In a fortunate coincidence, three shows currently on view in L.A. engage in a rich conversation on how black people are represented in the West. At Honor Fraser, Meleko Mokgosi’s exhibition raises questions about the role of African people and artifacts in an art history that has largely erased and stereotyped them. Photographers Kwame Brathwaite — at Philip Martin Gallery — and Deana Lawson — at The Underground Museum — provide perspectives from two different generations of African Americans.
Mokgosi, who was born in Botswana and lives in New York, dissects the “primitive” frame through which African art has been presented in the West. His installation intersperses painted still lifes of African objects and images with texts from the Museum of Modern Art’s 1984 exhibition “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern.” The texts, taken from the show’s exhibition labels, are heavily and passionately annotated in the artist’s hand. Line by line, Mokgosi emphatically exposes the racism and white supremacy of the curators’ focus on famous European artists at the expense of the African art that influenced them. Mokgosi’s notes reveal how the exhibition lumped all African art, regardless of origin, into the simplistic and infantilizing category of the “primitive,” neglecting rich histories and varied cultural contexts.
These texts are interspersed with paintings and sculptures of African interiors and objects that counter this historical erasure. They depict modest, domestic tableaux in which anti-apartheid posters hang above framed family photos. Other images feature a black baby doll, grocery products on a shelf, or ads for hair relaxers. In one painting, a portrait of Jesus appears next to a photo of a woman wearing a leopard-print bathing suit. Below sit two decorative ceramic dogs. These images form an oblique and motley portrait of contemporary African life. The specificity and humanity of the images — the ways in which they do and don’t align with what we think of as “African” — serves as a counter to the oversimplification of the “primitive” label, even as they exist within its long shadow. The show opens up the category “African” and asks us to think about how it might be represented otherwise.
Fortunately, one has only to go down the street to Philip Martin Gallery to see one such vision. Kwame Brathwaite began photographing black celebrities and models in 1950s New York. With his brother, Elombe, he founded the African Jazz Art Society and Studios, and Grandassa Models, organizations devoted to promoting the concept “black is beautiful.” In 1962, they initiated “Naturally,” a series of modeling contests for black women sporting “natural” hairdos and African-patterned clothing.
The show includes several of these striking images, charting a civil rights-era awakening to black beauty and power in defiance of dominant aesthetic standards. Gender politics of the 1960s being what they were, “beautiful” mostly applied to women, but Brathwaite pioneered a photography capable of capturing the rich colors and textures of black skin. Within the limits of film stock color-balanced for white faces, he figured out how to make black people not only visible, but reflect their beauty too.
Of particular interest is “Untitled (Grandassa Models, Merton Simpson Gallery),” circa 1967, in which three black women, arrayed in bold print dresses, pose amid African sculptures. Simpson was a prominent African American dealer of African art and an authority in the field. This image by Brathwaite places black pride alongside African sculpture. It is an act of reclamation, even as it reflects the lack of specificity that Mokgosi laments. We may not know where these sculptures came from, or what their cultural significance was in their places of origin, just as we may not know the provenance of the prints the women are wearing. What matters is that they are African.
This lack of specificity reflects the legacy of slavery, which brutally erased and transformed most African Americans’ relationship to their heritage. Reclaiming something nominally and broadly “African,” even if inauthentic, is in this light a poignant expression of desire and resistance. When everything has been taken away, one has to start somewhere. Brathwaite used what tools he had to fashion a new space for black representation.
This desire to connect with traditions bigger and older than oneself also surfaces in Deana Lawson’s exhibition, just a few miles east at The Underground Museum. Although best known for her photography, Lawson also presents a video, interspersing footage she shot in Africa and the U.S. of everyday life and public rituals. In the States, these rituals seem to center around music and sports, including footage of concerts and tailgate parties. These are intercut with scenes from an Asante ceremony, and the piece is scored with an Asante chant.
Here, I am guilty of MoMA-style erasure: I did not find out which rituals (ceremonies, sporting events, concerts) the video depicts. I cannot place them in their proper historical and cultural contexts. Yet the similarities seem more important to Lawson than the specifics. Where Brathwaite’s images seek to smooth out differences between blacks in the U.S. and in Africa, creating a romanticized connection, Lawson’s video highlights jarring juxtapositions. But its quick cuts also reveal formal similarities. Community rituals are forms of communing after all, even if the regalia and the dance moves aren’t the same.
The rest of the exhibition focuses on Lawson’s devastatingly frank photographs of black people she has met on the street. She invites them back to her home or theirs and carefully stages a portrait, choosing props, costumes and poses. The images look naturalistic but are not unlike Brathwaite’s more obviously manicured photographs of “natural” women. In part, Lawson’s images look authentic because they play on familiar stereotypical tropes: the hypersexual black woman, the single mother, the group of shirtless young men gesturing aggressively.
“Eternity” depicts a woman wearing spangled lingerie, standing coquettishly so that her buttocks and breasts are on view. The pose and dress evoke photo studio vanity pictures, but the setting is decidedly unglamorous. She stands amid a radiator, a space heater and a sagging floral-print couch. A faux-gold clock featuring a cheesy winged horse seems to alight overhead. The image is a far cry from Brathwaite’s polished photos of uniformly slim models, but its aim is similar — presenting a frank image of the black body, albeit one that reverberates with stereotypes. In particular, “Eternity” evokes images of Sara Baartman, a South African woman put on display in Great Britain in the 19th century as a curiosity because of her large buttocks. The image simultaneously reckons with this exploitative and dehumanizing history and reclaims black beauty in the face of predominant, Caucasian beauty standards.
Similarly, “Sons of Cush” plays with black male stereotypes. It depicts a muscled, tattooed young man holding a small baby. To the left, we see the arm of another man, holding a wad of cash. The small window in the door behind them has been crudely papered over; the blinds on the window to the right are drawn. Were this a movie, the spot could be a drug den or thieves’ hideout, but these sinister stereotypes are belied by the framed copy of the kitschy, inspirational Christian text, “Footprints,” on one table and an array of smiling family photos on the others. A carefully hand-drawn diagram hangs on the wall, outlining a family tree of biblical descent. It’s a more tender, complex portrait of black masculinity than what is commonly presented.
Lawson’s pictures employ artifice to get at deeper, more layered realities. Mokgosi and Brathwaite do much the same thing, framing their stories themselves lest others do the telling.
What unites the three is the longing to reconstruct something that has been lost. How does one represent black people when so much has been done to erase them, or reduce them to stereotypes? These artists, along with many others, turn a skeptical eye on history and make up the rest as they go along. The results are part circumstance and part fabrication, but ring entirely true.
Meleko Mokgosi, Honor Fraser, 2622 S. La Cienega Blvd., (310) 837-0191, through Dec. 19. Closed Sunday and Monday. www.honorfraser.com
Kwame Brathwaite, Philip Martin Gallery, 2712 La Cienega Blvd., (310) 559-0100, through Dec. 22. Closed Sunday and Monday. www.philipmartingallery.com