by Radiah Harper
Dedicated to Peter Alan Harper, who showed up when I was writing.
In 1979, my art history professor told me, “There are no great black artists”. I remember thinking, “What? Are you kidding me?” I was confused. I knew about Tanner (who painted in 1893!), Bannister, Bearden, Catlett, Lawrence, Savage, Mailou-Jones, The Harlem Renaissance. Didn’t he know about them? How could he teach an art history survey class without a full scope of knowledge on visual culture including that made by great Black artists? I dropped his class.
Last September, I spent seven days having my mind blown by the works of Black artists. The works I saw were showing in museums and galleries and public spaces in New York City. They were culturally conscious and powerful. I had Googled “Black Artists on View in NYC” before my trip and was surprised to see at least 10 names in solo or group shows in mainstream spaces. This was especially sweet considering historically only one or two Black artists may get included in any major exhibition.
Since my college days, art history professors and museums have continued to perpetuate the myth that the work of Black artists is not equal to the work of white artists. Their teaching syllabi and exhibition choices told me that. Interestingly, in January 2020, Yale University, highly regarded for producing artists and art historians, announced it is eliminating its art history survey course to reconsider how to tell a fuller, inclusive story of Western and Global art. (Give the students at the University credit for the changes.)
Over 7 days, I saw the artwork of Amy Sherald, (official portrait painter of First Lady Michelle Obama), Ed Clark, Lubaina Himid, Danny Simmons, and Diedrick Brackens—all award-winning artists who use paint and textiles to tell their stories.
Away from the galleries and museums and out on to the streets I saw Simone Leigh’s monumental head of a Black woman peering over 10th Ave from the elevated overpass of the High Line urban park. I couldn’t believe it.
I went over to The Metropolitan Museum of Art on 5th Ave and I saw Wangechi Mutu’s four monumental Afrofuturistic female beings installed outside the building. I was stunned.
Then, over at Times Square, in the middle of the pedestrian intersection, I saw Kehinde Wiley’s monumental 20-foot-tall sculpture of a young black male rider with dreadlocks on a stallion. My mouth fell open.
What was happening in NYC? The public recognition of art’s greatness was blowing my mind. In particular, these sculptures of Leigh, Mutu, and Wiley, so large and prominently placed in public spaces, were changing the debate on what should be memorialized in public art throughout a city: Imaginative Black Identities. Seeing those works reminded me of when television was young and folks would yell, “Black People on TV!” and the family would come running through the house to see people who looked like them on the screen. Last Fall, I hoped every NYC school kid was coming to see artists Simone Leigh, Wangechi Mutu, and Kehinde Wiley.
Already successful at ceramics, painting, collage, video, and performance, these three artists have added monumental sculpture to their resumes. Their objects are public art. Art made for outdoor public spaces that are accessible and free for all to see—walking or riding by.
These three installations talk about race, identity, Black womanhood, the Black male, history and power. The works are provocative, soulful, purposeful, and dynamic. And not only is their choice of Afrocentric subject matter not hidden behind walls, it is grand in scale and installed in spaces usually associated with white people.
It is also significant that these works were installed in Manhattan—downtown on Tenth Avenue at the High Line park, uptown on the East Side at the Met, and midtown at Times Square. Not in Harlem.
Simone Leigh’s, Brick House, a 16-foot-tall bronze sculpture of a Black female figure, sits on top of the High Line like a beacon. She peers down 10th Avenue at 30th Street as cars drive towards her—a figure of self-determination with cornrow and cowrie shell hair. Even from a distance I could see her form referencing West African architecture and Southern Black pottery. The Black female “state of being” as Simone calls her, presides over lower Manhattan. The sculpture had caused a stir for neighborhood folk in offices who saw it installed by crane and for tourists on the street. “Art should provoke,” I thought upon viewing it. Due to increased attendance at the High Line, the installation has been extended.
Wangechi Mutu’s four Afrofuturistic female figures are nine feet tall each and installed in the niches of the front façade of the Metropolitan Museum. Seeing them I thought, “Since when does The Met commission a contemporary Black artist to make public art for its front door?” The work, called The NewOnes, will free Us, reaches toward the future and into the past to depict strong Black female figures whose forms are influenced by ancient West African ritual stools and Greek architectural columns created to symbolize women holding up men of power.
Wangechi’s figures are majestic, rooted, supernatural beings of authority and power who hold themselves up, the world of the Museum, and all who gaze upon the reflecting disks on the Beings’ heads. Timeless. The installation’s stay has also been extended because of public interest.
With his Times Square statue, established painter Kehinde Wiley, perhaps best known for his official portrait of President Barack Obama, succeeded at making a monument to Black male personhood spurred on by an internal dialogue, “enough already with being left out of history”. Rumors of War is a twenty-seven feet high and sixteen feet wide bronze sculpture of a brother with hoodie, dreadlocks, and jeans on horseback. It is a repositioning of young Black men made specifically in response to the Confederate monuments in the South. It was installed on Broadway Plaza in Times Square, the busiest international crossroad in Manhattan and at the unveiling of the monument, Kehinde told the audience, “I too am American”. The object looks on as if to say, “I belong here, too”. In December, Rumors of War was moved to Richmond, Virginia, the former capital of the Confederacy, where it was permanently installed at the entrance of the Virginia Museum of Fine Art.
Two weeks after seeing all this great artwork, New York Times Art Critic Roberta Smith wrote of the Fall exhibition season, “It has become undeniable that African American artists are making much of the best American art today and their ranks are growing.”
Seeing the humanity in Simone, Wangechi and Kehinde’s art in the uptown, downtown, and midtown locations also conjured up for me the history of slavery in New York.
As a New Yorker, I saw my African ancestors in the 17th and 18th century who were bought and sold on Wall Street the economic capital of this country then and now. I saw my African ancestors who were hung and burned to death in downtown Manhattan. I saw my enslaved Ancestors who were worked to death building roads like Broadway or frozen to death in a cold NY winter. The confluence of energy between the contemporary artists production I was viewing, and the knowledge of ancestral Black bodies being expunged from earth, in the same location, had me spinning as I thought about it.
Our ancestors who came here through the Transatlantic Slave Trade may not have imagined even in their wildest dreams the New York City of today, with monumental public tributes to African identities empowering the same streets they walked.
In my minds’ eye, these sculptures populated a centuries old map of Manhattan and the ancestors’ presence and legacy was written all over it. The visceral experience of seeing the contemporary art objects contrasted against history made me wonder how other people in the city were experiencing them. What opportunities for growth did the objects provide them? What resonates?
Black people survived slavery and so could endure exclusion from the art world. But the art world has shifted, and these outdoor works included me in that world and connected me to the city where they were positioned. Hopefully, no more students will hear from art historians there is no great black art making a difference in the lives of people.
Now, after this viewing experience, I’d like to see more cities across the country learn works of art are useful for many things including reflecting all of its citizens and act on commissioning monumental representational sculpture made by Black artists and artists of color. Installing them in highly trafficked areas may signal one way cities are committed to inclusion and acceptance of its citizens.
In 2050, I want sociologists to study the visual culture of 2020 and say, look at that moment in history: Black artists helped society change its’ opinions, instill new values, and translate experiences across time and space. Artists open the doors to dialogue and communication beyond boundaries. Let’s celebrate artists’ imagination and let them in. Let them in.
Footnote: For the time being, if you live in any of these NYC neighborhoods or Richmond, VA, and current health guidelines allow you to get out and walk, please see these objects to affirm what’s possible. If you cannot witness this work in-person, know they are there, standing watch, claiming space. – RH
© Radiah Harper February 2020
Radiah Harper is an artist and museum educator with an extensive practice creating transformational experiences at the intersection of visual art, critical thinking, and social change. She is an arts consultant and strategist, as well as former Executive Director and Curator, Museum for African American Art, Tampa, Florida, and Vice Director for Education and Program Development, Brooklyn Museum. You can reach Radiah at firstname.lastname@example.org.