Represent: 200 Years of African-American Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

© Philadelphia Museum of Art

Artsy’s curator at large on his reaction to the landmark exhibition.

One of the most powerful works of art on view in the United States right now likely won’t be seen by the majority of Americans. It’s a 5-½ by 12-½ by 9-inch sculpture of an abnormally-shaped head lying on its side, made mostly out of black beads and green thread. One eye is a slit, swollen shut; the other is bloated, like a large doughnut. The lips are green and slightly open, exposing a red mouth—colors reminiscent of a watermelon slice.

Small and subtle, sitting alone on a white pedestal in a display case of thick lucite, the head—Joyce J. Scott’s Rodney King’s Head Was Squashed Like a Watermelon (1991)—doesn’t scream for the viewer’s immediate attention, say in the way a towering, colorful and reflective Jeff Koons sculpture might. Still, the protective lucite case is notably thick, like this object is in danger—or perhaps even dangerous.

The 15 minutes I spent standing in front of the work last Thursday morning were the highlight of my visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s recently-opened exhibition, “Represent: 200 Years of African American Art.” The show is the outgrowth of a book—the exhibition catalogue—which has been in the making for over two decades (the collection committee began advocating for a complete catalogue of the collection in the 1980s). Overseen by Dr. Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, associate professor of American art and affiliated faculty in Africana studies, cinema studies and women and gender studies at the University of Pennsylvania, the publication is an important new contribution to the survey literature on African-American art history. The book and exhibition title, neatly compressing associations to hip-hop, the act of proudly reflecting one’s identity, and the art of representation was Shaw’s conception. Though not inclusive of the museum’s entire collection, which numbers 750 works by 200 African-American artists, the book highlights almost 150 works by 100 artists.

As a scholar of American art history, I was excited to visit the exhibition based on the ambition of the subtitle, the size of their permanent collection, and the fact that this institution was the first American museum to collect African-American art (they purchased Henry Ossawa Tanner’s biblical painting, The Annunciation, in 1899). I was looking forward to a vast survey of this material—only the Smithsonian Institution and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston could put on a comparably substantive survey on the subject using just their own collections—since such exhibitions are rare, held roughly once or twice a decade since the 1970s. Their infrequency is partly because mono-ethnic shows like these can be far too broad and reductive, making them increasingly inconsistent with how African-American artists are understood and exhibited today: in shows focusing on one artist’s work, or within group shows focused on specific art themes—sometimes involving race. Still, surveys like these are still very helpful in showing how we as a culture conceptualize the larger narrative of African-American art and showcasing at once how African-American artists have expressed issues of aesthetics, politics, race, and personal identity in this country over time.

But with only 75 works by 50 artists, showcased in one large room broken into sections, “Represent” hardly felt big enough to uphold the mission of its catalogue, which took so many years to come to fruition. While I appreciate the existence of the show—as it is something rather than nothing—it’s still hard to accept the limited selection on view. Despite this disappointment, there are individual works in the show that demand to be seen by a larger audience—like the Joyce J. Scott sculpture.

It’s also worth calling out the earliest works in the exhibition, including the hollow-cut silhouettes by Moses Williams (c. 1802) created using a physiognotrace—a mechanical portrait device widely popular in 19th-century America that improved the making of quick but elegant black-on-white silhouettes. Alongside the few other early works, like the Edgefield “face jugs” produced by enslaved men around the American Civil War, Williams’ works demonstrate the intense difficulty of telling the story of African American artists in the Americas before the 1900s: So few historical examples of art made by African Americans before the 20th century still exist because of the abuse and systematic discrimination the population has experienced throughout American history. Williams’ works set the tone of the exhibit and became, at least for me, symbolic of both the determination and extreme pain of surmounting the limits placed on what could be accomplished at the time and what still exists today.

While not all works on display are as charged and difficult as Scott’s—such as Aaron Douglas’s Birds in Flight, Odili Donald Odita’s Rift or Tanner’s Annunciation—hers is the one my mind keeps returning to, even days later. Scott’s work is a devastating object embodying the horrific power of racism and stereotypes. Her surprising use of beads (characteristically used for celebratory decoration) and seemingly benign abstract forms, to convey the fragility of our bodies and the violence we inflict on others, makes the work even more shocking. It was hard not to look at the work and think of Emmett Till's badly mutilated head, which, in 1955, his mother insisted be exposed at his funeral to show the world the brutality of his killing—an event that helped galvanize the American Civil Rights Movement. It brought me back to my experience, as a kid growing up outside of Boston, watching the horrifying footage of Rodney King, his beating, the trial and the ensuing riots, over and over on TV.

It was also impossible not to reflect on the connection to the most recent tragedies of racially-charged violence in America. This was perhaps the most difficult aspect of viewing the piece: that Scott’s artwork, two decades old, still resonates so strongly—as applicable now as it was then. If for no other reason than to reflect on that fact, find a way to get yourself to Philly to see the landmark exhibition.

“Represent: 200 Years of African American Art” is on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art from January 10 through April 5, 2015.