Creating an inclusive curatorial overview of performance art by contemporary artists of the African Diaspora is no easy task finds Sonya Dyer
Creating an inclusive curatorial overview of performance art by contemporary artists of the African Diaspora is no easy task. Perhaps it is unsurprising that the ‘Radical Presence’ exhibition delights and frustrates in equal measure.
Radical Presence is curated by Valerie Cassel Oliver, senior curator at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (where it opened in November 2012). In New York, the show was divided into two parts: Part I took place at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery (closing last December); Part II is running at The Studio Museum in Harlem until 9th March 2014. Together, they showcase work made from the 1960’s to the present day.
It’s wonderful to see a seminal, under-acknowledged artist such as Lorraine Grady given the respect she is most certainly due. Grady’s presence is felt throughout, not only in the representation of her own work across both sites, but on the cover of the leaflet advertising the accompanying performance programme, and through the inclusion of a video interview with the artist. The focus on Grady certainly fulfils the curatorial imperative to place these African diasporic artists at the heart of discourse around contemporary performance.
Equally, the exhibition features work by renowned names such as (William) Pope L., Clifford Owens, Simone Leigh, Carrie Mae Weems, David Hammonds and Coco Fusco. Fusco’s work ‘a/k/a Mrs. George Gilbert’ (2004) evoked a historical moment that is in danger of being forgotten, buried deep in the American consciousness (notwithstanding the recent release of ‘The Black Power Mixtape’). When Angela Davis was America’s Most Wanted, random Black women were wrongly profiled, targeted and arrested in droves by the FBI. Playing with now-familiar surveillance aesthetics, Fusco’s work features mug shots and grainy imagery, accompanied by a paranoid soundtrack documenting an FBI officer’s ongoing pursuit of Prof. Davis (and by extension, the Black female body in public space.)
Jayson Musson’s genius/idiot art world dismantler Hennessey Youngman – half Kanye West, half over-eager MFA student – is represented by his video Art Thoughtz: Performance Art. In creating this youtube confessional internet celebrity, Musson utilises humour and rigorous conceptual understanding, critiquing the shared love of excess and braggadocio of commercial hip-hop culture and the contemporary art market with forensic insight. (However, Musson’s display at Grey Art Gallery only included work directly streamed from youtube. Visitors were only able to view the work when the WiFi signal was strong enough.)
I also enjoyed Sur Rodney’s (Sur) ‘Free Advice, July 6, 2008,’ where the artist offers free advice by the roadside (the clip I watched featured a young man figuring out how to dump his girlfriend.)
Ulysses S Jenkins’ video ‘Mass of Images’ (1978) combines humour and rage in its confrontation with stereotypical televisual images of African Americans. Filmed in a studio, the artist sits in a wheelchair wielding a sledgehammer, implicitly threatening to smash a bank of TV’s whilst reciting a mantra, ‘You’re just a mass of images you’ve gotten to know / from years and years of TV shows …’ amid bursts of manic laughter. Interspersed are shots of those images he is seeking to destroy, Mammy and co. Watching the grainy b/w VHS, one feels in the presence of a pioneer.
However, the issue of space – how it is utilised curatorially, how much space individual works require to enable them to breathe – seems unresolved. Works are crammed together, sounds bleed into each other in a way that feels unproductive. Frustratingly, many individual works are repeated across the two sites.
As is always the case with group shows, one thinks about the artists who seem to be ‘missing.’ Naturally, there is a preponderance of African American artists. I couldn’t help but speculate as to how Afro-European artists such as Harold Offeh, Robin Deacon or Jimmy Robert might factor into this vision of contemporary Black performance.
The biggest news story in relation to the show – much publicised at the time – was Adrian Piper’s late withdrawal, expressing a desire that her work (and by implication the work of Black artists in general) be shown within a wider cultural context, not just in comparison with each other.
At Grey Art Gallery, extracts of correspondence between Adrian Piper and the show’s curator were displayed in place of her work, including some (to me) unfortunately directed comments from the curator regarding artists feeling ‘stigmatized by blackness.’
I visited both New York sites on the same day, and left feeling overwhelmed and exhilarated. With hindsight, it struck me that Piper’s refusenik gesture had in a sense successfully carved out more of a space for herself than many of the artists on display – it was a work in itself. In many respects, the ‘missing’ artist felt the most present.
Part I: September 10 to December 7, 2013, at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery, New York City.
Part II: November 14, 2013 to March 9, 2014 at The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York City.
Sonya Dyer is an artist, writer and occasional curator from London.