During our time in Washington D.C., we visited countless museums, and as usual, countless pieces of art impacted me, specifically at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) and at the National Gallery of Art’s Afro-Atlantic Histories exhibit. Today, I want to highlight a few of the pieces from these museums, notably because the relate, in many ways, to things I have been writing about on this blog for a while. I can’t detail every piece that stood out, but I would suggest, if you get a chance, to look at the NMAAHC’s Reckoning exhibit online or pick up the Afro-Atlantic Histories, Exhibition Catalog from the National Gallery of Art for more pieces and more detailed discussions of some of the works.
Each of these exhibits highlighted the ways that art works to, as the Reckoning exhibit puts it, “provided its own protest, commentary, escape and perspective for African Americans.” Tuliza Fleming, the chief curator of visual arts at the NMAAHC, stated, “The exhibition seeks to forge connections between the Black Lives Matter protests, racial violence, grief, and mourning, hope and change.” Reckoning does just that through the various pieces within the exhibition. Afro-Atlantic Histories explores these same themes while, as the National Gallery notes, providing a longer view “at the historical experiences and cultural formations of Black and African people since the 17th century.” Working in tandem, each exhibition showcases the power and importance of art in protest, representation, joy, mourning, and more.
On our fist day in Washington, we visited the NMAAHC, and Amy Sherald’s portrait of Breonna Taylor was the first piece I saw when entering the Reckoning: Protest. Defiance. Resilience. exhibit at the NMAAHC. I had seen Sherald’s portrait before, of course, on the cover of Vanity Fair; however, I had not seen any of her other work. Between the NMAAHC and the National Art Gallery, I saw multiple pieces by Sherald, and every one impacted me. Grand Dame Queenie (2013) appears in Reckoning as well, and Sherald painted this piece, which depicts a Black woman holding a tea cup above a saucer, poised to drink or rest the cup back on the saucer, “in response to the exhibition, Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe, which opened at the Walters Art Museum in 2013.” The piece challenges the rhetoric and narrative of colonial (i.e. European) discovery of the African continent, and as Sherald stated about her work, it “delves into the aspects of assimilation, role-playing and existential dichotomies contained by a developing narrative of Black identity.”
In the Afro-Atlantic Histories exhibit, I saw Sherald’s They Call Me Redbone, But I’d Rather be Strawberry Shortcake (2009). The portrait depicts a Black girl standing, head cocked to the side, wearing a yellow pinafore with strawberries on it, with her hands in her pockets. She has straight hair, and it is done up with bows. The girl looks at the viewer with an assertive as well as a questioning gaze, as if asking, “Why do you call me ‘redbone.’” This term, of course, has a history of connotations related to race and ancestry, specifically in relation to multiracial ancestry. Speaking about her basketball coach in high school, who referred to Sherald as “Red,” Sherald points to the inspiration for the piece, “He was the only black teacher in the school, and I was one of 20 or so black students out of 400…so it was a term of endearment but also a secret way to recognize an unspoken cultural and racial camaraderie. Conversely, I could be called ‘Red’ by someone of my own ethnic group who was trying to marginalize me based on my fair complexion within the plantation mentality, which still exists. So basically, this painting is an image of a girl who wants to escape being ‘othered’ by two sides, black and white.” The portrait gets to discussions of colorism, history (both consensual interracial intimacy and sexual violence), assimilation, and more. All of this arises from the subject, standing in a brightly colored dress, asking us, “Why can’t I be Strawberry Shortcake?”
Rashaun Rucker’s series Psychological Redlining also appears at the NMAAHC. The series contains thirteen portraits of Black men, in red cages, with rock pigeons arising from their heads. The portraits immediately caught my attention because the image of the men’s heads, the cage, and the pigeons brought to mind Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy” which concludes with the line, “I know why the caged bird sings.” I thought about W.E.B. Du Bois’ double consciousness. I thought about the opening of Dwayne McDuffie and Denys Cowan’s Hardware series. Each of these made me think about Psychological Redlining because each deals with, as the description of the series puts it in the NMAAHC, “Black male identity and social conditioning,” specifically the psychological effects of racist stereotyping and “pigeonholing.” There’s a lot to examine in the series, from the initial though of the cage to the red outline, which depicts systemic racism through redlining, to the rock pigeons, a reference to urban spaces. These are all important things to think about when looking at Psychological Redlining.
At Afro-Atlantic Histories, I saw Sidney Amaral’s Nick Leash (Who Shall Speak on Our Behalf?) and Kara Walker’s Restraint. Each of these pieces reminded me of Rucker’s series, notably the use of restraints to imprison the subjects. While Rucker uses bird cages, Amaral and Walker use apparatuses such as the “iron bit” and a conglomeration of apparatuses used to control enslaved individuals. The “iron bit” restrained an enslaved individual’s movement and suppressed their ability to speak. Amaral’s self-portrait shows him with a device reminiscent of the “iron bit” and microphones aimed at him. The description of the image at the National Gallery of Art states that it depicts “a collar of microphones that constricts the throat and calls to mind the suppression of Black voices.” I agree with this, notably in relation to the title, but I’d add that the image also makes me think of soundbites and token quotes from individuals or of the ways that we consume Black entertainment. I think about Nicki Daniels, Jr. who the media depicted as a thug during a protest when he was actually present to protect individuals protesting the removal of a Confederate “monument” in Shreveport, Louisiana.
Similar to Amaral’s piece, Walker’s shows a Black man with an “iron bit” and other devices surrounding his head. Unlike Amaral’s piece, though, Walker depicts the man as a silhouette. The “iron bit” restrains the individual’s head movement. A spit guard is placed in front of his mouth, bells are above his head, in case he tries to free himself of the device, and the device, overall, looks like a bird cage, constraining the individual inside it. Like Rucker’s series, Walker’s Restraint also calls to mind the psychological effects of white supremacy and the ways that it infiltrates and restricts one’s ability to become their true self. All of this, and more, is what I thought about when saw Rucker’s, Amaral’s, and Walker’s pieces.
There’s so much more to say about all of these pieces, but I will leave it there for right now. In the next post, I’ll write about a few more pieces that stood out to me at the Reckoning and Afro-Atlantic Histories exhibits. Until then, what are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below and make sure to follow me on twitter @silaslapham.