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December 8, 2021

‘The Black Index’ upends the impulse for classification

Six Black artists disrupt the tradition of portraiture

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It’s not Austin’s most physically accessible gallery, but the Christian-Green Gallery (part of the Art Galleries at Black Studies at the University of Texas, tucked within the Jester Center) currently welcomes a gem of a show, titled “Black Index,” featuring work by six artists: Dennis Delgado, Alicia Henry, Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle, Titus Kaphar, Whitfield Lovell and Lava Thomas.

The assembled artists address Black representation and self-representation. They question viewer reliance on the usual methods of photo-documentation and disrupt expectations of the Black figure through a variety of media including drawing, printmaking, sculpture, performance and digital technology.

Thoughtfully curated by Bridget R. Cooks, associate professor, Department of African American Studies and the Department of Art History, University of California at Irvine, and site-curated by Cherise Smith, chair of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin and founding executive director of the AGBS as well as Kendyll Gross, curator of public programs at AGBS, “Black Index” originated at UC Irvine and heads to New York’s Hunter College in 20222. Hunter College also published its full-color catalogue (University of Chicago Press) along with Hirmer Verlag.

The exhibition as seen at UT isn’t huge, yet what is presented is impeccably positioned with the perfect amount of gallery text. Several works are either multiples or in groups.

Take Titus Kaphar’s four etching and silkscreen “Redaction” prints on black paper on the back-corner wall. The artist collaborates with writer and attorney Reginald Dwayne Betts. Kaphar is responsible for the drawn face while Betts highlighted redacted text from Civil Rights Corps lawsuits filed by people unable to pay court fees. The remaining (post-redaction) words pierce, and seamlessly string together to reveal powerful narratives.



Black index
Titus Kaphar and Reginald Dwayne Betts, “Redaction (In Missouri),” 2020 Etching and silkscreen on paper. Courtesy of Titus Kaphar and Reginald Dwayne Betts

In “Redaction (In Missouri)” (2020), white lines define contours and shaded areas in a Black male face set against a black field. The redacted page appears at a slight angle with white language jumping off the page, still the page and portrait (figure and text) are somehow integrated. Staccato words skip, reading “IN MISSOURI … et al … CITY OF FERGUSON … The People … Plaintiffs … jailed by the city … pleaded … poverty … held indefinitely … threatened abused … left to languish … frightened … family members could … buy their freedom.” Despite the eliminated (“blacked out”) portions of the document, a distinct rhythm and poetry, along with a clear story of injustice ring out. A special typeface was commissioned by the artist and Betts and is indeed called, Redaction.

 

Lava Thomas, Mugshot Portraits: Women of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, “Alberta J. James” (2018), graphite and Conté pencil on paper (collection of Doree Friedman)
Lava Thomas, Mugshot Portraits: Women of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, “Alberta J. James” (2018), graphite and Conté pencil on paper (collection of Doree Friedman)

Lava Thomas’ large (33 ¼”  x 47”) graphite and conté drawings from her series “Mugshot Portraits: Women of the Montgomery Bus Boycott” (2018) line up on the wall. “Addie J. Hamerter,” “Jo Ann Robinson,” and “Alberta J. James” were all women arrested for fighting against racial segregation in the South. The photo-realistic style of Thomas’s drawings, in details of a hair part, head tilt or collar fold is uncanny.

The courage of the female activists and the solemnity of events hit home when noticing Alberta J. James has recently removed one glove (it was the 1950s) before holding her placard with booking number “7027” in front of her chest. Today we recognize the prejudicial nature of mugshots, but Thomas’ works offer another way to think about the subjects, as real women leading the fight against segregation on public transport, and ultimately the wider arena.

 

Dennis Delgado
Dennis Delgado, “Do the Right Thing,” 2020. Tagged image format file, 8 5/8 x 14 5/16 inches. Courtesy of the artist

Dennis Delgado draws on cinema in his series “The Dark Database” (2020). The artist uses facial scans of characters in movies from Black Directors  (“Do the Right Thing, “Higher Learning,” “Training Day,” and Black Panther”). Working with a facial recognition system called Python, the artist stacks found images according to a portrait template, making blurry color composites shown on iPads. No longer reliable or “truthful” due to system design failings (many don’t  access datasets containing and adequate number people of color) the series addresses both problematic and destructive issues related to artificial intelligence and police surveillance.

 

Black Index
Two images from Whitfield Lovell’s “The Card Pieces,” 2020 Charcoal pencil on paper with attached playing cards, 12 x 9 inches each. Courtesy of the artist and DC Moore Gallery, New York

Ever since Arthouse (now The Contemporary Austin) presented Whitfield Lovell’s installation “Whispers from the Walls,” I have appreciated his work. Dropping the multi-sensory bells and whistles of that project, Lovell’s pristine pictures sing.  Each exceptionally drawn portrait shows us a very specific person with great clarity and dignity. Erring on the side of formality, Lovell’s subjects are seen from neck up, some wearing high collars, hats, or uniforms, and coifed hair. Added to that each individual is paired with a single playing card mounted below the face. The effect is indexical in that meaning is denoted through the context of card choice. What is it about that particular woman that says Queen of Hearts? Four of Clubs? And so on. Cultural and personal histories are suggested moreover, the works offer an alternative or “antidote” as exhibition text states, to colonialist images.

 

Black Indes
Detail of Alicia Henry’s “Analogous III,” 2020. Acrylic, thread, yarn, dyed leather. Courtesy the artist

A rallying cry for a nation, “E Pluribus Unum” or “Out of Many, One,” comes to mind when looking at in Alicia Henry’s “Analogous III.” The artist make use of an infrequent medium in contemporary art, with vivid associations to the body, exploitation, and cruelty — leather. From the variously treated (wrung, buried or dyed) leather pieces, the artist cuts out countless mask-like faces although remarkably, each one is unique. Henry achieves stunning expressive range in features like eyes, noses and mouths, through simple ovals, circles and ellipses of different sizes, shapes and orientations. En masse, they suggest a “convergence of witnesses” or “crowd of spectators,” as the exhibition label describes. But could also vacillate between abstraction and figuration.

The Black Index
Two of 100 drawings from Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle’s “The Evanesced: The Untouchables,” 2020. India ink and watercolor on recycled, acid-free paper, 12 x 9 inches each. Courtesy of the artist

Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle calls her 100 ink and watercolor drawings “The Evanesced: The Untouchables,” (2020) “unportraits.” Painted in a fluid, sketchy and economic style, many of Hinkle’s figures almost appear unfinished but engage the viewer due to her focus on a singular attribute, piece of clothing, body part or pose, sometimes by inserting a bright pop of color. Rather than acting as photographic likenesses, these images express the spirits of Black women who have been victims of violence. Hinkle is interested in art’s transformative powers and capacity to heal. She recognizes links between colonialism’s mark and how Black women are treated today.

Rounding out the exhibition is a 91-minute soundscape (playing throughout the gallery) made by percussionist and composer, JoVia Armstrong. Historical excerpts, poetry, and card game instructions are read aloud, mixed in with audio from the film “Blade Runner 2049” and singing of African American work songs. The work is titled “Blackscape,” and contributes to the unexpected qualities of “Black Index.”

The exhibition text states of these artists:  “Their works offer an alternative practice — a Black index — that still serves as a finding aid for information about Black subjects, but also challenges viewers’ desire for classification.”

It succeeds.

“The Black Index” is on view through Dec. 11 at the The Christian-Green Gallery, Jester Center, University of Texas campus, galleriesatut.org/upcoming-exhibitions. Hours: 12 to 5 p.m. Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays, closed on Saturdays that align with UT home football games.

 


Erin Keever
Erin Keever is an Adjunct Professor of Art History, freelance writer, art historian and art appraiser. She lives and works in Austin, and serves on the Sightlines board.

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