In which I end up slightly out of my usual North West patch, in the wilds of the Midlands…
Prologue (or possibly a disclaimer)
While Glenn Ligon’s Encounters & Collisions was one of the most interesting, varied and challenging exhibitions that I have had the pleasure of visiting for some time, I put my hands up to confess that I’ve been putting off writing about it for almost two weeks. Not because I had a lack of material (in truth the exact opposite), but because the exhibition focused on issues that I almost felt like I had no right to comment on. In my privileged position as a white, sometimes painfully middle-class British woman, what valid comment could I offer on the struggles of black people in America? More to the point, what right did I have to even offer that comment and could I do it without committing some awful faux pas?
A main theme within the exhibition is how black people in America have managed to break through the messages that the wider society (and white people) have imposed upon them to find their own forms of expression, their own cultural identity. In the words repeatedly printed on a Ligon piece from 1991: ‘I lost my voice, I found my voice’. When it comes to this exhibition, I lost my voice for a while. Then I decided to stop being so whiny and write about art, because that is what I do… So here goes.
“I am black. I’m sure you did not realise this when you made/laughed at/agreed with that racist remark… I regret any discomfort my presence is causing you, just as I am sure you regret the discomfort your racism is causing me.”
Possibly the most powerful calling card ever created, these words were written and reproduced by Adrian Piper and distributed between 1986-1990 as the need arose. Succinctly put, the card summarises the awkward line that Piper needed to walk in her everyday life as a black woman – a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ dynamic where she expected to be looked down on and insulted whether she stressed her racial identity or not.
How to navigate this difficult line is a thread that runs through all of Ligon’s exhibition. Known as one of the most significant American artists of his generation, and building an extensive portfolio of works based on dialogues with other pieces of art, literature and culture, Ligon focuses on issues related to black experience, American history and sexuality. The exhibition is curated by Ligon, with works from 45 of the biggest names in Modernism and Postmodernism – Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Andy Warhol, Steve McQueen, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and on and on and on. The list of contributors is really quite overwhelming.
And yet, all of these artists, no matter how big-hitting, are all united under a common theme in Encounters & Collisions; they’ve all been ostracised, derided, dismissed for some aspect of their race or personality that was seen as deficient.
‘Jarring’ is a word that repeatedly came to mind as I wandered around the gallery. Photographic stills from a film about a man dressed as Sun Ra posing in a car park in 1974 highlight the difficulty of retaining a deep cultural heritage in a country fixated on capitalism and ‘progress’. Ligon’s canvases printed with the words ‘I remember when black wasn’t beautiful’, or a crude joke centred around the anecdotal size of black penises, emphasise the difficulty of a black person building a positive self-image when surrounded by so many negative, or at best, woefully simplistic, descriptions about themselves. Not written by them, but imposed on them.
The photographs by Charles Moore of the Birmingham Alabama protests in 1963 show the stark reality of what happened when the Black Civil Rights movement stood up to the status quo, and the shocking lengths that the ruling classes were prepared to go to keep their position of authority. Alongside, the twisted chain and steel sculptures by Melvin Edwards from 2002 are reminiscent of the trappings of the slave trade, and serve as a reminder that the Western world cannot rewrite history and pretend, as we have a tendency to do, that slavery and oppression is in the distant past.
While the roster of works by giants of Abstract Expressionism such as Pollock and De Kooning displayed in the largest rooms of the gallery are as powerful and striking as ever, interestingly it is the work by the lesser known artists that packed the biggest punch. Absorbed into the artistic establishment for decades, it’s hard not to have a kind of aesthetic fatigue when it comes artists you have seen before at countless exhibitions, no matter how monumental their work. Also (and the clue is in the name), after what can start to feel like the sheer obtuseness of abstract art, the mix of works within the exhibition brings a refreshing variety of styles and genres.
At a point when the issues surrounding black rights and the story of the fight for racial equality across the world are moving more into the public consciousness, with films such as 12 Years A Slave, Mandela, and most recently, Selma, bringing an oft-neglected history to light, Encounters & Collisions feels timely. But with still a long way to go before any cultural narrative reaches the dizzying dominance of the white, middle/upper class male, this exhibition is also extremely poignant and important. Here’s to many more of the same.