When Exhibitions Flatten Black Experience

by Denise Ryner

Denise Ryner has worked in commercial, public and artist-run galleries in Toronto and Vancouver for over ten years. These include Art Metropole,Justina M.Barnicke Gallery,the Jackman Humanities Institute,the Vancouver Art Gallery, SFU Galleries as well as the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin. She completed her BA and MA in art history at the University of Toronto and the University of British Columbia respectively. Currently she is the Director/Curator at Or Gallery, Vancouver.

In 2015 a series of multiple, intermittent and precarious roles comprised my involvement in Vancouver’s artist run and public gallery scene. In that year I worked as an independent curator, paid curatorial intern, sessional instructor in curatorial studies, volunteer gallery board member, gallery assistant in a commercial space and copywriter of exhibition didactics. The range of these positions indicate how invested I was in Vancouver’s contemporary art institutions more than the necessity to rid myself of financial debt amassed from my recently completed graduate degree. Towards the end of 2015 I found myself questioning my decision to work in the area of contemporary art in Canada. I wondered how often I would have to overlook the critical blind spots that resulted in exhibitions and events that continued to marginalize my own agency, culture and humanity within a field and institutions where I was supposed to situate my practice.

Three exhibitions in Vancouver’s artist run centers took place in 2015. What links them to each other and to the pro- fessional crisis I encountered are that they each forefronted the appropriation of black culture and used black bodies as a medium. None of the artists identified themselves as Black, African or members of a Black diaspora. These artists all had solo exhibitions in Vancouver’s artist run and public galleries during a year when there was only one solo exhibition of a Black-identifying artist.(1) However, this did not improve the fact that the majority of representations of Black culture and bodies in artist run centers that year were those engaged in their own reification and estrangement through authorship by non-Black artists.

In early 2015, the Contemporary Art Gallery (CAG) presented Canadian artist Jeremy Shaw’s filmwork Variation FQ (2011-2013), which revolves around a dance routine choreographed and performed by Leiomy Maldonado. Shaw learned about Maldonado through online videos of the dancer, who identifies as transgender, Afro-Puerto Rican and is well known within and beyond New York’s underground ballroom scene. Her online presence confirms that she is a respected performer and activist who astutely manages her image and career, so it’s doubtless that she negotiated proper compensation for her time and work with Shaw. While Maldonado’s work is able to circulate in spaces associated with contemporary art, such as the CAG and the National Gallery of Canada, Shaw’s abstraction of Maldonado’s dancing body removes her from her public, identity and creative authorship.

I observed the same phenomenon when only a month later Artspeak presented a solo exhibition by Invernomuto, an Italian art collective consisting of Simone Bertuzzi and Simone Trabucchi. This time Jamaica’s dub subculture was on display for Vancouver’s contemporary art public in the form of famous living legend, Lee “Scratch” Perry who the artists, self-professed fans, filmed as a strutting, flamboyant, yet isolated caricature, charged with making amends for Italy’s crimes against Ethiopia and its then leader, Haile Selassie I, on their behalf. Invernomuto’s work, entitled Negus, refers to a negative Italian archetype that was applied to Selassie I after his overthrow by Italy’s fascist forces during WWII. The artists’ ethnographic isolation of Perry, his patois and Rastafarian declarations within a context of their invention and control, similarly to Shaw’s treatment of Maldonado, is a slickly aestheticized voyeurism and process of identification whereby the audience is meant to recognize the figures in Shaw’s and Invernomuto’s work as ‘other-than-us’. This flattening and differencing of black-diasporic culture by non-black artists was central to the work of another artist who presented a solo exhibition in Vancouver in 2015.

French artist Lili Reynaud-Dewar engages both of these strategies throughout her practice that has referenced Sun Ra, Josephine Baker and African-American hip hop culture. I was a curatorial intern, without influence on exhibition programming, at the Audain Gallery in Vancouver when she presented her fall 2015 solo exhibition, My Epidemic. This body of work was comprised of an installation and series of closed seminars based on the syllabus of Norwegian artist Bjarne Melgaard. My Epidemic largely, yet no less problematically, addressed the AIDS crisis, but the exhibition also included a performance that was an offshoot of a series in which she used video and security cameras as surveillance of her body in architecture. Often, Reynaud-Dewar created this work during closed hours in the emptied gallery or museum where she is exhibiting, however in film footage of her performances she doesn’t simply wander through these art institutions, she moves and dances in a manner culturally coded from 1920s negro revues and minstrel shows. Her attempt at hammed up versions of the Charleston are ostensibly in honour of Josephine Baker. To emphasize this, she completely covers her nude body in paint that varies from one colour to another with each performance. However, coloured paint appears as blackface in the surveillance videos that her work has been documented and presented through. In one iteration, African textiles are hanging in the background. Reynaud-Dewar has regularly embodied another artist or personality by wearing their style of clothing or featured performers wearing body paint. ReynaudDewar reverted and reinforced stereotypes of the non-white female body as wild trickster, located after-hours and peripheral to culture, to invoke Baker. Baker, a dancer, activist and member of the Pan-African movement aimed to produce independent black and black-diasporic literacy, that performance and artistic communities adamantly worked to defend from the very essentializing mimicry that ReynaudDewar was illustrating.

Both the Contemporary Art Gallery and the Audain Gallery held versions of public talks following protests made by myself and others about the way black culture was presented in the Shaw and ReynaudDewar exhibitions. As is often the case, these were ineffective discussions that by design maintained and reaffirmed the authority and perspective of the galleries in their ability to neatly appropriate protest into public programming.

I am now preparing to take up a role as Director/Curator of Vancouver’s Or Gallery and am fully aware that as a black-identified woman, my appointment and decisions can nonetheless repeat and further entrench the exclusion, fixing and alienation of particular voices and bodies in the critical space of the gallery unless I consistently work to do otherwise.

My work as a curator continues to research and critically consider the function of black culture and bodies in delimiting space and establishing a hierarchy of authorship in contemporary art which has lead me to a long-running debate in literature around the use of blackness and the agency of black writers. In her 1992 analysis of American identity as constructed through a selection of that country’s literary works, writer Toni Morrison demanded that, “...we need studies of the technical ways in which an Africanist character (what she terms a Black figure instrumentalized in literature) is used to limn out and enforce the invention and implications of whiteness.”(2)

Morrison proposed analyses of the strategies that employ black characters to define and enhance the qualities of white characters, including attempts to represent knowledge of the other in order to address external and internal chaos within the writers, or artists concerned. She points out how Black narratives are appropriated in the construction of context for white culture and the positing of history-less-ness and context-less-ness for blacks. In other words, we need to know why the fate of non-white bodies is to be flattened and emptied of experience, history and humanity. African-American writers James Baldwin and Zora Neale Hurston address this question through a focus on narrativity and who is granted the privilege to narrate beyond their culture, body and experience. They each seize claims to transcultural authorship and the ability to return the alienating, ethnographic gaze.

In Baldwin’s most famous work of fiction, Giovanni’s Room (1958), he narrates the existential crisis of a young, wealthy caucasian, American protagonist named David. David is at the heart of a group of other itinerant Americans and Europeans through whom Baldwin examines strategies of difference and ordering as in each encounter or memory of them, David instrumentalizes the other, their hard or soft, dark or fair bodies to gauge how his nationality, gender, class and sexuality grant his claims to space and agency above and beyond his various consorts. Only David retains a fluid subjectivity in contrast to the other fixed bodies. Having studied anthropology and the ethnographic gaze, Zora Neale Hurston, turned to the vernacular arenas of Broadway and Hollywood where, as she divulged in a 1942 letter to a friend, she thought she might finally be able to break “that old silly rule about Negroes not writing about white people,” which she did with Seraph on the Suwanee.(3) Throughout her career as an anthropologist and writer, Hurston continually wrote about her access, claim and hesitance to record and publish the stories of those she studied and lived amongst.

While Baldwin is not alone in centering white experience to subvert white authorship of black experience, his fiction and critical essays indicate to me that this act of authoring the Other, fixing and flattening is entangled with the role of the gaze that is so central to the critical analysis of gender, class and racial representation in the visual arts. In his essay, “The Black Boy Looks At the White Boy,” Baldwin asserts, “I know how power works, it has worked on me, and if I didn’t know how power worked, I would be dead.”(4) For me to understand what a curatorial practice is capable of assuming about its possible audience, I find it useful to think of Baldwin’s representations of power through his white protagonists in combination with the appropriation of non-white bodies for the benefit of the gaze in visual art.

Artist and writer Lorraine O’Grady proposes that there is neither the possibility of a choice, nor separation in cultural representations of the female body. Her 1992 essay Olympia’s Maid examined the dependent process of identity in depictions selected from modern and contemporary art history. For O’Grady, images of the female body are always comprised of an ‘obverse and a reverse’ or ‘white and nonwhite’ that cannot be isolated: “The black female’s body needs less to be rescued from the masculine ‘gaze’ than to be sprung from a historic script surrounding her with signification while at the same time, and not paradoxically, it erases her completely.”(5)

What is at stake with uncritically programming representations of black culture and bodies by non-black artists and curators is not so much the protection of identity or the idea of authenticity, but rather the very practical consequences for cultural workers such as myself. Namely, the reproduction of ongoing exclusions and struggles for space in contemporary, public art institutions in relation to labour and recruiting as well as artistic practices.

(1) David Hartt,adrift,Or Gallery in Spring 2015.

(2) Toni Morrison,Playing In The Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination,(Cambridge,MA: Harvard University Press,1992),pp.52–53.

(3) Elizabeth Binggeli,“Hollywood Wants a Cracker: Zora Neale Hurston and Studio Narrative Culture”,33–52 in Plant,Deborah G. “The Inside Light”: New Critical Essays on Zora Neale Hurston. (Santa Barbara: Calif. Plant,Deborah G. 2010.),p.37.

(4) James Baldwin,“The Black Boy Looks At the White Boy,”Nobody Knows My Name,(US: Vintage Press,1961),p.232.

(5) Lorraine O’Grady,“Olympia’s Maid: Reclaiming Black Female Subjectivity,“New Feminist Criticism: Art/Identity/Action”,Icon Editions, HarperCollins, 1994, pp. 152-170.

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