In his exhibition essay for Black Is, Black Ain’t, Walker unabashedly marches readers through a recent history to further confound the cultural conundrum of race:
With respect to African-Americans, the public discourse on race is hardly suffering for want of incidence. A constellation of arbitrary events from recent memory includes the Don Imus affair; the trial of the Jena Six; the NAACP’s staged of the “N” word; the questionable distribution of hurricane Katrina relief funds; “Straight Thuggin’ Ghetto Parties” at The University of Chicago (where fun purportedly comes to die, a 187, no doubt); the ironic revelation that Barack Obama and Dick Cheney are eighth cousins; the not so ironic revelation that Al Sharpton is the descendant of slaves owned by the family of the late senator Strom Thurmond; the Supreme Court’s striking down of school integration plans in Louisville and Seattle; and last but not least, Obama’s presidential candidacy. Our so-called “obsession” with race reflects an anxious optimism insofar as race relations are a monitor of social progress. The dream bequeathed us by the Civil Rights Movement of being able to disregard an individual’s race entirely is as cherished as any constitutional ideal. As Obama eloquently noted in what is now referred to simply as “The Speech,” this dream makes the pursuit of a more perfect union anything but an abstraction. Transcending race, however, has proven a somewhat paradoxical task, one fraught with contention as our efforts to become less race conscious serve to make us more race conscious.
Black Is, Black Ain’t could be broken down into several political arcs: artwork that examined the history of civil rights, artwork that employed black aesthetics (Walker characterizes this work as “soulful”), artwork that confounded skin color, artwork that addressed race and its connection to class, and finally artwork that engaged in the reification of race. Unlike the equivocal contributions to Meanwhile, in Baghdad… the work comprising Black Is, Black Ain’t was particular, argumentative, and contentious. Juxtapositions of works got raunchy. Alliances between pieces were established. It was a tension-filled exhibition complete with pitfalls and dangerous political fissures.
Glenn Ligon’s neon sign titled Warm Broad Glow (2005) illuminates the idiom Negro Sunshine. It was the ironical keynote that welcomed viewers at the entrance to The Renaissance Society’s vaulted exhibition space. It also stood in anxious opposition to David Levinthal’s series of Polaroids portraying single, black-face figurines. Uncomfortably familiar to Levinthal’s photographs was Hank Willis Thomas’s The Johnson Family (from the Unbranded series) (1981), an altered advertising image of an idealized black family–mother, father, and daughter–each beautiful, young, and smiling for the camera.
Paul D’Amato’s archival inkjet prints documenting Chicago’s notorious Robert Taylor homes and the Cabrini Green high-rise housing project, Rodney McMillian’s found overstuffed chair that is pathetically abject, and Robert Pruitt’s swags of gold chains all convincingly intertwine race and class. These obsequious objects and images also forcefully contrasted arresting photographic portraits by Andres Serrano. Serrano’s monumental picture titled Woman with Infant (1996) was awe-inspiring in its depiction of maternal affection. A studio portrait of a nude black woman cradling a white naked infant trumped all racial configurations with its depiction of human devotion and touch.
Black Is, Black Ain’t was a thorny collection of works that explored the cultural paradox of race while still being a collection of significant contemporary drawings, videos, sculptures, and photographs. This is what Walker does exceptionally well, making a curatorial practice out of exhibiting important art and exploring the cultural issues of the day. “Taking the temperature of discourse,”means that he is not fabricating a debate or inventing a quirky poetical framework to be illustrated by artworks. Unfortunately this kind of dedication to art and idea is unusual in contemporary curatorial practice. Curatorial practice has careened away from the platforming of art and ideas to become its own type of relational art practice. In many cases, the curator has become the artist.
The mean-spirited squabbling sponsored by Artforum this past year between Robert Storr and his foes, Okwui Enwezor, Francesco Bonami, and Jessica Morgan, is a perfect illustration of this curatorial incertitude. Storr wrote in a rebuttal letter to his critics in the January 2008 issue “In truth, the problem for those who have been the most categorical in their attacks is that the 52nd Biennale actually took a position, or an interconnected combination of positions, that disputed their own.” There can be no dispute in Walker’s curatorial efforts regarding the Iraq War or the contradictions of race because these issues are not his positions. They are our truths.
Michelle Grabner is an artist and writer living in Oak Park, IL, where she runs The Suburban, an artist project space, with her husband Brad Killam. She is a Professor in the Painting and Drawing Department at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.