Lauren Frances Adams offers three bodies of work that celebrate black female exceptionalism and expose the supporting roles of white women in US Confederate history and propaganda, offering a multifaceted site-specific, visual history lesson centered in Baltimore.
by Cara Ober
I wrote a review of Germinal, a solo exhibit by Lauren Frances Adams at MICA, in February. The piece was published by Hyperallergic last week and I was surprised at how much my ideas had shifted in a month. I didn’t radically change my views, but subsequent visits to Adams’ show and the conversations that occurred around it, especially on social media, challenged me to expand my reaction to it. While I am not interested in rewriting the review, I did want to reframe my arguments and complicate them before including an excerpt at BmoreArt.
Anyone who has encountered Adams’ work, especially if you have heard the artist talk about it, understands the sheer density of research she crams into each piece and the conviction she brings to her practice. Adams uses her art practice as a tool to challenge and expand her audience’s understanding of history, race, social justice, and labor in America and couches this work in her identity as a Southern white woman and an academic. In this particular exhibit at MICA, Adams attempted to tackle Baltimore’s Confederate history by exposing the role of white women in propagating false historical narratives through erecting Confederate monuments and also by creating a visual map of black female activists.
It is at this point when I admit that my role as critic was primarily focused on disseminating the dense and copious historical information embedded in the work, attempting to translate how and why it functions, especially for readers who would mostly not see the show. The job of the art writer is to distill information down to the essential, to convey as deep an understanding as possible in the fewest possible words, but it is a mistake to consider this a position of neutrality.
The word “intersectional” was used in the headline of the article, and presented an opportunity to consider, via Kimberlé Crenshaw, the “overlapping systems of oppression and discrimination that women are subject to due to their ethnicity, sexuality and economic background.” Although Adams’ work deals directly with overlapping systems of oppression and focused on the role of white women as oppressors and black women as freedom fighters, I was so intent upon communicating the intricate details of the work that I failed to recognize my own role within this structure. As Adams says, “The artist is not neutral.” Well, neither is the writer, but I approached this review from a neutral point of view, as if I were not somehow a part of this system, a biased product of history.
It’s one thing to talk about intersectionality and to explore it in visual artwork, but quite another to realize one’s own limitations in experiencing it. Especially knowing that MY voting demographic put Donald Trump into office on a platform of white supremacy, I am compelled to support and discuss the work of artists like Adams who implicate themselves in a race-based historical narrative, who expose a comprehensive American history as a violent and actively manipulated practice. However, I find myself questioning the best way for me to to engage, realizing that my perspective is limited, and that I am not neutral.
While I remain committed to this work, I must also recognize that my perspective and my voice is not necessarily helpful in all contexts. Instead, my role might have been better leveraged to ask questions of those with more a direct understanding and listen carefully to their answers before claiming a social justice narrative. As always, I am grateful that my profession is a place for questions, conversation, and opportunities to learn.
BALTIMORE — Why are significant female artists described as “seminal,” as if crediting sperm to the most powerful creative women is our highest compliment? Lauren Frances Adams’s newest solo exhibition, Germinal, at Maryland Institute College of Art, offers a new superlative that references female power on female terms. Taking things a step further, Adams offers three bodies of work that celebrate black female exceptionalism and expose the supporting roles of white women in US Confederate history and propaganda, offering a multifaceted site-specific, visual history lesson centered in Baltimore.
What’s most unexpected about an art show exploring Confederate monuments, intersectional feminism, and racist propaganda is how weirdly comforting and pleasing to the eye it all is. Adams, a MICA painting professor and a Southern white woman, has long addressed US issues of racism and unfair labor practices in her work, but it is her penchant for layering dense historic research into charming decorative patterns that grants her work its power. Under Adams’s hand, colonial wallpaper or abolitionist quilt patterns act as anchors for didactic narratives, presenting first a nostalgic, collective mirror while rage simmers just beneath the surface.
Filling one wall with a hive-like wallpaper pattern, “No, I do not weep at the world — I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife” (2018) draws you in from a distance and rewards up close with intricately painted details and a lesson in black female history. The installation is ongoing, meaning the artist will each day add new portraits of black female activists from the 18th through 20th centuries, painted on individual oyster shells. The oysters, all Choptank Sweets, reference Harriet Tubman, who was owned as a slave on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, near the Choptank River, and the wallpaper pattern is actually an image of a knife and fork taken from Tubman’s household, the originals now on display in the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC.
Using Tubman as a base for this installation, and the “Oyster knife” title (a quote from a 1928 Zora Neale Hurston essay) Adams constructs a web of black female excellence one portrait at a time. It’s an inclusive space where Ma Rainey, Shirley Chisholm, bell hooks, Bree Newsome, Josephine Baker, and many others come together to fill in the blanks that plague most history books and cultural canons. The background pattern is cohesive and visually compelling from a distance, and each shell is unique and warm, each portrait amended with added handwritten text, inviting motivated viewers to learn more.
Across the gallery, a series of six medium-sized paintings balance out this exhibition. Each brims with a collage of seemingly unrelated images, where amiable design elements such as antique lace and quilt patterns act as a host structure for the artist’s research. Viewed as a group, the paintings present conflicted narratives around specific Confederate monuments: ahistorical myths of whiteness and support for white supremacy contrasted with images of art made by black artists in the 19th and 20th centuries.
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