‘Embodied’ provokes thought about art and identity

By Lisa Mikulski

At left: David C. Driskell, Dancing Angel, 2002. Screenprint. Yale University Art Gallery, Gift of Jean and Robert E. Steele, M.P.H. 1971, M.S. 1974, Ph.D. 1975. Courtesy of the artist.

Studying the art history canon can perhaps be likened to working a puzzle. As academics and art lovers study and explore different objects, geographies, and historical points in time they are, in a sense, fitting pieces of the puzzle into place. To view the complete picture, all the pieces must be accounted for. It is to this end that the Yale University Art Gallery has been developing and expanding its collection of African American art and will present Embodied: Black Identities in American Art from the Yale University Art Gallery starting February 18 and continuing through June 26, 2011.

This celebration of African American contributions to our artistic heritage prompts viewers to question and explore ideas and philosophies of what it means to be African American and if indeed the very notion of “black” art actually exists. Is there such a thing as “white” art or “Latin” art?

A collaboration between Yale and the David C. Driskell Center at the University of Maryland, College Park, the exhibition features 54 works that examine perceptions of identity and address and question the meanings of African American bodies throughout history. The exhibition will include paintings, sculpture, decorative arts, prints, drawings, and photographs. Works run from the representational to the abstract.

In addition to the voices of African American artists, what also makes this exhibition truly special is that it is made possible by a team of student curators under the direction of Pamela Franks, Deputy Director for Collections and Education at the Yale University Art Gallery and Robert E. Steele, Executive Director of the David C. Driskell Center at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Franks explains, “The collaboration is unique in that it is the first time that a Yale student-curated exhibition has been organized by two institutions of higher education. By having the student curators come from different educational entities, our work has been strengthened by the multiplicity of viewpoints brought to the curatorial process.”

Much as the works of art in any exhibition need to relate and sing together, so too do these curators and their respective universities. While Yale contributes the art and Maryland adds a focused mission, this show encouraged the six-student team to explore the curatorial process. Sifting through hundreds of pieces of art in the Yale collection, the students learned the importance of visual selection, installation, and collaboration in a world-class gallery setting.

“One of the greatest challenges we faced during the curatorial process was the pedagogical question as to how we should understand the term ‘African American art.’ It was clear from the beginning that we would have to wrestle with conceptions of black identity and the diasporic limits of defining a black American identity. Eventually we decided to focus the works in our exhibition around an idea of black identities in American art. We chose to include works by artists working in Mexico or the Caribbean who are closely tied to or influence the American art community. We also included a work by David Bates, a white artist who works with black subject matter. We ask our viewers to examine the same issues we faced and come to their own understanding of black American identity as it is performed, mapped, and displaced by representations of the human body,” says Lisa Sun, a student curator from Yale.

Student curator, Horace D. Ballard, Jr., from Brown University goes on to further explain, “Yale’s commitment to diversity, and its prominence in the art world, lends Embodied a wonderful mandate of sorts. My fellow curators and I were able to research and examine over a hundred works of art across several curatorial departments and cull together a show that is both seminal and beautiful, rigorous and approachable. The exhibition and its catalogue speak to historical and contemporary methodologies of genre, process, form, connoisseurship, and the process by which artists and art objects negotiate the fashioning, deconstruction, and assertion of racial and gender identities.”

But what exactly is meant by the exhibition’s focus on the body? The title Embodied, according to Franks, asks us to view the works in terms of not only body parts but to also see with eyes that might disembody. Additionally, as we question the realm of human experience and artistic freedoms, we can also view the artist’s body of work in terms of artistic production and the life experiences that are necessarily shared, through that work, with audiences and the public at large.

Presented in three sections, the works are grouped with a specific focus: the performative dimension of racial identity, the ways the absence of a body can reveal assumptions about physical and ethnic identity, and national identity and how geographic origin and displacement affects identity. Each of the three sections highlights one work respectively: Kerry James Marshall’s Untitled (2009), Lorna Simpson’s Wigs (1994), and Barkley L. Hendricks’ APBs/Afro Parisian Brothers (1978), which serve as a point of departure for understanding the concept in question.

Steele asks, “What distinguishes African American art as a body of work in and of itself? How do ideas about content, authorship, or ethnicity help us form such distinctions? It is my hope that Embodied will answer these questions, but more so, that it will initiate a dialogue that is well worth having.”

Along with a fully illustrated catalog, the gallery will present several related events, from artist talks to poetry readings, to encourage further conversation. Visit http://www.artgallery.yale.edu for more details about the exhibition and related events. Embodied: Black Identities In American Art from the Yale University Art Gallery is free and open to the public and will be on view February 18-June 26, 2011. Gallery hours are Tuesday-Saturday, 10am-5pm; Thursday, 10am-8pm (Sept–June); and Sunday 1-6pm.

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One comment

  1. Molly Griffin McKenna · · Reply

    Saw this exhibit, really great! Also, very interesting article…a good start!

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