Zanele Muholi at the Brooklyn Museum

Twice now, I have gone to the Brooklyn Museum to see Zanele Muholi’s portrait, video, and installation exhibit, Isibonelo/Evidence.  Muholi’s portraits of South African lesbians occupy one long wall of the gallery.   In the photographs, the women look straight at the camera with the full force of their individual strength and identities.  As portraits unto themselves, the work is captivating.  The photographs are displayed close together and en mass, stretching across three long, tight rows that extend almost the full length of the gallery.  They are sharp and arresting: compelling as portraiture even without their context.

But Muholi’s work derives further impact from its context, and the exhibit is as much installation as portrait gallery.  Isibonelo/Evidence evolved as a form of response to the dire and mounting instances of rape, murder and violence against lesbian women in South Africa.   Flanking the portrait wall in the Brooklyn Museum are two chalkboard panels: one with the daunting facts of violence laid out in the disturbing, orderly neatness of a timeline.  In it, Muholi records incidents of violence against South African lesbians.

On the opposite panel, handwritten messages chronicle women’s experiences of rape, beatings, and murder, the threats they face and fear they live with.  They talk about the practice of ‘corrective rape’ – based on the horrifying notion that through rape men can ‘cure’ lesbians of their sexual identity.  It’s a devastating thought, the very mention of which feels like a physical gut-punch.

In response to this violence that surrounds them, the portraits become actualized: they are in themselves radical acts of self-definition and defiance.  The women Muholi photographs look right at us. It is a challenge for action and compassion.  And it is undoubtedly also an act of courage.  By sitting for their portraits, the women have revealed their lesbian identity to an audience that may include the very men who perpetrate this astounding violence.

Muholi’s portrait project is art and it is beyond art.  It is action.  It is advocacy and protest and self-identification in its profoundest sense.

The Brooklyn Museum has a particular commitment to exhibiting art that engages with contemporary injustice.  And leaving Muholi’s exhibit, I thought about how the experience of seeing her work, and Kehinde Wiley‘s before it, feels qualitatively different from the experience of reading a newspaper, which often leaves me with a feeling of hands-thrown-up hopelessness.  Here though, I felt humbled and dazed and spent and also engaged.  I didn’t feel the hopeless resignation sparked by even some of the best journalism.  Instead I felt a heightened sense of empathy and activism in the face of pain.

There are still two more weeks to see Isibonelo/Evidence, and I highly recommend it.  The exhibit will be on view at the Brooklyn Museum through November 8.

Kehinde Wiley

I’ve been quiet online this month.  Partly this is a result of life and bookwriting trumping blog posts.  But also, in the wake of all that is playing out on our American stage — and my home city –, I have felt less like talking than listening.

A month ago, when I was in New York, I stopped by the Brooklyn Museum to see the Kehinde Wiley exhibit.  There’s been a lot of thoughtful discussion about his monumental botanically-inflected portraits, which showcase contemporary black American men in the poses of canonical European portraiture.  The men — who Wiley met and ‘street cast’ for his portraits on American city streets — pose in the postures of Napoleon and wealthy white merchants and aristocrats.  These are positions that assert visibility and social standing and power, and in Wiley’s portraits they insist on a rewriting of black men’s invisibility in the western history conveyed by art, and a rewriting of the ways we image black men now.

Willem van Heythuysen

There is a raw power in this project.  A power to the resulting paintings, which are loaded with dynamism, and to Wiley’s process, which had him sitting down with ordinary men he’d met on the streets, pouring together through art history books and picking poses and paintings to replicate.  What was it like to be in the room with those men, choosing image-making paintings to imagine themselves in?

Ultimately, I wound up spending a good long while in a narrow little vestibule between two larger galleries, watching the projection of Wiley’s digital video piece, Smile.  In the four-pane video, we focus closely on four African-American men’s faces as they smile until they cannot smile any longer.  The experience probes the problematic ways American black men are compelled to smile — so as to seem compliant and unthreatening, as a survival technique, in the face of oppression — and the toll.  As each man in the video loses his smile, he disappears and is replaced by another smiling face.

It was intensely painful and emotional to sit with the video and the men’s wavering, strained smiles, the corners of their eyes and lips faltering with the awful muscle exertion of holding their expressions so long.  Sitting on a little bench in front of the projection, I literally held my hands on my temples to try to keep my eyes from their repeated sympathy spasms and cried.  A few feet away, in a dark corner, hung Mugshot Study.  The piece originated in Wiley’s reflection that mugshots and wanted posters are among the most common forms of contemporary portraiture used to depict African-American men.  His exploration of this particular form of portraiture feels poignant and devastating.  The young man here is so young, and so vulnerable.

Like so many others, I have been reading a lot about policing and prisons and the deaf persistence of the confederate flag and the fraught language of terrorism and race, and trying to listen intently and with great intention to the stories of all our citizens and to our president (again).  This listening has been an important part of my practice of patriotism.

Last week I went to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and saw Iago’s Mirror by American artist Fred Wilson.  The black-backed Venetian mirror is a reflection on the racial dimensions at work in Shakespeare’s Othello.  But the piece draws into question not just the duplicitous Iago.  For it is the viewer who is reflected in this black glass.  We, too, are implicated in these questions of race.  And because of that, we’re called upon to listen.

Iago's Mirror

Seeing Wiley’s work felt like a way to open up this listening.

Fortunately, for those of you who live in Seattle or Fort Worth or  Richmond, Wiley’s retrospective exhibit will be coming through your cities in the next year, and so you’ll be able to invite this work into your listening, too.