Editor's note: The following essay was published April 6, 2016 in Resource Library with permission of the Columbia Museum of Art. The essay was written to accompany the exhibit REMIX: Themes and Variations in African-American Art, on view at the Columbia Museum of Art from February 5 through May 3, 2016. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or wish to obtain a copy of the exhibit catalog containing it, please contact the Columbia Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:


This is the REMIX

by Jonell Logan

Whether identifying as negro, new negro, black, or post-black, artists of color have been creating visual art for as long as their European counterparts. Throughout that history of production, artists of the African diaspora have fused the established visual and cultural vocabulary of the colonizing West with elements specific to black culture as a method for expressing their history, narrative, identity, and blackness.

While a familiar and familial concept, this history of African-American art in the context of white American and European painting is limited. Artists of the African diaspora (artists who are of African descent living outside of the African continent) have always occupied a significant and often enigmatic place in the art world. In our traditional paradigm, people of color were effectively reduced to ancillary characters or unfavorable symbols in the western visual dogma. This heritage of inherent western cultural exclusion stems from the belief that people of Africa, or from Africa, were savages and brutes. Visual art from the continent was either collected as curiosity with no comprehension of cultural context or destroyed. African art and the work of those of color in the Americas were efficiently excluded from the annals of art history.

In the early 20th century, European artists found value in African art by appropriating African artists' use of form, patterning, and color to support abstraction. When artists as prominent as Picasso and Braque adopted African art in their work (as seen by the cubist fragmentation of the figure and the use of African masks in Les Demoiselles d'Avignon) African artists were not recognized, while Picasso's genius is now hailed as the foundation for an entire European arts movement.

As producers, black visual artists in the west were initially required to emulate European formalism and the high art of the Renaissance to achieve even minimal success. When black artists finally began to reference Africa and abstraction in the 1920s, years after Picasso and Matisse began fragmenting form and skewing perspective, their motivation for abstraction was politically, not artistically, revolutionary. African-American artists were reaching to Africa in order to attempt to re-establish a sense of history and culture lost in slavery and an existence in a western world. This was an act of defiance and self-definition, not an exploratory journey through form as it was for their European counterparts.

Fast forward 50 years, black artists working during the 1960s, '70s, and '80s challenged the museum establishment via protests and the establishment of black museums. Inspired by the civil rights and women's movement, artists openly began to question the continued absence of black art on gallery walls. It was not until 1994, and curator Thelma Golden's Black Male exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, that the visibility of black artists shifted closer to the mainstream.

As we explore the work of African-American artists, it is imperative that we move away from purely racialized categories and include the work within the context of American art history as a whole. Black artists are not borrowing from western art traditions. Positioning them as such is false and continues to place these artists on the outside looking in. African-American artists are an integral part of the western tradition in spite of their exclusion from it. The dialogues and perspectives presented by these artists of color should not be regarded as something foreign, but recognized as an expansion of the American cultural framework. It is imperative that we critically explore their manipulation or remixing of this established visual vocabulary in order to understand a broader history and aesthetic that is intrinsic to our collective experience.


Appropriation is Not Appropriate

We are all familiar with appropriation -- the act of taking an object, or in this case element of culture, without permission or consent, and often the cultural history and understanding associated with the practice. We see this "claiming" with organizations sponsoring color run festivals inspired by the Hindu Holi Festival, which celebrates the beginning of spring, or the popularization of dreadlocks among people outside of the African diaspora. A more contemporized term many people are using in conjunction with appropriation is "Columbusing" -- the act of claiming discovery of a cultural practice or space that has established roots within its parent culture.

When questioning African-American artists within western art, the idea of appropriation is not appropriate. Artists are not looking outside to claim a European framework; they operate within the European framework. From elementary to art school, popular media to high art, our American identity is forged from that of the European colonizer.

Artist Kehinde Wiley's large-scale, hyper-realist portraits of famous, infamous, and everyday black men and women are foreign yet familiar. You may be acquainted with his paintings featured on the television show, Empire. If you are soccer fan, you may remember his historic portraits from the 2010 FIFA World Cup.1 If neither of these sources is familiar, his work will likely trigger a memory of your world history book that featured artwork by European masters from the Italian Renaissance through the French rococo of the 18th century.

A graduate of Yale, Wiley places West African patterning, well-known hip-hop artists, and Average Joes within the gilded frame of classical, European painting (fig. 1). Well-versed in classicism's nuances, he uses it to construct an alternate narrative. Within this context, the unidentified and often undervalued or stereotyped black male takes on a position of royalty or power. Gold chains, luxury patterns, and posturing (which are valued and in both contemporary urban and European classical semiology) elevate his subjects to iconic status.

American modernist painter Romare Bearden employs both African and western aesthetics to create artwork that relays the black experience via the epic narrative. Fall of Troy, 1979 (fig. 2), is one in a series of screenprints from the artist's Black Odyssey series. Bearden remixes Homer's poem, The Odyssey, to explore African Americans' real epic tale of journeys from Africa, into slavery, and on towards freedom.

Likewise Georgia-born Lorenzo Scott and Florence, South Carolina, native William H. Johnson turned to the narratives of the Bible and religious faith to discuss and present the struggle of blacks in this country. The story of David and Goliath is a tale frequently explored in the traditional black church. As a parable, it spoke directly to the struggle and oppression of a pre-Emancipation, intra-civil rights movement community. The story reminded them that with unwavering faith, the oppressed can be victorious, whatever the odds.

Johnson's painting, David and Goliath, 1944 (fig. 4), portrays this familiar mythical battle. Dressed in contemporary sports clothes, his interpretation of the story takes it to the court, so to speak, where the neighborhood hero is the underdog who successfully defeats the stronger foe. Johnson's use of the well-established biblical tale is one example of artists sampling established tropes and updating them not only to speak to a contemporary audience, but to recontextualize these cultural icons assigned to the black consciousness to actually fit into a black narrative.

Johnson's use of a symbolic and familiar western story is fused with his decision to use what some refer to as a more "primitive" or folk style. This conscious choice was influenced by Harlem Renaissance writer Alain Locke's call for artists to find inspiration in black folk culture as a nationalist, new negro style. Johnson, who was classically trained in the United States and Europe, discarded the academic tradition for the use of bright color, flattened forms, and abstract figuration. This return to, or adoption of, the style of the non-western trained artist was deemed more authentic.

While these artists and others featured in the REMIX exhibition moderate the meaning of their sources, we must establish a baseline for approaching the work. I have seen it said that the featured artists are appropriating from European culture. This is not the case.

Appropriation occurs when a style leads to racist generalizations or stereotypes where it originated, but is deemed as high fashion, cool, or funny when the privileged take it for themselves. Appropriation occurs when the appropriator is not aware of the deep significance of the culture that they are partaking in.

This important quote was taken from actress Amandla Stenberg's school video project "Don't Cash Crop On My Cornrows," which hit the internet and struck a nerve in America this summer. Inspired by entertainer Miley Cyrus' entré into twerking and the Kardashian "Columbusing" of cornrows, the Hunger Games actress challenged our collective love and adoption/adaption of cultural production, while effectively negating its creators.

Stenberg's video essay calls attention to the definition of appropriation, and the criticality of constructing an apposite consideration of this exhibition. When appropriation takes place, the adopting community must be ignorant of the religious, social, political, and overall cultural significance of the style, and in this case artwork, of the parent culture. The creator or borrower of this derived, redefined, culturally-stripped phenomenon is operating from a position of foreigner and power. The current debate regarding Iggy Azalea and her rise to hip-hop fame is an example.2

It must be clearly stated that the artists participating in the exhibition are not borrowing from western culture; they are of western culture. This is a critical concept to understand. Born in countries formed or influenced by colonialism, each of the participating artists has an intimate knowledge of the society's value system, language, art history, and visual production. The visual language they use is not foreign. These established constructs of beauty, power, creativity, and value, as defined in large part by European art, can be seen in history books, advertisements, television programming, and Hollywood castings. These constructs taken as a whole form what author Toni Morrison calls the master narrative. It is an inherent part of our cultural DNA. The artists included in the REMIX exhibition are acutely aware of "the deep significance of the culture that they are partaking in."

With this common baseline in place, the artists are able to present an alternate construct that fully explores the black experience, while expanding our collective consideration of history, experience, and culture. It is not that these artists are creating a new way of seeing, but using the often exclusionary field of the fine arts to visualize questions and ideas that have and continue to exist firmly within the African-American community. Additionally, claiming and re-presenting this cultural "style" creates a space of ownership of black artists' place in western history while asserting that people of the African diaspora be recognized.

These ideas in some way can also be said of artists exploring African art. New York-based artist Renée Stout's Erzulie Dreams, 1992 (fig. 5), is informed by African-derived religions, including Hoodoo. Secularly referred to as "Roots," Hoodoo is a traditional African-American folk religion informed by West-African, European, and Native American spiritual practices. Hoodoo and other derivations including voodoo and Santeria can be found across the United States, the Caribbean, and Latin America.

While separated from Africa through slavery and a forced severance from cultural and familial history, many African-American artists have attempted to reclaim the use of African art from western modern artists like Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse who divorced form from meaning. With Stout's reference to Erzulie, the Haitian goddess of love, procreation, and motherhood, she inserts herself into a long cultural history while re-inserting the spiritual and personal.

So what do we call this? There are a variety of terms that define this phenomenon of adopting and adapting the master narrative to communicate your story. Two ideas are the most relevant. The first is remixing, a musically based term used to explain the borrowing of elements of a song for use as a base for another. When done well, as in legally paid for, or altered enough to simply suggest parent song, a new body of work is created while paying homage to another. When done poorly, as in the recent Blurred Lines lawsuit,3 your audience is forced to choose sides and your message and creativity are lost.

The second concept is signifying. Developed by Henry Louis Gates Jr. as a literary construct,4 signifying is closely related to the idea of double-talk. Associated with the trickster character in African-American and west African stories, signifying is a form of revision. Authors, characters, and in this case artists reuse motifs from previously established works, but signify on them to construct their own, altered meaning that challenge, in our case, the master narrative?the European-based construct used to legitimize history, identity, and our cultural value system.


Mastering the Master Narrative

Toni Morrison's novel The Bluest Eye is a challenging story of love, family, race, and identity. Its primary character, Pecola, is a young girl who loves Shirley Temple and believes that whiteness is beauty, and her blackness is ugly.5 Throughout the challenging and sometimes heart-wrenching story, Pecola believes that her life would be better if she were white.

In March of 1990, Morrison appeared in an interview with television personality Bill Moyers which included a conversation on the book. Pecola, by Moyer's standards, was the most "pathetic character in modern literature."6 In response, Morrison stated the following:

She has surrendered completely to the so-called "Master Narrative," the whole notion of what is ugliness, what is worthlessness. She got it from her family; she got it from school; she got it from the movies; she got it from everywhere. [The Master Narrative is] white male life. The Master Narrative is whatever ideological script that is being imposed by the people in authority on everybody else: The Master Fictionhistory. It has a certain point of view.7

In The Bluest Eye, Pecola wants to be white?sees beauty only in whiteness. A long line of visual reinforcements establishes her standard of loveliness. Popular early children's readers Dick and Jane feature blond-haired, blue-eyed children happily learning and living in the suburbs. Shirley Temple, who was Pecola's idol, is a happy, young, well-behaved child who altruistically sang and danced with black men, leaving young black women absent.

If we explore western visual culture, the master narrative defining attractiveness through the lens of whiteness is clear. French painter Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres' La Grand Odalisque (fig. 6) represents women from the "Orient," yet her coy pose, fair skin, and ample bottom come from 19th-century western notions of beauty.

Moving back through time, the three Graces epitomized femininity and beauty within the western framework. Three Greek goddesses of charm, beauty, and creativity became a standard subject for European artists from the 15th­19th centuries (fig. 7). Frequently standing or dancing in a circle while holding hands or embracing, the Graces represent the producing culture's normative ideas of beauty. In all cases, however, that standard of beauty presents white women.

New York-based artist Mickalene Thomas employs this construct of the three Graces to restructure and expand notions femininity and challenge common definitions of beauty. Like the established trope, three women dance in the center of Three Graces: Les Trois Femmes Noires, 2011 (fig. 8). There is, however, an all-important twist for the artist and the viewer. In place of nude, white women with long hair, Thomas' graces are three black women with afros and head wraps. Their black cultural aesthetic is made clear through the bold prints of their clothing, and use of the cultural notion of "shine."8 The women's gold and glittery accessories, the artist's choice to use a vivid palette, and her use of rhinestones in the painting bring energy and high-visual contrast to the work. Seemingly set in the 1960s or '70s, this painting displays confident, beautiful women of color who embody the varying black standard of beauty.

The 1960s and '70s are an important historical moment for black art and cultural aesthetics. Personally, it is also important to Thomas because the Black is Beautiful movement, in partnership with AfriCOBRA, and the Black Power Movement formulated an African-American cultural aesthetic for black art and beauty. A response to civil rights, establishing our own concept of value and worth in spite of, versus in contrast to, mainstream western culture was the order. Thomas fuses these notions of black political and cultural transformation and the established visual language of beauty from art history to challenge our concepts of attractiveness and femininity. Her work decodes and re-presents the master narrative in order to negate and redefine this singular construct of cultural history and value.

Other scholars, in addition to Morrison, have identified and documented the singularity of the master narrative. German philosopher Oswald Spengler first published The Decline of the West in 1918. The text explores the concept of history and time as established by Europeans, and the consequential and pending rise and fall of the western world. Regarding the telling of history, Spengler concludes:

...The Western European area is regarded as a fixed pole, a unique patch chosen on the surface of the sphere for no better reason, it seems, than because we live on it?and great histories of millennial duration and mighty faraway cultures are made to revolve around this pole in all modestyWe select a single bit of ground as the natural centre of the historical system, and make it the central sun. From it all the events of history receive their real light; from it their importance is judged in perspective.9

Morrison's concept of the master narrative is inherently supported by Spengler's dissection of western history. Additionally, the philosopher goes on to explore and link the Christian concept of linear history to this singular point of historical perspective.10 Prior to the rise and domination of the Judeo-Christian perspective, classical thought supported a cyclical view of history. This single course of history through time begins and continues to be measured by western standards.????

In music, mastering is that critical step between producing a sound and being able to consume it. In laymen's terms, it is the ability to take an abstract and often self-centric concept and present it in a way that can be heard, read, and understood by others. A musical example is Jay Z and Punjabi MC's 2012 collaboration, Beware of the Boys. In this song both American and Indian music can be distinctly heard. If you listen carefully, however, the theme music to Knight Rider, a 1980s television show featuring crime fighter Michael Knight and his high-tech car K.I.T., is mastered into the track. A conscious decision, that six- to seven-second sample incites excitement and adventure in the listener -- even if they don't recognize its origins. Artists like Thomas, Bearden, Johnson, and Wiley are acutely aware of how to master and remix the master narrative to tell their stories and present alternative cultural histories.

If we re-examine Wiley's work, we see this successful remixing take place. With a clear understanding of art and popular culture, the artist modifies classical paintings that are familiar to the American populous. Visual cues including western notions of formalism, perspective, hierarchical scale (larger elements of the composition are more important than others), and the three-quarter pose are traditional western frameworks for communicating power. His use of popularized poses from western paintings including Ingres' imperial portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte make his meaning clear.

Wiley decisively selected the rococo aesthetic because of its cultural parallels. The movement's aesthetic use of gold and sumptuous materials parallels the concept "shine" or "bling"11 in cultures of the African diaspora. The artist strategically signifies cultural representations of wealth and power between a rich, dominant history and one that has been disenfranchised in order to create a space of power. These visual cues or clues are well-known and well-versed in cultures colonized by the west. This Eurocentric master narrative is the framework by which we define ourselves and establish value within our social/cultural norms.


Playing the Race Card

While traditional western art history and mythology is a foil for William H. Johnson and Mickalene Thomas, race-based stereotypes popular within the master narrative are fodder for redefinition and the creation of an altered meaning. Identified as a way of negating the power of these often hurtful and pervasive stereotypes, humor becomes an important element in signifying slavery and plantation culture, the lawn jockey, and Uncle Ben.

Kara Walker uses humor and play to highlight the difference between historicized and idealized past and the realities of the black experience. Burning African Village Play Set with Big House and Lynching, 2006 (fig. 9), modifies the common and often-safe children's die cast play sets, created to encourage pretend play. She uses this "game," however, to explore the real violence executed against Africans and slaves by Europeans.

Walker is well-known for her manipulation of the master narrative and the black experience via slavery. Her often-narrative imagery challenges the codified language around power, blackness, and the historically idealized or sanitized dynamic between master and slave. In the work, we are forced to question the relationship between the big house and the destruction of the African village. Both the enslaved and slave owners act as aggressors, forcing the viewer to recontextualize their understanding of the slave experience. This tension created in the work is not only deconstructs the master narrative of the passive negro slave, but can serve as a parallel to contemporary racial tensions.

Like Walker, former ad man and sketch writer for Mad TV and artist Colin Quashie uses consumer culture and humor to deftly challenge our ideas of stereotypes as it relates to race. Agilely subtitled Property Trading Game from The Parker Plantation, his artwork/board game Plantation Monopoly, 2012 (fig. 10), substitutes homes and hotels with slaves and mules as playing pieces. The Confederate Chest has replaced the Community Chest, and your stations are now stops on the Underground Railroad. It shares the exact dimensions as the original board. Quashie uses familiarity, accessibility (you can actually play the game), and subtlety to force his audience to explore our history of the commodification of black bodies and the resulting financial success of those in power.

It's the exact same game, except that everything has just been reconfigured. I even rewrote all of the rules and everything like that. And of course, instead of hotels, once you get four slaves, you can buy yourself a mule to work on your plantation.12

As a Charlestonian, Quashie explores Monopoly and the plantation experience from a viewpoint that is not limited to history. The artist writes:

Charleston is so much about the past. The South basically glorifies the past. As far as they're concerned, the past isn't the past. It's still the present. So that's what we market, that's what we sell, but we do it in a lot of different ways, and plantations are a mirror of that.13

This investigation of plantation culture and the resulting stereotypes have led Quashie to reposition other popular commodities, including Uncle Ben and the ever-popular Aunt Jemima.

In the case of signifying, no other black female stereotype has met with greater strife and re-presentation than Aunt Jemima. Her character, rooted in enslaved black women who worked in the home, was based on the mammy character frequently found in minstrel shows in the early 1890s. Dressed in an apron and billowing skirt with a red rag tied on her head, the trope of the asexual, singing, happy, illiterate overweight woman who loved to cook for master was deeply rooted in American culture. This is the character adopted by entrepreneur Chris Rutt as the brand for his newly developed ready mixed, self-rise pancakes during this period. What few people know, however, is that Aunt Jemima was actually the first living trademark in America.14 Even fewer people know that the original Aunt Jemima was former slave Nancy Green.

Through Aunt Jemima's long history, Nancy Green died, Rutt sold his business to Quaker, and at least five women assumed the face of this famous domestic. In spite of these casting changes, Aunt Jemima remained the culturally contentious mammy figure. It was not until 198915 that Quaker "updated" her image by removing her kerchief, straightening her hair, and giving her pearl earrings and a lace collar. For many, this makeover only brought the notion of the safe negro in servitude into the 20th century.

Over Aunt Jemima's 125-year history, African-American artists have used her image to challenge and question dominant notions of black female sexuality, identity, and servitude. Photographer Renée Cox was inspired by the history of women artists remixing this image to make powerful statements about liberation, leadership, and revolution.

Dressed in a red, black, and green leather leotard and thigh-high boots, Cox's superhero character, Raje, has come to kick proverbial ass and take names. On her right, a leather-bikini-clad Aunt Jemima strides forward arm in arm with her liberator. No longer overweight and grinning, Jemima has shed her caricature. On Raje's left, a strong, young, lean Uncle Ben is no longer passive and safe, but striding towards this new liberated future.

Cox attributed her Liberation of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben, 1998 (fig. 11), to artist Betye Saar's The Liberation of Aunt Jemima in 1972. In it, a sculptural mammy holds a broom in one hand and a rifle in the other. Standing on cotton and grinning, an image of the mammy holding a white child sits on her skirt.

When I first saw her piece I thought it was brilliant. I thought to myself, that's the kind of work I want to do. Sort of take all these historical wrongs and turn them into rights.16

Cox's visual vernacular positions a series of sources to set Jemima free. Her black, red, and green costume is a direct reference to Black Nationalism. Aunt Jemima's leather bikini and Uncle Ben's combat boots are visual references to black selfhood and the Black Panthers' aesthetic of resistance and physical intimidation.17 Their pose, however is directly tied to Eugéne Delacroix's 1830 painting of Liberty Leading the People (fig. 12).18 Painted to commemorate France's July Revolution of 1830, this image has become a prevailing frame for depicting righteous, heroic revolution.

Unlike Cox's and Quashie's overt use of humor and consumer culture, artist Juan Logan takes a more subtle approach to challenging the stereotypical racial standard. Based in North Carolina, the artist uses objects tied to the Southern experience to create installations that question the relationship that exists between race, place, and power. Important in that idea is illuminating how "hierarchical relations and social stereotypes shape individuals, institutions, and the material and mental landscapes of contemporary life."19

In Logan's Wishful Thinking, 2004 (fig. 13), seven cement lawn jockeys surround a metal cooking pot. Each jockey is holding a brass ring onto which a dollar bill is tied. Each jockey has a penny affixed to its head and seven double-sided Lincoln pennies are placed in the pot.

Folklore states that these traditional lawn jockeys are based on a commemorative sculpture commissioned by George Washington in honor of twelve-year-old African American, Jocko Graves. Said to be the son of Washington's groomsman, Jocko reportedly froze to death in 1776 on the bank of the Delaware River waiting for Washington to return. Dutiful to his master, the young boy is said to have died holding the general's horses, as well as the lantern to guide the troops back to shore.

Moved by Jocko's dedication, Washington commissioned a sculpture in his honor, showing him holding his lantern in perpetuity. This commemorative statue morphed into standard lawn ornaments during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While honorary in origin, these new popularized sculptures were marked by stereotypical black attributes including monkey-like facial structures, extremely blackened skin, and caricatured physiognomy.

Wishful Thinking recontextualizes these derogatory sculptures to question notions of freedom in his work. The whitewashed lawn jockeys maintain their historically reductive position as laborers as they encircle a large iron kettle. They exert a new agency, however, by depositing double-headed pennies for good luck into the pot. With Lincoln's face appearing on both sides of these coins, Logan suggests the jockeys' perception of the former president as dishonest or "two-faced."

Copper pennies featuring Abraham Lincoln's portrait adorn their foreheads, while one-dollar bills referencing George Washington are neatly tied on each brass ring. Both Washington and Lincoln are equated with the idea of freedom -- a freedom never intended for Jocko or for African Americans. With each coin installment, enslaved African Americans, imprisoned in assigned roles, express their longings for freedom.

While black people's notion of freedom included autonomy and full access to American benefits, Logan asserts that Washington's and Lincoln's version of freedom was tied closely to the currency generated by the plantation and a system of forced inequity.


Making a Dollar Outta 15 cents

While the dynamics of race are discussed in Logan's work, his use of commercially produced, utilitarian objects as artistic materials for a work of art has a long history. In traditional African art for example, artists integrated mirrors, nails, and other metal objects into their sculptures via ritual acts or as symbols of power. In western art, French artist Marcel Duchamp became famous in the early 1900s for his use of a urinal, and later bike wheels, bottle dryers, and shovels, as sculptural objects. Known as the "ready made," his sculptures and philosophies regarding the power of recontextualizing objects to create new meanings and form would go on into inform American artists including Robert Rauschenberg and Fred Wilson. Logan's choice to remix material places him and artists like Betye Saar, Chakaia Booker, Willie Cole, Antoine Williams, or Michaela Pilar Brown in this spectrum of western artists.

Assemblage artist Betye Saar (fig. 14) considers herself an artist and conjurer. An inspiration for the aforementioned Cox, Saar creates work that not only addresses race, but the experience of women. The work is personal: "I'm the kind of person who recycles materials but I also recycle emotions and feelingsand I had a great deal of anger about the segregation and the racism in this country."20

Her introduction to assemblage was also personal. A child of the Depression, she learned to find value in discarded objects. Throughout her childhood she would create dolls, puppets, and gifts for her family out of found bottle caps, glass fragments, and buttons. It was during this time that Saar developed her belief in "the power of art to recover meaning from old fragments."21 A native of Los Angeles, California, Saar grew up in the Watts neighborhood and watched Italian immigrant and artist Simon Rodia use steel, cement, and miscellaneous detritus to create the now-famous Watts Tower. These experiences directly informed her future practice as an artist.

Like Saar, photographers and installation artists Amalia Amaki (fig. 15) and Michaela Pilar Brown use found objects to explore concepts of blackness and black femininity. Both artists use photography as the foundation a body of their work. Amaki affixes buttons, beads, and other materials to create her mixed media work. Brown, in contrast, creates vignettes that use her body in combination with acquired objects to create new photographic images.

In Speak No, 2011 (fig. 16), Brown uses small plastic soldiers, a doll, and rhinestones affixed to her head and face to challenge the master narrative's construction of race, body, and feminism. Within this context, black is not beautiful, but foreign, exotic, and frequently at the sexual disposal of others. In contrast, European women are regarded as beautiful and chaste. Brown pairs these objects associated with teaching us these normalized values of beauty (dolls and rhinestones) in contrast to her black body, demonstrating the internal battle women of color often experience regarding their own beauty and self-worth.

To create a sense of contemporary context, the debate regarding who the feminist movement is for or supports has been on the front page of many of today's social media timelines, Twitter feeds, and newspapers. Earlier this summer, Al Jazeera America ran an article by Erika L. Sanchez, a poet and writer living in Chicago, exploring how feminism continues to fail women of color. She highlights the recent exchange between entertainers Taylor Swift and Nicki Minaj as an example.22 It argues, in short, that white women who identify as feminists do not take an inclusive view that considers race and often discount women of color when discussing their experience. Speak No was created in response to the same idea.

Speak No was conceived while Brown was looking at images from the 2011 Slut Walk in New York City, a feminist protest event designed to challenge the notions of women's bodies and the derogatory terms often associated with dress, implied availability, and open sexuality. She notes:

In the crowd [of protesters] was a woman carrying a sign that said "Women are the Niggers of the World"and I thought, here we are, 40 years into the feminist movement in this country, and black women are still being asked to check their blackness at the door; still being asked to choose between the battle for gender equality or the battle for racial equality.23

In her image, a series of soldiers are placed on her head, representing the battle around blackness and identity. Her body is in fact a battleground. On her shoulder sits a small doll. This doll has been integrated into a number of Brown's works. Addressing issues of beauty and cultural appropriation, this black Kewpie doll has evolved into Brown's symbol of a warrior figure fighting for and empowering Brown in her character's own support of beauty. Her crossed mouth, however, visually emphasizes the silencing of the black feminist.

Maren Hassinger's performance work is similarly rooted in the exclusion of black women from the mainstream feminist movement. Her video Daily Mask, 2004, depicts Hassinger painting her face in an almost ritualized way, in an allusion to the obscuring of self, so eloquently described in Paul Lawrence Dunbar's poem:


We Wear the Mask
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes, --
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.
We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!24


Urban Townie, 2001 (fig. 17), artist Chakaia Booker's recycled tire sculpture, further explores issues of gender, race, and identity. The varied tire treads not only create a visual texture in the work, but are allusions to cultural markers including braided hair, textiles, and African scarification. The physicality of her sculptural practice and the layering and wrapping of her own body forge a deep personal connection and commitment to her work, and the experience of being protected and covered. Nari Ward's use of a baseball bat, cotton, nails, and medical tape in All Stars, 1995-6 (fig. 18), references both the violence of the "primeval club" with the idea of healing?an interesting metaphor paralleling the existence of living in urban spaces like New York as a person of color.

While politics and heritage are evident in conceptual artist Willie Cole's work, his interest in material rises to the fore. Throughout his artistic career, Cole has used everyday objects to create his work. Irons, matches, hair dryers, bike parts, water bottles, and women's shoes have all been fair game in his artistic tool kit. His intention, like other artists,' is to use and transcend the object until its collective meaning becomes something new. His most recent series of sculpture fuses this idea of the found object and the long history of bronze casting to create these pieces formed by women's shoes.

Cole's relationship with the object is both formal and spiritual. His desire to recontextualize objects stems from the idea of creating new life from existing energies. When discussing his new series, Cole considers the following:

People ask me, "why high heels?" I can answer that question one hundred different ways but suffice it to say that high heel shoes are a work of art within themselves as well as a masterful feat of engineering. They are in fact what Jasper Johns might call an "anxious object." They turn on all the senses. 
A pair of high heels comes fully loaded with history, sex appeal, fantasy, pain, and joy. And in the case of a recycled, or as I prefer to say an "upcycled" pair, they are filled with human essence and memory. 
And last but not least they have a sole.25

Downtown Goddess, 2012 (fig. 19), can be easily mistaken for a Shona sculpture from Zimbabwe. The angular planes of the face and headdress and the bent arms and overall pose are clearly inspired by the work. This bronze sculpture, however, was made from an assemblage of shoes. Cole secured high heels from thrift stores for their formal and symbolic flexibility. Not only can they be combined to look like arms and teeth, but the work is believed to acquire a sense of power from the shoes former wearers.26 Cole creates a seamless space where the high-art bronze cast meets contemporary assemblage practices and modern investigations of culture.


The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

What we frequently forget is that people of color have always modified western formulas of representation to reflect themselves. In moments, we collectively recognize this phenomenon. We accept that the blues are the love child of slave song, field hollers, and the musical instruments of the West. We understand that practitioners of Santeria masked African deities behind Catholic saints or "Santos" in order to maintain their cultural heritage. Frequently, however, we fail to accept this phenomenon of fusion and recontextualization in the visual arts.

Held as humankind's highest form of creative expression, painting and sculpture are strictly organized and monetized by the art world. The benchmark by which all artwork is compared is European art -- specifically painting from the Renaissance. From Greek and Roman sculptors to Michelangelo; from Goya to Gauguin; and even from Pollock to Hirst, the art world master narrative is constructed through the European lens -- in spite of artistic traditions from Africa and other non-western communities.

While some may argue that an exhibition of only African-American artists excludes portions of the creative community, I would like to offer an alternative consideration. REMIX: Themes and Variations in African-American Art provides us with an opportunity to not only celebrate and recognize African-American artists, but to question the notion of master narrative. We are encouraged to expand our understanding of American art and culture through the visual sampling, mastering, and remixing of our common visual language, while exploring the complexities and diversity that is the black community.


About the author

Jonell Logan is an Independent Curator and Consultant


About the exhibition

The Columbia Museum of Art (CMA) opened a new year of programming by presenting a major exhibition featuring some of the most important artists of the 20th century and today. REMIX: Themes and Variations in African-American Art and its accompanying catalogue focus on work that reassembles and reconfigures prior sources from history and culture into new works of art. The 45 works in the show represent some of the most innovative and influential African-American artists including Jacob Lawrence, Elizabeth Catlett, and Romare Bearden, alongside contemporary superstars like Kehinde Wiley, Kara Walker, and Fahamu Pecou. Nine South Carolina artists are included such as Leo Twiggs, Michaela Pilar Brown, and Colin Quashie. This show is curated and organized by the CMA, which is its only venue. The exhibition opened on February 5, 2016 and runs through May 3, 2016.

"The CMA belongs to an era where a conscious invitation to hear all voices is the underpinning of the work we do every day," says Executive Director Karen Brosius. "We are the first museum to explore the underlying thesis that many dynamic African-American artists have taken their inspiration from images, stories, and styles of the past and remade them through their own unique perspectives, imbuing them with a fresh context and often a whole new meaning."

The lively form of the works -- paintings, sculpture, works on paper, video, and textiles -- showcase diverse styles that explore the American experience. "In the face of our current divisive political climate, it is important to deconstruct the master narrative," says Jonell Logan, independent curator specializing in contemporary American art. As an REMIX essayist, Logan speaks about the themes that shape modern and contemporary African-American art. "REMIX provides us that opportunity -- to include more voices in the conversation of history, identity, and the image -- and to provide a truer picture of what our world, our society looks like."

The Columbia Museum of Art has a long history of presenting exhibitions featuring African-American art and African cultural heritage -- more than 40 years, beginning in 1972. In addition to the more than 25 exhibitions, the museum's collection includes works by more than 35 African-American artists, including Romare Bearden, Sam Gilliam, Joseph Norman, Elizabeth Catlett, William H. Johnson, Betye Saar, Carrie Mae Weems, Willie Cole, and others.

REMIX: Themes and Variations in African-American Art is made possible through support of sponsors and national foundations. Presented by Title Sponsor BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina and Foundation Sponsor Henry Luce Foundation. Supporting Sponsors: Bank of America, Merrill Lynch, Susan Thorpe and John Baynes, U.S. Trust. Contributing Sponsors: Adam and Reese, LLP, Dr. and Mrs. Benjamin M. Gimarc, Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP, and Smith Family Foundation. Grant awards from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Elizabeth Firestone Graham Foundation.


Resource Library editor's note

The above essay was published April 6, 2016 in Resource Library with permission of the Columbia Museum of Art. The essay was written to accompany the exhibit REMIX: Themes and Variations in African-American Art, on view at the Columbia Museum of Art from February 5 through May 3, 2016. Permission was granted to TFAO on April 1, 2016. Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Will South and Jessica Derr of the Columbia Museum of Art for their help concerning permission for publishing online the above essay.

Images of artworks referred to in the text as "figures" and endnotes referred to in the text are not included here, however they are available in the paper-printed catalogue.

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For biographical information on selected artists referenced in this article please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artist

Read more information, articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Columbia Museum of Art in Resource Library.

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