Dar­ryl Pinck­ney

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Dar­ryl Pinck­ney

Lynette Yi­adom-Boakye: Un­der-Song for a Cipher an ex­hi­bi­tion at the New Mu­seum, New York City,

May 3–Septem­ber 3, 2017.

Cat­a­log of the ex­hi­bi­tion edited by Natalie Bell and Mas­si­m­il­iano Gioni. New Mu­seum/Kun­sthalle Basel,

123 pp., $24.00 (paper)

Re­gard­ing the Fig­ure an ex­hi­bi­tion at the Stu­dio Mu­seum in Har­lem, New York City,

April 20–Au­gust 6, 2017

Ke­hinde Wi­ley: Trick­ster an ex­hi­bi­tion at the Sean Kelly Gallery, New York City,

May 6–June 17, 2017

A few years back I ran into Camille Brewer, a black Amer­i­can cu­ra­tor of con­tem­po­rary art, on Fred­er­ick Dou­glass Boule­vard in Har­lem. “Look at this,” she said. She was turn­ing the pages of Art­fo­rum, find­ing black artist af­ter black artist. “It’s like Jet up in here.” Camille was re­fer­ring to the glossy black news and en­ter­tain­ment mag­a­zine that had its hey­day in the 1950s and 1960s. “Un­til you get to the [mu­seum] ap­point­ments pages,” she added. “Then things go quiet again.” The black pres­ence in the con­tem­po­rary art scene con­tin­ues to feel like a re­cent cul­tural phe­nom­e­non, though the group and in­di­vid­ual ex­hi­bi­tions of black artists that pre­pared the way for this mo­ment took place some time ago. A land­mark ex­hi­bi­tion, “Con­tem­po­rary Black Art in Amer­ica,” at the Whit­ney Mu­seum of Amer­i­can Art in 1971, con­cerned pri­mar­ily the ab­stract. It as­serted a freedom achieved since the 1950s and 1960s when black artists such as Hale Woodruff, Nor­man Lewis, Beau­ford Delaney, and Ro­mare Bear­den were crit­i­cized for mov­ing away from rep­re­sen­ta­tion in their work, as if ab­strac­tion were a kind of op­por­tunis­tic cal­cu­la­tion. In 1971: A Year in the Life of Color (2016), his study of modernism as a cross-cul­tural ex­change for black artists, Darby English iden­ti­fies the para­dox: if they es­cape from what he calls the “rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al­ist, col­lec­tivist black-ide­o­log­i­cal norm,” they end up be­ing thought of as not hav­ing much to say on “racial­ist is­sues.”

It was there­fore im­por­tant for some to be able to find African­ist traces in ab­stract work by black artists. “Paint­ing it­self can­not prac­tice dis­crim­i­na­tion,” English wrote. How­ever, by 1970, when Jacob Lawrence’s portrait of Jesse Jack­son ap­peared on the cover of Time, the de­bate about the rep­re­sen­ta­tional ver­sus the ab­stract was be­com­ing a side­line. That same year, a black cu­ra­tor, Ky­nas­ton McShine, mounted “In­for­ma­tion,” one of the first ma­jor ex­hi­bi­tions of con­cep­tual art, at the Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art in New York. “The Short Cen­tury: In­de­pen­dence and Lib­er­a­tion Move­ments in Africa, 1945–1994,” Ok­wui En­we­zor’s ex­hi­bi­tion of 2001–2002, seen in Ber­lin and New York, among other places, put on dis­play art that was a syn­the­sis of African artis­tic styles and Euro­pean modernism, al­most as a peace treaty be­tween cul­tures. By this time Glenn Ligon, the black con­cep­tual artist, and Thelma Golden, the di­rec­tor of the Stu­dio Mu­seum in Har­lem, had pro­claimed the in­de­pen­dence of what they called a “post-black” gen­er­a­tion. To de­fine “post-black” was one of the aims of Golden’s 2001 ex­hi­bi­tion, “Freestyle.” Ligon and Golden spoke in the cat­a­log of “the lib­er­at­ing value in toss­ing off the im­mense bur­den of race-wide rep­re­sen­ta­tion, the idea that ev­ery­thing they do must speak to or for or about the en­tire race.” Black artists of the pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion could say they did not want to be iden­ti­fied as black artists, but there was no need to go into fur­ther re­pu­di­a­tions of the cat­e­gory when the only rule for black artists was that there weren’t any rules more im­por­tant than to thine own self be true.

The cat­a­log Four Gen­er­a­tions: The Joyner/Gi­uf­frida Col­lec­tion of Ab­stract Art (2016), edited by Court­ney J. Martin, shows that a his­tory of blacks in Amer­i­can art can be told through means other than the rep­re­sen­ta­tional or nar­ra­tive. But the col­lec­tion of Pamela Joyner and Al­fred J. Gi­ufridda also in­cludes portrait photography and portrait paint­ing. Time places the rep­re­sen­ta­tional and the ab­stract in ever-closer cul­tural prox­im­ity. And the fig­u­ra­tive has re­newed im­por­tance now that paint­ing en­joys a pres­tige that it has not had dur­ing the long as­cen­dancy of con­cep­tu­al­ism.

Hugh Hon­our tells us in The Im­age of the Black in Western Art (Vol. 4, 1989) that even though the num­ber of art­works in which blacks were de­picted in­creased in the 150 years from the abo­li­tion­ism of the slave trade in Bri­tain to the com­ing of modernism, such works were still a small frac­tion of those pro­duced be­cause there was no de­mand for them.* More­over, there was a pro­found dif­fer­ence be­tween rep­re­sen­ta­tions of black peo­ple in the vis­ual arts and in lit­er­a­ture. They ap­peared in re­li­gious and genre paint­ing, but apart from Goya, few artists in this pe­riod were stirred to record the truth of what black peo­ple ex­pe­ri­enced in white so­ci­eties.

Be­cause blacks were iden­ti­fied with slav­ery they could be vic­tims but not heroes in Western art, though the ex­cep­tions are no­table: Henry Fuseli’s The Ne­gro Re­venged (1806), Théodore Géri­cault’s The Raft of the Me­dusa (1818–1819), or Joshua Reynolds’s Study of a Black Man (circa 1770). But pub­lic opin­ion limited where art sym­pa­thetic to blacks could be seen. And the vi­o­lence of racial seg­re­ga­tion in the US and of colo­nial ex­pan­sion in Africa called for car­i­ca­tures of darky in­fe­ri­or­ity and the ethnog­ra­phy of half­naked sav­ages. Black peo­ple were ugly and so was their story. Racism casts a long shadow over art. To­day’s por­traits of black peo­ple come from a com­plex his­tory about the sub­jec­tiv­ity of beauty and the pres­ence of black­ness in Western art.

The portrait pain­ter Lynette Yi­adom Boakye was born in Lon­don in 1977. For her solo ex­hi­bi­tion at the New Mu­seum, “Un­der-Song for a Cipher,” the three high walls on which her work hung were painted leather-red. Art looks good held up by a color field. In Yi­adom-Boakye’s seven­teen un­framed por­traits of black peo­ple, the paint con­tin­ues to the edges of each can­vas. There are no ti­tles or wall texts be­side them. Some are full-length, or nearly so, ex­cept for a trip­tych of hor­i­zon­tal por­traits of a black male in pro­file, not al­ways in the same shirt, re­clin­ing on a red striped blan­ket. Three paint­ings are of women, one of whom wears a white leo­tard; another is seated In­dian fash­ion, see­ing to the bun in her hair. Two bare­foot women in pro­file in long skirts are de­picted to­gether, one seated in front of the other, who stands with a pair of field glasses aimed at some­thing we can’t see to our right. It is the only paint­ing in the ex­hi­bi­tion that is not of one per­son or of one per­son and a cat or a bird.

A young man in a blue sweater sits at a ta­ble with a cof­fee cup; another youth is on a chair, his left leg raised. One guy has a bird; a laugh­ing black youth has a beard. A bare­foot brown youth is stand­ing with his right leg crossed in front of his left. He looks straight at the viewer. A black man with beau­ti­ful eyes looks at the cat on his shoul­der. The largest paint­ing shows a bare­foot brown-pur­plish youth rest­ing on his left el­bow in a grassy ex­panse. The black youths are dark-skinned—dark brown, not black—and Yi­adom-Boakye con­cen­trates her im­pasto in the faces. Dark col­ors come up in ridges to form hair, nose, shad­ows, lips, neck, chin; and in­stead of white pig­ment un­painted spa­ces ap­pear in a fig­ure’s out­line or as high­lights on the face. The sur­face sur­round­ing the fig­ures is very flat, as if scraped. Back­grounds are a mist or zones hold­ing the fig­ure in place and

are not meant to tell us much. The body is a road to the face, the cen­tral con­cern.

The guys are good-look­ing. A youth in pro­file in a white T-shirt is some­what an­drog­y­nous; a beau­ti­ful youth with down­cast eyes is a har­le­quin. A sleep­ing youth ap­pears Ex­pres­sion­ist in his an­gles. He’s got no crotch, but here and there a guy’s trousers may sport a V. A young man in a black tank top holds an owl in his gloved hand. He has a thin mus­tache and his look down his nose at us is full of con­de­scen­sion. The owl, won­der­fully painted, has its own fierce ex­pres­sion. In the cat­a­log the paint­ing has a ti­tle, The Matters. You get the feeling that th­ese guys are meant to be dancers and—maybe it’s in what Yi­adom-Boakye makes of the open­ness of their ex­pres­sions—that they are gay.

It takes two to make a portrait as well as an argument, Hugh Hon­our wrote. Yet th­ese are not por­traits of real peo­ple. Yi­adom-Boakye has ex­plained that they are com­pos­ites, from “a com­bi­na­tion of dif­fer­ent sources: scrap­books, draw­ings, pho­to­graphs.” She said she thinks less about the fig­ures than she does about how they are painted. She does not see them as por­traits of char­ac­ters with per­son­al­i­ties to cap­ture or sug­gest. “They ex­ist en­tirely in paint,” as a tech­ni­cal prob­lem to be solved: how to ren­der in oil the fleet­ing­ness of the snapshot. Far from pho­to­re­al­ism, they nev­er­the­less have some­thing of a stranger’s pho­to­graph col­lec­tion. They are pri­vate, a rid­dle. Yi­adom-Boakye has also dis­cussed how she ex­e­cutes each portrait in a sin­gle day. If she feels a par­tic­u­lar piece hasn’t worked out, she de­stroys it. She says she al­ways re­mem­bers the fail­ures. The art she cares about is po­lit­i­cal be­cause most art is, she says, which may mean that as a black artist she can treat the black body as nor­mal. Her por­traits have at­ti­tude, but they are not heroic, just as she has said that she is sus­pi­cious of beauty and in­stead goes af­ter the sen­sual, what the skin gives off. Her ap­proach to portrait paint­ing—the choice to im­pose a chal­lenge, a fram­ing de­vice, some sort of dis­tanc­ing mech­a­nism—also speaks of her gen­er­a­tion, when paint­ing in par­tic­u­lar was un­fash­ion­able, and con­cep­tual art, in­stal­la­tions, were on the way to be­com­ing the new aca­demic art.

There is a pur­ple-backed portrait by Yi­adom-Boakye of a dark young woman’s head and neck in the Stu­dio Mu­seum in Har­lem’s sum­mer show, “Re­gard­ing the Fig­ure.” More than fifty pieces taken from the mu­seum’s per­ma­nent col­lec­tion (in­clud­ing paint­ings, pho­to­graphs, sculp­ture, and one work of mixed me­dia) aren’t dis­played chrono­log­i­cally, but they have the range to make the show about dif­fer­ent ways of putting new im­ages of the black (by black artists, fol­low­ing the Stu­dio Mu­seum’s man­date) into Western art. Henry Os­sawa Tan­ner’s un­dated litho­graph The Three Marys shares a wall with The Room (1949) by Eldzier Cor­tor, a small portrait, per­haps of Bil­lie Hol­i­day, and with Jen­nifer Packer’s Ivan, a sexy 2013 portrait.

As a young artist in Paris, Hale Woodruff met Tan­ner in the late 1920s. Tan­ner was the first African-Amer­i­can artist to win recog­ni­tion abroad. The French govern­ment pur­chased his Res­ur­rec­tion of Lazarus for the Lux­em­bourg in 1897. But it was Picasso who in­spired Woodruff the most. He stud­ied with Diego Rivera in Mex­ico in the 1930s and is best known for his mu­rals at black col­leges, yet his strug­gle with Picasso is still go­ing on in his oil paint­ing Africa and the Bull (circa 1958) in the Stu­dio Mu­seum show. Also in the show is Bob Thomp­son’s The Gam­bol, a for­est scene of fig­ures on horse­back, or danc­ing alone, and dark for some­one re­mem­bered as a col­orist. One cou­ple, mere shapes, ap­pears to be cop­u­lat­ing astride a horse. Thomp­son said he wanted Old Masters to meet a jazz-in­flected Ab­stract Ex­pres­sion­ism in his work. He died at twenty-eight, in 1966, be­fore any­one could crit­i­cize him for Euro­cen­trism.

Among the his­tor­i­cal forces that artists of the post-black gen­er­a­tion have de­clared them­selves un­afraid of is the Euro­pean aes­thetic tra­di­tion, just as there is no more talk of who isn’t black enough in his or her work. Some of the artists in the Stu­dio Mu­seum ex­hi­bi­tion can be seen in the ma­jor mu­se­ums of the city, but it makes a dif­fer­ence to see them as part of a his­tory that goes from work made in a so­ci­ety where so many took it for granted that a black artist would never be as good as—fill in a great white name—to ob­jects that are just not wor­ried about that kind of thing any­more. The Har­lem ex­hi­bi­tion goes from one ar­rest­ing piece to another. There is Lawdy Mama (1969), Barkley L. Hen­dricks’s life-size portrait of his cousin, beige Kathy Wil­liams, with a big, round, brown afro, posed against a back­ground arch of gold leaf. (This calls out to an in­tense Pre-Raphaelite-like portrait with much gold leaf, El­iz­a­beth Colomba’s Daphne (2015), on dis­play in the “Up­town” ex­hi­bi­tion at the new Columbia Univer­sity School of the Arts Len­fest Cen­ter.)

In the Stu­dio Mu­seum show, Njideka Akun­y­ili Crosby de­picts a cou­ple in a room, Nwantinti (2012), a large work of acrylic, pas­tel, char­coal, and col­ored pen­cil on un­framed paper. The newsprint plas­tered on the walls of the metic­u­lously neat room is a Xerox trans­fer of grad­u­a­tion and fam­ily pho­to­graphs. Re­peated of­ten in the trans­fers is the cover of the record “Love Nwantinti,” by the Igbo singer Nelly Uchendu. (“My jour­ney with love/It will be­gin in a short time.”) The trans­fers bleed into the man’s trousers, arm, torso, chin, the bed­spread, the floor. The pink walls are bathed in light. It’s im­pos­si­ble to tell whether the few clothes in the open closet be­hind the bed are a man’s or a woman’s, though the lovely young brown woman with short hair is bare­foot and those must be her flipflops be­side the bed. She sits to­ward the edge of the tidy bed, a ten­der ex­pres­sion on her face as she looks down at the young man on his back, his head in her tight lap. A light source from a door and win­dow grill strikes his quiet face and it can’t be said for sure if he is white or mixed-race.

A sharp black-and-white pho­to­graph by Zanele Muholi, Bona, Char­lottesville (2015), has a nude dark black woman on her back on a bed, shoul­ders to the viewer, the back of her head and knees up. She holds on her stom­ach a large round mir­ror, re­flect­ing only her face. Lyle Ash­ton Har­ris’s double self­por­trait (2000), Un­ti­tled (Face #155 Lyle) and Un­ti­tled (Back #155 Lyle), shows him and his braids close-up, in black-and-white. Part of his Cho­co­late Por­traits series, the pho­to­graphs’ size (twenty by twenty-four inches) only seems to in­crease the vul­ner­a­bil­ity of the sub­ject. Lorna Simp­son’s 9 Props (1995) is ex­quis­ite. Its nine black-and­white wa­ter­less lith­o­graphs on felt pan­els show gleam­ing black glass vases or bowls that Simp­son com­mis­sioned. They are stand-ins for the fig­ures in Van Der Zee pho­to­graphs: the artist Benny An­drews, for in­stance, taken in 1976. The cap­tions un­der the glass­ware de­scribe the fig­ures and the in­te­ri­ors of the orig­i­nal pho­to­graphs. “Wear­ing a trench coat, he is seated with the right leg crossed and holds it with his right hand. To his left is a small ta­ble with a cir­cu­lar top and a vase with Chrysan­the­mums…” An acrylic-painted plas­ter wall re­lief of a woman laugh­ing, Maria (1981), is from a series of South Bronx por­traits by John Ahearn. Freestanding in the gallery is a six-foot sculp­ture of a dap­per black man of a cer­tain age, made from ure­thane foam, plas­ter, hair, and clothes: Isaac Julien’s Incog­nito (2003), a portrait of Melvin Van Pee­bles with his sig­na­ture cigar in the corner of his mouth. No, he’s not real, a white mother ex­plained to her child as she pulled his hand back. The piece is a sur­prise, be­cause Julien is known chiefly for his films, video works, and photography. Nearby is a small bust, St. Fran­cis of Ade­laide (2006), by Ke­hinde Wi­ley’s stu­dio. The sculp­ture is un­der glass, be­cause—made from cast marble dust and resin, and the color of a once-lit can­dle—it in­vites ca­ress. The fig­ure of the saint is a mus­cu­lar, shaven-headed black youth in a basketball jer­sey or wife beater, with his right arm cut off. He is posed in quar­ter pro­file, with his left hand hug­ging an orb, book, and scepter to his body. (It was made around the same time that Wi­ley pro­duced two other busts—not in this ex­hi­bi­tion—in edi­tions of 250: one af­ter Jean-Bap­tiste Carpeaux’s La Ne­gresse, but in­stead of a thick-haired black woman with her left breast ex­posed, Wi­ley uses a male fig­ure, the same model as for his Saint Fran­cis. The sec­ond piece is af­ter Bernini’s bust of Louis XIV, but Wi­ley’s Sun King is a goa­teed black youth in a hoodie, not ar­mor.)

W iley’s work in por­trai­ture is mostly on a mon­u­men­tal scale. Born in Los An­ge­les in 1977, his oil paint­ings seize on the Euro­pean tra­di­tion, re­plac­ing the au­gust or promi­nent per­son­age in a fa­mous portrait with a young black per­son. Wi­ley has also por­trayed young black peo­ple in the place of the fig­ure of a saint in stained glass or oil paint­ings. He chooses a highly pro­cessed re­al­ism for his black sub­jects, male and fe­male, usu­ally hip-hop in their fash­ion sense but some­times haute cou­ture, and very post-black in their hair­styles. The sub­ject alone makes a cul­tural con­trast with Wi­ley’s usual back­grounds of elab­o­rate dec­o­ra­tive mo­tifs.

He be­stows a dif­fer­ent kind of vis­i­bil­ity on black ur­ban youth, and in his free use of the his­tory of Western art it is hip to say that he de­mys­ti­fies it, makes up for that tra­di­tion of aris­to­cratic por­trai­ture in which blacks are de­picted as ador­ing ser­vants, al­most pets. But ac­tu­ally he ends up do­ing some­thing else, which is to make the viewer in­ter­ested in his sources. For the most part black artists have aligned them­selves with artis­tic move­ments that sought lib­er­a­tion from the past. Wi­ley is dif­fer­ent; the

past is not only an in­flu­ence, it’s also a pres­ence, a stage char­ac­ter.

In a re­cent ex­hi­bi­tion at the Sean Kelly Gallery, “Trick­ster,” Wi­ley’s sub­jects weren’t black youths he spot­ted on the street who re­main anony­mous, but eleven fel­low black artists: Der­rick Adams, Hank Wil­lis Thomas, Nick Cave, Car­rie Mae Weems, Kerry James Mar­shall, Lynette Yi­adomBoakye, Yinka Shoni­bare, Wangechi Mutu, Glenn Ligon, Rashid John­son with San­ford Big­gers, and Micka­lene Thomas. The ti­tle, “Trick­ster,” refers to the cul­tural hero in black folk­lore who sur­vives or tri­umphs through cun­ning and skill. A trick­ster is am­bigu­ous and can also change shapes, take on new iden­ti­ties.

Wi­ley is not coy and has al­ways iden­ti­fied the Old Master—and some­times later—mod­els for his paint­ings. For in­stance, in this show he tells us that his paint­ing of Yi­adom-Boakye is af­ter Ge­orge Rom­ney’s portrait of Jacob Mor­land of Cap­pleth­waite (1763). Her hunt­ing clothes and boots are not like Mor­land’s, but she is show­ing off the same ri­fle, and the back­ground of pas­ture and fam­ily seat in the dis­tance is also the same. Mor­land is posed with a hound, but she stands at her edge of the wood with five dead brown rab­bits at her black boots. The rab­bit is a trick­ster fig­ure in both African-Amer­i­can and Amer­i­can In­dian folk­lore. Then, too, the bold ex­pres­sion Wi­ley gives Yi­adomBoakye be­hind thick black-framed glasses fits the trick­ster char­ac­ter.

The portrait of Rashid John­son and San­ford Big­gers is sub­ti­tled The Am­bas­sadors, af­ter Hol­bein. Wi­ley has changed his fig­ures’ pos­tures: here, one of the artists is stand­ing, his hand on the shoul­der of the other, who is seated (in Hol­bein’s paint­ing, the pair is lean­ing against a dis­play of ob­jects that speak of learn­ing). But the green bro­cade cur­tain be­hind Hol­bein’s guys is be­hind Wi­ley’s as well, and the car­pet draped over the shelf in Hol­bein is the one that Wi­ley’s bare­foot, black­trousered fig­ures are stand­ing on. The cloth­ing in Hol­bein is sump­tu­ously painted and the same could be said of the loose, sal­mon-col­ored shirts that Wi­ley’s sub­jects are wear­ing. Ref­er­ences to the trick­ster in other cul­tures, like Rey­nard the fox, also ap­pear in th­ese paint­ings. Each can­vas con­tains clues that point to the orig­i­nals, and not nec­es­sar­ily to the works of the artist-sub­jects. Some are not as eas­ily read as oth­ers, such as the portrait of an in­scrutable Glenn Ligon as Her­mes. Those are loafers, not winged san­dals, so what is the frog he’s hold­ing down on his knee? A ter­rific amount of paint­ing is go­ing on in th­ese works, es­pe­cially so, for ex­am­ple, in the de­tails of the dress Car­rie Mae Weems is wear­ing, posed with her back to the viewer, look­ing over her left shoul­der. It is a vir­tu­oso per­for­mance. Wi­ley has a great deal of hu­mor and easy com­mand. His sub­jects are ren­dered con amore, as Ital­ians used to say of the best por­traits.

Wi­ley de­picts Kerry James Mar­shall as Lec­tura, in a triple portrait rem­i­nis­cent of Van Dyck’s of Charles I. But is Mar­shall not much darker in skin tone than Wi­ley has painted him? And tak­ing all the David-sized paint­ings to­gether, isn’t ev­ery sub­ject the iden­ti­cal high-af­fect brown color? Wi­ley’s re­vi­sions of what is called the canon­i­cal are a trick­ster’s art. Con­ver­sa­tion with the past is for him es­sen­tial. Neo­clas­si­cal and Ro­man­tic paint­ing were both about ma­nip­u­lat­ing re­al­ity, Wi­ley said in an in­ter­view, as if to say, why shouldn’t his be?

It al­most feels as though an Oc­cupy High Art move­ment is hap­pen­ing. Black peo­ple changed the im­age of the black in Western art through what they were do­ing in the other arts and in the out­side world. Per­haps in­stead of re­mov­ing a statue of Robert E. Lee from a square in New Or­leans, in­stead of ap­peas­ing jus­ti­fied feel­ings of anger at Con­fed­er­ate his­tory, a black artist of Ke­hinde Wi­ley’s stature should be com­mis­sioned to do a pub­lic work in re­ply to that his­tory.

Th­ese cul­tural sen­si­tiv­i­ties are not friv­o­lous. How black peo­ple have been seen in his­tory con­tin­ues to in­flu­ence how they are seen to­day. Yet the high vis­i­bil­ity of blacks in the art world hasn’t done away with the crit­i­cal de­fen­sive­ness that made the con­tro­versy at this year’s Whit­ney Bi­en­nial over Dana Schutz’s paint­ing of Em­mett Till such an em­bar­rass­ing turf war among the sec­ond-rate. Till, age four­teen, was beaten to death in 1955 in Mis­sis­sippi for sup­pos­edly hav­ing whis­tled at a white woman. The paint­ing has no power un­less, or un­til, you think of the hor­rific im­age of Till in his open cas­ket on which it was based. Till’s mother gave Jet per­mis­sion to pho­to­graph him so that ev­ery­one could see what he had suf­fered. Some peo­ple protested that Schutz, a white artist, had ap­pro­pri­ated or was ex­ploit­ing the pain of the black ex­pe­ri­ence. But James Bald­win de­fended Wil­liam Sty­ron’s freedom to write The Con­fes­sions of Nat Turner (1967), a very mis­guided novel about slave re­bel­lion.

The most dra­matic el­e­ment in what is go­ing on cul­tur­ally may be that the im­age of the black is un­der­go­ing yet another change as a sym­bol. Put a black body up there on the can­vas—not a light-skinned body but a dark one— and the work has im­me­di­ate mean­ing, or seems pro­found, or to be a protest of some kind, an ex­am­ple of what Wi­ley has called the “weaponized aes­thetic.” Maybe it has to do with what Black Lives Mat­ter has re­vealed about black bod­ies: that they are still sub­ject to racist vi­o­lence. Even as ves­sels of de­sire they earn re­spect be­cause of what they have been through his­tor­i­cally, th­ese young bod­ies.

Lynette Yi­adom-Boakye: The Matters, 2016

Ke­hinde Wi­ley: Portrait of Lynette Yi­adom-Boakye, Jacob Mor­land of Cap­pleth­waite, 2017

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