Editor's note: The following essay was published April 6, 2016 in Resource Library with permission of the author and the Columbia Museum of Art. The essay was written to accompany the exhibit REMIX: Themes and Variations in African-American Art, on view at the Columbia Museum of Art from February 5 through May 3, 2016. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or wish to obtain a copy of the exhibit catalog containing it, please contact the Columbia Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:



 

Themes and Variations: It's What Artists Do

by Will South, Ph.D.

 

We live in a world of flying machines and near-magic phones. Change happens, constantly.

How do we -- humans -- adapt?

 

The answer to that question is written in the very biology of our being. When water disappears, we move to find it, or dig deeper into the ground. When we have an idea so new that it is impossible to express, we create new words. In our determination to survive, we find cures for one intractable disease after another. Recognizing our own complexity and at the same time our enormous creative capacity, we as a species have not stood still. For better, and arguably sometimes for worse, we have changed the landscape around us; changed how we communicate; and changed our relationships with each other. The world does not look or feel the same as it did one hundred years ago, let alone one million.

Still, we carry forward our most deeply held beliefs, values, and traditions lest they -- like seemingly everything else -- change. Losing bits and pieces of our past makes us both sad and anxious. There is security and comfort in the known. And, importantly, a sense of who we are is handed down to us, a cultural identity which we do not have to recreate with each generation, though each generation invariably alters beliefs and customs, sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically.

The 45 works in REMIX: Themes and Variations in African-American Art illustrate how art reflects this ongoing tension between innovation and change and the cultural search for stability and continuity. A result of this tension is that the stories we tell get updated: The hero of one age becomes the hero of another only with a different mask, costume, and language. His or her adventures take on different details, but the story is nonetheless familiar.

Familiar, yes, but still changed. Every time we tell a story, something is added and something is left out. When our experience of life changes, or our hopes or expectations or beliefs change, often the formula of a well-known story changes, too. Nowhere is the human ability to adapt, alter and rearrange the contents of a story -- that of the heroic, for example -- more obvious and accessible than in the visual arts. In this infinitely rich and ongoing history, we see styles morph, characters assume new roles, and even fresh details invented when older ones no longer satisfy the demands of a new age.

Auguste Rodin's St. John the Baptist (fig. 1) is a hero of, literally, Biblical proportions as he was a visionary and precursor of one greater than himself. Thousands of years earlier, the Greek god Apollo (fig. 2,) was the son of Zeus with the ability to prophesy, a complex god of power and strength. Earlier still is the fabulous figure of Amunhotep III (fig. 3), who reigned in ancient Egypt a thousand years before the creation of the Greek Apollo. Depictions of the standing male striding forth appeared in Egypt nearly 3,000 years before the Christian Era.

Even further back in time, the ancestors of Greek sculpture were small, wooden cult figures that represented deities. Cult figures were a common presence in Ancient Egypt, and the seafaring civilization of Bronze Age Crete, known today as Minoan, traded with Egypt. In the ancient tomb of Rekmire at Thebes, paintings from the 14th century B.C. depict African and Aegean peoples.

The idea, then, of the heroic figure, from wooden carving to carved marble, is of great antiquity and one cross-culturally fertilized as well as culturally shared. Fast forward into the 20th century, and the visual ideas found in Rodin's St. John, ideas seen in Greek statuary and stretching back into Africa, are alive and well in American artist Richmond Barthé's monumental bronze, the Stevedore (fig. 4). However, the artist's experience of life has changed, the world itself had changed, and Barthé has updated the appearance and function of the heroic figure.

Richmond Barthé was an African American who came to maturity in the United States in the early 20th-century and well understood that what a person embodied, what was carried inside, was much different than what others assumed. Relegated to second-class status within his own country, Barthé the artist embarked upon expressing the concept of the heroic using the African-American figure, a figure that in the vast arc of history stretched back through Rodin, through Apollo, ultimately back to the carved cult figures of Africa that embodied great spirits.

Barthé adapts first and foremost the ancient and universal idea of the hero as the singular figure that prevails amidst adversity and shares his or her courage with the community. To that core idea, Barthé adapts the classical pose used for Amunhotep III, Apollo and for the St. John, that of a single figure standing upright and strong, and converts that figure into an African-American man of his own time -- not a ruler, god or a saint, but a worker. Like the earlier sculptures, The Stevedore is physically ideal, his body comes toward us in space, and he exudes confidence and self-control. But his clothes are the common threads of a man who loads and unloads cargo on and off a ship for a living. His staff is not necessarily the tool of a dockworker, but rather functions here as the opposite of a spear or sword; a staff is humble wood by comparison, and begs Biblical comparison. Barthé confers dignity and nobility upon his figure, creating the heroic out of the humble.

Barthé has done, brilliantly, what all artists do: he has used subjects and schemes from the past and updated them, making something familiar but new out of them. In saying that "this is what artists do," we must note that the African-American artist modifies visual traditions to tell culturally, politically, or socially relevant stories that had long been exclusively controlled by mainstream white culture. The mix of a distinctly African-American viewpoint with sources for so long conventionally seen and understood within the dominant western culture could not help but lead to fresh, poignant, and powerful statements.

One such statement is Hale Woodruff's glittering Woman by the Sea of 1930 (fig. 5). Like Barthé, Woodruff travelled to Europe in the early 20th century in search of the best art training the world had to offer. In 1926, he won a Harmon Foundation scholarship that allowed him to study in France from 1927 through 1931. While there, he studied at the Académie Moderne and became acquainted with the avant-garde of Paris. Woodruff discovered that African art had flooded the imaginations of key European modernists, including Picasso and Matisse. Woodruff haunted the museums of Paris, learning about African art as much as modern, and before long was collecting it. In Woman by the Sea, the influence of African masks is clearly seen in the shining face of the beautiful woman with her thinly cut and sharply horizontal eyes and strongly-carved, column-like vertical nose. Beside her is a stringed instrument looking very much like a lute, cousin to the guitar, an instrument that originated in Africa.

Woodruff also took time while in France to look up America's internationally famous black artist, Henry Ossawa Tanner, who had expatriated to France years before. Tanner, an older artist who established his career in the 19th century, asked Woodruff which artist or artists he was following. Nervous but truthful, Woodruff told the conservative Tanner that his main influence was modernist pioneer Paul Cézanne. Tanner paused and told Woodruff, "You have chosen well."

Woman by the Sea is, in addition to a sensitive mix of African sources, a visual riff on Cézanne's well-known pictures of nudes lounging in Arcadian settings (fig. 6), painted in his revolutionary style of fractured spaces and brilliant color. As a visual riff, it is familiar, but very much changed. Woodruff's nude is a black woman recumbent against an exotic blue ocean, one that suggests Tahiti (and Gauguin) more than Europe. The luxurious atmosphere of Woodruff's painting is a clear nod to Cézanne, one that fits comfortably with Woodruff's African references and, critically, his desire to foreground the aesthetic beauty of blackness.

As Woodruff had done before him, artist Bob Thompson travelled to Europe. Working in New York in the 1960s, Bob Thompson was unusual because he was not interested in the pop art scene then dominating American art. Instead, he was fascinated in equal measure by neoclassical art and by early European modernism. And, also like Woodruff before him, Thompson was fascinated by how African art had inspired modern art to be more graphic, magical, and powerful.

Thompson's Bathers (fig. 7) is a fascinating update of a most unlikely source for the pop art world of the 1960s: Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres's 1862-1863 painting, The Turkish Bath (fig. 8) in the Louvre. The two most obvious figures derived from The Turkish Bath in Thompson's Bathers are the two at the far right, the nude leaning with both arms above her head, and the cropped figure immediately below her with both hands resting on her face. Thompson lifts those figures explicitly, and takes the main center figure -- with her back to the viewer, playing a lute -- and copies her into the center of his canvas, losing the lute and changing her from white to black. On close scrutiny, one can see that Thompson has moved and modified other figures from the The Turkish Bath and placed them in his Bathers.

The most conspicuous change from Ingres's composition of a harem is the addition of a male nude in Thompson's Bathers, one who confronts the center female with his stark sexuality. This figure, too, was borrowed from Cézanne, this time from the latter's Combat of Love (fig. 9) where the male there has the same arms open, legs spread pose. Thompson has altered what was an orientalist fantasy with Ingres into a sexually charged visual arena.

Bathers is painted with a huge debt to the style of Cézanne, clearly evidenced in the treatment of the figures in heavy outline and the aggressively modeled patchwork of the background. The leaning tree off to the left in Bathers is taken directly from the Cézanne's use of that same prop in any number of landscapes. The black, silhouetted figure in the lower left of the Thompson is taken from Cézanne's extraordinary painting from 1875, The Fishermen (Fantastic Scene), now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. One can assume, too, that the female figure in The Fisherman that points rightward, and the presence of a small child, inspired Thompson's configuration of the left side of his Bathers. All three of those figures -- the black silhouette, the nude just to the left of the child, and the child -- point to the action taking place beyond them. This simultaneous finger-pointing suggests they are alarmed by something, or someone.

One can almost picture Thompson in his studio mixing and matching sources from Ingres through numerous references to Cézanne, but putting them all together with a vivid boldness that is all Bob Thompson. His Bathers becomes a subtly unnerving erotic composition distinct from the more traditional narratives of his sources. If all art is autobiographical, then Thompson's Bathers is an outsized expression of the male/female dynamic that plays out over time in mythology, art and in life, including the artist's own.

Adapting source material from the annals of history would remain a sturdy strategy on the American art scene. Benny Andrews redid the story of Narcissus (fig. 10) in 1980; making the original Greek male Narcissus into a woman who seems to be focused on her hair more than on her face. Romare Bearden retells the story of the Fall of Troy (fig. 11) using an all-black cast (Bearden associated the trials of Odysseus -- his epic struggle and ultimate triumph -- with African-American experience.). The most obvious reason for this would be alerting an audience to the idea that myths are communal, not exclusive, property. And, Jacob Lawrence remade a 19th-century engraving of Toussaint L'Ouverture (fig. 12) into a pop-art-inflected icon (fig. 13). Lawrence declared visually that Toussaint remained both heroic and relevant, a figurehead for contemporary African Americans as he was the leader of the first free black nation, Haiti.

All of the images discussed thus far, from Barthé to Thompson, are, of course, political images as well as artistic ones. As each puts blackness at the center of their narrative, the message sent is that art is (like life itself) a shared experience -- there is no subject off limits, no narrative that cannot be expanded to include a black perspective, no style that is owned by any one culture or artist. Remixing styles and subjects in African-American art stakes a subtle but philosophically elegant claim for aesthetic coexistence. Over the course of the 20th century, African-American artists moved ever more boldly toward art that more overtly and explicitly addressed political concerns, especially social justice. The impulse to reuse and refashion ideas and images from the past continued and, if anything, increased. It is critical to realize that in this process black artists were not appropriating material from western culture because, as Jonell Logan so effectively points out in the following essay, African Americans are part of Western culture. They were, and continue to be, active participants in the unfolding story of our larger society. When these artists reuse or reinvent art from the past, the resulting works are innovations, citations, or even adaptations -- rather than "appropriations," which implies a (sometimes unlawful) taking away.

Charles White's 1969 Wanted (fig. 14) is an arresting example of using elements of one's own culture to make a strong visual point. White takes the once-standard tool of law enforcement, the wanted poster, and uses it as a backdrop for the portraits of three young African Americans. The poster does not indicate why Ida, Clotel, and Edmonia are wanted, but rather only that they are. This is intentional: as there is no reason to be automatically suspect, none is given. Instead, the date that slavery is institutionalized in America is painted in the upper left (1619 is the date the Dutch introduced the first captured Africans to Jamestown), and a date of question marks in the upper right: We know when slavery officially began here, White is saying, but when will it end?

The wanted poster as an artifact is taken out of its historical role and placed into a new, artistic setting. The result is a visual jolt. What White mixes together is an artifact of so-called justice (the wanted poster) with academically deft depictions of young people, with clear political intent: to protest discrimination. The mix here is both plain and powerful. Leo Twiggs hits the same nerve in his 2006 small, yet intense image of targets superimposed upon the shape of silhouetted body (fig. 15): People have become targets, especially the African-American male in American society.

Joyce Scott uses an extraordinary sense of irony to address a topic related to White's Wanted Poster and Twiggs's Moving Targets. Her 1995 Boy with a Gun (fig. 16) is a delightful sculpture of bright beads and reflective glass, but the joyful look of the object is offset by what the boy has at his feet: a gun. Scott's playful approach to art-making suggests anything but play?a gun is serious business, and children should not have them. But, they do and in increasing numbers. This is a work of art that mixes together well-known and readily accessible materials into a complex social proposition: What is wrong with this otherwise hugely attractive object? The threat of violence.

Not to be lost in any discussion of any artist are the well-honed skills brought to the table. White's wanted poster is not an actual poster but is painted to look like one, while the portraits are as sensitive and searching as any painted in that era. White was a disciplined draftsman, a fact not to be discounted while acknowledging his overall mastery of visual poetry. In a similar vein, Whitfield Lovell takes a familiar and readily accessible object, an old bed and draws a double-portrait onto its wood backboard, creating an image, Plenty (fig. 17), circa 2001, that is like a dreamy memory: Perhaps these two people slept here, sharing a home. Lovell's deft and lyrical control of drawing applied to an unusual surface (like White's faux poster) stretches the idea of portraiture into sculpture and back again.

The strident political art of White, Scott, and Twiggs is very much echoed in Glenn Ligon's series, Runaways (fig. 18), of 1993. An ironic adaptation of runaway posters from the 19th century, Runaways is made up of casual descriptions of Ligon by his friends, and Ligon put these comments into the 19th-century format to reveal how profoundly absurd, and absolutely scary, such tactics were (and perhaps remain).

Consider this description of a slave from the year 1860 and in which the sum of a person's description is reduced to a short series of harsh assessments: "Jim is dish-faced; has sore eyes and bad teeth." Ligon, using a similar wood-engraved figure from 1860 in his update, is described differently: "Wears delicate glasses. Moves smoothly, look like he might have something on his mind. He'll find you." (fig. 19) Ligon throws a spotlight on the inhumane nature of runaway slave descriptions by contrasting them with a characterization of himself that is complex and perhaps even inscrutable, in the way we all can be.

Another similar but more subtle political statement is Elizabeth Catlett's imposing dark marble woman, Torso, circa 2000 (fig. 20). Intentionally limited to the presentation of a torso, the obvious comparison is to Venus (fig. 21), the ancient woman of supposed perfect proportion and ideal beauty. Catlett endows her woman with ample flesh and proportion and with a gleaming polish and hardness of material that culminate in a fierce proclamation that this, too, is ideal beauty, that this, too, is a goddess. Catlett rounds up in one sculpture a variety of past precedents, such as Henry Moore, that stake claims for feminine beauty and fecundity, and stamps them anew with an affirmation of the power of all women.

An artist who unabashedly looks to the distant past is Willis "Bing" Davis, who has created an ongoing series of sparkling pastels based on the high-energy patterns of African kente cloth made by the Asante peoples of Ghana and the Ewe peoples of Ghana and Togo. In his studio, Davis will pin a cloth to the wall and next to it a large piece of paper. He will then riff on the kente cloth patterns, finally exploding out into an abstract pattern of color and line that grows organically out of the African cloth design. Davis likens this process to a musician who understands the musical genre he or she is in and then steps out to solo, creating a distinctive sound that relates to the whole but that is still unique and personal. In the many talks Davis has given over the years to every kind of organization, he has urged young people who cannot go to Africa to "go to Africa in your heart" to help understand the strength of their past and its traditions. You can still "step out and solo," as the artist so imaginatively does in his Ancestral Spirit Dance drawings of 2013 (figs. 22 and 23).

Few artists working in the later 20th century, of any background, mined past stories and iconic images as often and effectively as Robert Colescott, who represented the United States in the 1997 Venice Biennale, the first African American to do so. Colescott had achieved fame by then for his outsized, ironic, and over-the-top paintings that skewered racism, nationalism, sexism, and just about every "ism" there is. Colescott's 1992 oil on canvas, Between Two Worlds (fig. 24), takes direct aim at the highly unstable ideas we entertain daily about race. And, to do it, he reaches back into art history and satirizes Diego Velázquez's great painting, the Rokeby Venus of circa 1647-1651 (fig. 25).

Colescott paints Velázquez's Venus black. Looking into the mirror, she appears white. Below her, an anxious figure clasps her brown face as if to say, "Well, what am I? Black or white?" She is, in fact, flanked by a light-skinned figure and a dark-skinned figure -- literally, she is between two worlds. The distinctions between what we think we are and our mirror image are fairly fluid, the artist suggests. And yet we act as if reality were a series of clear-cut choices or categories, such as "black and white." We all might agree that reality is not that simple. Colescott plays up our collective distress over blurry racial boundaries with an infectious humor and painterly exuberance, ensuring that his images will remain interesting long after we (hopefully) cease to fixate on distinctions in a negative way.

Colescott's brazen sense of humor is shared by any number of later African-American artists, many of whom surely have been influenced by him. Included in this group would be Fahamu Pecou whose 2010 Rock. Well (fig. 26) is a laugh-out-loud remix of famed artist Norman Rockwell's Triple Self-Portrait (fig. 27), as is Colin Quashie's reinvention of the board game, Monopoly, into his board game, Plantation Monopoly (fig. 28) in 2012. Both of these works of art have serious implications, of course, but the veneer of humor serves to dish up harsh political and historic truths (the continuing marginalization of black men in general and the historic wholesale disenfranchisement of African Americans) with an engaging wit. The viewer willingly enters into the informed repartee of these artists, enjoying their clever compositions and meditating upon their clearly stated positions.

For years, South Carolina artist Terry Hunter has very consciously been sifting his work through the screen of pop culture using not just images, but words, logos, characters, and musical titles. He has said his works are in fact generated and filtered through a "pop" prism: "I provide commentary with a specific slant, whether it is humor, wit, satire, metaphor or any other device at my disposal to render the idea effective." In work like 1996's WRAP 1 (fig. 29), a play on the word "rap", we see the famous musician Snoop Dogg in the same image as Snoopy from the cartoon strip, Peanuts. At the center of this highly complex arrangement -- as all of Hunter's grid-series images are -- is the "Parental Advisory" notice that often appears on rap cds. It is a warning for his image too, as images carry ideas and ideas can be dangerous: they change lives.

Krista Franklin also references music in her compelling 2013 collage, Oshun as Ohio Player(s) (fig. 30). In 1975, the cover of the Ohio Players album, Honey, featured the alluring woman with a jar of honey, which was controversial for its sexual connotations. Franklin has adapted it to show model Ester Cordet's entire body (which the album cover did not until it was unfolded) and surrounds her with a variety of references, including a hummingbird that actually would be attracted to honey. A list of soul hits is posted off to the right, and the figure seems to emerge from a bed of flowers.

Though Honey was shocking to some 1970s sensibilities, and would today still be viewed by many as exploiting women, a young Krista Franklin growing up in the Midwest saw this album cover quite differently:

I never saw those women as objectified. I saw them as Goddesses. Even as a kid, I was completely compelled and seduced by them and what I saw as their power positions, their front row seats as Icons of the Ohio Players discography and branding. I mean, anyone who is an Ohio Players fan can't mention them without talking about their album covers. They were highly stylized, had gorgeous black women on them, and were thematically tight. Sure, the images are contested, conflicting and perhaps politically incorrect, but they're also incredible works of art to me in their own right.

In a tour de force of remixing, Franklin uses the Honey album cover to conflate Ester Cordet with the Yoruba orisha (deity), Oshun. Devotees of Oshun speak of her as beautiful and seductive and go to her with numerous needs or problems, including those involving fertility and creativity. A favorite gift to Oshun is -- honey. Franklin brings the African orisha full circle into American popular culture in a positive and forceful way, as a spirit who can empower another, as she did the young Krista Franklin.

Back in the vein of humor-tinged art, there may be no example more boisterous and joyful than Tarleton Blackwell's Hog Series CCX: Las Meninas, of 1999 (figure 31, next page). Once again, the source of inspiration is Diego Velázquez (artists love Velázquez, and their ongoing imitations of him are a sincere form of flattery) and the painting copied this time is Las Meninas of 1656, star of the Museo National del Prado. In Blackwell's remix of Las Meninas, gone are members of Spain's royal family and inserted are members of the artist's own family, along with a lot of hogs -- animals of great import to a family farm. The artist himself takes the place of Velásquez in the painting's composition, aligning himself with a spiritual mentor at the same time he creates an overall quirky ensemble. Art, Blackwell suggests, can be a process of including yourself in the stream of history as well as staking a claim for yourself in the present. He achieves both of these goals, admirably, and gives us a robust visual feast in the process.

 

Into the late 20th century and the early 21st, African-American artists' critique of art, history, and culture has become ever more complex in ways that mirror the overall changes in contemporary art: It has become more theoretical, more prone to be in dialogue with other art forms, and definitely more free of any conventional expectations. The last thing, for example, a viewer might expect is to see a black artist don black face and make a self-portrait, but this is exactly what Beverly McIver does. She takes something -- blackface -- that was part of the entertainment industry for a long time, though it trivialized African Americans, and creates an image of longing, perhaps longing to get past stereotypes others have created, an image not her own. Why?

Beverly McIver grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina, and was bused to a predominantly white school. She dreamed of being a clown and covering her face with white paint. Eventually, she tried out for clown college, but was rejected. As she struggled to come to terms with her blackness, she "changed her costume." She depicted herself wearing Afro wigs and wearing black-face paint. These paintings received their share of negative criticism, including from the African-American community. But McIver held fast, saying "It was really a liberation from the white face and the idea of wanting to be a clown in a predominantly white school where everybody was white-faced. Then, it was like 'I can be black,' and celebrate what it means to be black. I can eat watermelon and not feel embarrassed by it. I can stomp out some of those stereotypes for myself and perhaps for others."

McIver's Amazing Grace (fig. 32), 2000, is a deeply poetic painting, where something painful to think about is confronted head on, adapted, and used to make a new statement: I can get past this, and live my own dream.

Another artist to deal with the sensitive issue of black face is iona rozeal brown in her piece, a3 blackface #65 (fig. 33). While McIver's self-portrait is readily identifiable as blackface, brown's is not. What she has done is to take the traditional appearance of a Japanese woodblock print figure and insert an African American into it. The implications are many, among them that dressing up in elaborate costumes like Japanese geisha or actresses is itself a way of changing identity. But, brown also touches on the high interest in contemporary Japanese culture in American black culture. There are numerous overlaps here in possible meanings or, maybe more accurately, suggested meanings. One of these meanings surely is that the appearance or influence of black culture may now show up anywhere in the world in any format.

Just as blackface was at one time a conventional and demeaning way to depict African Americans, stereotypical images were once ubiquitous in this country. Countless African Americans grew up under the shadow of mean-spirited representations such as the one used in Damond Howard's 2007 Untitled Diptych (fig. 34, previous page). Howard explains the purpose of his project:

As a black male in a largely white culture, I have been victimized by racism, but as an artist I have an opportunity to critique and revise the representations of blackness including, but not limited to, journalistic cartoons, advertisements, popular culture, and even high art that were major venues for the racial stereotyping of African Americans. I examine historical memory and attempt to make manifest the racist myths and distortions as it persists in the present moment.

Damond Howard is quite right: art has the power to change things.

This essay began with the idea of change being relentless and unavoidable and how we live with change: we adapt, but at the same time work to keep certain traditions alive. What we do, it seems, is continually update everything -- our stories, our styles, ourselves. We add, we subtract. We remix.

Damond Howard's piece is a fine one to conclude with here, as it shows that art keeps alive creativity, as well as the ideas of discipline, self-worth and critique. It shows that art retains its power to communicate and, critically, that art gains in power when more voices are heard.

In Remix: Themes and Variations in African-American Art, we find that traditions are not diminished as they are reinvented, but rather enlivened. We find that stories are not undermined when retold, but rather expanded. We find that the society we live in was never one culture, but rather was always many. And we find that just as art derives strength and a renewed vitality from hearing all voices, so do we.

 

About the author

Will South, Ph.D., is Chief Curator at the Columbia Museum of Art

 

About the exhibition

The Columbia Museum of Art (CMA) opened a new year of programming by presenting a major exhibition featuring some of the most important artists of the 20th century and today. REMIX: Themes and Variations in African-American Art and its accompanying catalogue focus on work that reassembles and reconfigures prior sources from history and culture into new works of art. The 45 works in the show represent some of the most innovative and influential African-American artists including Jacob Lawrence, Elizabeth Catlett, and Romare Bearden, alongside contemporary superstars like Kehinde Wiley, Kara Walker, and Fahamu Pecou. Nine South Carolina artists are included such as Leo Twiggs, Michaela Pilar Brown, and Colin Quashie. This show is curated and organized by the CMA, which is its only venue.

"The CMA belongs to an era where a conscious invitation to hear all voices is the underpinning of the work we do every day," says Executive Director Karen Brosius. "We are the first museum to explore the underlying thesis that many dynamic African-American artists have taken their inspiration from images, stories, and styles of the past and remade them through their own unique perspectives, imbuing them with a fresh context and often a whole new meaning."

The lively form of the works -- paintings, sculpture, works on paper, video, and textiles -- showcase diverse styles that explore the American experience. "In the face of our current divisive political climate, it is important to deconstruct the master narrative," says Jonell Logan, independent curator specializing in contemporary American art. As an REMIX essayist, Logan speaks about the themes that shape modern and contemporary African-American art. "REMIX provides us that opportunity -- to include more voices in the conversation of history, identity, and the image -- and to provide a truer picture of what our world, our society looks like."

The Columbia Museum of Art has a long history of presenting exhibitions featuring African-American art and African cultural heritage -- more than 40 years, beginning in 1972. In addition to the more than 25 exhibitions, the museum's collection includes works by more than 35 African-American artists, including Romare Bearden, Sam Gilliam, Joseph Norman, Elizabeth Catlett, William H. Johnson, Betye Saar, Carrie Mae Weems, Willie Cole, and others.

The exhibition opened on February 5, 2016 and runs through May 3, 2016.

REMIX: Themes and Variations in African-American Art is made possible through support of sponsors and national foundations. Presented by Title Sponsor BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina and Foundation Sponsor Henry Luce Foundation. Supporting Sponsors: Bank of America, Merrill Lynch, Susan Thorpe and John Baynes, U.S. Trust. Contributing Sponsors: Adam and Reese, LLP, Dr. and Mrs. Benjamin M. Gimarc, Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP, and Smith Family Foundation. Grant awards from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Elizabeth Firestone Graham Foundation.

 

Wall text for the exhibition

Artists tell us stories about the world we live in now. In telling those stories, they very often carry forward well-known stories from the past and update them for new audiences. Art reflects this ongoing dynamic between the old and the new, between what we feel will never change and what we feel must change.
 
The underlying rationale for REMIX is that art is derived from pre-existing art. Sustained derivations become traditions, while innovations are heralded as modernism. Whether borrowing or bucking traditions, visual artists are aware of directly quoting source material, though historically the tendency has been to downplay crediting the past in favor of emphasizing individual genius and "newness." This tendency all but disappears in contemporary African-American art where the phenomenon of remixing -- of reassembling and reconfiguring prior sources into a new work of art with a fresh perspective -- is not only acceptable, it is inherent to the process. In music, older lyrics, themes, "hooks", and phrases literally live again in a remix that creates new experiences from the historically familiar. African-American visual artists have been creating work in tandem with musicians, work that echoes the same remixing ethos. The result is a continuing body of work that is vital in creativity and construction. REMIX is a survey of this phenomenal work, and a celebration of its power and forward-looking vision.

 

Resource Library editor's note

The above essay was published April 6, 2016 in Resource Library with permission of the Columbia Museum of Art. The essay was written to accompany the exhibit REMIX: Themes and Variations in African-American Art, on view at the Columbia Museum of Art from February 5 through May 3, 2016. Permission was granted to TFAO on April 1, 2016. Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Will South and Jessica Derr of the Columbia Museum of Art for their help concerning permission for publishing online the above essay.

Images of artworks referred to in the text as "figures" are not included here, however they are available in the paper-printed catalogue.

CMA says: "Presented by the TEGNA Foundation and Michelin North America, REMIX: The Documentary is a short film featuring artists and curators from the REMIX: Themes and Variations in African-American Art exhibition at the Columbia Museum of Art. This film serves as an introduction to the themes and ideas underpinning the heart of this socially driven exhibition, featuring interviews with Will South, Fahamu Pecou, Jonell Logan, Tarleton Blackwell, Leo Twiggs, Michaela Pilar Brown, Juan Logan, and Damond Howard. "The 12 min video is accessed via a CMA Stories page.

For a definition of wall text, please see Definitions in Museums Explained.

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For biographical information on selected artists referenced in this article please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artist

Read more information, articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Columbia Museum of Art in Resource Library.



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