‘We exist in other ways ... to see us, to find us’ — UC Irvine debuts ‘The Black Index’ exhibition
It came in response to death.
Bridget Cooks, an associate professor of African American studies and art history at UC Irvine, said in an interview Saturday that the idea for what is now “The Black Index,” an exhibition of works from six different artists that debuted Thursday, rose from an essay that she’d written for a textbook released just last year called “A Companion to Contemporary Drawing.”
The essay focused on the efforts of featured artists Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle, Titus Kaphar and Whitfield Lovell, whose work Cooks felt were invested in the beauty and survival of Black people. She gave a talk on her essay at Hunter College in New York about two years ago and was approached by Sarah Watson, the chief curator at Hunter College Art Galleries, to turn it into an exhibition.
The rest, as they say, is history.
The exhibition was expanded to include artists Dennis Delgado, Alicia Henry and Lava Thomas and will be on display at the University Art Galleries through March 20.
It is also scheduled to show at the Palo Alto Art Center in May.
Cooks, who is Black, said that she’d decided on the topic when she, along with millions of others, struggled to contend with what she describes is the normalization of Black death.
“So many people have been killed that we can no longer remember everyone’s names. At first, it was Sandra Bland that has been killed. Then Eric Garner was killed. We started to lose track because there are so many names,” Cooks said. "[The artists] were making these images of Black people with a lot of love and care.”
“I also felt they were creating new communities of Black people through their art and I identified with that as a Black person. They are feeling loss and they are creating in response to it or in relationship to it,” Cooks said.
Cooks said, for example, the “Mugshot Portraits: Women of the Montgomery Bus Boycott” series by Thomas brings out the kind of “everyday quality of people who are fighting for justice.”
“For the most part in the series, most of the women are not well known. There’s Rosa Parks, Jo Ann Robinson, but besides that people don’t know who these women are,” she said. “I love that. We’re in a position now where everybody needs to get involved if they want this culture to be different.”
“If they want to make the United States a safe space for people who are Black, then we can’t depend on our celebrities. We can’t depend on our big name people in whatever field to do all the work. Athletes, actors, what have you,” Cooks said. “I like being reminded of that, the kind of everyday radical and how important that is.”
Thus, “The Black Index” — an alternative index to the images that associate Black people and bodies with violence.
“I’m not saying that these images don’t exist. I’m saying that’s not the only way that we can find and recognize Black people,” Cooks said.
“Black people should not visually only exist in relationship to violence, crime and racial hate. We exist in other ways and these artists are trying to represent those ways to us or to remind us there are other ways to see us, to find us in American culture.”
“A side of the index that we have for finding Black people every day which I think is primarily based on death. So, here’s another index. I’m calling it the Black Index because it is more about the source of the images and a kind of valuing of blackness and Black creative people to say this is how we see ourselves,” Cooks said.
The exhibit is currently virtual, though Cooks said people should look forward to a virtual reality experience online soon that will allow viewers to see the art within the gallery space. She said she hopes that by the time the exhibition reaches Palo Alto this summer that there will be a way to have people see the artwork in person.
“There’s an excess that’s not being recognized — of joy, of beauty and diversity. We’re not getting that in mainstream media and [the artists] are bringing something else to the conversation,” Cooks said.
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