jeffrey mcnary …with contributions by melissa blackall photography
I drowned in the fire of having you, I burned
In the river of not having you, we lived
Together for hours in a house of a thousand rooms
And we parted for a thousand years - ANTIQUE, pinsky
(CAMBRIDGE, MA) Imagine, if you will, an extraordinary gathering of artists, scholars, activists and casual observers motivated in part aesthetically, or at least pulling together, "against", as rock-star scholar, Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director, Hutchins Center for African & African American Research nailed it, "the tides of adversity". Such things happen indeed, yes?
In its stylistic evolution, the captivating story of what became, Black Portraiture(S) is such a thing, more than just a passage. It can be traced to 2004 and the Bridging the Gaps: First Annual Conference African American Art, Hosted by Harvard University, and later, in 2007, co-hosted with NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, later to include the Maryland Institute College of Art's Center for Race and Culture.
2013 found Black Portraiture(S): The Black Body in the West, in Paris with Black Portraiture(S) II: Imaging the Black Body and Restaging Histories arriving at NYU's La Pirtra in Florence, in 2015 followed by Black Portraiture(S): Revisited in New York City.
Come 2016, Black Portraitures III: Reinventions, Strains of Histories and Culture, snugly set into Johannesburg, SA, a collaboration with the U.S. State Department, Harvard, NYU, and the Goodman Gallery there.
With the thirst for this dialogue continuing, Havana, Cuba emerged and was targeted for Black Portraiture(S) IV: The Color of Silence, but as Prof Gates and Prof. Alejandro de la Fuente, Robert Woods Bliss Professor of Latin American History and Economics Professor of African American Studies and Director, Afro-Latin American Research Institute, wrote in their, "Statements From the Organizers", "And then Trump came, and there Havana went. The Bureaucracies and decisions (or, more aptly, indecisions) that threatened to undo Obama's progress on U.S. Cuba relations ultimately exerted their own influence on our conference, and we turned back toward Cambridge, our institutional home but also the first home of the series that was to grow into Black Portraiture(S)."
So, with the nation in crisis, it’s boulevards filled with demonstrators, streets of its communities with blood, and a dystopian vogue caustically settled in, for three days, March 22-24, 2018 panels rich with presenters and presentations with points to be made, pulled up on, and around Harvard's campus. The dialogue was to proceed…to rock. Woodstock? No. But there was a striking similarity, a likeness to an International Congress of Writers of the Defense of Culture in a boiling Paris in 1935 on the eve of the Second World War. There, Blum Gide, Mallarme, Barbusse and a host of others gathered around the madness, yet brilliance of Artaud, arguing, aroused and challenged by Dada and Surrealism as Ethiopia issued another protest to the League of Nations about Mussolini's dalliance in their affairs.
But in this here, in this and that now, were brilliant splashes of color, and challenging dare amongst those sharing passionate, deep concerns regarding the condition and shelf-life of a culture spawned by the, "Diaspora".
Setting off BPIV came, Dr. Mary Schmidt Campbell, one time guiding force of the Studio Museum of Harlem, and credited with leading the Museum to the nation's first Black Fine Arts Museum. She is currently President of Spellman College. Drawing from her handmade feel of experience and vision, President Campbell entered with, "...the past 15 years these conferences have set the record straight, unearthed what’s been buried and hidden. They've made us see what we've refused to see or been unable to see. The artists, scholars, and activists that have assembled from all over the world, not only reclaim the past, but they imagine a future that we conceptualize that how power lines that generate heat and light of civic culture might be repositioned and reconnected." Moving on, "I think you've turned this conference into a global movement...in every session, there's some blazing insight you get from it."
Later she shared to this writer, "As I've gone to the Black Portraiture(S), they've gotten larger and larger. There's such an incredible cross section of artists and scholars who present. It's one of those moments when we get to talk across disciplines, across cultures, you know, as academics we get out of silos. So I hope it just keeps going on for as long as Deb (Willis) and Skip Gates have the energy to keep it going on." Moving forward she shared, "I really do, and the idea of taking it around the world and creating a different context for it is fantastic. So far it's been Europe, Africa, and North America, and Cuba would have been fantastic, so I think it would be interesting to continue to take it to these different countries because it shifts the context in a very interesting way."
The exuberance and dash generated early was passed on by Dr. Campbell and appeared both attractive and contagious, particularly to the youth drawn to the forum. Jessica, a college student from Philadelphia said, “This is amazing. I love to see all the Black excellence. I love to see the beauty. I love to see the representation, and the faces, the hair. I hope to have some things undergirded and affirmed, and other things expanded. I hope to expand my worldview as well as support what I already know to be true. So the combination of growing and also supporting my roots deeper, I want to expand my roots wider.that’s what I’m looking for.”
Her colleague, Siobjan Carter-David, from New York, currently living in New Haven, denied being a, “Yalie”, but admitted, “I do use their resources regularly”, with a laugh. “I think this conference is amazing, this is my third time at Black Portraiture(S). I was there at NYU, I was there at Johannesburg, and so we’re presenting again tomorrow, and it’s always amazing and its fun and it’s cool people, and I’m a historian, so I’m in a very traditional field but I like mingling with the artsy folks. I aspire to be an artist.” She explained her panel was, Black is Beautiful: Style and (In)Visibility in Kwame Brathwaite’s Harlem, adding in jest, “…I was born in a small village in Africa, but I forgot the name of it.” It reminded me, somewhat, I was from Chicago, but I forgot lots about that as well…and those times.
“I was overwhelmed to see so many people gathered for one great cause”, held Faiham Ebna Sharif, from Bangladesh, a writer currently in a Harvard program. “From very personal experience what I have seen earlier, the issue of race, ethnicity is something which are usually discussed without proper representation. But the Black Portraiture conference was a real exception. The participants and organizers both were very articulate in presenting their views and addressing the core reason of the racial practice with empirical evidences.”
Dell M. Hamilton, tagged by Take magazine as an “artist to watch” in 2018, continues her shining. Her Harvard responsibilities included moderating a panel, Between Land, Water and Language: The Black Atlantic in Conversation with the Western Caribbean. With roots in Belize, Honduras and the Caribbean, along side of her work as a writer and performance artist complimented her engagement in BPIV. “The energy is sustaining”, she said of the forum. “What people are experiencing is they’re being fed, they’re being nurtured, and they’re able, the panelist, the moderators, they’re able to open up a space for tings to be in conversation with one another. Regardless of your field, as long as there’s thinking about race and representation and social advocacy, visual art, we’re open to all those conversations…that’s what’s diving this energy, for people to want to be here and to take in as much as they can.” In going forward, she added, “It would be interesting to see if this kind of forum would work in performance art school, like at the high school level. That would be one interesting way to build upon this. Part of the challenge around African and African American Studies is we’re still building the field….it’s still very much in its infancy and we need to be thinking about the pipeline for other scholars to take our place when we’re long gone. So that would be some way of thinking through that….especially in wake of some of these student protest that are taking place…that are going on.”
Others present appear to share Ms. Hamilton’s perspectives. With a posse of her students, past and present in tow, Deborah Wills, Chair of the Department of Photography & Imaging, SCA Africana Studies at NYU and a major player in BPIV, said, “I’m energized by this because all of these voices that have been silenced are now having their opportunity to talk about the work from the past to the present. I find this exciting”, adding she’d like to see “…continuation of this, when someone else takes it over and continue to make these organizations (institutions) available.”
Ms. Wills’ works, not coincidentally, are part of the ReSignifications exhibition currently across the, “Yard”, at The Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African & African American Art.
ReSignifications, superbly curated by Awam Amkpa, no stranger to the Gallery, was initially presented at NYU’s, Florence site as part of Black Portraiture(S) II. Wedded at the hip to the current conference, timing couldn’t be better. In Pursuit Of Beauty; Imaging Closets in Newark and Beyond, another project hers, opened March 27 in Newark, NJ.
This exhibition takes off from Blackamoor art, and an earlier exhibition the curator visited in Italy. “New York University has a lot of them” Amkpa points out. “As an American university that took on all of these, the question is, ‘What do you do with all of that?’ And a lot of the students were asking the same.” “It took five years to build this work”, Amkpa says of this exhibition. “It started slowly, I went to Italy for a different purpose, and I would just go to the tours of the museums, and every time the curator makes a statement, I’m always there, and she says to me. ‘This is not about racism’. And the first time I figured, I’ll let it slide. Then I went almost every week. I was there for six months…then I said, I must talk more about this. So this exhibition is a product of that idea that some contemporaries try and explain it away from issues of race and racism and so that’s how it started. And it was in 2015 that it had its first appearance in three venues across Florence. The city adopted the exhibition and kept it for six months, and now the City of Palermo is using it as its contribution (to another major show).”
The continuation of this two part article will further explore the current show at the Cooper Gallery, along with its, kinship and linkages to Black Portraiture(s).
The Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African and African American Art is located at 102 Mount Auburn St., Cambridge, MA 02138 Hours Tu-Sat 10am - 5pm