Cleveland Museum of Art surveys America’s racial history through powerful works by modern, contemporary Black artists

CLEVELAND, Ohio — The Cleveland Museum of Art, once a bastion of conservatism regarding contemporary art, is courageously wading into the rising culture wars over the history of race in America in the best way it can, by exhibiting powerful works by Black artists rooted in that history.

The museum’s newest exhibition, “Currents and Constellations: Black Art in Focus,’’ which opened a week ago, showcases the myriad ways in which some of the country’s leading 20th- and 21st-century Black artists have responded to America’s racial divide.

The show could be viewed as part of the wave of exhibitions in art museums across the country focusing on race and diversity following the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020. In truth, the Cleveland museum started ramping up the frequency of exhibitions devoted to African-American artists in 2013 with a show on the 20th-century expressionist and folk art-inflected painter William H. Johnson.

The new exhibition, though, is one of four on view now that emphasize works by women and minorities, and artists who straddle those categories. The show is especially timely given that it coincides with the increasingly bitter national debate over how the history of slavery and racism should be taught.

Conflicts over the teaching of that history include the racial politics that led to the recent recall of left-leaning school board members in San Francisco. Meanwhile, despite deriding left-wing cancel culture, conservatives are working to ban books from school libraries and to empower citizens to sue school districts over conspiracy theories that children are being force-fed university-level teachings on critical race theory.

Organized by Key Jo Lee, newly promoted from director of academic affairs and associate curator of special projects to associate curator of American art at the museum, “Currents and Constellations” takes the position that Clevelanders are ready to consider how African-American artists have approached topics that continue to roil the country.

On view are prints by Elizabeth Catlett and Cleveland artist Darius Steward that explore representations of the Black family, works by photographer Dawoud Bey and painter Torkwase Dyson that evoke journeys from bondage to freedom, and paintings by Norman Lewis and Jack Whitten and a sculpture by Richard Hunt that explore whether the Black experience in America can be communicated through abstraction.

Other works could be viewed as deep cultural responses to police violence against unarmed Blacks, sexual liberties taken by enslavers against Black women, and reflections on the persistence of oral traditions as a way to cope with the cultural erasure and the denial of education to enslaved Black Americans.

The exhibition centers on 17 works in the museum’s Focus Gallery but includes another nine installed amid four permanent collection galleries in ways that show how works by Black artists could reveal new understandings of the museum as a whole.

Most of the objects in the show are from the museum’s growing collection of works by African-American artists, now numbering over 700 objects. Key works are also on loan from artists and collectors.

The artistic viewpoints represented in the exhibition are sharply diverse, ranging from Social Realist to Abstract Expressionist, Conceptual, and beyond. Virtually every principal work on view represents a school of thought or an approach that could be the subject of its own exhibition. In that sense, Lee’s exhibition feels like a sketch for something much bigger and more comprehensive.

One installation offers an especially vivid demonstration of Lee’s approach. In Gallery 204, which is devoted to art from the colonial and revolutionary period, the curator has installed “Shadows of Liberty,’’ a 2016 painting by MacArthur “genius grant” winner Titus Kaphar, who is also represented in the museum’s current “Motherhood” exhibition.

The newly installed Kaphar painting is a reinterpretation of a hackneyed equestrian portrait of George Washington painted by the little-known artist John Faed in 1899 that now belongs to the Tuscaloosa Museum of Art in Alabama.

While visually quoting the hero-worshipping Faed portrait, Kaphar subverts its meaning by largely obscuring Washington’s face and upper body behind tea-stained strips of canvas bearing the names of the more than 300 enslaved people he owned.

The canvas ribbons are attached to the painting with rusted nails in the manner of a traditional, nail-studded African power figure, or nkisi nkondi, an example of which is displayed in a vitrine nearby.

The Kaphar painting also hangs next to a 1779 portrait by Charles Willson Peale and his workshop depicting Washington at the Battle of Princeton, standing confidently in a graceful hipshot pose with his left hand on the muzzle of a canon and his right arm akimbo.

The Kaphar painting literally “pins’’ the injustice of slavery to the face of a Founding Father.

By showing this provocative image, the museum isn’t aligning itself with protestors clamoring to rename buildings and institutions named for enslavers or to remove Confederate monuments from Southern cities.

Instead, by displaying the Kaphar in the context of the Peale portrait and the African power figure, the museum is taking the position that it can be a place where the complexity of America’s racial history can be safely explored.

That open-spirited conversation continues in the Focus Gallery, where, among other things, Lee has organized two groups of portraits of Black women according to whether they face the viewer or turn away.

To paraphrase Lee’s reading of these works, portrayals of Black women facing away from the viewer constitute an assertion of personal liberation, privacy, autonomy, and bodily self-control in a culture that once sanctioned the right of white enslavers to rape Black women as a way to increase their human “capital.’’

The “facing away” theme encompasses works such as stylistically diverse as Charles Sallee’s 1940 painting, “Bedtime,’’ a tender and intimate portrait of his wife; and Lorna Simpson’s 1992 photographic screenprint, “Cure/Heal,’’ showing a pair of high-heeled shoes facing away from the viewer in a mysterious, darkened room.

Representing the “facing toward’’ theme, Lee has chosen Mario Moore’s defiantly confrontational seminude portrait in which the artist’s wife, Danielle Eliska Lyle, is shown in panties, coolly staring down the viewer while standing proudly amid a pastoral landscape over which she appears to exercise dominion. The painting is a defiant declaration of racial and sexual power.

“African King of Dubious Origin,’’ a 2021 work by Felandus Thames, offers commentary on police violence against Blacks as a form of martyrdom. As such, it is powerfully relevant to the uproar following the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland’s cancellation in 2020 of an exhibition of drawings by New York artist Shaun Leonardo depicting police killings of unarmed Black men and boys, including Cleveland’s Tamir Rice.

MOCA said it canceled the show to avoid re-traumatizing members of the Cleveland community who had experienced police violence, thus raising the question of when and under what circumstances it’s acceptable to display art that, however well-intentioned, could reopen psychic wounds.

The Felandus Thames work offers an answer to that question. Comprised of girl’s hair beads strung on coated wires, it translates a close-up photo of Rodney King taken after his savage beating by Los Angeles police in 1992 into a shimmering, pixelated curtain that evokes violence without dwelling on morbid specifics.

Among numerous art historical and cultural references, “African King’’ evokes the tradition of depicting Veronica’s Veil, the cloth miraculously imprinted with the image of Christ after St. Veronica wiped blood and sweat from his face on the Via Dolorosa at the Sixth Station of the Cross.

Lastly, “Currents and Constellations’’ achieves an especially poetic note in Gallery 227, the East Wing space devoted to Abstract Expressionist painting, by exhibiting a superb drawing by Norman Lewis, (1909-1979), next to one of his paintings.

In 2017, the museum acquired Lewis’s 1960 masterpiece, “Alabama,’’ which communicates the violence of the Civil Rights era through flickering strokes of black on white that bring to mind a terrifying fire in a forest at night, but without specifically depicting a cross burning or a lynching.

Next to the painting, the museum is now hanging “Winter Branches, #4,’’ a 1953 ink drawing by Lewis, on loan from his estate, that uses calligraphic strokes to create prickly linear patterns that appear to shimmer.

A wall text describes the drawing as evidence of Lewis’s interest in Chinese calligraphy, a passion he shared with other contemporary Abstract Expressionists. It could also be read as a depiction of the thorny nature of Black life in America.

However it is viewed, the drawing is a masterful demonstration of simplicity and invention in the pursuit of striking, abstract beauty. And therein lies another strength of the museum’s show.

The exhibition speaks of suffering caused by racism in American life, but also beauty, pride, resilience, and some very powerful visual thinking. By doing so, it makes for a vivid and compelling package that shows how a deeper understanding of American history should be a cause for curiosity, appreciation, and understanding, not fear and division.

REVIEW

What’s up: “Currents and Constellations: Black Art in Focus.’’

Venue: Cleveland Museum of Art.

Where: 11150 East Blvd.

When: Through Sunday, June 26.

Admission: Free. Call 216-870-7350 or go to cma.org.

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