Every Ghetto, Every City
MOOD: Studio Museum Artists in Residence 2018–19
an exhibition at MoMA PS1, New York City, June 9–September 8, 2019
Guide to the exhibition by Farrah Jasmine Griffin, Vivian A. Crockett, and Hannah Black
Studio Museum, 36 pp., (distributed by Studio Magazine)
The feeling you get when taking in for the first time Tschabalala Self’s ghetto-fabulous minor character study Dime, which was on display at MoMA PS1 until earlier this month as part of the MOOD: Studio Museum Artists in Residence 2018–19 exhibition is one of familiar intimacy. This is the first time that the exhibition, which is in conjunction with the Studio Museum of Harlem — currently in expansion — has taken place outside that Black mecca where Self hails from.
And although the other two artists in residence, Allison Janae Hamilton and Sable Elyse Smith are from other parts of the country (Florida and Los Angeles respectively), all the featured artworks speak in a number of ways to the notion of continuity across the diaspora and the idea of a spiritual home, which Harlem has long been for Blacks in America (one thinks of the lyric from the classic Bobby Womack song, “Across 110th Street” — put to great use in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown and referenced in the guide to the exhibit — “Harlem is the capital of every ghetto town”).
The inherent politicalness of these visually stunning and provocative pieces (if for no other reason than their creators as Black women have to remain politically aware, simply as a matter of safety) governs a tense but delightful balance between their implied violence (whether through arch allusions to gentrification, or to the worrisome presence of police in Black communities) and that exuberant sense of kinship.
If Dime, with its peculiar pink background (where exactly is this vibrant, if homogeneous terrain? Isn’t “vibrant, if homogeneous” just another way of describing our present Postmates-friendly inner cities?) is something akin to a flamboyant green screen where in similar fashion it takes the trivial mundanity of the immediate environment and inserts the fantastic into it — in this case a quietly scheming homegirl in a Yankees cap puffing a cigarette while clutching a designer bag and pivoting in severe platform boots that may as well be threatening to scandalize the entire front row at New York Fashion Week — then NYPD further explores how one’s determined commanding of his personal space can be perfected, even to the point of tenuous self-invention.
Self’s ingenious collage-like amalgamation here of fabrics and gouache on a thin canvass — call it a cool and fleshy reboot of Romare Bearden for this era, where Black lives are for better or worse accompanied so frequently in the popular imagination by a hashtag — shows a watchful Black police officer by a building not unlike, perhaps, that in Brooklyn, in which an unarmed Timothy Stansbury was fatally shot in 2004 by a criminally unwatchful white officer.
NYPD’s vigilant subject, rather, exudes a sense of oxymoronic calm, a quiet self-composure bordering on defiance. He’s not nervous but his hand is free and clear with its wrinkled brown textile digits — emerging out of the royal blue of his uniform, brilliantly silhouetted against the bruised maroon of a brick wall — stretched — tensely — downward as if he were, from our deliberately limited vantage point doing an inverse “hands up, don’t shoot” salute estranging himself from his own holstered gun at his side.
The impossible poise required by African-Americans when we’re tasked, essentially, with policing ourselves (a history so complex James Baldwin only referred to it in passing when implicating policemen proper in his 1960 essay, “Fifth Avenue, Uptown,” as soldiers in an occupied territory) is something that has rarely been properly unpacked. Of course the subject of policing has come up throughout the years in art, namely in songs (KRS-ONE’s fervent denouncement “Black Cop” comes to mind, as does the South Side, Chicago-bred singer Jamila Woods’s fortuitously titled “BALDWIN,” with its dismissal of a newly emboldened tax base all too eager to hover in and make unreasonable demands, some of which include unleashing the authorities on long-term residents).
But the catch-22 nature of the power dynamic involved is something that Self interrogates in this pregnant portrait blurring the ideological line which separates the legacy of the slave patrols from a former top law enforcement official like Kamala Harris.
A no less captivating power dynamic is evident in the potentially conflicting milieus illuminated by Sable Elyse Smith’s Weight, Spread, and Cornering, which inhabit one of the neat, quiet rooms at MoMA’s exhibition space in Long Island City, where the resting area outside gives it, refreshingly the feel of a university quad. Indeed, Legacy Russell, who is Associate Curator at the Studio Museum, and Hallie Ringle (a former Assistant Curator there), who is the Hugh Kaul Curator of Contemporary Art at the Birmingham Museum of Art should be congratulated for their part in helping to transport to these environs — which, if anything invoke Whole Foods — a sensibility which, refreshingly invokes Oodles of Noodles via working-class Los Angeles and Harlem, where Smith worked alongside Hamilton and Self.
The high-sodium staple in fact is the idée fixe in the aforementioned Spread, which knowingly utilizes three hundred forty three packs of chicken-flavored ramen placed on top of thirty-two cement bricks as part of this winsome and cerebral conceptual trifecta which reconsiders society’s notions of worth. When you enter it the room seems to immediately describe a kind of troublesome evolution of currencies (cultural or otherwise) with the real hundred-dollar bills on a digital scale, which comprise Weight in the left corner leading to the hexagonal arrangement of prison waiting-area tables that constitute the sculpture Cornering in the right, with that inelegant diagonal progression interrupted (at the center of the opposite wall) by Spread whose neat mélange of the pre-cooked provisions, which Smith is all too aware are heavily bartered in prison — where her father has been for over two decades — eerily recall the illicit spread of cash and cocaine which Ronald Reagan presided over in a congratulatory photo op in the 1980s joking, even as the CIA’s illegal war in Nicaragua was funded by drugs smuggled into Black neighborhoods, “This is gonna help with the deficit being reduced, huh?” These community-minded paeans to African-American ingenuity and resourcefulness are, for all their humor and wit, nonetheless sobering reminders of where so many of our displaced wind up when Blacks are more than five times as likely as whites to be behind bars.
With their earthy otherness, the works here by Allison Janae Hamilton, which explore the unmapped and convey a heightened emotional intelligence are ultimately something like a comforting coda to this inclusive and compelling showing. Though the resplendent Sisters, Wakulla County, FL, 2019 — a photograph of two little Black girls in matching red hats and white dresses standing on the felled limb of a tree in the wilderness could be something out of Hamilton’s fellow Floridian, Zora Neale Hurston’s effulgent folk tales, it’s at the same time invitingly contemporary, as is the transcendent Blackwater Creature II with its feral, if not futurist mash-up of what looks to be a Yaki weave and some baby shoes attached to a wiry mess of earbud-like driftwood.
What it perhaps more intently than the other artworks appears to be saying is, “This is for you!” So, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a sister from Savannah, a nonbinary femme from Lagos, or a space-age Yeezys-wearing toddler at Afropunk inspired by your parents’ gracious bequeathal of the doctrines of Sun Ra: This majestic ancestry of ours is universal and open to myriad representations. It’s the allure of what society still refers to with bland mayonnaise guiltlessness as the “untamed” — both adored and reviled, but celebrated with MOOD as it has been in the most expansive of our songs, from Catherine Russell’s 1930s jaunt, “Harlem on My Mind” to Rakim’s ultramodern “I Know You Got Soul.” It was the latter which, after all assured for posterity, “It ain’t where you from, it’s where you at.”