THE BEST OF TIMES, THE WORST OF TIMES
In a year that delivered no end of difficult news around the globe, curator and scholar Okwui Enwezor highlights 2017’s seminal moments of reckoning and light.
1 KERRY JAMES MARSHALL (MET BREUER, NEW YORK; CURATED BY IAN ALTEVEER, HELEN MOLESWORTH, AND DIETER ROELSTRAETE) It seems more than appropriate that one of the year’s most artistically rewarding and culturally meaningful exhibitionsthe tour de force retrospective of Kerry James Marshall’s paintings at the Met Breueropened in the short interregnum between the Obama and Trump presidencies. That contrast, in itself, is a momentous point in American history. Marshall’s painting calls into question the very meaning of color, especially the way it functions as a sign of denotative and connotative intention; how images materialize and become present before the beholder and within culture as such. At a deep psychological level, Marshall deploys color to thematize figural blackness and, in so doing, to reframe the atopia of the black figure in the field of classical representation. On the other hand, color functions on a philosophical level in Marshall’s painting in a restorative manner, for it binds the figures inside the frames of his pictures within the longue durée of historical developments in Western painting, from which the presence of the black figure had long been expunged. The exhibition’s most powerful effect was being in the galleries as they pulsated with those luminous presences in one knockout painting after another.
Co-organized with the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.
2 DOCUMENTA 14: “LEARNING FROM ATHENS” (KASSEL AND ATHENS; CURATED BY ADAM SZYMCZYK) and THE 57TH VENICE BIENNALE: “VIVA ARTE VIVA” (CURATED BY CHRISTINE MACEL) The last time these two major events coincided, in 2007, they both received lukewarm critical appraisal. Ten years on, Documenta 14 and the Fifty-Seventh Venice Biennale were each met with divided opinion. To my mind, however, both megashows are united by a curatorial mechanism that could be aptly described as the sheer persistence of archival recension, though this was more palpably so in Athens and Kassel than in Venice. Both exhibitions took stabs at how we perceive and organize history and memory. In the context of the corrosive white nationalism of the moment, the most salient attributes of these two stuttering exhibitions were their respective attempts to leave the West and its failed lessons behind. Documenta 14 surpassed my expectations with a relentless, stimulating, overarching program that could only be described as chronic, which is to say that its relevance bore no relationship to conventional historical progression, while Macel’s more ludic exhibition portended the great unmaking of behavioral patterns, thread by thread, by which we judge the crazy quilt of the contemporary.
3 “SOUL OF A NATION: ART IN THE AGE OF BLACK POWER” (TATE MODERN, LONDON; CURATED BY MARK GODFREY AND ZOE WHITLEY WITH PRIYESH MISTRY) By the time 2016 reached its ignominious denouement, it had become clear that 2017 would be a year of reckoning for museums and art institutions. The reexamination of the convergence of a politics of form and a politics of representation seemed like a deep mine to explore. This was what made “Soul of a Nation” such an important marker in a year of political upheavals and retrograde appeals to ethno-nationalism that threaten to surmount hard-won cosmopolitanism. With rooms full of art produced across the wild shores of experimental and formalist landscapes, curators Mark Godfrey and Zoe Whitley went back nearly sixty years to show us how impossible it is to constrain the humanist capacities of black genius in the face of the most incendiary forms of social deracination.
Co-organized with the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, AR, where it will be on view February 3–April 23, 2018, and the Brooklyn Museum, New York, where it will be on view September 7, 2018–February 3, 2019.
4 “UPRISINGS” (JEU DE PAUME, PARIS; CURATED BY GEORGES DIDI-HUBERMAN) Throughout a long career of insistent analytical probing of a wide variety of image regimes, the philosopher and art historian Georges Didi-Huberman has also made curating exhibitions a part of his critical approach to cultural analysis. “Uprisings” was not so much a call to arms as it was a narrative of how art, artists, writers, and activists (from the late-nineteenth to the twenty-first century) continuously challenge, resist, and blur the border between obedience and disobedience, while redirecting their energies toward placing art’s agency on the historical record.
5 STUART HALL, CULTURAL STUDIES 1983: A THEORETICAL HISTORY (DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2016) The late Stuart Hall was more than an intellectual giant of postwar Britain. He was the great illuminator, whose far-reaching insights into how the world is constructed show us why cultural studies is not about the manners learned from the masters, but a way of examining and understanding social reality as made by the people themselves. Argumentative, diagnostic, witty, and learned, the series of scintillating lectures contained in this volume presents Hall at the height of his fearless and generous scholarly powers, offering not only a history of cultural studies but a theoretical and politically engaged reading of our unequal centuries.
6 SIR DEREK ALTON WALCOTT (JANUARY 23, 1930–MARCH 17, 2017) Walcott was eighty-seven when he passed away under the Caribbean breezes of Saint Lucia, but it is inconceivable that the work of the great poet and Nobel laureate will ever really die. Yes, he is one of the immortals, like the wild parade of characters that people his Homeric poem Omeros. With language on parchment, Walcott limned and transformed the claustrophobia of island existence into a broad map of the world, where Africa, the Americas, and Europe intersect. In seven decades of writing, he worked and wrote across literary and poetic traditions, wringing meaning from both the historical and the everyday, while filleting the poem down to its luminous bones.
7 DANA SCHUTZ, OPEN CASKET (WHITNEY BIENNIAL, NEW YORK) The braveness of any artist isn’t in how she survives a catastrophe. Rather, it lies in how she confronts her vulnerability in the face of sanction. I was reminded of this when I visited the Whitney as the debate surrounding Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket, 2016, in Christopher Lew and Mia Locks’s otherwise admirable Biennial, was at fever pitch. My immediate impression of the work was that I was in the presence of what in photojournalism might be called a “carrion hunt”: a type of pictorial voyeurism chasing the Pulitzer Prize. Such pictures unsettle us, and disturb our capacity for balance. This was what made Open Casket troubling: The peculiarities of the representation of the dead Emmett Till, built up in slatherings of lumpy paint, and the scarified scarecrow’s head carelessly attached to the distended body inalterably transformed the image into an object of spectacle. For this reason, the painting disappointed according to the criteria by which we judge successful history painting. Beyond any heated discussions around who has the right or lack thereof to paint or represent whomever, Schutz’s painting had other problems that exceed run-of-the-mill discussions of the principle of free expression and artistic freedom. Nevertheless, one has to give her credit for trying to engage a difficult historical episode in our own complex present momenteven if in the end she ultimately failed to do justice to the powerful subject matter with which she confronted us.
8 INAUGURATION OF DONALD J. TRUMP AND THE EVENTS IN CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA It did not take long after the dubious election of Trump to show that there will be a reckoning, politically, socially, and culturally, across the American historical landscape. The nation has long comforted itself with myths that remain conspicuously absent of its centuries of brutality and genocide, for which it has paid no penance. Throughout his campaign and inexplicable election, Trump’s racial agitation has gnawed at the country’s horrific and unhealed scabs, picking and tearing at the wounds to appease the hounds of white supremacy. People say that the events around August’s “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville were a watershed, and I say that the foundations were laid at the last stage of the campaign, when Trump arrived on the fields of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, spewing his rhetoric of white grievance on the grief-hallowed ground of the American Civil War.
9 RHODES MUST FALL (UNIVERSITY OF CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA) Just as calls for the removal of Confederate monuments and flags are slowly upending centuries of “tradition” and “culture” in the United States, in South Africa, old colonialist stalwarts such as Cecil Rhodes, who made a killing off of black bodies and labor, no longer sleep easy. The student movement Rhodes Must Fall first galvanized attention at the University of Cape Town in 2015 with the demand that the university remove the statue of the brutal imperialist profiteer from the campus grounds. From South Africa’s Grahamstown, where Rhodes University is located, to Oxford University, where the “prestigious” Rhodes Scholarship is endowed, the movement now touches every conceivable monument glorifying an individual whose fortune was made through colonial exploitation and slavery.
10 THE RISE OF ULTRA-RIGHT-WING NATIONALISM IN EUROPE What does it mean to live in a fugitive state? The irreducible nature of black and brown bodies as fugitive figures is a vexing global phenomenon, especially when such figures are placed beyond the protection of the law. Living in Europe today means waking up to the drumbeat of naked racial hostility. Virulent xenophobia is the immigrant’s or refugee’s current fugitive consciousness. He is today the dark figure of a tribal animus. One hopes, despite the recent surge of nationalism in Europe, that the bitter seeds that nearly destroyed the continent in the past are not sprouting again.
Okwui Enwezor is director of Haus der Kunst, Munich, where he recently cocurated “Postwar: Art Between the Pacific and the Atlantic, 1945–1965”; “Frank Bowling: Mappa Mundi”; and “Sarah Sze: Centrifuge.” He has headed numerous major international exhibitions, including Documenta 11 (2002) and the 56th Venice Biennale (2015), and was awarded the 2017 international Folkwang prize by the Museum Folkwang, Essen, Germany.