Black people in post-war America: New exhibition documents an often brutal experience

Glenn Ligon - a favourite artist of Barack Obama, whose work hangs in the President's private rooms - has turned curator for a powerful new exhibition

Zoe Pilger
Tuesday 07 April 2015 21:24 BST
'Untitled' (from the 'Troubled Waters' portfolio) by William
Eggleston (1980)
'Untitled' (from the 'Troubled Waters' portfolio) by William Eggleston (1980)

In 1987, the playwright Adrienne Kennedy wrote a list of all the people who had influenced her creativity, which became a book titled People Who Led to My Plays. As a black girl growing up in segregated America during the Second World War, her influences included fairytales, Hitler, and Jesus: "He could endure, and as a 'Negro' I needed that quality."

Later, she absorbed the pain of the songs of Billie Holiday, the spirituals, and "White people" – "they tried to hold you back. That implied a great challenge existed in life." There was oppression, but also resistance. She writes eloquently of her church minister: "He spoke the sermon in a way that said there was a rage inside religion."

Nearly 30 years later, black American conceptual artist Glenn Ligon has been inspired, partly by Kennedy, to create a visual compendium of his own influences. He has curated a new exhibition, Encounters and Collisions, at Nottingham Contemporary Gallery, which includes many different artists' work and ranges in subject matter from Black Power to post-war American Abstract Expressionism, with an emphasis on the colour black.

The Black Panthers invested the colour black with a political meaning. But here the symbolism is confused: photographs of the fight for racial equality in the US hang alongside works such as Meryon (1960-1) by the "action" painter Franz Kline. This famous abstract painting is dominated by black on white, but it does not reference race. The influences in this exhibition are sprawling and unwieldy.

Ligon often uses "intertextuality" in his work, that annoying word, which is a favourite of critical theory. It refers to the process of magpie-like borrowing that characterises all creativity, whether consciously or not. After all, nothing is made in a vacuum.

Ligon was born in the Bronx in 1960 to a working-class family. He won a scholarship to a progressive private school at the age of seven, and later attended Wesleyan University. His is a generation informed by the Reagan and Bush eras, as well the Aids crisis. In 2011, Barack Obama chose Ligon's Black Like Me #2 to hang in his private residence at the White House.

There is a lot of wonderful work in this exhibition, but overall it is too diffuse, and lacks impact. Here the artist is curator, and the only unifying theme is his own taste.

Black Panthers (1968) is a documentary by Agnès Varda, which includes interviews with members of the party. It is dubbed into French, which is self-defeating. Without sound, the focus lies on the style of the era, which was amazing: black berets, Afros, Ray-bans. The Black Panther aesthetic made radical politics cool. This look had nothing in common with the long-haired, "drop out, tune in" culture of (mostly white) hippiedom. Instead, it was a disciplined, revolutionary smartness of black leather jackets and powder-blue shirts. The berets were inspired by the French Resistance, and the whole look served to make young people feel proud. It was about focus.

Like Malcolm X, the co-founder of the Black Panthers, Huey P Newton, emerged from a period of juvenile delinquency to become a committed intellectual. With Bobby Seale, he wrote the movement's 1966 10-point programme, which included not merely a demand for equal rights, but a redistribution of wealth that threatened the core of American capitalism. It also demanded an exemption of all black men from military service on the grounds that they refused "to defend a racist government that does not protect us". Not surprisingly, in 1968 the director of the FBI, J Edgar Hoover, called the Black Panthers "the greatest threat to the internal security of the country".

There is a Black Panther poster that shows a majestic photograph of Newton, sitting in a wicker throne, a shotgun in one hand and an African tribal spear in the other, along with a quote: "The racist dog policemen must withdraw immediately from our communities… or face the wrath of the armed people." The poster was gunned, the glass frame smashed, during a police attack on the Black Panther offices in Berkeley in 1968. Stephen Shames' photograph of its remains is included here.

Shames' other photographs – of demonstrations against police brutality, of Newton listening to Dylan – are subtle and striking. So too are Charles Moore's photographs of protests in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. One shows a young woman blasted by a police water cannon. She is drenched and shocked, her mouth open. Here are the effects of water as a weapon: figures cowering, their clothes stuck to their bodies. The images recall the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, last summer, during which a CNN anchor proposed the use of water cannons and caused a social media backlash.

There is an attempt in this show to connect the history of civil rights with today, but it is muddled by the inclusion of mediocre conceptual artworks that do not do justice to the subject.

In the next gallery is Ligon's own work, Untitled (2006), which consists of the word AMERICA in black neon letters on the wall. It seems obvious. Opposite is Run from Fear, Fun from Rear (1972) by Bruce Nauman. The title is spelled out on the wall in yellow and pink neon. It suggests the garish contradictions of US consumerism, but it is facile, even hateful. Maybe that was the point.

Much more interesting is the film Babel (2006) by Dave McKenzie. It is one of the most affecting works in the exhibition, with a metaphor that means something. A young black man sits in a chair, facing the camera. Rather than speak into the microphone that he holds in his hand, he has stuffed it into his mouth. The sounds that he makes are hellish, insane – he is desperately trying to breathe. There is a rhythm to his breath, which becomes more laboured. The instrument that should amplify his voice is here used to gag him.

Moreover, the gag is self-imposed. What can the work say about contemporary American culture? Rap culture? Out of the struggle to speak that was the Black Power era, come figureheads like Jay Z, paragon of US capitalism. The work makes you think.

Photo Booth (2008) by Lorna Simpson is a beautiful assemblage of tiny framed photo booth images of black Americans, possibly from the Fifties. They show dapper men in trilby hats. The frames lend a grandeur to this fast, cheap, throwaway medium. They raise questions about the power and legacy imparted by the genre of portraiture: whose image is preserved and whose is forgotten? Among the photos are framed black blurs, squares of abstraction, which point to gaps, those erased.

I also liked Zoe Leonard's black-and-white photograph, One Woman Looking at Another (1990). It shows two black models on a catwalk, swirling their skirts as the press watch from below. One model is looking at the other, who is looking at the camera. There is joy in the image. An essay by Audre Lorde is included in the catalogue. She asks a poignant question: "To whom do I owe the symbols of my survival?" Falteringly, this exhibition tries to give an answer.

Glenn Ligon Encounters and Collisions, Nottingham Contemporary (0115 948 9750) to 14 June

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