Black Lives Linger

John Haber
in New York City

Arthur Jafa, Steve McQueen, and The Body Politic

David Hammons, Mika Rottenberg, and Lonnie Holley

Arthur Jafa cuts rapidly between athletes, musicians, civic leaders, and celebrations. He delivers an emotionally charged display of African American culture and community.

Why, then, do they seem at every moment on the brink of death? Is it the very real threat of police violence—or only, in the words of a rapper accompanying them, a bad dream? They return in "The Body Politic," along with other videos now in the Met's collection by Steve McQueen, David Hammons, and Mika Rottenberg. Lonnie Holley's The Negative/Positive Mask of Power (James Fuentes gallery, 2004)While only three of four are African Americans, race and the body are still in question. For Lonnie Holley, masks may embody black power, but there, too, as a positive or a negative. For all these artists, their figures often do survive and even triumph.

Racing, swooning, and dying

Close in on a runner—with the pain etched in his eyes, the sweat on his bare arms, his body close to collapse, and the finish line nowhere in sight. And then a supporting arm lays across his shoulder, and a smile breaks across his face. He has given everything, and he has won. Not everyone is so lucky in a film collage by Arthur Jafa. Its seven terrifying and exhilarating minutes include repeated humiliation by police and at least one fatal shooting. They dare anyone, of any race, to stand apart from black America.

Here black lives do not just come to an untimely end. They also give it their all, create, and matter. Jafa lingers longest, though, on heavily armed troops running forward and on men and women pleading for their lives. He captures them holding up their hands, walking backward, in fetal position on the ground. His very title commands respect but promises nothing: Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death.

You will not recognize them all, not at this pace, although you will almost certainly try. They bring joyful noises and silent presences. The very familiarity of Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, James Brown, Martin Luther King, Jr., or President Obama makes the confrontations with police all the more painful and anonymous. Artful cuts turn on parallel poses and gestures not for their particular meaning or irony, but to unite them in their rhythm. On the soundtrack, Kanye West does much the same with his repeated lyrics: "we are an ultralight beam."

Political art has a heavy burden. It has not just to keep up with the headlines, but also to match their impact. I felt mostly disappointment with paintings on the theme of black lives matter at the Studio Museum in Harlem, with African American protests in social media at the International Center of Photography, or even with Carrie Mae Weems in Chelsea. She overlays colored circles on the face of police victims to emphasize the erasure of their identities and their lives, but I found the photos polished and distancing. Still, most often the news, too, can evoke anger and outrage, but not anguish or fear. Jafa can and does.

He does so through the public face of African American experience. He relies on found footage of iconic figures, public places, and epic moments. He leaves intact TV station logos and countdown seconds. Exit the gallery's new Harlem location, and ordinary people may come as a relief or a shock. One might even wonder whether Jafa is making a point of how the media reduce black lives to the equivalent of album covers for greatest hits. Perhaps, I thought for a moment, he sees something similar but more deadly in police profiling.

Still, these moments play out in public for good reason. They have become or will become part of your life as well. Musicians will bend close to the ground, the mike in their hands, and their audience will swoon. West will keep singing, "this is a bad dream," but "I'm trying to keep my faith." They do until the projection goes blank, as if they, like the runner, could no longer keep going. And then you have to decide who has won.

In a trance

Is love still the message, and is the message still death? For his video and his message, Jafa cut between violence at the hands of the police and African Americans in moments of victory in politics, culture, or sports. Their insistent rhythms bring home that black lives matter, and they matter just as much in moments of pride or humility, anger or despair. A year later, they return in "The Body Politic," at the Met Breuer. Its four videos leave open when the body becomes political—and when politics becomes a matter of bodily triumph or torment. The focused selection makes it easy to sit through them all in hope of finding out.

Only one runs more than eight minutes, and Steve McQueen even calls his Five Easy Pieces, from 1995. Its pieces do not run sequentially, no more than for Jafa, and cutting among them leaves bodies in that moment between stillness and motion. Are they African American bodies? A tightrope walker has no color beyond the white of his sneakers, and men with hula hoops divide into five pairs—with one in each pair dressed in white, the other as his silhouette or shadow. Blackness appears more explicitly with facial features, a woman in a glittery dress swaying, and a man taking stabs at jerking off. The frequent close-ups, like the view of the man in his underpants through a curtain of water, make them hypnotic but discomforting presences.

They, too, stop short of claiming victory, least of all for blackness. McQueen's takes his title from the movie about a white pianist in blue collar country—and maybe it is only my imagining, but I also thought of Bob Dylan:

They've got him in a trance.
One hand is tied to the tightrope walker.
The other is in his pants.

But then on Desolation Row "the riot squad, they're restless," and that was before Black Lives Matter.

Phat Free, by David Hammons and also from 1995, starts out in total blackness. Only after a couple of minutes does the elusive artist become visible, along with the source of the video's annoying sound. Mika Rottenberg's Performance Still (PJ and Cheryl) (Nicole Klagsbrun, 2008)Hammons is kicking a bucket down the street, accompanied by equally jarring camera movements, grain, and glare. He could be punning on "kick the bucket" as the fate of an urban black male—or on "kicking a can down the street," as an expression for failure to take responsibility. Do not be too sure, though, not when Hammons relishes the joke. He may have nothing better to do, but he takes his time, kicks the bucket into his hands, and walks away.

Born in Argentina, Mika Rottenberg divides her body politic between New York and China. I might find the show more coherent if all four artists were African Americans, but oppression and the body know no bounds. She has made art from a black woman trapped in her own obesity, Third World workers, and Rottenberg herself barely able to punch her way out of a box. For NoNoseKnows in 2015, a plump blond drives past bleak housing, finds a parking spot, and walks through door after door, topped by oversize soap bubbles. She ends up in a still more confined space, with food piling up by her side and flowers on the shelves demanding attention. Real laborers impinge less directly.

The women workers are under the stifling pressures of a pearl factory, but a New Yorker can feel their pain. One Chinese worker endlessly turns a wheel that appears to spin ropes in front of the blond woman, and feet stick out of a bucket of pearls. Food keeps piling up, unappetizing and uneaten, and her nose keeps growing. Finally her nose shrinks, the soap bubbles burst, she wipes the soles of the feet, and she leaves—only to take that same ride past the projects in the video's closed loop. Jafa takes his reality entirely from the media, McQueen and Hammons are just performing, and Rottenberg makes even a factory a stage set. Which is more real, more pressing, more artificial, or more in a trance?

Black power

Two of the sternest images from Lonnie Holley hang side by side, as twin faces. One has color-coded electric wires protruding from its mouth and stiffer wires connecting its nostrils and eyes. More electric equipment hangs below in place of a neck, no longer able to connect. From its features, it might be gaping or weeping. The other face has hardware unable to fill the gashes in place of eyes and bristles like seams where the doctor has created a monster. Both have scratches all over their thick shield of bald flesh.

So which is The Positive and which The Negative Mask of Power—and will black power ever course through their bodies again? For the record, the parts once able to supply electricity contribute to the positive mask, but electric current always runs between positive and negative, and neither mask looks empowering or protective. Still, neither looks all that threatening either or, equally, wallowing in its role as a victim. For Holley, African American history encompasses suffering and self-assertion, but it is not always easy to tell them apart. And that history lies in the scraps all around him, waiting for someone to pick it up.

Another sculpture looks both ways in its style, its attitude, and its construction. Here, too, nothing declares its race, apart from perhaps the breadth of its lips and the blackness of steel. The head is only slightly more obviously female, despite a curve outward at bottom and an edge that could stand for braided hair. It becomes more feminine, too, from its resemblance to portraits by Pablo Picasso. Its profile has an eye facing front, with planes set at right angles. It looks both ways, too, between Cubism and the American South.

Born in Alabama in 1960, Holley lives in Atlanta, and he has appeared in shows of "Négritude" and the Great Migration. The show at hand draws on the last fourteen years. No doubt he counts as an outsider in New York, and he has affinities with both folk art and Modernism. The badly hacked wood and obsessive collecting recall both styles as well. The assemblages have the coarse shocks and brittle humor of combine paintings by Robert Rauschenberg, but also younger black artists like Kara Walker or Willie Cole. They or Joseph Zito might have supplied the lawn jockey in a gas mask, holding a phone as if he or you were waiting for the call.

The doubling goes beyond obvious twins. The freestanding metal sculpture has its counterpart in a face on the wall weighed down by the trinkets of a lifetime, as Grandmama's Brain Was the Preserve Jar. One clothing mannequin has guns sticking into it from all sides, while another is chained to a weight resting on a chair. They might have lost their arms and legs to violence. Still, they could have chosen the remainder of their accessories as a substitute for fashion. They could even be fighting back.

Maybe the plainest allusion to history comes in the one departure from faces and bodies, but it, too, looks in more than one direction. Crosses nailed to a door may allude to the central place of churches in the black community and the civil rights movement. Yet they also recall homes boarded up and crosses set on fire. Holley's imagery can be too plain for its own good, but it lingers because of its refusal to tease apart the positive and the negative. As a title puts it, Hair Was My Glory and My Chain. And the chair is already sagging under that weight.

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Arthur Jafa ran at Gavin Brown's Enterprise through December 17, 2016, Carrie Mae Weems at Jack Shainman through December 10. "The Body Politic" ran at The Met Breuer through September 3, 2017, Lonnie Holley at James Fuentes through May 28.


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