Abstraction in the Black Diaspora
On ViewFalse Flag
October 24 – December 13, 2020
The last five years have seen a spate of critical texts and exhibitions that theorize Black abstraction, attempting to animate, through the lens of historic and contemporary art, a field of production that has been understood since the 1950s as powerfully yoking artwork to artistic identity. This is an impulse that current scholars seek to overturn. Curated by Tariku Shiferaw and Ayanna Dozier, Abstraction in the Black Diaspora at False Flag partakes of this tendency with a curatorial polemic put forth by Dozier’s theory-heavy essay in the show’s catalogue. In her formulation, abstraction should prize form (which is open-ended) over narrative (which is circumscribed by identity), allowing audiences to invent meaning through embodied response.
Across False Flag’s two galleries, wall-based works by four artists highlight material texture using paint’s density, sgraffito, or the incorporation of human hair. In Ashanté Kindle’s The Crown (2020), a monumental painting in black acrylic and spackle on canvas, stacked sweeps of arcing brush marks span the canvas in shimmering coiled rows. Scabby passages of paint that traverse these rows suggest unruly hair or land masses seen aerially, troubling the cartographic legibility of both body and land. Adebunmi Gbadebo’s complexly layered but conceptually succinct works employ actual hair; the artist sources her materials with a cultural specificity that circumvents loaded Euro-American traditions associated with oil paint or bronze. In Blues People (2020), the afro-textured hair and indigo dye Gbadebo embeds in handmade rice paper heightens our affective response to the work. It provides a ground on which the artist reproduces snippets of archival history from two rice and indigo plantations in South Carolina where her ancestors were enslaved laborers, their corporeal labor now entirely obscured in the sites’ current manifestation as luxury golf courses.
In addition to his role as co-curator, Shiferaw contributes his own work to the show. He too centers Blackness by locating cultural production across the Black diaspora as the site from which his abstraction arises. In black and white paintings that refer either to Black music or flags of African nations, Shiferaw builds up surfaces in white paint that he then inscribes with circular motions, revealing—in Kenya (2020), for example—glimpses of red or green below. He thereby inverts the conventional interpretive protocol that positions white as a color of illumination and black as a color of obfuscation. In contrast, Alteronce Gumby offsets the exhibition’s overall chromatic restraint with shaped canvases like Seed of the Soul (2020). In amber, burgundy, cool violet, and black, the work is composed of gleaming shards of colored tempered glass pressurized to produce a glimmering craquelure. Most straightforwardly, it would seem to make us attentive to nuances in color difference. But in its evocation of galaxy-like bands of light, Seed of the Soul ricochets between the corporeal and the more-than-human, between the present moment and the use of gemstones in ancient practices.
The vein of abstraction showcased here has little need for its Euro-American counterpart, which for Dozier emerges as a bad object irredeemably shot through with anti-Blackness. In this, the thesis of Abstraction in the Black Diaspora departs from other recent critical readings of Black abstraction such as Darby English’s 2016 book, 1971: A Year in the Life of Color or Adrienne Edwards’s exhibition Blackness in Abstraction, staged at Pace the same year. Both of these projects are situated in relation to non-Black abstract practices. English, for example, identifies a mode of abstraction at mid-century that served as an alternative practice of dissent to Color Field painting by virtue of its insistence on a mode of sociality not grounded in racial difference, while for Edwards Blackness is a “material, method and mode, insist[ant] on [its] multiplicity,” one capacious and contingent enough to encompass art by Sol LeWitt and Louise Nevelson, among other white artists.1 While all three positions deny fixed identity, the artists of Abstraction in the Black Diaspora “reinvent reality from a position that refuses anti-Blackness [in Euro-American abstraction],” with artworks that are aware of but need not internalize or disavow its dominant narratives, since, for Dozier and Shiferaw, their simple act of refusal is itself already a critique.2 These works thus make meaning through a parallel but separate interpretative track that relies on sensory evocation, affect, and the mobilization of personal experience or shared history.
A signal feat of Abstraction in the Black Diaspora and other similar efforts that draw attention to formally adjacent but culturally distinct iterations of artistic practice is that they dislodge entrenched hermeneutic methods that are part and parcel of the dominant narratives themselves. Shiferaw, for instance, frames his mark-making as referring to the “thinker behind the gesture,” signaling possible resonance with, say, abstract expressionist discourses of the self.3 But Abstraction in the Black Diaspora insists on the impossibility of aligning the interpretative lenses of False Flag’s artists with comparable strategies vital to Euro-American abstraction. This is crucial, because it is a central effect of modernist frameworks that value priority to make the contributions of others, particularly those operating outside the Euro-American context, appear belated, and thus less worthy of attention. Taking such lessons both in their specificity and for their broader implications will be necessary if the artworld writ large is to succeed in restructuring itself through more inclusive museum interventions, rewritten curricula, and expanded gallery stables.