Shifting Boundaries: The Semantic Promiscuity of Blackness

What does it mean to shift boundaries? The panelists at the Eighth Annual American Art History Graduate Student Symposium at Yale University explored strategies of deconstructing the subject matter of “Black Art” through critical interpretation.  Each student was examining “Black Art” from the perspective of American Art discourse. The discussions ranged from comparing the physical architectural structures of African American and African Diasporan museums to redefining the position of black artists place in the context of art history …read more

One of the panelists, Katherine Jentelson presented  the work of William Edmondson in the framework of his agency being defined according to institutional agendas. He was a sculptor, grave stone artist, and the first African American  artist to have a solo exhibition at the MoMA in the 1930s.  The show at MoMA was marketed with the phrase “a Negro Shows art in the Modern Museum” in Time magazine.  One of Jentelson’s main  polemics was the way Edmonson was characterised and manufactured by a “White Supremacist institution,” as she calls it …read more

Much like Jentelson, Joanna Fiduccia also discussed the reframing of a black artist’s work. She presented an intriguing  analysis of William Pope L.’s public performances. Her presentation posited that Pope L.’s work could be framed in the context of land art. The main works which she examined were his self burial piece and William Pope L.’s crawling performances.  She said that Pope L. “opens up space and democratizes it”. The masochistic nature of the crawls can be seen as a means of ‘obliterating the body’ which was compared to the racist practice of lynching in which, once obliterated, the body becomes integrated into the landscape …read more

The keynote speaker was Northwestern University Professor and Harvard University WEB Dubois Institute for African African American Research Fellow, Huey Copeland, discussing his book entitled, Bound To Appear. His book  discusses the work of Renee Green, Lorna Simpson, Glenn Ligon and Fred Wilson. He asserts that these artists are architects of the what Copeland termed the “lingua franca” of black political dissent in in the form of installation art. Each of the artists integrated text, objects, and other elements such as sound to establish connections to ideas of race and agency indirectly referencing the issues of the time, for example, LA riots, Rodney King, police brutality …read more

The Symposium managed to address some relevant questions and simultaneously prove to be problematic. The  shifting boundaries seemed to be moving towards a new era of ubiquitous historical revisionism. Are boundaries shifting to a place where there can be an accessible discourse on black art where the normative group can avoid the paternalistic pitfalls of the past? It is doubtful.

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Contributed by: Jabari Owens-Bailey, Curatorial Fellow


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