extend the process and dialogue initiated by Dispersed and Linkages and Themes. It challenged Black people to access their own personal memories and to acknowledge the ways in which the African and Black Diasporas are constantly in flux. Change defines the Diasporas and their transitional and transnational state of being and becoming.
When MoAD opened, it was an ambitious beginning of “being and becoming.” The rollercoaster is still moving because museum missions and cultures often change due to unrealistic visions of support and fiscal instability. I have served in various roles at MoAD: as a consultant from 2003-2005; as the Director of Curatorial Affairs and Visual Arts Curator from 2005-2006; and as a Curatorial Consultant from 2008-2012, and now in 2013 Manager of the Visual Arts Program. I served as curatorial consultant for three of MoAD’s recent original exhibitions and as a guest curator for Choose Paint! Choose Abstraction! Celebrating Bay Area Abstract Artists, closing September 2012. The reviews of this exhibition are intriguing. Reviewers betray a sense of lost bearings because I did not clothe the exhibition in identity, race, and gender politics, thereby neglecting to provide viewers, scholars, and critics something obvious to hitch their wagons to. This was intentional—I wanted them to deal with the paint in the room. In one of the more substantive reviews Jordana Moore Saggese states, “Perhaps we are suffering from an identity politics burnout? Or does abstraction truly transcend issues of identity, as [Raymond] Saunders claimed nearly half a century ago?”1 Right in the midst of Thompson’s 1960s ascension as a champion of Africanness in the New World, Saunders declared, “Black is a color . . . Art projects beyond race and color, beyond America. It is universal, and Americans—black, white, or whatever—have no exclusive rights on it.”2 At that critical moment, Hammons must have been saying, “Right on, my brotha.”
Lizzetta LeFalle-Collins, Ph.D., is a freelance curator, art historian, and writer living in Sonoma County, CA.
2 Raymond Saunders, ‘Black is a Color.’ Art Lies, 15, 8-10 (1967/1997)