Sunday, February 8, 2015

AfroVeganChick Hits Harlem And It Punches Back With Glitter Dusted History

Harlem the center of African American and African artists, the mecca, the center of my dreams.
I've always wanted to be an artist. Always. I knew that even with my scribble scrabble. As I grew up, maturing and nurturing passionate craft, it was the Harlem Renaissance lighting hot fire in junior high creativity. I had to learn on cultural artist ancestors on my own. Rogue style. In school, Michelangelo, Rafael, Da Vinci, and Picasso filled our minds and canvases. Frida Kahlo for me too. I love Frida. At the library I fell in love with Augusta Savage, William H. Johnson, Romare Bearden, Palmer Hayden, Wallace Thurman, Countee Cullen, and others. Currently reading Zora Neale Hursten-- a sharp, brilliant mind robbed of Pulitzer. Painting, drawing, sculpture, literature, music, and everything enriched me. Everything. Back then. Now. I cannot stop being taught.
So I came to Harlem on Saturday, enchanted thoughts in mind. I had no idea that 2 or 3 train wouldn't be running and got lost along the way (thanks Google Maps and construction!). Eventually I figured it out. I walked down W. 125th Street with splendid urban romanticism and desires to fill sketchbook. Visceral inspiration surrounded lukewarm winter. Not too cold for exploration. Although there are chains like Starbucks and McDonald's, fairy tale length hair extension stores next to African braiding and barber shops, promises are kept rooted on Malcolm Luther King Jr and African Streets. It was bewildering to be nestled in the comforts of diaspora. Imagine periods of divine desperation to find paper, clay, or instrument to unleash talented prowess from within. 

I wonder if this is the same Cotton Club that inflamed Duke Ellington's career? That let Dorothy Dandrige and her sisters sing? Had Bojangles dance?  Is this that very imperative location?
Bridge on a winter's day.
Mailbox representing hardcore.
We all have dreams. And some people's dreams get fulfilled in the biggest, most globally impacting way.
The Afro Jackson lives on even in the most grittiest of street corners.
I wanna see her. But I doubt I'll be back. 
Apollo. Still known for it's Amateur Night. Started so many careers like Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, The Jackson 5, Mariah Carey, and  Lauryn Hill. Risque comedians like Richard Pryor and Redd Foxx. Headliners like the Staple Sisters, Mahalia Jackson (amazing voice!!!),  Stan Getz (was Astrud Gilberto with him ever?!), and Ray Charles. It's definitely a place enriched in history. So happy that it's one that still stands.
Hotel Theresa, the "Waldorf of Harlem" is a declared landmark. Patrons like Malcolm X, Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Muhammad Ali, and Jimi Hendrix all had rooms there. Part of Precious was filmed here too. It's now office buildings, but that doesn't stop my beguiling imagination. I will lie my head on satin pillows and relax body between one thousand thread count Egyptian sheets. Just for a night.
Mosaic mural tantalized my entire being with its fluid movements and jazzy vibrant colors and shapes. 
I wanted to move. I wanted to dance. I wanted to sing. And I can do neither of the last two things with proficient skill, but oh how wishes welled deep.
I wanted to fly to the notes of the saxophone, but my wings were clipped. So I imagined making birds jealous with my purple, teal, cerulean, and indigo feathers flowing in the Harlem breathing wind, Langston Hughes singing in my heightened ears. Beautiful dream.
Two of the most important Civil Rights leaders (the masculine ones) talking.  They are on the side of a Halal cart. The Halal cart sells falafel. I suddenly dream of buying them falafel wraps dripping in tahini sauce and crisp lettuce as we talk about glorious Harlem and the peace of uniting the American Melting Pot.
Studio Museum Harlem: stringing me along with their Museum Store display like a ravenous mouse eager for a piece of finest quality vegan cheese. 
It's exciting to have Titus Kaphar as a visiting critic this semester. Yes, I'll miss Abigail Deville. She was engaging, humorous, and understanding. Lots of ideas. Lots. I had my second visit with Titus last Friday. First time we met, I was a Post Baccalaureate student struggling with painting. Realism or abstract. Realism or abstract. Instructors wanted me to either paint academically (with trained proficiency after all it's an academia college) or go completely abstract- collaging if need be. I have since shifted towards watercolor and weird sculpture. He was surprised. I am too in a way. I love painting. Love it. Always have.
Yosef Nabil's colored gelatin silver print, Tina Early Morning, Harlem reels me in first. Beautiful colors, the yellow especially popping not just in the flowers, earrings and dress, but the model's skin's highlights are also in tuned with the vibrant hue. The curly kinky epic hair is also bathed in glorious light. She looks at the viewer with enthused confidence and affable kindness in her eyes are not threatening or challenging. Direct, but subtle gentleness. As though there is a joke she is about to utter. By her charms alone we all laugh and smile before she tells it.
To see all these names in one show..... what can say? Thank you Lord for blessing me the opportunity. These are individuals whose works reign paramount in this contemporary era. 
And boy did they speak. Communicate in a multitude of language via in text or images. Past circumstances still hinder racial identity today, perhaps always will. These artists articulate stories visualized and told in urban magazines addressed to minorities. I can remember the Jet Beauty of the Month always slender and beautiful with her hair pressed nicely as she flexed in her swimsuit. I can remember Ebony's 50 Most Beautiful People competing with People's mostly white Most Beautiful People and Sexiest Man Alive. In this wonderfully composed exhibition, I feel inclusive as opposed to exclusive. There is a unity here that quietly serenades the writer and artist brewing inside me. It moves my spirit. And now fills my eyes with tears. I still remember standing and greeting each piece in wonder and great joy. I want to tip off my Senegalese headwrap to all the artists living and passed on. The work is beyond just experienced voyeurism. It is more.
Ellen Gallagher as a whole cohesive unit. There were many parts individually admired. She uses mixed media in a way that is exasperating. Strange pieces attached to figure heads. Giving flat images three dimensional abstraction. Twisting language in a way that mirrors the Dada Movement. This was reaching urban sublime. This was my Mona Lisa. And yes, I saw the Mona Lisa at the Louvre ages ago. But this... Ellen Gallagher is my she-ro, one of many women I look up to as an artist, as a African American woman, as an explorer of afro hair perception.
So Natural, So Healthy. Ah, but scary and frightening how Gallagher depicts the notion right? For the Afro Woman, we better not be wearing those sinister afros. It's seen as mongrel, as demonic as the brown skin. Again the "We Love Our Natural Hair Movement" is going so strong right now, as intense as the 1970's era of Angela Davis and Kathleen Cleaver. I enjoyed this piece because smiling, pupil less, shiny haired woman is terrifying, strange, and humorous. Yet underneath lies a grisly truth of ingrained perception. What is "so natural, so healthy" about fear? Fear is oppressor of the freedom, of the stamped freedom of the bottom of these seemingly happy "mugshots."
Noel Anderson tells viewers site specific silk screen. 
Close up of dynamic shapes and continuous lines moving over and orbiting between one space to another. Primary colors are the intense teal, tiny red polka dots, and orange yellow. The negative space is scraped out context on top of black.
In a sea of quotes. In a sea of where I could sink to the abyss of words and never fall into fathomless depths. I feel grounded in Printmaker Ayanah Moor's Good News. They always tell us in art school not to make our "great" work on newsprint. It'll eventually disappear because it cannot hold medium long. The fact that Moor uses this temporary surface discusses relationship of viewer to media, of reader to text. Headlines do not last forever. And these "headlines" just happen to be positive quotes about race, identity, and femininity. Insincere (surface) versus congenial (assembled white over black comments).
White on black text appear like journal entries disguised as quotes by other women.
Each quote is said in a specific city, made by a specific woman on women-- how they are viewed and otherwise. Seen to be as uneducated when in fact, we are just as talented, smart, thoughtful, engaging, and beautiful. This perception of us as poor, destitute, angry, bitter, vengeful single mothers should end. It's slow, but progression is moving.
Lorna Simpson, another influence, talked about this body of collage briefly during her lecture at University of Pennsylvania last October. I was impressed by wide body of work and articulate voice. So commanding and intelligent. No part of her communication confused or perplexed me. I understood her just fine. In her latest constructions, the same chocolate toned woman centering white paper. Her body as ghostly as the composition. Yet she wears same vague expression, stays in same pose as styled hats and jewelry frame her face. Periods of the dreams I spoke of earlier, of the rich Renaissance era seem to trace these collages. The notion of being there, but not entirely absent. For her prestige and elegance are visible. I recall Simpson speaking about James Zan Der Vee (one of the most riveting Harlem Renaissance photographers) "companionship." I see them "holding hands" here too. 
There's our makeup! Foundations, lipsticks, blushes, and all. I laughed at the model on the video installation saying that she called herself, "blue." Well, if we're speaking in that way, I consider myself purple. So there. Wish I was allowed to put that down on an application. Purple. 
Glenn Ligon explores the connection between popularized hair products and African art.
Another further abstract form like a dynamic arrow pointing above. It's Pan Africanism staring. Red meaning the fiery pulsing blood flowing through veins. Green meaning the majestic wealth of African land. Some of us don't want to see Africa while others desire to touch it like it gives our hearts reasons to beat. That it'll make our ancestors shine down with pride and fist pumps. And black symbolizes skin. Skin of all tones, a myriad of brown and ebony that should stop being divided due to tone and hue. It all lies there on white paper singing a hymn of unity. I don't see a piece just about hair grease and a sculptural form seen at the Africa part of every art museum. I'm elaborating on deeper evocation. Or attempting to.
Back in the day, when the fro was fire (it has since gaining back its rightful hair throne today), the shinier the better. Like Ligon was hailing, Afro Sheen and Murray's balm were salvation at the barber shops. In Jeremy Okai Davis's piece, What Makes The Man, a floating partially present man smiles. No nose, nothing pass grinning face. But that fro. So glossed and shaped just right. 
Hank Willis Thomas's Jet People. Gouache acrylic on canvas. It was entirely unique experience for me to see him outside vein of photography and video, having recently seen his collaborative projects Question Bridge and Truth! Jet People takes both magazine fonts and places them together, stripping them to black and white contrast. 
 I couldn't wait to see Titus's exhibit having seen his lecture last year where he discussed The Jerome Project at length. This is the first time I've seen his work in the flesh. Upstairs, painted against vivid dark earthy green are these beautifully painted portraits, their bottoms encased in textured black charcoal with pieces of speckled gold.
The space is so pristine. Floor so polished anyone could do the moonwalk. Lights reflect on the fascinating portraits, each individual male realistically rendered in monochromatic brown. 
Some portraits are close to 75 percent visible.....
.....others are less so. Drowning in the rough black tar and speckled glimmer.
Across the way, I found myself submerged in thick, layered suspension. Kianja Strobert is her name and her body of fascination is entitled Of This Day In Time (she is giving a lecture in conversation with Jessica Bell on Thursday evening and yes, I must go!!!). A world of color globs on top of black, white, and gray. Interruptions are like tasty sweet taffy stretched and sticky across vertical planes. Stepping closer, I saw lines skinny and fat. Large, small, and in between spaces of smooth and gritty opposites filling gaps.
I zoomed in, but I don't think camera touches the tip of the visual iceberg.  The longing to sink fingers inside, to brush and linger is reality. Textures here are splendid. That red in the left side line just engaged my eye in the most charming way. I dream and daydream about that red. The tone, the boldness. I'm in love. I cannot wait to come back.

No comments:

Post a Comment