Clark’s ‘Black Atlantic’ parses race in art

Those brave enough to make the snowy trek to the Clark Art Institute last Saturday morning were rewarded by scrumptious muffins and an intriguing foray into the realm of contemporary art. The latest Artist Symposium, “Artistic Crossings of the Black Atlantic: The Migratory Aesthetic in Contemporary Art,” focused on the Black Atlantic as a theme and focus of artistic endeavors, and was a collaboration between the Clark, the WCMA and the Mellon Foundation. Five outstanding artists – Isaac Julien, Fred Wilson, Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, Willie Cole and Hank Willis Thomas – gathered to discuss and reflect upon migration and diaspora in their work.

The symposium was an all-day event in the auditorium of the Clark with occasional breaks for food and discussion. Michael Ann Holly and Mark Ledbury, director and associate director of the Clark’s Research and Academic Program, kicked off the event with welcoming statements, followed by an introduction from Lisa Corrin, director of the WCMA. Peter Erickson, visiting professor of humanities, then gave a brief talk on the Black Atlantic in the 21st century, setting the stage for the day’s focus: how contemporary art is reshaping current understanding of the Black Atlantic, and connections between the Middle Passage and current artistic journeys. Each artist had the opportunity to speak about his or her work, followed by a brief question-and-answer session with a moderator, and then opened up for questions from the audience.

The first speaker of the day was British filmmaker Isaac Julien. Born in London to immigrants from the island of St. Lucia, Julien graduated St. Martin’s School of Art, and has lectured and published widely across the United States and Britain. Known for his use of triple-screen gallery installations, Julien considers post-colonial and interethnic relations as well as black and gay identity in his films, which have received much acclaim in the art world. Looking for Langston, an exploration of the life of Langston Hughes and 1920s Harlem, received the Jury Prize at the Brussels Cinema and Homosexualities Festival, and “The Long Road to Mazatlan” was nominated for the prestigious Turner Prize in 2001. During the talk, he showed a portion of Western Union: Small Boats, a short film about the sense of displacement of Libyan immigrants that uses beautiful landscapes to accentuate the longing felt by the characters. Julien spoke of the unequal and unlevel global terrain that had ruptured so many ways of life, as well as his interest in exploring the feelings of isolation and guilt that accompany the immigrant experience.

Conceptual and installation artist Fred Wilson also spoke at the Symposium. Of African-Caribbean descent, Wilson was born in the Bronx and received a bachelor’s degree from SUNY Purchase. His innovative techniques working with gallery exhibitions have awarded him the MacArthur Genius Grant in 2001 and the Larry Aldrich Foundation Award in 2003. Wilson talked about his recent work in Kingston, Jamaica, where he explored the connection between the colonial exploitation of natural resources and its implications on slavery. The exhibition, An Account of a Voyage to the Island Jamaica with the Unnatural History of that Place, was a play on words of Hans Sloane’s 17th century natural history book of Jamaica and featured exhibits such as “Woodrary,” a library shelf with wooden books made of the native trees of Jamaica, various prints labeled with casual descriptions of slave brutalities and physical flora juxtaposed with human hair. Wilson also discussed the importance of adequate treatment of trauma in museum exhibits, and presented several of his works in a slideshow. His interest in migration is also evident in his use of globes. “The Unnatural Movement of Blackness” is a mapping of the trans-Atlantic and Indian Ocean slave trade using black chains and droplets on a globe; as he explained, the work also pertains to global oil production and trade, drawing a connection between different centuries of corruption and exploitation of humans and their resources.

Draped in a soft, gauzy shawl, Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons spoke in a delicate Caribbean accent of the anguish and sense of displacement that comes from being in exile. Born in Matanzas, Cuba and of Nigerian ancestry, Campos-Pons attended the Higher Institute of Art in Havana before leaving for Boston when her work was accused of representing Fidel Castro in a negative light, but was forced to stay in Canada for a year and a half before being able to immigrate to the United States. Her work investigates the “in-between” space present in themes of race, gender, memory and identity, and is often in large-scale 16-photo grids. Campos-Pons often uses water and the ocean as an artistic medium, as in her work “Everything Is Separated By Water, Including My Brain, My Heart, My Sex, My House,” in which a column of water divides two halves of a woman that are encased in barbed wire. Other places that her art has been showcased include the MoMA, the Smithsonian Museum and the Venice Biennale. Campos-Pons spoke of her strong connection with her African roots and her driving need to “conquer space” through installation art, much of which is autobiographical and symbolic.
Sculptor Willie Cole works with an array of multimedia including, but not limited to, irons, high-heeled shoes and bicycle parts. Born in New Jersey, he studied media arts at Boston University and received his Bachelor of Fine Arts from the School of Visual Arts in New York. His work, which investigates African aesthetic traditions through a progressive lens using unconventional materials, has been displayed in the MoMA, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. Cole spoke of being influenced by Basquiat and Campbell, and of his experiences growing up in a female collective and witnessing women ironing for a living, which led to his fascination with the steam iron, the most important motif in his work. Using irons as artistic tools, he investigates tribal rituals of scorching and scarification, creating shapes such as African masks, shields and slave ships. His work “Stowage” deals with the fragmentation and displacement of African tribes brought about by the Middle Passage, using iron patterns as shields and a diagram of a slave ship, currently on display at the WCMA as part of the Unchained Legacies exhibition.

Last to speak was photographer Hank Willis Thomas, whose work focuses on how advertising constructs black stereotypes. Willis Thomas, who was born and raised in New York, received his B.F.A. at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, and his M.A at California College of the Arts in San Francisco. He has been featured in 25 Under 25: American Photographers, and has shown his work at the African-American Museum in Philadelphia, the Smithsonian Museum, Zacheta National Gallery in Warsaw and the Studio Museum in Harlem. Onstage, he discussed his concern with rampant consumerism and the idea of ascension being changed to sports. His controversial “Hangtime” is a reflection of this idea, and his “Branding” series investigates branding as a simultaneous status symbol and marking of servitude. “Absolut Power,” a ripoff of a popular vodka advertisement using a bottle in the shape of a slave ship, is also on display at the WCMA. Many of his works have been used on telephone kiosks and phone booths, often indistinguishable from actual advertisements.

At the program’s conclusion, a panel discussion brought all of the artists together to debate and discuss the themes of the day and to answer audience questions. Among the topics explored were the concepts of “post-blackness,” perceptions of self-identity as shaped by others and the dangerous error of defining an artist’s work solely in terms of race. As Willie Cole choicely put it, “to say that our work is just about blackness is to minimize it.” In response to a question about the transferability of the artists’ work to other human events and experiences, a unanimous answer was given: that universal themes like longing, identity and the human body were ones to which anyone could relate.

The Clark’s investigation of diasporic themes will continue with the Spring Conference, “Art History and Diaspora: Genealogies, Theories, Practices” on April 25 and 26. As always, it is free to Williams students and faculty, and if it is anything like this last symposium, should surely not be missed.