Katonah Museum of Art

Katonah, NY




Re/Righting History: Counternarratives in African-American Art


"Hello, I'm Your New Neighbor, " a painting by Michael Ray Charles, gives viewers an inkling of what's in store in Re/Righting History: Counternarratives in African-American Art, an electrifying exhibition that opened at the Katonah Museum of Art in Katonah, New York on March 14, 1999. This provocative work confronts us with the menacing face of a black man sporting a coin-slot on top of his head and a devilishly wide grin of watermelon-seed speckled teeth. His skull is placed against crossbones and set beneath two black and white Mickey-Mouse arms in mock neighborly handshake.

"Imagine if you've just bought a house and this man moves in next door and says, 'Hey, I'm your new neighbor.' What goes through your mind?" asks Dr. Barbara Bloemink, curator of the exhibition which will remain on view through May 16, 1999. What indeed! Yes, this guy is the white suburbanite's worst nightmare. But he also represents the artist's take on social issues born of slavery, one of the.most searing and demeaning of American experiences. Re/Righting History addresses these issues directly as well as some of the most critical topics under discussion today: the primacy of voice; history as a mutable, ever-evolving phenomenon; the influence and "truthfulness" of media reportage; and the importance of context in all opinions and judgments.

The exhibition offers powerful and thoughtful new ways of examining the events and social attitudes that have defined the African-American experience in this country. A century and a half after slavery's demise, emotions are still raw, and the fear of revelation still deep. "To some contemporary African-American artists, this pernicious system and its aftermath have been too frequently clothed in frivolity and romantic notions; they are reclaiming their history by offering us their interpretations of the past," Bloemink points out. "As the African proverb states, 'Until the lions have their histories, tales of history will always glorify the hunter."

Re/Righting History champions the art of African-American artists who have produced a rich and growing body of work since the Civil Rights Movement. These artists - Kara Walker, Michael Ray Charles, Tony Gray, Kerry James Marshall, Robert Colescott, Faith Ringgold, Camille Billops, Willie Cole, Deborah Willis, Betye Saar, among them - are "re-righting" art and social histories, offering us new ways of seeing and understanding American history. The slave trade, life in Colonial America, the Civil War, Emancipation, the Depression, urban and suburban America, the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, stereotypes and social attitudes are all grist for the mill.

"This is a very complicated subject and, currently, a big debate in the art world," Bloemink says. "There are strong emotions for and against some of these works. But we need to recognize that history is often quite subjective. It is not just a matter of what is reported, but what is left out. Re/Righting History will confront that, and offer many new ways of viewing and examining historic events, motifs and prevalent attitudes from the American experience. Seeing history through the eyes of the contemporary African-American artist will allow us to look backward so that, hopefully, we may begin to move forward. In the best sense, people will begin to see history as an ever-evolving phenomenon and cone to understand the importance of context in all opinions and judgments."

The 41 works by nineteen established and emerging artists - paintings, quilts, drawings, photographs, mixed media -- are angry, shocking, humorous, witty, and ironic. Some are bound to cause discomfort. "Several of the artists blatantly use hurtful stereotypes," says Bloemink, a noted scholar of 20th century art and the Director of European and American Modern Art at the Hirschl & Adler Gallery in New York. "But they are meant not just to provoke, but to inform. The idea is that people will see truth and reality and understand them as these artists do. In the best sense, their art will be seen as not being remote from daily experience, but as a reflection of it."

The exhibition also raises the issue of the neglect of and disregard for African-American artists by the art establishment. A thoughtful essay on the subject by Lisa Call Collins, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Art at Vassar College, accompanies Bloemink's in the 36-page exhibition catalogue. "Critics have too often implied that art by African-Americans was lacking," writes Collins, who contends that Eurocentrism has led to a neglect of black visual artists. "Although many formally-trained African-American artists have intently studied European art and thought, the primacy of Europe in modernist studies seems to discourage in-depth investigations of the cultural production of people who are not fully and readily associated with its urban centers. Given that Americans looked to Europe for legitimization of their arts, these judgments have deeply colored scholarly responses to native talents."

Can it be that the facts are so sensitive that the truth can never be told? Not so, says Dr. Susan Edwards, Executive Director of the Katonah Museum of Art. "The objects in this exhibition are certainly provocative and designed to engage the viewer in a larger debate regarding the representation of blacks in American culture and the exclusion of blacks from the dominant historical narratives," she says. "What they point to is the subjectivity of truth. There is no single way of looking at any subject or issue; there are always multiple perspectives." The hope is to "to reconfirm the inextricability of the African-American in history from American history and the African-American experience from the American experience," according to Bloemink. "We are challenged to set the record straight."

From top to bottom: Kara Walker, I'll Be a Monkey's Uncle, 1995, lithograph, 39 1/2 x 35 inches, Landfall Press Inc., Chicago; Robert Colescott, Knowledge of the Past is the Key to the Future: Matthew Henson and the Quest for the North Pole, 1986, acrylic on canvas, courtesy of the Phyllis Kind Gallery, New York; Camille Billops, Dixie's Land, 1990, colored pencil on paper (drawing), collection of the artist; Joyce Scott, Nanny Gone Wrong, 1992, leather, beads, and material, 16 x 6 x 7 inches, collection of Cleo Wilson.

Text and images courtesy of Katonah Museum of Art.

Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.

This page was originally published in 1999 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information.

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