Jermaine Bell on The Image of the Black: Reimagined and Redefined at Galerie Myrtis
When I completed my undergraduate degree at MICA, my self-directed thesis was an original series of Tshirts that featured quotes from famous black orators and intellectuals. I titled the project The Cosby Sweater; it was a way to announce to the world that I was one of ‘the good ones.’ I appreciated fine art, my pants didn’t sag, and I now had purchased an expensive art degree to prove it.
Cut to a year later when Bill Cosby was accused of rape by more than a dozen women. What were I and all those other buppies (black yuppies) supposed to do? We did the right thing. We spoke in our “white voices” in mixed company. We knew to order red wine and not Moscato at work mixers. We code switched with the best of them. But, why did we feel we had to?
Things only got more complicated for black cold brewed coffee enthusiasts this past, blustery January when Empire exploded in front of our eyes. Cookie Lyon showed up in our living rooms draped in animal skins of various kinds and copious amounts of bling, and reminded all of black America of that family member we love to see at the cookout, but not at the water cooler. Ironically, as one of Empire’s art providers, this issue is what The Image of the Black: Reimagined and Redefined at Baltimore’s Galerie Myrtis addresses.
In this exhibition, Galerie Myrtis creates a space for both the Lyon family, and a variety of black artists, to explore racial identity on their very own terms. The group show featuring works by S. Ross Browne, Nina Buxenbaum, Larry Judah Cook, Ronald Jackson, T. Elliott Mansa, Delita Martin and Arvie Smith takes on familiar tropes of black characteristics usually seen through the lens of white America or even by black artists working to be seen through the still-blindingly white art world’s gaze.
Nina Buxenbaum’s images evoke memories that would probably like to forget themselves. Under a deft, photorealistic hand, the Antebellum South’s dual ethnicity Topsy Turvy dolls, which featured a white woman from the waist up and a black woman from the waist down, address the complexities of black female identity and sexuality head on. Buxembaum takes this tradition a step farther by placing a darker complexioned woman (Zoë Charlton) under the petticoats of a lighter complected woman (the artist herself). In these tumultuous scenes, the darker woman seems pained and stares the viewer in the eyes, as if asking for help or at least recognition.
Larry Cook’s installation uses less allegory and more irony to get his point across. The words “Some of my best friends are black” in neon letters is jarring–because of the nauseating glow, and also comical, yet too real to be funny for many black Americans. In 2015, Miley Cyrus wears doorknocker earrings to broaden her appeal to larger audiences, showcasing her ironic understanding of black culture. However, black people who work or live in predominantly white environments have to choose to either denounce Empire for its “bad” portrayal of black Americans or join in on the ironic lovefest for all things Cookie Lyon and explain colloquialisms to their white counterparts.
Seeing a black female in a royal medieval costume in S. Ross Browne’s “The Persistence of History” questions the ages old portrayal of black people as mere accessories of white wealth. This tradition from feudal and Renaissance paintings that adorn many a museum wall is a precursor for a culture still questioning racial legitimacy, echoed in recent requests from Donald Trump to see President Obama’s birth certificate, and George Zimmerman’s refusal to believe that Trayon Martin belonged in HIS neighborhood. This painting reminded me of a recent talk organized by Lakisha Griffin at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum, where Devin Allen and a panel of young activists including Kwame Rose, Malacka Reed and DeRay McKesson denounced the importance of respectability politics.
Although he has looked down on hip hop styling for decades, after Bill Cosby’s public accusations of rape and wrongdoing, I believe that he is now reassessing the importance of a high and belted waistline in the bigger scheme of morality and cultural identity. As an exhibit, The Image of the Black: Reimagined and Redefined does not answer the question as to whether or not The Huxtables are the ideal family or if the Lyons are, and it shouldn’t have to. Instead, this exhibit presents black faces and figures, the black gaze and notions of blackness, from the varied perspectives of black artists.
The Image of the Black: Reimagined and Redefined is on view at Galerie Myrtis until December 15th 2015. The exhibit features the work of S. Ross Browne, Nina Buxenbaum, Larry Judah Cook, Ronald Jackson, T. Elliott Mansa, Delita Martin, and Arvie Smith.
Author Jermaine T. Bell is a Baltimore based designer and writer.
Galerie Myrtis will host “The Empire Strikes Baltimore,” a fund-raising event to benefit University of Maryland University College’s Arts Program; to celebrate Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Virginia artists; and to honor those featured on Empire, the FOX television series. The festive evening will take place on Saturday, October 31, 2015 with an open house to the general public on Sunday, November 1, 2015. More information here.