“Shadows” (1961) by Adger Cowans
As an adjective, “alien” refers to something unfamiliar, distasteful, and disturbing; as a noun, it describes a foreigner or a biological specimen introduced from another country and later naturalized. In Cowans’ image, the sun distorts the shadows of these three black figures into shapes that look extra-terrestrial and otherworldly. In a country founded on enslavement, will Black people ever be brought into the fold of full humanity?
It is an ironic moment. Black art has never been more en vogue, but the Black people being displaced at breakneck speed are not.
In the 1970s, as African and Afro-diasporic communities around the world were in the midst of the Black Power Movement, Black people comprised 13% of the population of San Francisco. Forty years later, with the showing of “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963-1983” at the de Young Museum, the city’s Black population hovers around 5%, one of the lowest of all major cities in the United States. The Wikipedia page titled “African-Americans in San Francisco” offers a bleak single sentence forecast: “San Francisco's African-American population is projected to continue to decrease in the future.” The historically Black Bayview-Hunter’s Point neighborhood and Fillmore District are being purged of their residents as gentrification strong-arms longtime residents from their homes and community stomping grounds. Urban renewal is no more than Negro removal, James Baldwin famously quipped. There isn't a more perverse or more timely moment for this show’s arrival in the Bay Area than the present.
It is an ironic moment. Black art has never been more en vogue, but the Black people being displaced at breakneck speed are not. The catalogue of the exhibition — edited by Zoé Whitley and Marc Godfrey, the exhibition's creators — discusses the Whitney Museum’s April 1971 show, "Contemporary Artists in America." Protests, criticisms, and condemnations by the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition led to the withdrawal of twenty-four of the seventy-eight invited artists including John Dowell, Melvin Edwards, Sam Gilliam, Richard Hunt, Daniel LaRue Johnson, Joe Overstreet, and William T. Williams. The incredible breadth of this show necessarily engages their prognostic, which is also explicitly presented in the catalogue: “…[is] it acceptable for a white curator to organize a survey of ‘Black Artists,’ or [is] an African-American curator necessary in order to bring an informed perspective? Are identity-based shows by definition ‘socially driven’ or can they be conceived for ‘aesthetic’ reasons?” The events surrounding that show 50 years ago are an effective rebuttal to the ahistorical idea that Black art is experiencing some present renaissance, and speak far more to a correction of both a historical negligence and a newfound marketability of Black work (both cynical and earnest).
In considering what it means for this exhibition to come to the Bay Area and specifically to the de Young Museum, we ought to remember when Ruth-Marion Baruch and Pirkle Jones brought the Black Panther Party to the museum with their exhibition Black Panthers: A Photography Essay 50 years ago. The show engaged the quiet minutiae and community care of the Party, a stark contrast to the unequivocal militant threat with which their all black uniforms and immaculately choreographed public presence were commonly associated. Responding to the images, Eldridge Cleaver enthusiastically asked the pair: “Why do your photographs have [a] feeling [that] none of the work I’ve seen of us by other photographers has?” Despite the show illustrating a national survey of Black artists of the time, special curatorial attention has been paid to Bay Area connections with art made for Bay Area shows or by Bay Area Artists.
The local mythos of Summer of Love and flower power peace, love, and acceptance may have been lost on the Black Panthers and on local Black communities alienated from resources and social support. But with this show, de Young curators Timothy Anglin Burgard and Lauren Palmor engage the critical need for art institutions to be honest about treatments and representations of Black art both in the assimilation of external criticism and internal self-awareness within institutions. The distinction between belated appreciation and contemporary recognition of market value is razor thin, but shows that embrace community engagement and accessibility—as this one will—are the beginning of critical corrective and transformative treatments of art history methodology. Museums are not sanctuaries where aesthetics are appreciated in a vacuum away from the muck and messiness of “the real world” nor are they spaces within which certain blacknesses should be brought because of particular expectations of how they might perform inoffensively for audiences. While many institutions have failed to embrace their potential as vanguards for cultural challenge and evolution, this iteration of the show — which will also train its focus on living artists in hopes of furthering the commentary around the Bay Area as an epicenter of Black radical sociality and art-making — hopes to buck the trend of coddling artistic and cultural hegemony. Black art can and will speak for itself if you allow it.