For black artists, the motivational power of melancholy

ANNANDALE-ON-HUDSON, NY — A racist attack on black Americans, with the spectacle of real-time pain it brings, tends to make headlines. But the depression that racism itself produces—the fear, anger, and despair that create a low-pressure area in the soul—is virtually unreported. It’s that chronic condition that forms the basic theme of “Black Melancholia,” a riveting group exhibition opening Saturday at the Hessel Museum of Art at Bard College here.

At least one other recent exhibition has approached this topic, “Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America”, conceived by the curator Okwui Enwezor (1963-2019) and realized last year by the New Museum in Manhattan. That show was a high-impact affair with large A-list objects from star collections spread over several floors. The collection of work by 28 artists in Hessel is much more modest in size and largely homegrown. (With a few notable exceptions, most of the art comes from the museum’s collections.)

The Hessel show is also more thematically focused and historically grounded, no doubt in part because it sprang from and was developed by an academic research seminar led by the curator, Nana Adusei-Poku, an associate professor at Bard’s Center for Curatorial Studies. In an exhibition brochure she offers a capsule account of ‘melancholy’ as a concept and condition.

His presence used to be used as a quasi-scientific explanation for a gloomy temperament, a personality type that would be pathologised by Freud. But for centuries melancholy in Europe had a positive value, even glamour. It was considered the defining quality of the creative “genius,” with the definition of “genius” itself applying only to white males.

The exhibition attempts to trace a modern repurposing of melancholy by black artists. And in the brochure, Adusei-Poku cites the work that inspired her initial interest in the idea: a sculpture entitled ‘Realization’, created around 1938 by African-American artist Augusta Savage.

The image represents two figures. A black woman sits bare-breasted, hands on her knees, head bent down thoughtfully; a black man, half naked, squats at her feet and leans against her as if for warmth or protection. His gaze is also lowered. There is no trace of violence or coercion, but they both look stunned, as if they have just learned something disturbing and distressing. What? That slavery is over, but never finished? That they have freedom, but are not welcome anywhere?

Or, as we invent stories, are they lost in worry about what their art-historical fate might be? “Realization” is a “lost” work, untraceable; in the show we only see it in old photos. We don’t know if it still exists or where. This is true for much of Savage’s output. After some professional successes — her sculpture “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (aka “The Harp”) was a hit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair — her career stalled; money and aid evaporated. Disillusioned with the white-controlled art world, she withdrew to the farming town of Saugerties, NY, (about 25 miles from Bard) and fell into obscurity there, on a trajectory that indeed evokes melancholy thoughts.

Adusei-Poku views that emotion as central to the American Black experience and identifies it in the work of some of Savage’s younger black contemporaries: in the bent-over marble figure titled “Sadness” by Selma Burke (1900-1995); in a vivid painting of a reclining figure by Detroit resident 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 the art to care for her disabled husband and their child. (She supported the family by working for a greeting card company.)

(It’s worth noting, by the way, that all three of these works are on loan from museums associated with Historically Black Colleges and Universities – Spelman College, Howard University, and Clark Atlanta University – museums that until recently were the only academic institutions to regularly collect black art. .)

Biographical information about all these artists, along with art historical commentary, appears on the show’s extremely interesting object labels, as if to remind us that art can be as much a personal expression – of melancholy, among other things – as a formal statement. As if to make the point clear, the text accompanying Roy DeCarava’s beautiful 1953 photograph ‘Hallway’ includes words from the artist himself.

Compositionally, this shot of a narrow, penumbral domestic space is a stunner. 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 poor people. It just brought back all those things I had experienced as a kid in all those hallways.”

The DeCarava images introduce sections of the show where the definition of “black melancholy” expands in several directions, all of which encompass different forms of subjectivity, inwardness.

One is the emotion of nostalgia, or some version of it. It feels tender in Ain Bailey’s 2022 video meditation, commissioned by the show, in her parents’ wedding photos, with small details – the lace of a dress, a bridesmaid’s smile – lingered and returned to, as if getting physical. touched.

Reverence radiates from Alberta Whittle’s hanging textiles, floating high, made from clothing – European, African – owned by her cosmopolitan Barbadian grandfather. And in a 2001 documentary music video, New York-based conceptualist Pope. L, who once sardonicly advertised himself as “the kindest black artist in America,” embarks, in Superman drag, on a 22-mile belly crawl on Broadway from Wall Street to his hometown in the Bronx.

That grueling, wretched Pilgrim’s Progress of a five-year performance symbolically has much to say about the motivating power of Melancholic Spleen and the creative genius of the black stamina in navigating the Great White Way.

Kenyatta AC Hinkle’s, “THEY: The Meeting” (2021), with its depiction of three black women – Three Graces – posing in a lavishly painted paradise garden, seems to offer a contrasting utopian view of nature. But something isn’t right: The figures are cut and pasted from a colonial-era postcard, designed to sell a version of what Europe wanted and needed to be Africa.

The show has a fair amount of figurative painting – Valerie Maynard, Arcmanoro Niles, and Danielle McKinney adding strong examples – though it remains refreshingly free of the portraits that are currently auction house clickbait. And some of the most compelling contributions are abstract.

An installation by Charisse Pearlina Weston is striking. Titled, all in lowercase, “of the. (intangible. black salt. translucency)” and created for show, it is an elaborate, low-to-the-floor ensemble of photographs, printed texts and glass elements (cast pieces and single sheets, textured and smooth, whole and broken, some recycled from previous installations), stacked and layered on top and over plain wood benches made by the artist’s father.

Individual components abound: photographic images suggest alien forms; the lyrics exemplify Weston’s intensely mournful poetry, the benches and glass evoke modernist architecture. But nothing is easy. The arrangements alternate between impressions of transparency and obstruction, neatness and disorder. Weston, who will do a residency at Bard this fall, has spoken of references in similar previous installations to architecture as entrapment; to transparency as a surveillance tool, to fragmented glass as a symbol of “broken windows” police.

In short, references to both Melancholy and Blackness are present, but skewed. In this way, her work ties in with recent and influential forms of critical writing on the dark arts by figures such as the cultural theorist Fred Moten and the curator Legacy Russell, who use simple, non-academic language in complex ways that delay easy access, thwart rapid reading. , and resist pat conclusions about what, if anything in particular, might be Blackness. The show takes a similar approach to the theme, raising the possibility that an under-explored low pressure area could be a source of clearing storms that reveal a quieter, lingering 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,

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