"Blacks In and Out of the Box." As rubrics go it seemed straightforward enough. It had a certain directness, but with enough play built in for a bit of interpretive wiggle room -- or so curators Jill Moniz and Lisa Henry thought.
When they settled on the title, which also worked as an organizing theme for their current photography exhibition at the California African American Museum, they weren't thinking poetically. They saw "the box" as a camera, the actual apparatus used to still a moment, provoke a narrative or cue critique. What they didn't quite count on was what artists would read between the title's lines, or how charged the words "blacks" and "box" in close proximity might be. "The artists were having these real expectations," says guest curator Lisa Henry. "They'd say, 'That's a weird title,' or, 'What do you mean?' "
There was a certain power in the words' juxtaposition: It was an incantation of sorts that pulled in an array of work from the show's 33 invited artists, an intergenerational roster that includes instantly recognizable names -- Charles Gaines, Betye Saar, Lorna Simpson -- and others to watch for. As Moniz and Henry began to consider the pieces collectively, they couldn't ignore a not-so-subtle thread that looped through many of the pieces and the emotional conversations that attended it.
What was the box? "Stereotypes." "A school of thought." "A niche." "The museum." "The brain." "Fear." "A frame." "Blackness . . . . "
The concentration of works that deliberated, deconstructed or dabbled in notions of identity gave Moniz pause. "I was shocked if not dismayed," she admits. "I wasn't thinking about blackness at all. Except that the artists were black."
The show, as she and Henry had conceived it, was to highlight California's groundbreaking photography traditions through the prism of African American artists, says Moniz, the museum's visual arts curator. Juxtaposed against rare historic images of African American life in California drawn from the Steve Turner collection, it would be not just a survey of black artists living or trained in California, but a way to root around, exploring the medium and how African Americans "commemorate or critique" it. The topic seemed wide open, but "the exception to the rule were the folks who didn't focus on race," she says. "Race is still at the forefront of people's thinking in terms of their artistic endeavors. I had expected something different on the whole."
Still, there was nothing monolithic about the responses. As the work was laid out end to end, grouped by aesthetics, not by racial charge, ultimately much of it spoke to the complexity of experience -- both in the pieces' ambition and their subject matter.
Carla Williams, 42
How she saw the box: "Art history, a particular kind of practice."
Williams is a San Francisco-based archivist, a portrait photographer who's been immersed in landscapes and the many ways in which race is literally inscribed there -- towns called "White Settlement," "Negro," "Squaw" and "Jap Road."
One of the pieces in the show, a landscape titled "Nigton, Texas" -- is at the core. Short for "Nigger Town," the settlement was founded in the late 1800s by a group of recently freed slaves and christened by a white rancher -- named, incredibly, Jim Crow. Nigton is still entirely African American, and the majority of those who live there don't want the name changed. "It's this, 'Well it's always been this way' thinking" -- played out again and again from town to town.
"It's also complicated by the fact that every reference to 'Negro' gets changed to something like 'Rolling Hills,' which erases the history entirely." It leaves her of two minds.
The elision is a bitter metaphor: "We had a huge multicultural movement in the '90s, then there was a complete reversal -- 'Aren't we past all of that?' So the discussion of identity, race is totally paramount. It's my entire focus."
Through assemblage, collage, video and all manner of hybrids, the works explore a wash of themes: The names we call ourselves. The masks we wear. The legacy of ancestors. How we mark territory and how it marks us. Staring point-blank at excruciatingly painful history. Erasure and its antidote: writing yourself into being.
Lauren Woods, 28
How she saw the box: "The frame."
Relocating from Texas to San Francisco, filmmaker woods found herself searching -- "looking for my own reflection." Art school in the Bay Area was a shock after life in Texas. "I had to seek out a black experience," she says, both in the traditions of filmmaking and the communities themselves.
That quest laid the groundwork for "Outside of the . . . ," woods' 16mm/digital video hybrid, which she shot at a black arts flea market in Berkeley. Her camera wanders through the environment, focusing tightly on fine details -- mouths, noses, cheekbones -- its gaze almost like a caress.
"I felt uncomfortable bringing a camera in public shooting black people, because of the history of ethnographic and safari films," she says. "I had all those things in my head. And there was a certain pressure of not wanting to continue a certain tradition." But purpose cut through her ambivalence.
While woods calls the piece "ethnofictive," she realizes that her work is becoming more abstract and yet -- "Isn't it the million-dollar question? Am I a black artist or an artist who happens to be? I want to say it's moot but . . . ."
The show's cacophony of expression, of media and points of view, collectively speaks to the "African Americans as a monolith" canard that pervades so much of the media and consequently public thought. Step into the middle of it and it shatters the old notion of a people thinking in lock step, dreaming in unison.
Keba Armond Konte, 41
How he saw the box: "Boundaries that we put on ourselves, those roles and expectations."
Based in the Bay Area, Konte is a self-taught, self-guided artist. Inspired by his mother, a portrait photographer, early on he was picking up work photographing hip-hop artists, which would ultimately fund his world travels, chasing politics to South L.A. or South Africa.
"88 Pieces of Me: A Photo Memoir" is Konte's nonlinear spill of life reflections -- faded store fronts, staircases, musicians on the bandstand, tail fins cruising wide avenues -- photographs on wood saturated in dreamy hues of sepia and wistful, almost melancholy hints of blue. "I never had the desire to go to art school. Never had the inclination to have a job at a magazine. Early on I saw the bias in the media and the power of photography as the visual voice. I just wanted to generate my own stories, pursue my own leads.
"I've been out of the box for a long time. So I'm looking for more boxes to squash."
To dodge the identity issue would have been not just short-sighted, but a mistake, Moniz realized, particularly as themes began to emerge that were complicated by ethnicity. It isn't often that an institution can react in real time. But the push-pull of the discussion seemed essential, so, says Henry, "We decided to make it a part of the show." They opened it up, invited artists to write statements, address their impressions of the title, the metaphors each saw embedded in it.
Sifting through all of this, "grappling with the artists' understanding of what we meant by the title" not only further shaped the conversation, says Moniz, it seemed to be the very purpose of the show: creating dialogues between past and present, tradition and innovation, new skin ceding old.
Lewis Watts, 61
How he saw the box: "A niche."
Of late, Watts has taken to revisiting some old haunts, going back again and again, charting the changes. He's been interested in how cultural landscapes shift and how that process differs from place to place -- West Oakland, New Orleans, Harlem, "communities that wear their heart on their sleeve." Will the imprint of African American culture disappear, he asks, or is it something willful, clinging -- innate?
In his photos, he's made note of how a place has been marked by its inhabitants, how gentrification shades past and future. He's interested in the stories and characters that live inside the frame -- from the homeless/griot artist whose work he calls "genius" to a neighborhood whose gentrification he tracks by noting changes in the tiny details on a front door.
What happens when that history, those markings, are smudged out? "I'm just looking at how environment reflects history. So a lot of my work has been about things I know, and things I don't know yet."
As the discussion on the wall begat new ones, "the box" continued to be like a set of nesting dolls, one opened only to reveal another, and then another, slightly different.
Todd Gray, 53
How he saw the box: "Context. The Museum. Practice. Going against the grain."
"I had real problems with the title," says Gray. "To be honest I shook my head. Just the rhythm of it, 'blacks in and out of the box.' It wasn't a title that connotes seriousness. There was a catchiness to it that was more reminiscent to advertising jingles. And it was not necessarily ironic." He remained skeptical.
Gray, a professor of art at Cal State Long Beach, is known for being forthright. His 1984 piece "Support System," pitting a prizefighter against a high-rise, was a sharp metaphor for the artist's plight. "I'd gotten out of CalArts with a BFA and saw my friends exhibiting, and that wasn't happening with me," he says. "Now that is one of the great things about CalArts -- there is a strong emphasis on critical thinking and coming up with a solution: 'Why do I have to stay within the boundaries?' "
He plastered posters of his fighters along bus routes and significant cultural points around town. "I used prizefighters because they had to fight their way out of slavery, but what we have is economic slavery. And the most iconographic thing for that would be a high-rise."
Gray saw the same tension -- struggle, resistance, turning problems into solutions -- in the show. Most eloquently expressed, says Gray, was the "chameleon-like nature of the box. The box is practice -- classical and avant garde, just the idea of categorization; the generalities of the type of art that we, as African American artists, are going to make. You can't really corral the show, and I like its refusal to be corralled."
If you moor yourself in the gallery long enough, something exquisite happens, something that very much feels like a conversation, rising and falling, building momentum: Kendell M. Carter's video images of sidewalk break dancers juxtaposed against main-stage ballet jostle for attention while questioning hierarchies. The hundreds of faces on vellum that make up Carla Williams' "Women in My Family," fixing their gaze on their futures or smiling down at their legacy on their lap, feel keenly familiar. Gray's heavyweights poise themselves against glass-and-steel foes and you figure they have adrenaline on their side.
Floating off video soundtracks: saxophones, stump speeches, talking drums, wind chimes. And just out of the corner of your eye flashes the silent scroll ofApril Banks' digital montage "Parables of Freedom" -- racial epithets sped up so quickly that they almost register as subliminal.
The frames, those boxes, invoke historical imagery, echo vernacular, signify and carry on conversations on several levels simultaneously. They take us on journeys, refute the simplistic.
Taken together, "Blacks In and Out of the Box" is a body of work as complex as the mind and body itself. "It's celebrating, grappling with, proclaiming all of these different ways," says Henry. "I don't think of identity as being static, pinpointed, easily defined. I think we could look at the show as a first part of a conversation to be continued. To look at work not as a history lesson, but to see associations. Not trying to sum it up so completely."