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In the matter of racial justice, the United States has built up terrible karma over the centuries. And in the past four divisive years, the festering badness, in the form of white nationalism, has been there for all the world to see. The Nigerian-born curator Okwui Enwezor saw it, and the impassioned exhibition “Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America” at the New Museum was his direct and personal response, one that he conceived as a moral broadside and intended to deliver just ahead of the 2020 presidential election.
Fate intervened. Enwezor succumbed to cancer in 2019, at 55, a loss lamented throughout the international art world which he had done much, through his reverberant exhibitions and books, to shape. At that point, four of his longtime colleagues — Massimiliano Gioni, the artistic director of the New Museum; the artist Glenn Ligon; Mark Nash, an art history professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz; and Naomi Beckwith, a senior curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, and soon to be deputy director and chief curator at the Guggenheim Museum — banded together to realize his show. Working from his notes and conversations with him, they gathered the art he had specified, made some additions of their own, and published a catalog.
When I looked through the book in advance of the opening, I had reservations about the project. Most of the 37 Black artists included are familiar and widely exhibited, as are some of the individual works. I wondered if the show, even with the gravity of its theme, wouldn’t end up feeling, basically, like not much more than a reaffirmation of a contemporary art canon, a cavalcade of stars.
But curating, at its best, is far less about singularity than it is about synthesis, about the alchemy of bringing things together to ignite and amplify ideas. Enwezor had a genius eye for such creative fusion, and it has produced exceptionally moving results in an exhibition that will surely rank as one of the most important of 2021. It is a fitting tribute to its maker, an honor to a team that saw it through, and a worthy frame for the artists who contributed to it, among them some of the greatest we have.
The title lays out the show’s intertwined themes: Black grief in response to white racist aggression, and white grievance fueled by a feared loss of dominance and control. A sense of their volatile chemistry is distilled on the New Museum’s facade in a Glenn Ligon text piece that spells out, in large white neon letters, the phrase “blues blood bruise,” words extracted from an interview with a Black New York City teenager, Daniel Hamm, who in 1964 was arrested and brutally beaten by the police.
The theme of racial tension is picked up immediately inside the museum. For a conceptual work titled “Presumption of guilt,” the artist Cameron Rowland has rigged the entrance door with an alert bell, of a kind used in commercial shops to warn owners of the presence of potentially larcenous customers.
And another artist, Adam Pendleton, has covered the lobby walls with silk-screen images that include graffiti-style signage, a form of public writing often associated, in the white-dominated news media, with urban lawlessness and, by implication, a Black presence. Pendleton pointedly plays on these expectations by incorporating examples of graffiti protesting the 2020 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Enwezor was allergic to narrow-gauge readings of categories like “political art” and “protest art” (and, for that matter, “Black art”). He favored subtlety, ambiguity, purposeful indirection, all evident in different ways, and to different degrees, in the work of three artists in the lobby gallery who introduce themes that will reverberate through the main exhibition spaces on the museum’s second, third and fourth floors.
A short narrative film, “Alone,” by Garrett Bradley dramatizes the engulfing emotional cost of Black mass incarceration by viewing it through the eyes of a young woman whose lover is in jail. A ready-made sculpture by the remarkable Tiona Nekkia McClodden, consisting of a steel contraption commercially used to hold cattle about to be slaughtered speaks, in the context of this exhibition, to the murderous realities of slavery. And a set of large photographs by Terry Adkins (1953-2014) of “memory jugs,” traditional relic-filled African-American funerary objects, underscores the show’s function as both a monument to a rich, resilient culture, and a memorial to what’s lost through racism — rights of citizenship, lives to Covid-19 — every day.
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