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“Modernism was seen as a huge moment historically and culturally—this was the language of the oppressor” (58). Black artist Sanford Biggers made this statement in 2018 while contemplating the role that German art historian Carl Einstein’s book Negerplastik played in introducing him to African sculpture and its transformative potential. When considered alongside Biggers’s 2016 work of the same name—featuring a repurposed quilt with a geometric pattern and an upright, floral-patterned sculptural figure casting a shadow—the statement captures the tug and pull of both African art and European interest in it for Black artists in the United States. Through Negerplastik, Biggers emphasizes how central syncretic thinking is to Black artists and their work. Like many of these artists, Biggers takes the position that exploring African art, even through a European lens, offers a unique opportunity to critique and innovate at the same time.
I was intrigued by Biggers’s Negerplastik and his statement for a few reasons. As I am a historian of South African modern art, the phrase “the language of the oppressor” brings to mind how Black South Africans referred to being forced to use the Afrikaans language as an implemention of racial violence through apartheid. Biggers describes modernism not only as a tool of liberation from established conventions of form and color but also as a system of ideas and structures that both exploited people and suppressed their narratives. Biggers’s quote is thus a reminder of the complicated relationship that Black artists had to European modernism and modernist ideas.
This is what the exhibition Riffs and Relations: African American Artists and the European Modernist Tradition is about: the many ways in which Black artists grappled with and responded artistically to European modernism. In a richly illustrated catalog with rigorous scholarship and an equally engaging online component, curator and art historian Adrienne L. Childs has created an important resource that significantly expands our understanding of how Black artists created their own “call and response” relationship to European modernism. As Childs writes in her introduction, “Black artists have interrogated, invaded, annihilated, or immersed themselves in the ethos of European modernist art since the early twentieth century” (13). Featuring a stunning list of Black and European artists across genres and generations, such as Mequitta Ahuja, Elizabeth Catlett, Chaim Soutine, and Bob Thompson, Riffs and Relations makes a cogent argument for a more expansive view of modernism as a global movement in which Black artistic interrogations of dominant narratives are central.
The catalog provides a distinctive array of Black artists who have created works of genius improvisation and/or used formal techniques to expose patterns and relationships between Black and European modernisms. Organized around themes such as “African Art and the Modern” and “Abstract Relations,” the catalog is divided into five chapters, with three written by Childs, one written by Renée Maurer, and the final chapter comprising a conversation between Childs and Valerie Cassel Oliver, a modern and contemporary art curator at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Each chapter covers so much territory in terms of historical time period, movements, and analysis that they could all be expanded into stand-alone, book-length studies.
In the chapter “African Art and the Modern,” Childs traces the intellectual lineage of Black artists who grappled with European visual encounters with Africa to the philosopher, scholar, and cultural critic Alain Locke, an instrumental figure in urging Black artists to emulate European modernists who used African themes in their work. In his seminal text, The New Negro (1925), Locke created a “who’s who” list, arguing that more so than European artists, aspiring Black modern artists should be studying and exalting African sculpture and themes in their work since these themes are their birthright.
I was pleased to see Childs reproduce a paragraph from Locke’s essay to demonstrate how he hands the baton to this next generation of artists. This paragraph is important for my own study of the South African artist Irma Stern, who lived in Berlin until 1920 and was mentored by the Expressionist Max Pechstein. A Cape Town–based artist of German Jewish descent, Stern combined Expressionist techniques such as using bright colors and strong black outlines to depict South Africa’s people—namely Black, Coloured (mixed-race), and Jewish women—and its landscape. Locke discusses both Pechstein and Stern in this list, though he erroneously refers to the latter as “Elaine Stern” (28). But, the reference provides a critical moment in defining what Childs calls the “global history of art” (28). Through their critical scholarship, both Locke and Childs make these important global linkages and foreground women artists in their writing, such as Stern for Locke and Carrie Mae Weems and Mickalene Thomas for Childs.
The catalog is visually stunning and filled with works from modern and contemporary Black artists. I was thrilled to read the accompanying artists’ statements, many of which resonated with all of the pain, frustration, and exhaustion of the Black Lives Matter moment we currently live in. For example, Childs includes David C. Driskell’s 1966 painting Still Life with Sunset, a colorful, geometric work that Driskell says was influenced by “Georges Braque, Juan Gris, and other French modernists” (20–21). Driskell, who was not only a superb artist but also an extraordinary teacher, mentor, and visionary in the field of Black art, died of COVID-19 in April 2020. His presence in the exhibition makes Childs’s depth of scholarship and attention to the theme of riffs and relations particularly fresh and critical for this specific moment. Driskell wrote prophetically, “Like most artists I know, I have looked to the past as often as I have tried to project a new visual perspective for the future. To a certain extent, that is how modernist ideas are born” (21).
Unfortunately, the exhibition opened at the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, just as the world was shutting down due to COVID-19, and it ended in January 2021. Like every other sector, museums have been forced to innovate and reimagine. Riffs and Relations has a compelling online component, including a 3D virtual walk-through of the exhibition on the museum’s website that is thorough enough to give viewers a sense of the show’s layout and design. Although it is exciting to see works in person, the virtual walk-through allows more time to read the wall text and learn about the artists online. This constantly evolving system has some downsides: at times, clicking on the images distorts the view, and it takes time to learn how to manipulate the cursor in a way that simulates walking through the exhibition, which does not compare to the moment a viewer is captivated by a work in person. These criticisms are minor, however. I viewed the exhibition on an iPhone and discovered it was more accessible on my smartphone than on my computer. It was easier to move between rooms, and it felt more realistic. The zooming-in capabilities and video functions were also easier to use. These are all great accomplishments in terms of broadening outreach: viewers can experience the exhibition and its themes from anywhere.
The collision of a global pandemic and calls to end racial injustice makes the need for better online exhibitions especially urgent. When people are craving contact while grappling with social distancing, art museums have helped satisfy that need. But art historians are also well aware that museums have not always been welcoming or accessible places, particularly to Black communities. Although viewing art on a screen is not the same thing as the awe-inspiring moment of contemplation when the viewer can walk around a sculpture, analyze brushstrokes up close, or admire the ways in which light dances on an artwork, having the option and flexibility to attend a show on your own terms is the next best thing. With the proper outreach and community engagement, online exhibitions have real potential to bring conversations about art to new audiences.
Childs could not have known how prescient and necessary this exhibition would be for the Phillips Collection; despite the pandemic’s closing of cultural institutions to the public, the show’s timing could not have been better. The exhibition catalog includes several discussions about museum founder Duncan Phillips’s vision of creating and displaying a collection of modern art that was accessible to the DC community. This vision transcended racial lines in one of the nation’s most segregated cities, and the collection often lent paintings to the Central Library (now known as the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library) downtown. For the first time in recent memory, there is a global reckoning with anti-Black racism across all institutions and sectors. And more specifically, museums have been forced to acknowledge their role in suppressing Black narratives in art history. As Childs notes in several places in the catalog, racial violence and trauma are consistent themes in African American art, so it should not have been a surprise when Black artists, art historians, and museum professionals demanded justice and equality from cultural institutions in response to the brutal police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and other examples of systemic racism. To its credit, the Phillips Collection is examining how it can increase its antiracist efforts as part of the museum’s mission, and it recently received a large monetary gift to support new diversity initiatives. Riffs and Relations both enriches and broadens this discussion in ways that Phillips surely would have welcomed and encouraged. As he stated himself, art inspires conversations for “people whose minds cannot meet in other ways” (121).
LaNitra M. Berger
Senior Director, Office of Fellowships, Office of Undergraduate Education, Affiliate Faculty, African and African American Studies Program, George Mason University