Walking into 21c Museum Hotel to see the new show, I come face to face with a large, bronze bust of a black woman with an ornate loop of hair. Her face is regal, and her black features, prominent and proud. She is beautiful. The bronze in which she is cast is black, and the two — black and beautiful — are synonymous here. The artist, Kehinde Wiley, spends much of his work examining the black portrait and, in doing so, he places those black faces in classic motifs — often a lush rococo style, with adornments of flowers and greenery. Works of this nature were, before, limited to the wealthy or the famous. For Wiley, everyday black faces reflect how the artist views his community.
For me, as a black woman, his art puts features like mine in a space often is marked by an absence of color — art galleries, not 21c specifically. The works glorify and appreciate the beauty of a black face, but more important, perhaps, they speak to changes in conversations about race and inclusion in art.
This show is joined in recent months by others at the Speed Art Museum and Carnegie Center for Art and History in New Albany — both addressing difficult topics of race, inclusion and equity. Certainly, the art world — galleries, museums, art administrations and art writing — is still a very white place. But that our major galleries are recognizing the problem and working to change course is profound and a good start.
“21c wants to reflect the breadth of human experience and that’s a global one and that’s a diverse one,” said Alice Gray Stites, chief curator and museum director at 21c. “Inclusiveness is one of our values. I think it’s probably highlighted because these conversations are happening more. I feel that most of the exhibitions at 21c do reflect a diversity, because that is a hallmark of the kind of contemporary art that we want to show, collect, support and commission.”
“Pop Stars! Popular Culture and Contemporary Art” at the 21c asks us to think about how we approach the idea of fame and pop culture. It asks us to confront ourselves as seekers and consumers of both. With 40 percent of the work from artists of color, patrons are offered an additional interpretive layer regarding how we see and consume brown and black bodies. “We’re really happy that in Louisville there is the opportunity to take part in what is a really important conversation about diversity and inclusiveness — and who is represented and who speaks for whom,” said Stites.
Similarly, the issues of race, consumerism and culture are raised in “Southern Accent: Seeking The American South in Contemporary Art” at the Speed, but in context of how the South has shaped American society. It addresses our notions of the South in unsettling and provocative ways. It vividly confronts the still-tender conversations we have about race and cultural appropriation in this country. More than half of the art is by people of color, including African-American, Latino, Indigenous and Asian artists.
“Southern Accent” invites viewers to begin their journey with the narratives of race relations and injustice, and, then, throughout the exhibit, see the shift in the Southern story and recognize its current influence on culture. The reconciliation we attempt to make with these narratives persists throughout. How do we speak honestly about a dark past?
“We partnered with the Anne Braden institute, and they provided these training sessions called ‘Difficult Conversations,’” said Speed Curator of Contemporary Art Miranda Lash. “I thought it was really moving that they acknowledged that shame might be an emotion that you feel when you’re talking about these things; and it’s kind of unavoidable. That’s an OK emotion. Anger is an OK emotion.”
Hank Willis Thomas’ piece “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Us Around” is a series of historical photographs superimposed on mirrored glass. The viewer is shown a civil rights march from several perspectives — the marchers’ and those opposed to recognizing the rights of African-Americans to access the America that whites were afforded. Placing the images on a mirror invites the viewers to examine themselves as a part of the work and history.
“I love that piece because people are always pointing out new things to me. I love that the mirrors really draw you in to participating in the history,” Lash said.
“We wanted to make a complex inquiry into how we understand the South, which is such an emotional topic for people,” said Lash. “People bring all of the weight of American history to it. All of the fondness and nostalgia they feel, or the disgust and fear they might have toward the South.”
Earlier this year, the Carnegie Center kicked off many of these same conversations with its “#BlackArtMatters” show. This show brought my attention to the solid effort by local curators to include ethnically divergent perspectives in these major art spaces. Daniel Pfalzgraf, curator at the Carnegie, said the show aimed to address misconceptions about the Black Lives Matter movement. “I felt like I personally am not an expert on the issues surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement, and I wanted to learn more about as well,” he said. “Given how important it seemed to be to the discussions that were being had in the media and among people in general — but was not really being addressed in art circles — I thought it was a prime opportunity to bring that in.”
In the “#BlackArtMatters” show, not only did works by people of color cover the walls, but most visitors to the opening night of the show were African-American. It was a stark contrast to the typical local art opening where I might be one of very few black faces. For me, this has been the norm in Louisville.
I started visiting art museums and galleries as a child, and only in the last 10 years have I begun to see works that reflect the diverse community of the city.
“It’s incredibly powerful to see oneself in some way reflected or represented in art,” said Stites. “It’s really important that anyone who walks into our spaces sees themselves or their culture represented, or even more importantly discovers something unfamiliar. It’s part of who we are; but we need to keep paying attention to that,” she said.
Only a sustained effort will shift Louisville’s art spaces from white spaces to welcoming ones. The change is happening on the walls, thanks to astute curatorial staff.
Hopefully, this will filter up to the administration and leadership of these spaces — which remain alabaster.