The Cleveland Museum of Art has always been generally regarded as a bastion of contemporary art conservatism. These days however it has bravely dived into the escalating culture wars over America’s race past; by presenting significant works by Black artists entrenched in that history.
“Currents and Constellations: Black Art in Focus,” the museum’s exhibition, opened earlier this year. It highlights the diverse ways in which some of the country’s Black artists have responded to America’s racial divide.
Following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020, the show might have been seen as part of a trend of exhibitions focusing on race and diversity in art museums around the country. In fact, the Cleveland Museum of Art began increasing the number of exhibitions dedicated to African-American artists in 2013.
The exhibition also focused on works by women, minorities, and artists who transcend those categories.
The show is especially pertinent since it took place during a heated national discussion about how to teach the history of slavery and racism.
The racial politics that led to the recall of left-leaning school board members in San Francisco are an example of conflicts over the teaching of that history. Meanwhile, despite their criticism of left-wing cancel culture, conservatives want to restrict books from school libraries. They are seeking to empower residents to sue school districts. They claim that youngsters are forced to learn university-level critical race theory.
Key Jo Lee organized the exhibition. He has suggested that Clevelanders are open to discussing how African-American artists have approached themes that continue to permeate the country.
Prints by Elizabeth Catlett and Darius Steward, both of Cleveland, explore representations of the Black family. There are also works by photographer Dawoud Bey and painter Torkwase Dyson which evoke journeys from slavery to freedom. There are paintings by Norman Lewis and Jack Whitten, as well as a sculpture by Richard Hunt.
Other works reflect upon the cultural responses to police aggression. There are also reflections on the survival of oral traditions as a means of coping with cultural erasure.
The exhibition focuses on 17 works in the museum’s Focus Gallery.
But it also contains nine additional works exhibited around the museum’s four permanent collection galleries. They seek to demonstrate how works by Black artists can reveal new perspectives on the museum as a whole.
The majority of the paintings on display are from the museum’s increasing collection of works by black artists, which now numbers over 700 pieces. Artists and collectors have also loaned important pieces.
The show features a wide range of artistic perspectives, from Social Realism through Abstract Expressionism, Conceptualism, and beyond. Almost every major work on display reflects a school of thought or a method that could be the focus of a separate show.
“Shadows of Liberty,” is a 2016 painting by MacArthur “genius award” winner Titus Kaphar. He also featured in the museum’s current “Motherhood” show, in Gallery 204. This area covvers art from the colonial and revolutionary periods.
The newly installed Kaphar picture is a reimagining of a clichéd equestrian portrait of George Washington by John Faed. This painting is now housed in Alabama’s Tuscaloosa Museum of Art.
While aesthetically mimicking the hero-worshipping Faed image, Kaphar subverts its message. In it he conceals Washington’s face and upper torso with tea-stained strips of canvas. Each bearing the names of the over 300 enslaved individuals he possessed.
The canvas ribbons are linked to the painting with rusty nails. This mimics a traditional African figure of power, or nkisi nkondi, which is on show in a glass cabinet nearby.
A 1779 portrait by Charles Willson Peale and his workshop representing Washington at the Battle of Princeton, standing boldly in an elegant hipshot position with his left hand on the barrel of a canon, is also on display close to the Kaphar painting.
Slavery’s injustice is literally “pinned” to the face of a Founding Father in the Kaphar picture.
The museum is not identifying itself with protestors calling for the renaming of buildings and institutions named after enslavers.
Nor the removal of Confederate monuments from Southern communities.
Instead, by placing the Kaphar alongside the Peale picture and the African power figure, the museum asserts that it can be a location where the complexities of America’s history may be explored.
This free-wheeling discussion continues in the Focus Gallery. Here Lee has divided two groups of pictures of Black women based on whether they face or turn away from the viewer.
White enslavers once sanctioned the right to rape Black women as a way to increase their human “capital,”. Portrayals of Black women facing away from the observer represent an assertion of autonomy and personal liberation.
The “facing away” theme includes Charles Sallee’s 1940 painting “Bedtime,” a and Lorna Simpson’s 1992 photographic screenprint “Cure/Heal”.
Lee has chosen Mario Moore’s seminude portrait of the artist’s wife to represent the “facing toward” theme. She is shown in panties while standing boldly within a pastoral landscape. The picture is a rebellious statement of racial and sexual dominance.
Felandus Thames’s 2021 piece “African King of Dubious Origin” is a reflection on police violence against Blacks as a type of martyrdom.
As a result, it’s eerily relevant to the outcry that followed the cancellation in 2020 by the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland of an exhibition of drawings by New York artist Shaun Leonardo. The exhibition showed police shootings of unarmed Black men and boys, notably Tamir Rice of Cleveland.
MOCA said it canceled the show to avoid re-traumatizing Cleveland residents who had been victims of police violence. This raised the question of when and under what conditions it’s permissible to present art; no matter how well-intentioned which might reopen emotional wounds.
That question is answered in Felandus Thames’ work. It transforms a close-up photo of Rodney King taken after his savage beating by Los Angeles police in 1992. Made of girl’s hair beads fixed to wires it calls to mind violence without fixating on macabre specifics.
The exhibition depicts the misery brought on by racism in American society. But also the beauty, pride, perseverance, and some extremely powerful visual thought. It creates a colorful and captivating package that demonstrates how a better grasp of American history should inspire inquiry, admiration, and understanding rather than fear and division.