Tulsa

Adrian Aguilera and Betelhem Makonnen, Untitled (a flag for John Lewis or a green screen placeholder for an America that is yet to be), 2020, nylon, 11' 8" × 20'. Installation view. From “From the Limitations of Now.” Photo: Melissa Lukenbaugh.

Adrian Aguilera and Betelhem Makonnen, Untitled (a flag for John Lewis or a green screen placeholder for an America that is yet to be), 2020, nylon, 11' 8" × 20'. Installation view. From “From the Limitations of Now.” Photo: Melissa Lukenbaugh.

“From the Limitations of Now”

Philbrook Museum of Art

In 1975 novelist Ralph Ellison returned to his home state of Oklahoma, where a library was being named in his honor. “The library is a nexus of dreams,” he said in a speech written for the occasion, “a place where we are able to free ourselves from the limitations of today by becoming acquainted with what went on in the past—and thus project ourselves into the future.” Drawing upon Ellison’s faith in art as a distinct conduit for reflecting on multiple temporalities at once, “From the Limitations of Now” brings together works by more than twenty artists and collectives that conjure lively imaginaries that are wrought of and seen amid and through America’s violent legacies. Organized by the Philbrook Museum’s Sara O’Keeffe one hundred years after the Tulsa Race Massacre, that acutely horrific episode in US history in which a white mob—aided by a state-sanctioned military action that included aerial bombing—decimated a prosperous Black neighborhood in the course of a day, the exhibition is the site of a multivalent conversation about this critically unresolved moment in the city’s past. The works comment on Oklahoma as a territory seen in the Jim Crow era as a possible Black sanctuary, and on the current state of the nation’s racial crisis.

Draped across the museum’s entry rotunda, Adrian Aguilera and Betelhem Makonnen’s Untitled (a flag for John Lewis or a green screen placeholder for an America that is yet to be), 2020, greets visitors with stars and stripes reduced to shades of chroma-key green—an open field for projecting new national visions. Hanging across the hallways extending into the Philbrook’s historical wings are two double-sided black-and-white banners by Kameelah Janan Rasheed featuring close-up fragments of Ellison’s original handwritten speech, crosshatched with annotations and edits, suggesting a way forward via an ever-unfinished palimpsest of aspirational drafts.

Many pieces feel shamanistic, imbued with animistic materiality and mystical traditions. The shadow-box sculpture Searching for a Vision of Truth, 2016, by Betye Saar, and the woven wall tapestry Tie Quilt #2, 1991, by Elizabeth Talford Scott (artist Joyce Scott’s mother)—act as ancestral power objects and artistic forebears to pieces by more contemporary and emerging artists. Many of the works on display are new commissions: Take Lonnie Holley’s They Never Saw Our Faces, 2021—a grisaille painting depicting a limitless cosmos of overlapping hands and faces—which was completed on January 6, the day of the insurrection at the US Capitol. It vibrates with grievous continuities.

Other pieces mine and move through histories via more archival impulses. Crystal Z. Campbell’s intricate mixed-media painting Notes from Black Wall Street: When You Have Forgotten Sunday, 2021, extends the artist’s ongoing excavation of the untold stories of the Tulsa Race Massacre, drawing upon and radiantly embellishing collaged photographic imagery of Black Tulsans living unencumbered lives before the traumatic assault. Troy Michie’s Shadow and Act, 2021, titled after a 1964 short-story collection by Ellison, weaves together fabric fragments and photocopied imagery in a way that forges overlaps between the queer Black history of the zoot suit and depictions of both casual and erotic Black masculinity across eras.

The show is consistently riveting, exemplifying how a traditional encyclopedic museum can become a “library” of Ellison’s vision, a space uniquely capable of laying bare its historic limitations while fostering new contexts and connections. Faith Ringgold’s map United States of Attica, 1972, rendered in red, green, and black—the colors of Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey’s Pan-African flag—appears in a wall-size reproduction that can be annotated, as per the artist’s original intent, with new incidents of violence against Black people, underscoring Tulsa’s place within a genocidal national continuum. The piece is one of many educational features in the show, which also includes a massive shelf full of suggested readings assembled by a local Black-owned bookstore; an installation of Black- and white-owned newspapers by Tri-City Collective, a Tulsa-based artist group, that illuminates the discrepancies between the journals’ reportages on Oklahoma history; and a placard explaining the difference between a massacre and a riot. While public engagement of this kind is common enough among museum exhibitions, this one has a singular gravity: The history books distributed in Oklahoma public schools excluded any mention of the Tulsa Race Massacre for decades. And just this year, the state passed a law forbidding the teaching of race as a social construct underpinning legal systems and policies.