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Conversations Across Collections: Artists and Antiracist Activism

Welcome to Conversations across Collections. This entry is the fourth in a collaborative series between the Archives of American Art and Crystal Bridges where we share the archival backstory on objects from each of our collections. In this blog, Xuxa Rodríguez, curatorial assistant, examines artist antiracist activism through the 1986 exhibition Artists Support Black Liberation, as told in archival material found in the Juan Sánchez papers at the Archives of American Art, and draws connections to artists found in the Crystal Bridges collection. Once you’ve read this story, hop over to the Archives of American Art, and read more about the art and activism of Juan Sánchez.

 

Time magazine may have declared antiracism one of its words that defined 2020, but the term has a longer historical resonance dating as far back to the United States’ colonial period according to Dr. Herbert Aphteker’s 1975 article, “The History of Anti-racism in the United States.” In the late twentieth century, we can find an example of that resonance in the New York City art world of the 1980s.

 

In October of 2017, just a little over a month and a half after the white nationalist violence of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, I stood over a table in the Archives of American Art’s brightly lit reading room gingerly turning over pages of exhibition invitations, posters, and even original mural mockups within the oversized boxes of the recently acquired Juan Sánchez papers.[i] A Black Puerto Rican artist, activist, and educator best known for his political consciousness-raising works focused on race, class, and Puerto Rican identity, Sánchez’s papers evidence a hypersensitivity to historical documentation through the thoroughness of materials he collected—articles, exhibition catalogs, posters, project drafts, and more—capturing the artistic and cultural production of New York’s art scene throughout his lifetime, including galleries lost to time.[ii]

John Brown Anti-Klan Committee. Exhibition catalog for Artists Support Black Liberation: Art Exhibit & Auction at La Galeria en el Bohio (cover), 5-12 October 1986. Juan Sánchez papers, 1972-2010. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

 

The memory of one such gallery arose among these art historical research riches in the form of a small and bright red booklet that caught my eye immediately with its image of a black paintbrush pulling black paint up and across the cover. It was the catalog for Artists Support Black Liberation, an exhibition and auction hosted from October 5-12 in 1986. According to the exhibition catalog, the exhibition was a project by the New Afrikan Peoples Organization—an organization dedicated to securing Black human rights and national independence from the United States—who were campaigning to build a Malcolm X Center for Black Survival in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood. 

 

The exhibition was also sponsored by the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee, an organization dedicated to fighting white supremacy and organizing white people to join their cause in the spirit of its namesake nineteenth-century abolitionist. The Committee wrote in the catalog that they saw this exhibition as one part of its larger project, stating on the back cover, “We see an urgent need to build an anti-racist movement to fight the growth of the Klan and Nazis and all racist violence.” They expressed this urgency in the face of a nation they saw ignoring homelessness, lack of education, poverty, and terrorization of the Black community as the police officers charged with the death of Michael Stewart were found not guilty.[iii] The exhibition would take place two months before Michael Griffith’s death in New York and James Baldwin’s delivery of “The World I Never Made,” his lecture on race in the United States, at the National Press Club in Washington DC.[iv]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(pictured right) Cliff Joseph. “To Malcolm: Tribute and Commitment.” In exhibition catalog for Artists Support Black Liberation: Art Exhibit & Auction at La Galeria en el Bohio 5-12 October 1986. Juan Sánchez papers, 1972-2010. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

 

 

 

Artists Support Black Liberation was hosted at La Galeria en El Bohío, the exhibition space at the CHARAS-EL Bohío Community Center in the East Village.[v] The community center was founded by the Young Lords’ New York chapter, an activist organization modeled after the Black Panther Party that was dedicated to improving the lives of the Puerto Rican community in the city by organizing and providing access to basic needs such as healthcare and sanitary living conditions in East Harlem (a neighborhood also known as El Barrio and Spanish Harlem).[vi] As one of the three persons (including Cliff Joseph and Robert Costa) that the Committee listed as encouraging them to organize the exhibition, Sánchez’s own contribution was Against Apartheid We Sing (1984), a mixed-media work that can be seen in a special issue double issue, Art Against Apartheid: Works for Freedom, of IKON magazine for art and change. 

 

Among the artists who contributed works to the exhibition and auction were five whose works are now part of Crystal Bridges’ collection: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Melvin Edwards, Charles Keller, Alice Neel, and Faith Ringgold.[vii] Basquiat submitted Dos Pajaros (1985), an oil painting on wood depicting two birds with the attributes “good” and “bad” written in Spanish below them. Edwards contributed Liberation X from the Lynch Fragment Series (1986), a piece from a body of work addressing the violence of lynching history in the United States.[viii] Ringgold submitted a copy of her offset print, U.S. of Attica (1971), a poster documenting histories of violence in the United States, including race riots, with statistics listing the number of dead, wounded, and missing in US wars from the 1776 revolution to the 1955-1975 Vietnam War.[ix] 

 

Images of Keller’s and Neel’s contributions (respectively, Consultation (1971), a silkscreen print, and Untitled (1973), a hand-colored serigraph, likely submitted posthumously as the artist passed away in 1984) could not be found, although it is important to note that resonant themes across Keller’s work include scenes of everyday life, such as representations of laborers at work, and across Neel’s body of documentary portraiture include everyday people often left out of the historically elite-focused genre. Neel painted portraits of Black activists, women, and her fellow neighborhood residents of East Harlem.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled, 1981, 78 x 68 in., oil stick, acrylic, and spray enamel on canvas, Promised Gift to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas.

Antiracist and advocacy themes that work to center subjects and narratives that have previously been excluded from art history can be found resonating across these artist’s works collected by Crystal Bridges. During her time as a Havner Curatorial Fellow at Crystal Bridges, Emma Oslé wrote on the overlapping Haitian Voodoo and Christian imagery in Basquiat’s Untitled (1981). This imagery reflects his Latinx identities as both Haitian American and Puerto Rican in diaspora found in New York. Melvin Edwards’s Untitled (Wall Hanging) (1937) asks viewers to reflect on barbed wire as a symbol for brutality and resistance. Faith Ringgold’s Maya’s Quilt of Life (1989) documents the writer Maya Angelou’s 61st birthday in the form of a story quilt with a portrait of Angelou and text from the author’s best-known works.[x] Alice Neel’s Hugh Hurd (1964) presents a portrait of the actor and activist who fundraised for Martin Luther King Jr. with Maya Angelou and actor / comedian Godfrey Cambridge. In order to combat racial injustice in the entertainment industry, Hurd also co-founded the 1962 Committee for Employment of Negro Performers.[xi]

Faith Ringgold, Maya’s Quilt of Life, 1989, acrylic on canvas and painted, dyed, and pieced fabrics, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas.

 

Alice Neel, Hugh Hurd, 1964, 40 1/4 × 30 1/4 in., oil on canvas, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas.

In one of the essays for Artists Support Black Liberation (pictured above), fellow artist, activist, and art therapist Cliff Joseph wrote, “confrontation is the truest function of art, in a world bent on resisting the admonition of truth.”[xii] He described artists as responsible for “holding up the mirror of truth and baring to the eyes of humanity, the repulsive reflections of its truck with evil juxtaposed with its potential for transformation.” As I write from Bentonville, Arkansas, it has only been four months since the city removed its confederate statue from the town square and just a week after the insurrection and breach of the US Capitol during the confirmation of the 2020 election results.[xiii] And while the calls for museums to embrace antiracist policies and practices has been a longer conversation in the field, the question remains whether or not museums will be able to undo their very foundations as a cultural branch of the white supremacist colonial projects that founded the United States.[xiv] At Crystal Bridges, we are actively working on being an antiracist museum, but the work is ongoing.[xv]

 

Against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, let’s hope 2021 is the year when all museums collectively hold Joseph’s proverbial mirror of truth to themselves to reflect upon their histories, see their potentials for radical change, and imagine new futures.[xvi]

 

There’s More to the Story: 

Want to learn more? Read the Archives of American Art blog about the art and activism of Juan Sánchez.

 

Written by Xuxa Rodríguez, curatorial assistant to the director of curatorial affairs and strategic art initiatives.

 

Special thanks to:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Footnotes:

[i] A CNN article providing more details on the events leading up to the Unite the Right rally can be found here: https://www.cnn.com/2017/08/14/us/charlottesville-rally-timeline-tick-tock/index.html.  

[ii] Read the transcript of Juan Sánchez’s oral history interview with Dr. Josh Franco of the Archives of American Art here: https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-juan-snchez-17606#transcript. Learn more about Sánchez’s body of work from his Joan Mitchell Foundation CALL/VoCA (Creating A Living Legacy/Voices in Contemporary Art) talk delivered in 2015 at the Bronx Museum uploaded here: https://vimeo.com/172631683.

[iii] More information on the impact that Michael Stewart’s death on his immediate community can be learned from Chaédria LaBouvier’s exhibition, Basquiat’s ‘Defacement:’ The Untold Story and from stories shared by Stewart’s contemporaries as the following respective links: https://www.culturetype.com/2018/12/12/guggenheim-mounting-exhibition-focused-on-jean-michel-basquiats-defacement-painting-about-police-brutality/ and https://www.vice.com/en/article/d3aeba/the-legacy-of-the-man-nobody-killed-25-years-later.

[iv] Learn more about Baldwin’s speech and his work at this record in the Library of Congress: https://www.loc.gov/rr/record/pressclub/pdf/JamesBaldwin.pdf.

[v] A brief history of the CHARAS-EL Bohío Community Center and other important sites in Puerto Rican activist history of New York city can be found here: https://www.6sqft.com/the-social-and-cultural-history-of-puerto-rican-activism-in-the-east-village/.

[vi] A feature on the Young Lords’ New York chapter was published in The New York Times here: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/11/nyregion/young-lords-nyc-garbage-offensive.html. To see historical photographs of community actions by the Young Lords, visit the online exhibition, Mapping Resistance:  here: https://www.mappingresistance.com/home.

[vii] I am thankful to my Latinx art compañerx, Dr. Josh Franco, who cross-checked the exhibition checklist against Crystal Bridges’ holdings and shared the list he found with me, which encouraged me to expand discussion this blog post’s original conceptual focus on Basquiat and Neel to include Edwards, Keller, and Ringgold to weave a tighter relationship between Latinx artists and allies and a broader New York artist-activism network.

[viii] More information on Edwards’ Lynch Fragment Series can be found in this article by Joan Marter for Sculpture magazine here: https://www.alexandergray.com/attachment/en/594a3c935a4091cd008b4568/Press/594a5ddf5a4091cd008b9604.

[ix] Of historical note here is that the poster included in the Artists Support Black Liberation checklist is dated 1971 while Ringgold’s website lists the work’s date as 1972.

[x] Watch Ringgold’s 2016 Distinguished Speaker Series talk delivered at Crystal Bridges archived on YouTube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rQTP3d6mj6s&index=7&list=PLgwvJx_aihhBfObJoFW_XcrRtUfIQHXu7.

[xi] Hurd’s obituary tells more of the actor’s life and advocacy here: https://www.nytimes.com/1995/07/20/obituaries/hugh-hurd-70-actor-with-role-in-early-civil-rights-movement.html.

[xii] Joseph was one of the founders of the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC) formed in response to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 1969 exhibition, Harlem On My Mind. Joseph recently passed away in December of 2020 and his obituary was published in The New York Times here: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/04/arts/cliff-joseph-dead.html. Learn more about Joseph’s art in this digital catalog for a 2018 retrospective of his work published by Tyler Fine Art, which reprints the three works that the artist contributed to the Artists for Black Liberation exhibition—Blackboard (1971), Hands of Freedom (1964), and King’s Thing (1986) (with the respective dates reflecting those published in the checklist for the 1986 exhibition’s catalog): https://issuu.com/msmodular72/docs/cliff_joseph_artist_activist. BECC’s archival materials can be found here: http://archives.nypl.org/scm/20908

[xiii] More information on the confederate statue’s removal can be found in this article: https://www.nwaonline.com/news/2020/sep/03/confederate-monument-removed-from-bentonville/. Read more about the January 2021 breach of the US Capitol here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/dc-md-va/2021/01/06/dc-protests-trump-rally-live-updates/.

[xiv] Read a call for antiracist policies in museums made by Museum Hue, an arts advocacy organization for communities of color, here: https://www.museumhue.com/blog/lets-face-it. Curatorial and museum scholar Dr. Elena Gonzales has written about antiracist curatorial practices here: https://activisthistory.com/2019/09/20/anti-racist-curatorial-work/. MASS Action, a platform for museums and social change, has recently analyzed museums and their relationships to antiracism here: https://www.museumaction.org/massaction-blog/2020/10/30/museums-and-anti-racism-a-deeper-analysis. More on the history of race in the US can be learned from Drs. Michael Omi and Howard Winant’s Racial Formation in the United States as well as from State of White Supremacy: Racism, Governance, and the United States by Drs. Moon-Kie Jung, João H. Costa Vargas, and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva. Dr. Annie E. Coombes’ article, “Museums and the Formation of National and Cultural Identity,” unpacks the relationship between museums and colonialism. 

[xv] More information on the museum’s efforts and actions can be found on the blog: https://crystalbridges.org/blog/crystal-bridges-museum-of-american-art-and-the-momentary-report-on-2020-efforts-to-expand-outreach-and-diversify-the-museum/.

[xvi] At the transept between 2020 and 2021, La Tanya S. Autry, cultural organizer and curator, has developed The Black Liberation Center, a new exhibition, programs, and education model. Learn more about the Center and its projects here: https://www.blackliberationcenter.com/about.  

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