This spring a ground-breaking exhibition appeared at the Berkeley Art Museum (BAMPFA). Titled, About Things Loved: Blackness and Belonging, the exhibition challenges standard curatorial processes when exhibiting work by Black artists and points to a new role that university art museums should adopt in the coming years. Working with the constraints of limited space and resources, two Berkeley professors, Lauren Kroiz and Leigh Raiford and their graduate students began with the challenge: what if the museum could be viewed “as a space of care” rather than as an institutional setting that typically excludes and marginalizes Black art or relegates it to temporary exhibitions designed to “correct” the historical failure of the Black survey exhibition. As Lauren Kroiz and Leigh Raiford succinctly put it at the exhibition’s introductory panel:
BerkeleyBerkeley Art Museum And Pacific Film Archives (Bampfa)
About Things Loved: Blackness and Belonging
May 17 – July 21, 2019
Black culture and museum institutions have often had a negative relationship. Historically, this has included the theft of cultural objects, the appropriation of styles and the devaluation of skilled practices, as well as the marginalization and exclusion of Black artists from exhibitions and collections…. Recognizing this, About Things Loved centers a disarray of Black art in the hope of addressing these questions: “To whom does blackness belong? Where does blackness belong? How can blackness belong within the museum?
To respond to such urgent questions, Professors Kroiz and Raiford selected 15 graduate students to participate in their interdisciplinary UC Berkeley graduate seminar titled “Diaspora, Migration, and Exile.” Over the course of the semester, both teachers and students collaborated on and conducted hands-on research at two campus museum institutions, the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) and the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology. In addition, the professors and students organized a symposium around the topic of the exhibition featuring artists, scholars and curators, and created a student organized exhibition catalogue titled Cal Conversations: On About Things Loved: Blackness and Belonging. For Delphine Sims, a History of Art Ph.D. candidate, all these activities contributed to what in the end was a collaborative process. “We made decisions together, which meant a lot of conversation,” she said. “We all had a voice. We learned from each others’ disciplines. We wanted it to not be a Black art survey show.”
In this exhibition professors and students juxtapose objects from the two collections to displace the authority of the art museum as frame and presenter of aesthetics. Here the “anthropological” objects are displayed next to modern/contemporary art work by Black diasporic artists to make us think about how these objects are connected to the artists who are the descendants of the communities they belonged to before they were acquired by collectors and put into the museum. This curatorial strategy undoes the long colonialist legacy created by modern art exhibits that created a racial hierarchy through exhibitions in which only white Western artists could be deemed modern. One of the landmark exhibits “Primitivism in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern” of this type was in 1984 when modern art curators at New York’s MoMA juxtaposed casually tribal and modern art work to create “affinities” between the “primitive” sculptures in terms of the Western context in which white modern artists “discovered” them. The signage for each piece assigned artistic authorship only to the Western—modern—objects.
Organized into five different sections, About Things Loved chooses instead to begin with a historical section titled “Roots and Routes: Blackness as Belonging.” As Lauren Kroiz and Leigh Raiford write in one of the first panels:
The transatlantic slave trade initiated the diaspora: the wrenching of Africans from their homes, the exchange of people as commodities…Centuries after the first Africans were shipped to the United States, artists such as Carrie Mae Weems, Lorna Simpson and Fred Wilson theorized diasporic relationships with the African past, present and future.
By putting modern/contemporary artwork from BAMPFA in conversation with visual culture and artifacts from the Hearst Museum of Anthropology, the professors and students set up unexpected juxtapositions that bring together the temporal weavings of ancestral traditions into present day artwork. Lorna Simpson’s photographic work Counting from 1991 contrasts the aesthetics of the forced labor of Black people who worked around the clock as bricklayers that built many of the cities in the American South with a different more intimate form of weaving that enables communities to care for the health and vitality of their own community. To underscore the connection, a sensuous coil of braided hair from the back of a woman’s head in Simpson’s Counting is paired with the woven form of an actual Gullah “fanner” basket from the Hearst Museum that it resembles. The “fanner” basket itself is from the Sea Islands of the southeastern United States, a site of emergence for African American culture and African folklore. Similarly, a beautiful Gullah walking cane from the same region attributed to William Roberts (1865-1952) from the Hearst Museum is reframed as occupying social, political and spiritual worlds as a work of African-American folk art not just as museum property.
In one of the most original sections of the exhibition, titled “On Collecting and Belonging,” card catalogues from the Hearst Museum’s archives are installed in the gallery space to demonstrate how museum registrars and curators historically constructed new identities for objects and artifacts. On display is a card catalogue that lists a sample of “a lock of hair of a Mulatto” collected by the Hearst Museum from 1916 that reveals how in the act of cataloguing human hair the museum created essentialist racial narratives within the museum itself. There are other cards that provide different kinds of information tracking the movement of artworks around storage and exhibition spaces. Significantly they found that Betty Saar’s Liberation of Aunt Jemima (1972), a well-known work in BAMPFA’s collection—one of the most frequently lent and reproduced artworks in the collection—was not included in order to highlight how certain iconic objects overshadow other works and prevent a wider understanding of the diversity of black art. On the other hand, a point was made to exhibit such a work as Hervé Télémaque’s painting, Othello #1, from 1960 in a section titled Abstraction (with the work of Raymond Saunders and Peter Bradley) because it was one of the few abstract paintings that has not been exhibited at all at BAMPFA even though it was purchased by the museum in the 1960s. His work is currently experiencing a resurgence—it was recently acquired and exhibited by MoMA in New York this summer —within the context of Black abstraction in art and activism (see: here). The artist is originally from Haiti and is a Black diasporic artist currently living in France who does political abstract painting. In this case his local imagery of fish and snakes from local indigenous Haitian culture clearly points to the way Black Diasporic artists contributed to European modernist traditions and contributed significantly to the discourse of internationalism and multiculturalism in the 1960s.
The location cards in this section also provided clues to a forgotten history at BAMPFA. One card reads that in 1983 BAMPFA mounted an exhibition entitled Black Art. Yet, no other records of the exhibition remain within the museum’s archive. The professors and students also found that in 1972 when the late Peter Seltz was director of BAMPFA he was able to purchase African American art for the museum with money from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) through a “Committee for Afro-American Art” composed of Black artists living in Berkeley, including Raymond Saunders, whose abstract painting titled About Things Loved is used for the title of this exhibition. During that period at least ten works entered the collection through that committee, including four of the pieces in this exhibition by Charles White, Peter Bradley, Romare Bearden, and Margo Humphrey. This was also when the city of Berkeley commissioned the first African-American mural “Berkeley: The City and its People” by Romare Bearden in 1971 in which the NEA and the city government each provided half of Bearden’s $16,000 commission.1 Today it is hard to imagine such a robust and forward-thinking NEA as well as a city government working so close with the community and spending so lavishly on black public art.
Another artist in the show who has not yet been exhibited at BAMPFA is Mildred Howard, a well-known local African-American artist. Her work entered the collection as a gift from the artist but at a moment in 2015 when she herself was being evicted from her Berkeley studio and no longer had storage for large artwork. Howard’s Safe House addresses the violence of such evictions, which are all too common these days in the Bay Area and other metropolitan centers. The piece is a house-like structure made out of dinner knives, whose floor is covered with once precious silver now cast off and tarnished. Dozens of sharp knives are embedded in a corner wall, as if flung from inside the house to communicate the brutality and terror that can be visited on black bodies both inside as well as outside the home. At a time when gentrification has an impact not only on the lack of affordable studio space but also on the precipitous decline of the black population, this is an especially difficult moment to make art and care for one’s community. Safe House is a house that no longer can contain or take care of either its contents or its occupants. Howard asks: “What happens to a community when all the color leaves?” This remains a pressing question also raised in the recent film by Joe Talbot, The Last Black Man in San Francisco.
Pascale Boucicaut, one of the graduate students who participated in curating the exhibition, writes “We were fortunate to have access to pieces by local Bay Area artists, such as Mildred Howard’s Safe House and Raymond Saunders’s About Things Loved, which reminded us that the museum itself belongs to the city community where it resides.” For both her and the other curators, About Things Loved is an overdue and urgent reminder of the way African diasporic artists need to be seen more frequently within museums. “We—and the museum field—must do more to disrupt a historical legacy that has minimized the contributions of Black artists in museum spaces for far too long,” says BAMPFA Director and Chief Curator Lawrence Rinder. As we have seen in this exhibition, university art museums as public institutions are better positioned than mainstream museums to integrate the negative parts of their own history and create a reparative approach. In this current moment, it is urgent that BAMPFA and the university museum sector as a whole seize this new role and devote their modest resources to what they do best: promoting public education.
- For more on the Romare Bearden’s mural Berkeley: The City and Its People that was commissioned by the city of Berkeley in 1971, see Lauren Kroiz, “Relocating Romare Bearden’s Berkeley: Capturing Berkeley’s colorful diversity,” in Boom: The Journal of California, Vol. 6, Number 3, pp 50-57.