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Grief and grievance: how artists respond to racial violence in America | Art

At a time when black Americans are twice as likely to die of Covid-19 as their white counterparts while a reckoning continues over ongoing police brutality, a new group exhibition is opening to tell the story of black grief in America, from the 1960s to present day.

Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America opens 17 February at the New Museum in New York City, featuring 37 artists whose work ties into loss linked to racial violence – including artworks by Jean-Michel Basquiat and Carrie Mae Weems, among others.

The exhibition was first conceived by the Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor, who died in 2019 at the age of 55, after a career of championing black artists. “Okwui conceived this exhibition before the killing of George Floyd,” said the New Museum director, Massimiliano Gioni. “The situation was unbearable long before that. He made a statement before others, but he was clear-eyed and saw what was happening in America for a long time.”

Gioni is co-curating the exhibition in his memory alongside Naomi Beckwith, the newly appointed deputy director of the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum in New York, as well as artists Glenn Ligon and Mark Nash.

It all started in 2018 when Enwezor began to organize in relation to a talk series he was developing at Harvard University around black mourning and white nationalism in America. Enwezor wanted to debut the exhibition around the same time as the 2020 American presidential election, as an outcry for democracy under the Trump administration (it was then pushed back by the pandemic).

It features moments of political action linked with mourning in American history, with artists such as Kara Walker, Lorna Simpson and Hank Willis Thomas, a painting by Mark Bradford, photos by LaToya Ruby Frazier, a sculpture by Simone Leigh and a video by Arthur Jafa.

Kerry James Marshall - Untitled (policeman)
Kerry James Marshall – Untitled (policeman). Photograph: Jonathan Muzikar

The exhibition includes Kerry James Marshall’s painting Untitled (policeman) from 2015, showing a black cop sitting on his cruiser. It was made around the time killings of unarmed black men, women and children were escalating across the country.

Also on view is the film-maker Garrett Bradley’s 2017 short film, Alone, which includes conversations between women who have incarcerated family members. Theaster Gates’s Gone Are the Days of Shelter and Martyr, from 2014, will also be on view, which goes inside a demolished church on the south side of Chicago to show the lack of investment in urban infrastructure where it’s needed most.

As Enwezor wrote in his initial plan for the exhibition: “With the media’s normalization of white nationalism, the last two years have made clear that there is a new urgency to assess the role that artists, through works of art, have played to illuminate the searing contours of the American body politic.”

Each floor of the multi-level museum riffs on one of three historical artworks, which are considered “historical cornerstones”. One is the Alabama-born artist Jack Whitten’s piece Birmingham, a painting from 1964 that was a response to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963, depicting a black hole made of newsprint, oil and aluminum foil.

“In the work of Whitten, he saw a model of abstraction how it helps us cope with the violence, shrouding images too violent to see,” said Gioni. “Not to suppress traumatic images but heal them, make them more powerful for new political ends.”

Okwui Enwezor in 2015
Okwui Enwezor in 2015.
Photograph: WENN Rights Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo

Another is Daniel LaRue Johnson’s Freedom Now, Number 1, from 1963-64. And the third is Jean-Michel Basquiat’s 1986 painting Procession, which shows four figures following a black man, who is holding up a skull.

“Okwui Enwezor had an idea of how he wanted the show installed, those three artists would be anchors, that was his vision and we honored it,” said Ligon.

Enwezor was known across the international art world for championing African, Asian and Latino artists, ushering them into western art institutions and giving them ample space for their voices to be seen and heard.

The Nigerian-born curator arrived in the US in 1982 and studied political science in New Jersey, but once he saw the lack of African art in American art exhibitions, he started writing art criticism. He wrote for Gioni, who was an editor at Flash Art magazine, and launched his own magazine called Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art in 1994. “He was Nigerian, not African American – he had a different point of view in his perception of blackness,” said Gioni.

Enwezor curated African art exhibitions at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, at the Art Institute of Chicago, the International Center for Photography and at PS1 Contemporary Art Center in Queens, throughout the 1990s and 2000s, many of which had a special focus on African photography.

He also curated large-scale group exhibitions at various biennales, like the Johannesburg Biennale and the Venice Biennale. Until his illness in 2018, Enwezor was the director of Haus der Kunst in Munich. This exhibition not only honors Enwezor but shows how he changed the art world by bringing in African art to the west, challenging the eurocentric canon.

A still from Jafa Arthur - Love is the Message, The Message is Death
A still from Jafa Arthur – Love is the Message, The Message is Death. Photograph: Jafa Arthur / New Museum

“The biggest impact that Okwui Enwezor had, was that he opened our eyes to African contemporary art and the decolonization of art in Africa,” said Gioni. “He used a variety of materials to write history or rewrite history, that was his great contribution, so was using exhibitions as great vehicles of learning and rewriting history. He also had a great laugh. He was such a cosmopolitan person.”

The exhibit ties into grief, sadness, loss and mourning, which is something many can relate to in the middle of a grueling pandemic, while also being a response to racial violence in black communities across America.

“There have been images of black violence in the past year shared on social media,” said Gioni. “Okwui Enwezor asked: ‘How can these images circulate and be a part of art without falling into exploitation of black grief?’”

Ligon, who first met Enwezor in 1998 in New York, says the curator helped mount his artwork in Venice in a way that went beyond his own imagination. “He was sometimes more ambitious for me, as an artist, than I was for myself,” recalls Ligon. It was Enwezor’s idea to put Ligon’s 2015 piece A Small Band outside the main exhibition site in the Giardini at the Venice Biennale.

“It wasn’t what I would have considered for myself,” said Ligon taken aback. “He was able to understand the capabilities of an artist and push them to do things on a scale you wouldn’t think to do. He had a curatorial expansiveness. He was the genesis of that piece.”

Ligon Glenn - A Small Band
Ligon Glenn – A Small Band. Photograph: Roberto Marossi

In neon white lettering, the piece reads out “Blues, blood, and bruise”, the words of a young black man Daniel Hamm in 1964, when he and his friend Wallace Baker, were arrested in New York for a crime they did not commit and suffered police brutality.

Enwezor often said that black grief had been a national emergency for many years. And that many artists have addressed it in their work consistently. (It was recently announced that Marian Goodman Gallery is launching an initiative to support emerging curators who are black, indigenous and people of color, to honor Enwezor.)

Now, Ligon’s piece will be on view outside of the New Museum for an entire year, as it’s making its debut in New York.

“This exhibit was him responding to this moment in America,” said Ligon. “He was thinking about American politics, where we were headed. The show is prescient in that way, as we are thinking about the storming of the Capitol by white nationalists, the ongoing issue of murder of black people by state authorities. That is what he was aware of.”

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