When Black Art Becomes "Disruptive"

June 3, 2020
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We can’t speak for Black artists, but we can do a lot to amplify their voices. 
One powerful tool is to educate ourselves - both on the history of violence against Black people and the creative ways in which they resisted. This is truly art as action. 

History is already a political thing - from the infinite array of human experiences, those in power get to choose what gets to be recorded and what gets forgotten in time. This erasure becomes even more dangerous in art history, a subject that has been defined and sustained by predominantly white scholars. 
Black artists have continuously disrupted this eurocentric narrative - and it is important to remember that they have been doing so through ways of presentation that were considered “disruptive” at the time.

1. Building Communities

The amazing thing about Black art movements is that they were multidisciplinary, spanning literature, music, performance, and visual arts. The Harlem Renaissance (1917-30) in New York strived for a style of art that can be representative of the Black community. This was made possible as people from the South as well as from the Caribbean and Africa came together in cities like New York and Paris. Important activist organizations like NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and debates about directions of the movement between Marcus Garvey and Dubois arose from this group of people. 

Of course, nothing represents the Harlem Renaissance better than jazz - itself originating from blues and before that Black music, it quickly became a global phenomenon. It’s a whole another story of how jazz originated from labor songs, then turned parodied by white bands in Black Minstrel, reclaimed by Black musicians, then whitewashed as blues transformed into early rock… 

Charles White, Five Great American Negroes (1939)


A less known movement is Chicago’s Black Renaissance (1930-50). There was Chicago jazz home to Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Amstrong, Langston Hughes in literature, and painters William Edouard Scott, Charles White, and Eldzier Cortor who were inspired by the jazz scene.  

The funny thing is, however, that these Renaissances were brought to attention because white patrons needed a place to buy alcohol illegally during Prohibition. We also need to recognize that these movements in cities were a result of the Great Migration, a move of Black communities away from Southern and Western states, away fromt heir Jim Crow laws and prevalent racial violence.

2. Something as simple as visibility

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Gordon Parks, Colored Entrance (1956)

Coming from Minneapolis, Gordon Parks worked as a photographer for several governmental projects as well as LIFE and Vogue magazine. In an era before the Internet, you can imagine how important documenting Black communities would have been - especially when segregation in effect denied them visibility. 


Another artist active during the Civil Rights Movement era, David Hammons is famous for his Body Prints series where he used various parts of his body to leave prints, evoking stereotypes of Black physiology. The pseudoscience about how certain races have more “inferior” body structures may have died out with the 20th century, but many of the derogatory associations remained - and to bring them to visibility through art is to enable critique. 

3. Straight into the belly of the beast 

Even after legal rights were procured for Black people, it soon became clear that discrimination is not only structural but cultural. In other words - the law may tell you everyone is equal, but how does one change the thoughts of each person that are so deeply ingrained with racism? 

Artists therefore realized they would not only have to talk about social issues through art, but to examine how art institutions themselves exclude black people.

Fred Wilson, Colonial Collection from The Other Museum (1990)

First of all, let’s talk about the birth of modern art. It is a well known fact that Pablo Picasso was inspired by African masks. And when we say “inspired”, we mean he took the aesthetic of these masks without considering their value in the communities they originated from, or the way they were forcibly taken by European colonists. 

What artist Fred Wilson did was to appropriate - or rather, re-appropriate - the looks of museums that display artifacts taken from non-white cultures. The labels and clean glass case create the illusion that what is being communicated here is factual and impartial. Fred Wilson made an important modification however: he gagged the group of African masks with the flags of colonial powers, putting forward the violence behind the origin of these objects. 

Gordon Matta-Clark, Window Blowout (1976)

While not himself a Black artist, Gordon Matta-Clark voiced an issue that affected the lives of Black communities in NYC. Slum Removal Policies in the 70’s aimed to replace low income houses, such as ones that had been abandoned and set on fire in the South Bronx. When architects of the IAUS decided to exclude the community of actual residents when planning for rebuilding, Gordon Matta-Clark protested by blowing out all windows of the IAUS building and hanging photographs of South Bronx apartments instead. In doing so, he sided himself with the youths who were accused of destroying property in the Bronx. 

4. Women, Too


Faith Ringgold with Michele Wallace were founding members of the National Black Feminist Organization. She founded numerous other groups at the intersection of black and feminist art, one of them being the famous Ad Hoc Committe of Women’s Art that protested at the then male-dominant Whitney Biennial with slogans “50% black artists” and “50% women artists”. 

In her art, she uses fabric and quilting techniques to challenge the view that “ethnic art” and “craft” are inferior to fine art defined as traditional paintings or sculptures. 


Adrian Piper, Alarm System (1980)

Like Faith Ringgold, Adrian Piper was also active as a performance artist in a series called Catalysis. Truthful to the name, these performances were meant to trigger people into thinking of the ways they unconsciously embodied racism in daily life. In My Calling Card, for example. she handed a card announcing her African American identity to anyone who made a racist comment in public. 

In installations such as Alarm System (1980) above, she addressed unfair characterizations of not only black women but also men as dangerous - with projected images of black men’s heads with lights installed behind their eyes, and funk music amplified and distorted to become menacing. Then, she played through headsets fictional responses of white men to these allegedly “threatening” stimuli, completing a multimedia picture of how society perceives black men. 


works from the artist

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