The exhibition space is a powerful one that does more than fulfill the seemingly simple function of displaying objects of creative expression. Exhibitions also have pedagogical roles, teaching the values of art, cultures, social movements, and national histories. Because of this particular significance, the exhibition space has been a contested one for African Americans. Narratives of cultural history and art history internalized by the visiting public have made museum galleries critical spaces for Black representation, participation, and . . . intervention. —Bridget R. Cooks
Currents and Constellations: Black Art in Focus provides a unique opportunity not only to step into the discourse on the politics of the display of Black art in American museums—as succinctly outlined by art historian Bridget R. Cooks—but also to discover artists’ aesthetic and intellectual preoccupations, which drive the exhibition’s thematic groupings and interventions. Currents and Constellations aims to broaden visitors’ sense of Black artistic production, while shedding new light on some of the CMA’s other collection areas and providing an accessible window into complex art historical ideas.
In the Black Cartographies section of the exhibition, artworks reveal the visual language developed for registering or mapping Black experience and migrations and for shaping movement and possible futures. This section marries the work of two generations of Chicago-born artists and includes a photograph by Dawoud Bey, a grand abstract painting by Torkwase Dyson, and a sculpture by Richard Hunt. They offer three variations on the expansive theme.
Bey’s Untitled #11 (Bent Branches), from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black, shows a dimly lit thicket of intertwined branches. Inspired by photographer Roy DeCarava’s mastery of dark tones and by Langston Hughes’s closing couplet, “Night coming tenderly / Black like me,” of the poem “Dream Variations,” Bey returns to the gelatin silver print, a process he hasn’t regularly used in the past 30 years. This series of photographs captures the clandestine network of spaces and places that made up the Underground Railroad, a route to freedom for enslaved African Americans. As the artist states, these works are “a metaphor for the enveloping darkness that provided a passage to liberation and a protective cover for escaped slaves.”
Dyson’s large tondo A Whisper in the Blue is from her series Bird and Lava, developed during a residency at the Wexner Art Center in Columbus, Ohio. The shapes floating across the painting’s surface are meant to describe the varied confinements of Black people as they were conscripted, but also those required for their freedom. In her visual language, the boats, boxes, and garrets that carried them into and kept them in enslavement were also the vessels for their liberation. The black circular expanse on which boatlike shapes float suggests—not unlike Untitled #11—that darkness, though useful for hiding atrocities, is also fundamental in protecting transformational movement.
In the third work, Hunt’s Forms Carried Aloft, No. 2, delicate limbs of steel rhyme beautifully with the bent branches in Bey’s photograph, and its spare form connects to Dyson’s economical visual language. But Hunt, rather than mapping space, shapes it. His liberatory gesture resides in his artistic ability to carve space. Through a single projecting limb, this sculpture empowers the artist to direct the movement of our bodies.
Together, these three works invite contemplation of the liberatory potential of both real and conceptual darkened spaces. It is but one of the threads you can follow in Currents and Constellations, presented in the Julia and Larry Pollock Focus Gallery, as well as in the galleries of colonial American art, German Expressionism, Abstract Expressionism, and contemporary art.