October 12, 2006 - Zachęta National Gallery of Art - black alphabet – conTEXTS of contemporary african-american art
October 12, 2006

black alphabet – conTEXTS of contemporary african-american art

Xaviera Simmons djing at front of her installation Selective Memory (How to Break Your Own Heart II) created at Zacheta and Shaun EL C. Leonardo in performance El Conquistador Vs. The Invisible Man, 2006, Zacheta National Gallery of Art, Warsaw, photo: Joanna Kinowska.

black alphabet
conTEXTS of contemporary african-american art

September 22-November 19, 2006

Curator Maria Brewinska

Zacheta National Gallery of Art
Pl. Malachowskiego 3
00-916 Warsaw, Poland
tel. ( 48 22) 827 58 54
Tuesdays – Sundays 12 noon – 8pm

We have just opened this great and successful exhibition accompanied by a series of enthusiastically received events created by a group of talented artists. You still have time to share in the experience
black alphabet is the first presentation in Europe of a group exhibition from the USA focused on African American art, a highly significant component of American culture that at best is known only selectively, and at worst is absolutely unknown, on the `old continent` The idea of the show came after the recognition of several important and powerful exhibitions of African American art organized over the past two decades. These resulted in the discovery and promotion of an art which today constitutes one of the most vital fields in American culture, but one that is still, however, known within the American context only. One should probably agree with bell hooks who perceives American multiculturalism as the mechanism that elevated African American culture to the national forum, but at the same time reduced it to the narrow dimension of nationalism a cultural context developing within a single nation, rather than in the broader global context.

The title of the exhibition – black alphabet – should not be perceived literally or solely in linguistic terms. It is a metaphor conveying the ambiguity of the term black, which, while raising the race issue, here first and foremost refers to the cultural languages or texts formed by the identity of African Americans. The exhibitions title also contains the term context, alongside the interconnected text, meant as a tool for diagnosing the dominant trends of the selected field within American art. The last component contemporary African American art assumes that such an art exists, that it has constituted itself within the national field of American art as a sub-national text, that in certain historical and political conditions there has occurred the possibility and necessity of expressing ones separate identity within the national identity of America. That is why America speaks today with many texts at once.

The atrophied white aspect that Baudrillard discusses in his book America is not without significance if we confront it with the moment of African American arts entrance to the primary circulation of American art (leading museums, galleries and collections) in the late 1980s. The process was initiated by postmodern multiculturalism, as part of which Americas cultural languages suddenly multiplied and acknowledgment was granted, not only to the African American context, but also to those created by all the Others constituting todays America.

The presence of black art in public circulation (which does not mean a lack of continuity, only a change in status) undermined the cultural racial order of dominant white art. The new strategies brought into play by multiculturalism resulted in an opening towards all Others and, in effect, a challenging of the existing hierarchies in art, of linguistic economy and of representation. Thus, this art started speaking its own language determined by new contexts.

The exhibition that we are showing at Zacheta has an important socio-political dimension, not only because America is the worlds dominant geopolitical power and thus, today, an immensely important political fact, but chiefly because of its many cultural contexts. Of these multiple contexts, we have chosen to present perhaps the most problematic. The cultural, historical, and socio-political circumstances of this other language of America are in a way clear, but a question could be asked about the rationale of organizing an exhibition devoted uniquely to the black alphabet: is it really instituted by other letters constituting other texts; how to read this alphabet and its texts; and can it be identified within the multitextual mass of America? The concept of the alphabet makes it possible to perform a symbolic separation in the field that we simply call contemporary American art, the creative conglomerate of various cultures coexisting within a single nation, in order to extract from it the African American component: one long repressed and little known outside America, one now recognized as a whole, and to a lesser extent one also gaining recognition through its parts that themselves proliferate new alphabets, languages, texts, etc.

The context of African American art is presented for the first time outside the United States, and, what is more, in Poland. This caused an understandable anxiety given that we are undertaking this challenge from the perspective of a homogenous, non-differentiated country that knows neither racial difference nor racial discourse to the degree manifested in the US. A need, however, exists to present an alternative to the homogeneity and domination of so-called universal values that are only seemingly good for everyone. In todays differentiated world such notions seem to have become meaningless and instead act as a symbol for forcing the values of one culture or race onto others. The domination of a single context can, therefore, be a symptom of oppression. That is why we have made this exhibition.

The black alphabet exhibition presents the leading contexts and, through them, the comprehensive nature of African American art, an art which consists of many heterogeneous voices and attitudes, and encompasses various concepts and subjects of artistic, social and political significance, alongside the interconnected issues of language, words, texts, and collective and individual memory. Among the multitude of issues explored by the artists are, for instance, painful reminiscences from the past, connected with slavery, racism and racial perception, as well as identity issues perceived in relation to race problems. Other contexts are connected with the dynamic development of popular culture, including hip hop, but also the whole African American musical tradition. The exhibition will also show works that introduce new contexts, such as africanism (a symbolic return to the motherland), new figuration, the perception of the body and race in the media and sports, queer issues, or the question of the violence in Americas black communities which has emerged as a result of the inhuman way they have been treated in the past.
The exhibition presents 84 works by the following artists:
Laylah Ali, Edgar Arceneaux, John Bankston, Sanford Biggers, Mark Bradford, Michael Paul Britto, Nick Cave, Zoe Charlton, Leonardo Drew, Ellen Gallagher, Trenton Doyle Hancock, David Hammons, Leslie Hewitt, Shaun El C. Leonardo, Glenn Ligon, Kalup Linzy, Wardell Milan, Rodney McMillian, Lester Julian Merriweather, Kori Newkirk, Demetrius Oliver, Kambui Olujimi, Jefferson Pinder, Robert Pruitt, Lorna Simpson, Xaviera Simmons, Susan Smith-Pinelo, Jeff Sonhouse, Kara Walker, Carrie Mae Weems, Fred Wilson, Kehinde Wiley, Paula Wilson, Hank Willis Thomas, Jennifer Zackin
Perfomances created during the opening on Friday 22nd September:
1. Djing by Xaviera Simmons at front of her exceptional installation made of hundreds of record covers.
2. Incredible performance by Shaun EL C. Leonardo, El Conquistador Vs. The Invisible Man.
3. Performance by a Polish break-dance group BreakoHolix.
Events on Saturday 23rd September:
1. At noon, a distinctive panel discussion How to Read the Black Alphabet, moderated by Benjamin Cope, with participation of Sanford Biggers, Michael Paul Britto, Leonardo Drew, Trenton Doyle Hancock, Shaun El C. Leonardo, Kalup Linzy, Rodney McMillian, Lester Julian Merriweather, Jefferson Pinder, Xaviera Simmons, Hank Willis Thomas, Paula Wilson and Valerie Cassel Oliver. The panel was enriched by an unexpected Kalup Linzy performance who sweetly singed Happy Birthday to Lester Julian Merriweather!

2. At 8 p.m. enthusiastic concert by Sanford Biggers, Martin Luther and Jahi Sundance.
For more information please contact:
Press spokesman: Klaudia Madejska /rzecznik@zacheta.art.pl/, 48-22-827 58 54 ext. 155,cell: 48-603 510 112

Curator: Maria Brewinska /m.brewinska@zacheta.art.pl/, 48-22-827 58 54 ext. 104, cell: 48-601 376 338

Special thanks to sponsors for generous support as well as to all artists directly involved in the project, and to galleries and institutions which made the works available for this show.

Honorary Patron of the Exhibition: Ambassador of the United States of America in Warsaw, His Excellency Victor Ashe

Exhibition supported by the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage

Sponsors of the exhibition:
Trust for Mutual Understanding, American Embassy in Warsaw, CEC ArtsLink, Deutsche Bank Foundation and Deutsche Bank Poland, Kosciuszko Foundation, DHL, music salons Rock n Roll and Musictoolz in Warsaw

Official Carrier: PLL LOT
Sponsors of the gallery: Lidex, Netia, Epson
Sponsors of the opening: Blikle, Freixenet
Media Patronage: Gazeta Wyborcza, Polskie Radio, Polityka, TVP, The Warsaw Voice, Onet.pl, EMPiK

Zachęta National Gallery of Art
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