Blackness as Universal

John Haber
in New York City

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Teju Cole, and Umar Rashid

A black artist faces some tough choices—or, another might say, great choices. You can make art about injustice or identity, anger or pride, racism or community. You can insist on your command of familiar genres and media, or you can invent new ones. You can demand a fair hearing by others on their terms or your own.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and Teju Cole opt for none of the above, but then neither, strictly speaking, is an African American. Yiadom-Boakye is a British painter, in a tradition of portraiture and realism. Cole is a writer and photographer from Nigeria, with a liking for Western myths and a global perspective. Both keep reaching for the universal, whatever that is, even when starting with what lies right in front of them. Were they less ponderous, Umar Rashid's Un dimanche après-midi à l'Ile de la gouverneurs. Or, Borough Check. The old money don't want a new world so the Revolution had to get sabotaged somehow. Murder was the case. And Horus wept. 1793 (Johannes Vogt gallery, 2016)they might even enter what Umar Rashid calls the Kingdom of Harlem. Rashid's paintings supply an upbeat and fanciful black history, but multiple stories converge and multiple communities approach collapse.

The enigma of blackness

A portrait by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye presents an enigma. Why are those black women watchful—and what are they watching? One takes her ease in a steel-backed chair, while the other stands behind her with opera glasses, like the audience to their own lives. What has brought those men together, in their identical green jackets and white shirts? Are others, slumped backward or hands raised, restless or at ease? Why is one man holding an owl and another a smaller bird, as if questioning it? Is that lean man standing against a wall, one hand crossing to rest on a shoulder and one foot crossing to rest on its toes, a dancer, a prophet, or a thief?

Yiadom-Boakye loves enigmas. They appear in her titles at the New Museum, like Matters, Ropes for a Clairvoyant, or A Cage for the Love. They appear in her dark palette, broken only by a dancer's white against a dark background, the heavy orange backdrop to a man's dark silhouette, or glassy eyes. Much of her cast finds its double in shadows, including that small bird. A man in profile looks toward the light that casts his shadow behind him, like a nude for Edward Hopper. She, though, stands fully exposed and fully in the sun, a subject for the male gaze or an Annunciation, while the black man is isolated and self-composed.

These are heavy enigmas at that, to the point of collapsing under their own weight. Born in London of West African descent, Yiadom-Boakye portrays private moments and intimate acquaintances, often lost in thought. Yet she wants to make them protagonists in a vaguer but grander narrative. She sees them as at once casual, otherworldly, and universal. That belief in life as a vast theater may explain her fondness for performers, quite apart from who an artist's friends are likely to be. The green jackets may belong to a musical act, while the owl rests on an artist's palette, like a stand-in for the dark wisdom of his brush.

They sure have a lot to bear. Part of the weight derives from the literal side of British realism, part from the awful demands on the black community in England or America. It appears in the prouder stances of African American artists like Barkley L. Hendricks, Titus Kaphar, Mickalene Thomas, or Kehinde Wiley. It plays to the feel-good side of politics for many white artists as well. Just think of the price that Dana Schutz has paid for presenting the death of Emmett Till as horrifying in the 2017 Whitney Biennial. But then Kara Walker has taken her licks, too, for dredging up discomforting racial stereotypes.

Are the enigmas insipid or inspiring? One can admire a realism that does without the precision of one tradition, like Philip Pearlstein and Chuck Close, or the snappy brushwork of another, like Alfred Leslie and Alice Neel. One can admire, too, the litheness of dancers in action or at rest. Still, Yiadom-Boakye ends up with mostly academic painting in place of the ordinary or the universal. She makes things heavier still with low lighting and painted walls out of old-fashioned drawings rooms. She could do with fewer enigmas and a lot more deception.

Wiley, as it happens, is back in Chelsea with some deceits of his own, as "Trickster." And his deceits, too, turn on a dark palette and friends in the arts. He inserts black artists into a parody of Regency or Victorian realism, sometimes with direct quotes—and then he sinks the whole thing into night. He even includes Yiadom-Boakye as a person of property dressed for the hunt, with a landscape behind her and dead rabbits at her feet. Even humor, though, can fail to lighten things up, especially when the players and the references alike amount to inside jokes. He, too, left me wanting a little less pride and a lot more outrage.

Uncritical theory

Teju Cole does not settle for photographs. He makes magazine spreads, with or without the magazine. It shows in the bright colors and perfect stillness—even with a woman walking the street or boats headed every which way at sea. It shows in clear skies and sunlit vistas, the kind you know even before you have seen them, perhaps from last weekend's travel section. It shows in the certainty that each scene, however marvelous or however ordinary, is where you want to be. It shows, too, in the text facing each and every one.

Teju Cole's Capri, June 2015 (Steven Kasher gallery, 2015)A pairing of photos and text has quite another history as well, in conceptual art, and Cole has big ideas. The woman and the boats make him think of sailing for Troy in the Iliad. (He leaves unsaid whether Agamemnon will have to sacrifice this young woman first, which is just as well.) This is not, though, the pairing in Barbara Kruger and the "Pictures generation," with their insistence on politics and gender. Rather, it takes the critical out of critical theory. It leaves only the comforting certainty that something profound is going on.

Cole has made that certainty the subject of his essays for the Sunday New York Times Magazine. They deal in generalities, to reassure readers that this is serious art and that these are these are indeed universal truths. So, too, does the text accompanying his photos. "Regularity becomes invisible." "Color is the sound an object makes in response to light." "A stone contemplates a stone."

A vent on shipboard makes him think of "the alphorn at the beginning of the final movement of Brahms's First Symphony." A ladder and its shadow are "crossing each other on the way to heaven." No, make that "a shadow and its ladder," as duly ineffable. "I think the Annunciation must have happened on a day like this one." (And no, that fabric hanging from a ship's railing is not the Virgin Mary's robe or someone else's exposed underwear.) "Photography means never having to say you're sorry."

Well, I made up that last one, but you get the picture. In at least one respect, Cole's prominence is a triumph. He shows that an African American artist has every right not to speak to racism or identity, just as he has every right to speak frankly about them. Recent years have had major exhibitions of Alma Thomas, Jack Whitten, William T. Williams, and black abstraction, with much the same insistence. When they bring their experience to their art, they may well speak to racism and identity after all—and Cole's Times essays insist that photography must not paper over real lives. Yet he carries a far less provocative message as well.

It may sound odd to speak of his art as middlebrow. Surely that label belongs to a distant past, before Pop Art and street art, when highbrow art and popular culture faced off rather than intermingled, making even some with a college education feel left out. Back when, they found Modernism puzzling, the movies a guilty pleasure, and both as soulless as the threats from fascism and communism. Cole, though, is a throwback—just as he can photograph a woman from behind without anyone, including me, thinking of sexism. He still believes that Homer, the Bible, Capri, St. Moritz, and Brooklyn occupy the same space outside of time. Maybe it is about time he left that space behind him.

Harlem on my mind

African Americans may feel besieged much of the time, but nothing like the Kingdom of Harlem. As Umar Rashid recalls, it had its moment of glory long ago, but its triumph and tragedy have left their mark on black history ever since. And no wonder, for Rashid has made it all up out of currents of actual history. If anyone can keep them all straight, even him, it would surprise me, but no matter. His imagined history depends on fantastical leaps in time and place, to make the point that black lives do not reduce to any one story. Only in that way can they reclaim their histories as their own.

If this sounds messy, he calls his show "Messier Objects." The title puns on a catalog of the night sky by Charles Messier in 1771. Messier went hunting for comets but soon realized that he was looking at something else entirely—what astronomers today call galaxies, clusters, and nebulae. They are not just single stars, and he found more than a hundred even then. Rashid, too, has his stars, in the king and queen of Harlem, the commander of their armies, and the Furies that hounded them to an unhappy ending. Like astronomy, it is a messy, flashy affair.

The show turns on the dissolution of an empire in Messier's lifetime—one piece of which became the kingdom, "when laws were stern and justice stood." Where exactly? The story has something to do with the nation of Frengland, wherever that is. Yet it draws in ancient Egypt, the destruction of Troy, Dutch Guiana, colonial America, and a New Thebes. The kingdom had its west bank, but on the East River in Novum Eboracum, or Rashid's New York. His paintings amount to a catalog in themselves.

The show breaks down more or less neatly into distinct series that, together, form an installation. Small boats of carved wood carry icons out of some primitive culture along the baseboard to connect them. Some paintings use color, text, and flattened figures to evoke the Caribbean, the Egypt of Cleopatra and the pharaohs, and the Harlem Renaissance. Paintings in white on black have the silhouettes of colonial soldiers and still more text, while ink drawings depict the heroes. The color suggests a perpetual celebration of liberté and unité, while the blackness suggests something more tragic and subdued. A title may begin in French only to turn to an angry message in English that in no way translates what came before.

The flatness recalls American folk art, as does the perpetual madness, while the portraits are more sophisticated. Still, the larger scenes draw on Jacob Lawrence or Romare Bearden for their echoes of the jazz age—and Florine Stettheimer for their symmetry and celebration. The text takes them closer to diagrams of a conflicted history, like the art world for William Powhida. Rashid also throws in coffee stains for the sepia tones, photocopies for collage, and mica flakes for glitter. He even quotes Michelangelo. They point at once to past and present, as well as to outsider art and the textbooks.

To make a long story short, Harlem began as "a haven for black people within the polarized European, colonial sphere," Rashid explains. "External forces constantly harassed the kingdom . . . until its collapse shortly after the assassination of its leaders." In other words, this is political art for an age of globalization, postmodern jargon intact, but without obvious victims. Collapse came from within, while the boats along the baseboard offer the hope of escape without. The show is a mess, even with the sculpture as connective, but wide ranging and funny. Only that way, it seems to say, can black lives matter.

BACK to John's arts home page

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye ran at The New Museum through September 3, 2017, Kehinde Wiley at Sean Kelly through June 17, Teju Cole at Steven Kasher through August 11, and Umar Rashid at Johannes Vogt through March 30.


Browse or Search by artist or critic Browse by period in art's histories Browse by postmodern ideas Check out what's NEW Some of my own favorites Museums, galleries, and other resources online Who is Haberarts? Return HOME