Remembering Okwui Enwezor

Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America

The New Museum on the Bowery (February 16 to June 6)

Medium, March 13, 2021

By Roslyn Bernstein

Eight years ago, I attended a press preview for The Rise and Fall of Apartheid at the International Center for Photography (ICP), organized by the Nigerian-born curator Okwui Enwezor (1963–2019). It was an extraordinary exhibit whose breadth and depth transformed our understanding of the meaning of Apartheid in South Africa. Beginning with a checklist of some 1000 works, Enwezor whittled the exhibit down to some 500 pieces — photographs, artworks, films, videos, documents, posters and periodicals. It was, he told reporters, as he walked us through the show, intended as a contradiction: an effort to “trace the struggle” and, at the same time, “to reveal how people construct life out of difficult moments.” It was a picture of pain and joy; suffering and salvation. It was true to Enwezow’s belief that art is not separate from the politics of the day; that art of necessity has a political component.

I will never forget Enwezor’s design for the exhibit; how he jumped right into the show by installing two powerful film clips in the ICP lobby: one celebrating the National Party’s defeat of the United Party in 1948 — the first time that an Afrikaner party led the government, and the other screening footage from the South African Parliament on February 1990, just before Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. It was a bold dive into history.

Enwezor’s new exhibit is even bolder. This time, his focus is on America not South Africa. This time the message is less optimistic. There is no joy. Although here, there, and everywhere there are moments of resilience. Enwezor’s subject, according to an essay that he wrote in 2018, is the “crystallization of black grief in the face of a politically orchestrated white grievance.” The exhibit was to open just before the 2020 Presidential Election. Unfortunately, Covid prevented that timetable from occurring. And, sadly, Enwezor died in March 2019, leaving the exhibit to colleagues to finish.

Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America, now on view at The New Museum until June 6th was conceived of by Enwezor in 2018, but completed after his death in March 2019 by Naomi Beckwith, Massimiliano Gioni, Glenn Ligon and Mark Nash as curatorial advisors. Enwezor had selected many of the artworks in the show and his powerful curatorial presence can be felt everywhere. This time around, though, I was on my own with no curator to walk me through the exhibit.

Once again, as in the earlier Apartheid show, the lobby draws us into the galleries beyond. Since its opening on February, 16th the New Museum lobby has been covered with artist Adam Pendleton’s installation, “As Heavy As Sculpture” (2020), its walls papered over with silk-screen images: powerful black-and-white photos juxtaposed with graffiti lettering. What we see before us is in-your-face political street art. Even before entering the first gallery of the show, I found myself reaching for a handkerchief, my eyes tearing under my mask.

Sadness and pain prevail everywhere. In a second floor gallery is “Peace Keeper,” originally made for the 1995 Whitney Biennial, an installation of a black hearse covered in tar and feathers by Nari Ward set in a cage. Hanging above the car are piles of broken mufflers, and lying below it, a mound of crushed tail pipes — signs of decay and dysfunction. A symbol of death, the hearse speaks to the ritual of dying, with its tarred and feathered coating referencing some sort of political torture. Still, Ward’s decision to apply peacock feathers here is puzzling. In many cultures, peacock feathers are believed to absorb negative energy and to protect the wearers from harm. Are we to understand that Ward has somehow given this vehicle of death a positive mystical power? And why has he named the work, “Peace Keeper?”

In a third-floor gallery, “Entryways,” three white wooden doors by Diamond Stingily, each with several locks, stand side by side, leaning against the gallery wall. Before each, as protection, a baseball bat. We do not need wall text to remind us about doors broken down, homes invaded, and residents murdered. How are residents to protect themselves? In its utter simplicity — we understand the danger. Across the room, hanging from the ceiling is a strange, surreal mobile, a version of a lynching,Strange Fruit (Pair),” 2015 by Kevin Beasley whose title echos Abel Meerepol’s 1937 protest song, “Strange Fruit.” Reminiscent of tied-together shoes hanging from telephone wires or laundry lines, Beasley’s work includes two Nike Air Jordans, tube socks, rope, speakers, amplifiers, microphones and various cables. Because of Covid 19, the sound component was not activated for this exhibit.

I sat through two screenings of Garrett Bradley’s film “Aloné” (2017), mesmerized by the young woman’s emotional swings: her desire to marry her incarcerated fiancee, her careful grooming of her eyebrows and application of her makeup, her hugging her pillow for comfort, and her imagining herself in a flowing white bridal gown. There is an especially touching moment when she catches sight of her boyfriend as he steps out of the prison bus for a pre-arranged wave to her. Their one moment of contact. What distinguishes this work from so much of the journalism on the subject of Black incarceration is that this story is not told through the lens of the journalist but rather seen through the eyes of the young woman who desperately wants to marry her lover.

Elsewhere in the exhibit, Tiona Nekkia McClodden has contributed her version of a cattle squeeze to the show. Intended as a piece of machinery to keep cows calm and contained before they are slaughtered, McClodden’s piece, “The Full Severity of Compassion(2019) has a personal reference for the artist herself who has been diagnosed on the autism spectrum. Evidently, the apparatus was an inspiration for a device that was developed to alleviate hypersensitivity in people with autism. Whatever its purpose, its bulk and form are ominous. Hardly calming.

Up on the fourth floor, Rashid Johnson’s “Antoine’s Organ” installation fills the gallery. Its steel scaffolding is filled with ceramic pots and plants and books, too. Noted among the titles: Richard Wright’s Native Son, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, and Randall Kennedy’s Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal. There are video monitors which play selections of Johnson‘s work and there is an upright piano which is to be played at specific times. It is massive in scale and yet intimate in feeling.

There are, of course, more traditional artworks in the show; photographs and paintings that pierce our psyches and freeze us in our place. There’s Dawoud Bey’s 2012 portrait series “The Birmingham Project” which is a memorial to the young women killed in the 1963 bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church. Each portrait is in perfect focus, eyes making direct contact with us the viewer. Side by side, staring directly at us are Imani Richardson in her casual v-necked tee and Carolyn Michel, more formal in her plaid shirt. There is no escaping the intensity of their gaze and no one is smiling.

I was struck by Carrie Mae Weem’s re-staging of historical moments in the Civil Rights movement, especially “The Assassination of Medgar, Malcolm and Martin.” (2008) Weem’s images are moody, with high-contrast — photos that speak to pain and sorrow.

Stark against the white walls are Melvin Edwards’s series of wall sculptures, “Lynch Fragments,” ten dense welded pieces of screws and chains and spikes. Each looks more menacing than the next and the effect is heightened by the shadows that the pieces create on the walls. We are full of fear as we imagine their dangerous potential.

Just as powerful is Howardena Pindell’s “Autobiography: Water (Ancestors/Middle Passage/Family Ghosts) which depicts the figure of the artist floating in a sea cluttered with eyes and body parts. There is no escaping the artist’s eyes staring out at us. Do not be fooled, Pindell tells us, this is not me floating in a swimming pool.

The exhibit covers four floors of the museum. At a moment when America is wrestling with its racist past and its racist present, it is a show that must be seen and absorbed. Not just by art lovers but by everyone.

Even outside on the street it is hard to escape the power of Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America. Glenn Ligon’s text piece on the building’s facade makes passersby pause and pay attention: In neon letters are the words of Daniel Hamm, a Black teenager who was arrested and brutally beaten by the police in 1964: blues blood bruise.

An arts and culture journalist for Guernica, Huff Post, Tablet, etc, Roslyn Bernstein’s books include Engaging Art, Illegal Living, and Boardwalk Stories.

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