For black artists, the motivating power of melancholy

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ANNANDALE-ON-HUDSON, NY — A racist attack on black Americans, with the spectacle of real-time pain it carries, tends to make the news. But the depression that racism itself generates – the fear, anger and despair that create a zone of depression in the soul – goes virtually unreported. It is this chronic disease that forms the basic theme of “Black Melancholia”, a moving group exhibition which opens on Saturday at the Hessel Museum of Art at Bard College here.

At least one other recent exhibition has touched on this topic, “Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America,” curated by curator Okwui Enwezor (1963-2019) and produced by the New Museum in Manhattan last year. This show was a high-impact affair with large A-list items from star-studded collections spread over multiple floors. The collection of works by 28 artists from Hessel is much more modest and largely of local origin. (With few exceptions, most artwork comes from museum collections.)

The Hessel exhibit is also more thematically and historically grounded, no doubt in part because it grew out of an academic research seminar led by its curator, Nana Adusei-Poku, associate professor at Bard’s Center for Curatorial Studies. In an exhibition brochure, she offers a capsule account of “melancholy” as a concept and a condition.

Formerly, its presence was used as a quasi-scientific explanation for a morose temper, a personality type that would be pathologized by Freud. But for centuries, in Europe, melancholy had a positive, even glamorous value. It was considered the defining trait of creative “genius”, the definition of “genius” itself being applicable only to white males.

The exhibition sets out to retrace a modern reappropriation of melancholy by black artists. And in the pamphlet, Adusei-Poku cites the artwork that inspired his initial interest in the idea: a sculpture titled “Realization” made circa 1938 by African-American artist Augusta Savage.

The sculpture represents two figures. A black woman is seated, bare-breasted, hands on her knees, head tilted pensively downward; a black man, half naked, squats at her feet and leans against her as if to warm himself or protect himself. His gaze, too, is lowered. There are no signs of violence or coercion, but they both look stunned, as if they have just learned something disturbing and saddening. What? That slavery is over, but never over? That they have freedom, but are not welcome anywhere?

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Or, since we make up stories, are they lost in worrying about what their fate in art history might be? The “realization” is a “lost” work, unfindable; in the exhibition you only see it in old photographs. Does it still exist, or where, we don’t know. This is true for much of Savage’s production. After some professional success – his sculpture ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ (also known as ‘The Harp’) was a hit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair – his career stalled; money and support evaporated. Disillusioned with the white-controlled art world, she retreated to the farming town of Saugerties, NY, (about 15 miles from Bard) and fell there into obscurity, in a trajectory that indeed sparks thoughts. melancholy.

Adusei-Poku considers this emotion central to the black American experience and identifies it in the work of some of Savage’s young black contemporaries: in the arched marble figure titled “Sadness” by Selma Burke (1900-1995); in a living painting of a reclining figure by Detroit-based Charles McGee (1924-2021); and in a beautiful semi-abstract painting, “Grievin’ Hearted”, by Rose Piper (1917-2005) who, after a brilliant start in the 1940s, had to give up art to care for her handicapped spouse and their child. (She supported the family by working for a greeting card company.)

(It should be noted, by the way, that these three works are on loan from museums associated with historically black colleges and universities – Spelman College, Howard University and Clark Atlanta University – museums that were, until fairly recently, the only academic institutions to regularly collect black art.)

Biographical information on all of these artists appears, along with art-historical commentary, in the exhibition’s unusually interesting object labels, as if to remind us that art can be as much a personal expression – of melancholy, among others – than a formal declaration. As if to clarify this point, the text accompanying Roy DeCarava’s beautiful 1953 photograph “Hallway” incorporates words from the artist himself.

Compositionally, this shot of a cramped, dimly lit home space is stunning. And for him, it was also an emotionally complicated flashback to a lived past. It was “all the hallways I grew up in… hallways that had something to do with the economics of building for the poor. It just brought back all those things that I had experienced as a kid in all those hallways.

DeCarava’s images introduce sections of the show in which the definition of “black melancholy” extends in several directions, all encompassing various modes of subjectivity, interiority.

One is the emotion of longing, or some version of it. It’s tender in Ain Bailey’s 2022 video meditation, commissioned for the show, over her parents’ wedding photos, in minute detail – the lace of a dress, the smile of a bridesmaid. honor – who linger and return, as if physically touched.

Reverence radiates from Alberta Whittle’s textile suspension, floating high, made from clothes – European, African – belonging to her cosmopolitan Barbadian grandfather. And in a 2001 documentary music video, New York conceptualist Pope. L, who once advertised himself, sardonically, as “America’s friendliest black entertainer,” embarks, in Superman drag, on a 22-mile belly-crawl to Broadway from Wall Street to his birthplace in the Bronx.

This exhausting and abject Pilgrim’s Progress of a five-year performance has much, symbolically, to say about the motivating power of melancholic spleen and the creative genius of black endurance to navigate the Great White Way.

“THEY: The Meeting” (2021) by Kenyatta AC Hinkle, with its image of three black women – Three Graces – posing in a lush painted paradise garden, seems to offer a contrasting utopian view of nature. But something is wrong: the numbers were cut and pasted from a colonial-era postcard designed to sell a version of what Europe wanted and needed Africa to be.

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The show contains a good amount of figurative painting – Valerie Maynard, Arcmanoro Niles and Danielle McKinney add other solid examples – though it stays pleasantly aloof from the portrait that is currently the auction house’s clickbait. And some of the most absorbing contributions are abstract.

An installation by Charisse Pearlina Weston is remarkable. Titled, all in lower case, “du. (immaterial. black salt. translucency)” and produced for the exhibition, it is an elaborate and ground-level set of photographs, printed texts and glass elements (molded parts and cut-out, textured and smooth, whole, and broken, some recycled from earlier installations), stacked and layered on and on rough wooden benches made by the artist’s father.

The individual components are rich: the photographic images suggest extraterrestrial forms; the texts are samples of Weston’s intensely mournful poetry, the pews and glass evoke modernist architecture. But nothing is simple. The layouts alternate between impressions of transparency and obstruction, of neatness and disorder. Weston, who will do a residency at Bard this fall, spoke of references in previous installations similar to architecture as entrapment; to transparency as an instrument of surveillance, to fragmented glass as a symbol of maintaining order, to “broken windows”.

In short, the references to both melancholy and darkness are there, but kept oblique. In this way, his work aligns with recent and influential forms of critical writing on black art by figures like cultural theorist Fred Moten and curator Legacy Russell, who use simple, unacademic language in complex ways. that slows easy entry, thwarts quick reads, and resists conclusions about what, if anything, blackness in particular might be. The show takes a similar approach to its theme, hinting at the possibility that an under-examined area of ​​low pressure could be a source of cloud-clearing storms that expose a calmer, ongoing sense of loss.


black melancholy

June 25-Oct. 16, CCS Bard Galleries at the Hessel Museum of Art, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY, 845-758-7598, ccs.bard.edu.

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