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Exhibiting Blackness: Investigating the representation of African American culture in mainstream art museums

In her book Exhibiting Blackness, Bridget R. Cooks, associate professor in the School of Humanities at UC Irvine, analyzes the curatorial strategies, challenges, and public and critical receptions of the most significant exhibitions of African American art and culture in American art museums. The book unfolds into five in-depth chapters that offer an insight into racial and cultural differences that that continue to challenge art history, historiography, and American museum exhibition practices.

Cooks discusses her book, racial intricacies, and the complex roles of American museums in representation of Black artists and their work in a conversation with Her Circle’s Anuja Seith.

Anuja Seith: What was the inspiration behind writing Exhibiting Blackness?

Bridget R. Cooks: I was inspired to write Exhibiting Blackness by my training in art history, visual studies, and my years working as a museum professional. I wanted to address many of the current issues about the perception of art by Black artists through a historical lens. Since the early twentieth century, most mainstream art museum curators have not been able to consider that art by a Black artist could be exhibited with art by artists who are not Black, even though they work in the same style, or address the same visual problem.

Historically, exhibitions of Black artists’ work have been exhibited in group exhibitions with other Black artists, rather than in solo exhibitions. Because of this, their work has had more of a political function of the museum as proof of a degrading notion of primitivism and as evidence that the museum is a racial democracy.

Less commonly found is the museum presentation of art by a single Black artist within a space dedicated to deeper exploration of the artist’s work. Black artists still show their work in segregated shows in these museums, and further, because of racism inside and outside of the art world, the artists’ works are interpreted through a narrow definition of what it means to be Black so that the works of art have little signification for most viewers, and are instead made to fit into a preconceived notion of what Black is that denies the full humanity of the artist.

AS: The book examines exhibits over a couple of decades beginning from 1930s. How did you collect the material for the book?

BRC: The first in-depth analysis of an exhibition that I discuss took place nearly eight decades ago. My research required that I travel to museums, archives, libraries, and historical societies across the country. I also needed to interview artists and curators to gather the material I analyze in the book.

Beginning with exhibitions of African American art in the 1930s, each chapter illuminates critical episodes in the relationships between African American artists, art museum exhibitions, curators, visitors, and critics. The following five chapters explore exhibitions that are significant because of their ambitious and strategic approaches to representing African American art and culture.

These exhibitions have not been the only exhibitions of African American art and culture in mainstream American art museums; however, they were chosen for either their particular complicity with or challenges to limiting frameworks for exhibiting work by African American artists. As case studies, these exhibitions demonstrate what is at stake in narrow definitions of Black ability that not only pervade the art world, but also encompass the world around it through social norms of American life.

AS: While examining curatorial strategies, and challenges of the most significant exhibitions of African American art and culture, what were some of the poignant issues and complexities that you came across within the artistic community, museums, critics and public at large?

BRC: One of the underlying problems for African American artists is that historically curators and critics, who were always White, would not accept the fact that Black people could be artists. The notion of Blackness and beauty was seen as a paradox. Due to this problem of interpretation, mainstream museums would exhibit the work of Black artists because it fulfilled a goal that was related to race such as demonstrating primitive aesthetics in American art, showing evidence that the art world is a democratic and diverse place, or considering Black artists as a curiosity, instead of as a diverse and contributing part of the art world.

AS: On a broader level, do you think that art museums became crucial locations for African Americans to protest against unequal artistic practices and exclusion of their contributions to the visual arts?

BRC: Yes, absolutely. As major reliquaries of history and institutions that influence taste and aesthetic value, mainstream museums have been an important place for African Americans to contest their exclusion and misrepresentation.

AS: The introduction of Exhibiting Blackness gives a peek into two of the guiding methodologies—the anthropological approach and corrective narrative. Can you elaborate more on these approaches, and also explain the significance of these methodologies in representing African American art in mainstream American Museum?

BRC: The anthropological approach reflects an institutional curiosity concerning the presence of racial otherness, commonly coupled with a desire to perpetuate the superiority of mainstream White culture through its contrast to a Black difference defined as inherently inferior.

The latter was formed out of the necessity to present the art of African Americans, and correct its historical absence and misrepresentation in mainstream art museums. Within these exhibitions are key tensions that pull in constant negotiation with each other: the desire for group exhibitions of art to serve as catalysts for social change; the compulsion to place Black artists within a framework of discovery and primitivism; and the assertion of the historical and contemporary legitimacy of Black artists in America.

AS: In the book you have looked extensively at the exhibition The Negro in Art Week and Harlem on My Mind: Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900–1968. From an historical perspective, what was the significance of this exhibition and did it have any special bearing on representation of African American art?

BRC: The Negro in Art Week exhibition was significant because it was the first time a mainstream museum attempted to incorporate Black artists into their exhibition programming. Robert B. Harshe, the director of the Chicago Art Institute, was afraid that the work would show signs that the artists were Black, and tried to waylay his fears by requiring all of the artists to work in outmoded European aesthetics. He also had the exhibition installed in the children’s gallery, probably to make sure that visitors saw it as separate from the work by White artists normally exhibited. His decision of locating it there also speaks to his low expectations for Black artistic talent.

The exhibition Harlem on My Mind: Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900–1968 (1969) was pivotal because of how Black artists responded to the profound disrespect with which the Met treated Black artists. The activist response to the exhibition made clear that Black artists and cultural workers would have to be considered in the planning of an exhibition about Black people. It also clarified that art would have to be included in an art museum exhibition about Harlem, a place that has had a thriving and influential community since at least the 1920s.

AS: Over the years how has the representation of African American art changed in American museums? Do think that some of the historical complexities and inequality continue to challenge theart history, historiography, and American museum exhibition practices?

BRC: The representation of art by African Americans in mainstream museums has not changed much. Curators and critics are still challenged by the same issues of race and cultural history that they were eight decades ago.

Bridget R. Cooks is the Associate Professor of Art History and African American Studies at the University of California, Irvine. She is the author of Exhibiting Blackness, available at Amazon.com.

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Anuja Seith
Anuja Seith reported for the exchange4media group in New Delhi, where she interviewed government officials as well as national and international media, marketing and advertising personalities. Seith also worked as a reporter for local publications—Tri-City Voice, the Santa Clara Weekly, and was a freelance journalist for New America Media in San Francisco. She is currently working as front page editor for DailySource.org, a non-profit news website. Seith received a Master of Science in Mass Communications from San Jose State University.
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