New York

Keijaun Thomas, My Last American Dollar: Round 1. Tricking and Flipping Coins: Making Dollars Hit and Round 2. Black Angels in the Infield: Dripping Faggot Sweat, 2019, video, color, sound, 5 minutes. Installation view. From “Hard Opening: Vigil for Black Death.”

Keijaun Thomas, My Last American Dollar: Round 1. Tricking and Flipping Coins: Making Dollars Hit and Round 2. Black Angels in the Infield: Dripping Faggot Sweat, 2019, video, color, sound, 5 minutes. Installation view. From “Hard Opening: Vigil for Black Death.”

“Hard Opening: Vigil for Black Death”

HOUSING

HOUSING opened the doors to its new Lower East Side location as a sanctuary for protestors before its inaugural exhibition. Founder KJ Freeman secured the keys for the space in May 2020, in the midst of demonstrations against the senseless and ceaseless killing of Black people by the police. During all this, the gallery announced a vigil for “Black Death”—the preventable, premature loss of life caused by systemic racism. Mourners brought flowers and candles, which were placed by portraits of those who died at the hands of law enforcement, such as Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Tony McDade, and Breonna Taylor. These memorial emblems were arranged atop the cellar doors just outside of HOUSING on the sidewalk. The metal gate was spray-painted with the acronym blm, or “Black Lives Matter.”

The art industry extracts from (sub)cultures and marginalized peoples to amass wealth through the (uncoincidentally) white cube. “Hard Opening: Vigil for Black Death,a group video show, resisted this model. Above the shrine and through the gallery’s street-facing window, the works played on a flat screen. The movement’s insuppressible momentum meant that two parts were organized before the end of June. In the first were works by Aly Brown, Taina Cruz, Kamron Hazel, Baseera Khan, Zenobia Marder, Alyssa Mattocks, Howardena Pindell, and Keijaun Thomas, while the second featured pieces by Aria Dean, Cameron A. Granger, Sofia Moreno, Ben Neill and David Wojnarowicz, Sondra Perry, Marlon Riggs, and Jordan Strafer. The programs were unified by dissent: social, political, and deeply personal. The spirit of the show dovetailed perfectly with the revolution energizing most of the United States, a nation where racial capitalism and white supremacy have festered for centuries and continue to enable the decimation of Black and brown people—perhaps most insidiously through the unchecked spread of Covid-19, which has disproportionately affected these communities. Speaking of the AIDS crisis in ITSOFOMO (In the Shadow of Forward Motion)—documentation of a performance that took place in 1989—Wojnarowicz rails against a willfully complacent US: “When I was diagnosed with this virus, it didn’t take me long to realize I’d contracted a diseased society as well.”

“Hard Opening” was more than a show. It was also a space for love and carnal exuberance. One such example was Keijaun Thomas’s My Last American Dollar: Round 1. Tricking and Flipping Coins: Making Dollars Hit and Round 2. Black Angels in the Infield: Dripping Faggot Sweat, 2019. At the beginning of the video, Thomas taped to the wall a sign reading TRANS RIGHTS HUMAN RIGHTS. Outfitted in a corset, mesh garter belt, stockings, and do-rag, she gyrated to “Dance Like a Stripper,” a song by Atlanta rapper M.E (Main Event). Later, while clad in a thong and pouring glitter over her body, Thomas invited the POC in attendance to join her at the center of the room, cooing, “This space is for us.” Following some sips of alcohol (being Black and carefree in the face of endless adversity sometimes requires a stiff drink), she said: “Are y’all OK? . . . I’m so happy that you’re here.”

Perhaps the most damning work here was Howardena Pindell’s Free, White and 21, 1980 (the title of which, in addition to appropriating an old racist catchphrase, indicates the artist’s age when the US Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964). In this video, Pindell dispassionately addresses the camera, her demeanor a jarring contrast to her description of the instances of racialized violence perpetrated against her (one horrific tale involves her kindergarten teacher, who tied Pindell to a bed for hours after she requested a bathroom break during naptime). At various points in this piece, Pindell is made up as a white woman. This character—a critic grotesque in cat’s-eye sunglasses, a blond wig, and pasty skin—delivers a patronizing monologue to the artist: “I hear your experiences and I think, Well, it’s gotta be in her art. That’s the only way we’ll validate you. . . . If your symbols aren’t used in a way that we use them, then we won’t acknowledge them. In fact, you won’t exist until we validate you.” Pindell’s lines—giving voice to attitudes that should be obsolete—speak clearly across a forty-year time span.