Citing Black Geographies presents the work of fifteen artists whose practices examine “Black space”—an elusive term describing the topographies, zones, scenes, and structures that portend Black cultural experience.
Curated by Romi Crawford, a cultural theorist and professor of visual and critical studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Citing Black Geographies will be on view at GRAY Chicago from September 9 through October 27, 2022, and GRAY New York from November 17 through December 23, 2022.
Bey’s series Night Coming Tenderly, Black, is comprised of ten large-scale portraits that chronicle the viewpoint of an enslaved person fleeing bondage. Conjuring powerful imagery of the history of Black migration, the present photograph depicts an obscured, seemingly innocuous front porch under the veil of foreboding night. By placing the viewer in the perspective of the figure as it navigates this treacherous path, Bey demonstrates how black space is informed by the black body.
The base layer of Binion's compositions, which he describes as the "under-conscious," is made up of ephemera from the artist's life. Photocopies of his birth certificate and passport, newspaper clippings, excerpts from his address books, childhood photos, and images from his home state of Mississippi are among the visuals he uses to disseminate the intimate details of his identity, relationships, and history.
Blot explores the dynamism of the Black body and its power to establish Black space. The Soundsuit used in Blot is made of long black fibers that engulf the performer's body. The work exists in multiple dimensions. The ambient swishing noises and scale enshroud and stimulate the viewer.
"Although Cave’s colorful soundsuits abound, the black soundsuit is especially provocative for the double narrative that it implies. It refers to blackness as both its own thesis and its own antithesis. In this case the threshold where the real and the performative coexist and mingle is emancipatory and ecstatic."
- Romi Crawford
For Sightings (1994), Fusco stages scenes of the 1970 search for author and activist Angela Davis by federal agents, police, and ordinary citizens, depicting the various other Black women who were mistaken for Davis on surveillance video. Fusco’s ongoing interest in surveillance, here focused on Davis, highlights the peril of geographically inflected mistaken identity.
"Fusco’s indistinct black-and-white images, drawn from data of a sort, isolate and dwell upon this interrogatory, penal-like space that black people often encounter."
Romi Crawford -
Gates’s black seam on city infrastructure, (2022) deploys decommissioned Chicago Transit Association steel from an abandoned train station formerly at the crossroads between the black and white neighborhoods in Chicago’s Hyde Park. Gates has reconstituted the beam into a Doric column from two welded ends of a steel leg of the train trestle.
Working from a place of personal significance, Gates uses these roofing and building materials to evoke greater political significance. Rubber, tar, and tar paper are materials associated with both Blackness and labor that Gates reclaimed from vitriolic racial epithets and continues to transform, innovate, and reinscribe with meaning.
In Black & Blue, Rashid Johnson considers the spaces and pastimes that have been gatekept from Black and brown communities. Here Johnson depicts the Hamptons—an exclusive Long Island vacation destination—and uses his family as the protagonists of the film, tessellating domestic scenes of affluence commonly associated with whiteness onto non-white figures. Sounds of soothing and contemplative jazz feature intermittently throughout the film to accompany the leisurely ambiance Johnson creates.
"Johnson summons or wills the black space of the Hamptons into being, creating it from accrued experiences such as his."
Romi Crawford -
Johnson’s newest canvases, titled Bruise Paintings, are a continuation of his Anxious Men series. Elaborating on the themes present in his Anxious Red Paintings made during the pandemic—which captured the feelings of anxiety, isolation, and loss communally felt over the past several years—the Bruise Paintings center on sentiments of aftermath, reckoning, and healing.
...A Kind Of Racial Narcissism... responds to the transcript and video documentation of the 1965 debate between the writer and activist James Baldwin and one of the godfathers of modern American conservatism, William F. Buckley Jr. This highly publicized event took place at the Cambridge Union in the United Kingdom. Using graphite, Lewis places a large X over Buckley’s face, demonstrating the repulsion and anger he registered when analyzing Buckley's language, thesis, and rhetorical strategies.
Tony Lewis’s floor drawings exist as a series of site-specific installations initially born out of a practical purpose: protecting space from the artist's loose graphite powder. Since their development, these six floor drawings have been included in over twenty exhibitions, collecting and adding to their own history along the way. Lewis regards these pieces as works with distinct energies—each rip, tear and fold contributing to the development of his personal artistic history.
"...They are drawings that 'develop characteristics of the places' they have been. Untitled 4 (2015–ongoing, 2022), for example, renounce a simplistic notion of space and also time. Evolving durationally, they extend the life of the initial context and are fully expected to experience a demise, what Lewis describes as their death, after they have moved around to the point of disintegration."
Romi Crawford -
Coon is a recent addition to a series of works that date back to 2011. To create it, Lewis took a socio-politically charged sentence and isolated fragments of phrases before placing them on large paper sheets. Working in the tradition of contemporary visual art that observes language and its effects, Lewis’s stray letters and dismantled words also function on a graphic level.
Strachan’s installation, Six Thousand Years is the artist’s attempt to parse the complexity of his monumental work, The Encyclopedia of Invisibility. Its fifteen thousand entries describe people, places, objects, concepts, artworks, and scientific phenomena that are hard to see and difficult to ascertain in one book, but in Six Thousand Years, the pages are presented in a vast display.
"His Six Thousand Years installation featuring his Encyclopedia of Invisibility (2018) sculpture exposes complexities of perception and the problematics of time-space for black persons."
Romi Crawford -
The Encyclopedia of Invisibility is both a sculpture and a functional 2,416-page book. Bound in navy blue leather with gilt pages and an official-looking insignia on the cover, it bears a winking resemblance to the Encyclopedia Britannica, but its fifteen thousand entries cover a range of subjects rarely found in traditional reference libraries.
Meleager exists at the crossroads of classical metaphor and astrophysical landscape, drawing from Strachan’s deep knowledge of global histories and scientific exploration. Images of busts of Greek mythological hero, Meleager, are layered beneath enamel to create a cosmic constellation composed of ancient references.
In this series of projected images, Jan Tichy documents the elaborate murals on the walls of Cabrini-Green, a former Chicago Housing Authority complex. The buildings comprising the housing project were demolished in 2011, but this suite of photographs endures as a record, revealing that the final function of one of the country’s most well-known public-housing projects was a surface for art making.
"The suite of photographs reveals that the final function of one of the country’s most noted public housing projects—a socially loaded and now historical instance of black space—was art in the form of murals that residents painted onto the walls of various units."
Romi Crawford -
"...suggests data’s failure to encapsulate the full story and the need for other, more nuanced and creative ways of interpretating the fullness of black cultural experience."
Romi Crawford -
For the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, W. E. B Du Bois created sixty-seven modernist drawings that visualized data on the state of Black life in America. With this famous series as a starting point, Valentine used information from the 2020 US Census to update Du Bois’s works with contemporary data, revealing patterns, progress, and impasses in the socioeconomic development of Black Americans over the past century. The aesthetics and areas of inquiry are consistent with the originals, creating a series of visualizations as beautiful as they are informative.
CARRIE MAE WEEMS
The Shape of Things series emerged from Weems’s trip to Africa in 1993. During this visit, she documented the remaining vestiges of slavery present in West African communities in addition to the architectural features of Djenné, Mali, one of the oldest urban sites in Western Africa. She was particularly taken by the city’s distinctive, ancient architecture and the buildings’ ability to suggest gender specificity or, in her words, “male and female" space.
In her Kitchen Table series, Weems has placed herself within the narrative as the recurring subject of staged photographs with a rotating cast of family members and scenes of a single table illuminated by an overhead light. Her own image and relationships turn into a method for exploring the tension within family dynamics and social realms beyond.
Black Love evinces the artist's interest in the personal as political, inviting the viewer to witness moments in life that are not often visible or acknowledged. The three-part work resembles a storyboard for a film, unfolding to reveal a nighttime encounter between two lovers.
Semper Augustus Chicagous expands artist's site-specific installation An Imposing Number of Times at Smith College where the artist and students planted tulip bulbs along "desire paths," that result from people walking and taking shortcuts off of paved pathways. By marking the paths with tulips, Williams aimed to inspire discussion about designated and undesignated uses of public space. In the present Semper Augustus Chicagous, the gold-leaf-encased cast tulip bulbs are placed as an allusion counterparts to be planted in areas on the South Side of Chicago affected by racist redlining and other sinister social practices which have led to the hyper-segregation and marginalization of Chicago's residents by race and class.
STAPLES JR. SINGERS
Acknowledging the power of the Black church as an important Black space, the full version of “When Do We Get Paid” by the Staples Jr. Singers is a reprise of an earlier song by the same name that was produced and proliferated in the singing group's home state of Mississippi. The record expresses the role of that particular site for this family of singers who have a committed relationship to the South. The sonic dimension fills the gallery just as gospel music fills the church, creating a communally felt experience of black space.
STAPLES JR. SINGERS
Acknowledging the power of the Black church as an important Black space, the full version of When Do We Get Paid by the Staples Jr. Singers is a reprise of an earlier song by the same name that was produced and proliferated in the singing group's home state of Mississippi. The record expresses the role of that particular site for this family of singers who have a committed relationship to the South. The sonic dimension fills the gallery just as gospel music fills the church, creating a communally felt experience of black space.
It’s Nation Time functions within the context of Citing Black Geographies as a key reference point—one so important to the sentiment of black liberation undergirding certain registers of black space, including that of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s, that it is brought to bear in the exhibit physically as a visual, performative, and sonic signifier for the immersive intensity of black experience. It has loomed for several decades as a touchstone for makers, from Jeff Donaldson to Rashid Johnson, since its writing in 1970.
Dawoud Bey (b. 1953) explores a range of formal and material methodologies to create images and projects that connect deeply with the communities he photographs. Celebrated for his rich, psychologically compelling portraits, Bey came to attention with Harlem, U.S.A. (1975-1979) a visual journey through the iconic neighborhood that, in 1979, also comprised his first solo exhibition at The Studio Museum in Harlem. Since then, Bey’s photographic and social practice has been defined by the empathy he brings to his subjects and the complexity with which he depicts them.
McArthur Binion (b. 1946) creates highly personal and labor-intensive works that assert his unique position between minimalism, identity politics, and abstraction. Binion employs elemental materials such as oil stick, ink, and graphite to create a dense interlacing grid on the surface of his paintings. This hand-made geometry is applied to a ground layer of neatly tiled images—reproductions of personal photos and documents—that offer glimpses into the artist’s life.
Nick Cave (b. 1959) is an artist, educator and foremost a messenger, working between the visual and performing arts through a wide range of mediums, including sculpture, installation, video, sound and performance. Cave is well known for his Soundsuits, sculptural forms based on the scale of his body, initially created in direct response to the police beating of Rodney King in 1991. Soundsuits camouflage the body, masking and creating a second skin that conceals race, gender and class, forcing the viewer to look without judgment. They serve as a visual embodiment of social justice that represents both brutality and empowerment.
Coco Fusco (b. 1960) is an interdisciplinary artist and writer who explores the politics of gender, race, war, and identity through multi-media productions incorporating large-scale projections, closed-circuit television, web-based live streaming performances with audience interaction, as well as performances that actively engage with audiences. Over the past twenty-five years, Fusco has investigated the ways that intercultural dynamics affect the construction of the self and ideas about cultural otherness. Her work is informed by multicultural and postcolonial discourses as well as by feminist and psychoanalytic theories, yielding art projects about ethnographic displays, animal psychology, sex tourism in the Caribbean, labor conditions in free trade zones, suppressed colonial records of indigenous struggles, and military interrogation in the War on Terror.
Theaster Gates (b.1973) currently lives and works in Chicago. Gates creates works that engage with space theory and land development, sculpture and performance. Drawing on his interest and training in urban planning and preservation, Gates redeems spaces that have been left behind. Known for his recirculation of art world capital, Gates’s practice focuses on the possibility of the “life within things.” His work contends with the notion of Black space as a formal exercise – one defined by collective desire, artistic agency, and the tactics of a pragmatist.
Rashid Johnson (b. 1977) is a sculptor and photographer who works in a wide range of everyday materials, including wax, wood, steel, brass, shea butter, ceramic tile, and such found objects as books, records, VHS tapes, live plants, and CB radios. He finds inspiration in the work of a diverse group of visual artists, actors, musicians, writers, activists, and philosophers, including Carl Andre, Joseph Beuys, Eldrige Cleaver, Bruce Conner, Joseph Cornell, David Hammons, Kasimir Malevich, Parliament Funkadelic, and Sun Ra. Often identified with the post-black art movement, Johnson’s work engages questions of personal, racial, and cultural identity, producing a unique synthesis of historical and material references that are grounded in African American and art history while expanding into questions of mysticism and cosmology.
Tony Lewis (b. 1986) harnesses the medium of graphite powder to confront such social and political topics as race, power, communication, and labor. The material provides a literal and conceptual foundation for the artist's work, as it is stretched, smudged, rubbed, spliced, and folded across a variety of handmade and found surfaces. Graphite powder is an inherently unruly medium, a substance that threatens to wander. Lewis nurtures this dispersal, allowing for the powder to build into a ubiquitous state that settles upon and indiscriminately marks paper surfaces; the graphite-slick studio floor becomes a "tool the same way a pencil is a tool."
Tavares Strachan (b. 1979) activates the intersections of art, science, and politics, offering artworks with uniquely synthesized points of view on the cultural dynamics of scientific knowledge. Aeronautics, astronomy, deep-sea exploration, and extreme climatology are but some of the thematic arenas out of which Strachan creates monumental allegories that tell of cultural displacement, human aspiration, and mortal limitation. His text-based neon sculptures are an anthem for our political and cultural moment, and his lexicon an effort to mobilize community and societal change. Strachan’s ambitious, open-ended practice has included collaborations with numerous organizations and institutions across the disciplines.
Jan Tichy (b. 1974) is a contemporary artist and educator. Working at the intersection of video, sculpture, architecture, and photography, his conceptual work is socially and politically engaged. Using video projection as a time-based source of light, Tichy creates physical and psychic spaces in which he explores themes of concealment, obscurity, and the seen and unseen. Tichy’s use of photography in his work, tempered by his strictly formal and minimalist visual language, results in installations in which the narrative is open to interpretation.
Jina Valentine’s (b. 1979) interdisciplinary practice is informed by the intuitive strategies of American folk artists and traditional craft techniques, and interweaves histories latent within found texts, objects, narratives, and spaces. Her practice has received recognition and support from the Graham Foundation, NC Arts Council, Art Matters, and the Joan Mitchell Foundation. She has exhibited at venues including The Drawing Center, The Studio Museum in Harlem, the CUE Foundation, the Elizabeth Foundation, and MCA Chicago. She is also co-founder of Black Lunch Table (with Heather Hart), an oral history archiving and Wikipedia project. Jina received her BFA from Carnegie Mellon and her MFA from Stanford. She is currently an Associate Professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
CARRIE MAE WEEMS
Carrie Mae Weems (b. 1953) is widely renowned as one of the most influential contemporary American artists living today. Over the course of nearly four decades, Weems has developed a complex body of work employing text, fabric, audio, digital images, installation, and video, but she is most celebrated as a photographer. Activism is central to Weems’ practice, which investigates race, family relationships, cultural identity, sexism, class, political systems, and the consequences of power. Over the last 30 years of her prolific career, Weems has been consistently ahead of her time and an ongoing presence in contemporary culture.
Amanda Williams (b. 1974) is a visual artist who trained as an architect. Her creative practice employs color as an operative means for drawing attention to the complex ways race informs how we assign value to the spaces we occupy. The landscapes in which she operates are the visual residue of the invisible policies and forces that have detrimentally shaped much of the United States. Williams’ installations, sculptures, paintings, and works on paper seek to inspire new ways of looking at the familiar and in the process, raise questions about the state of urban space and ownership in America.
THE STAPLES JR. SINGERS
The Staples Jr. Singers were part of a vanguard of soul gospel artists in the 1970s that broke from tradition in their music. They grew up playing on the banks of the Tombigbee River, writing songs about what they saw: the backlash to desegregation, poverty, Civil Rights. Like many gospel acts of the time, they were a family band: Annie, A.R.C., and Edward Brown from Aberdeen, Mississippi. They were just teenagers when they started, building a reputation playing school talent shows and front yards in tow.
THE BLACK ARTS MOVEMENT SCHOOL MODALITY
BAMSM is conceived by Romi Crawford and was supported in 2021 by the School of the Art Institute of Chicago; Northwestern University; Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture and Arts + Public Life at the University of Chicago; Colby College; Whitney Museum of American Art; Stanford University Department of Art and Art History; Yale School of Art; The Space for Creative Black Imagination at MICA; Terra Foundation for American Art; and the Museum of Vernacular Arts and Knowledge.
AMIRI BARAKA (LEROI JONES)
Amiri Baraka (b. 1934 - 2014) was an American writer of poetry, drama, fiction, essays and music criticism. Throughout most of his career his method in poetry, drama, fiction, and essays was confrontational, calculated to shock and awaken audiences to the political concerns of black Americans. His influence on younger writers has been significant and widespread, and as a leader of the Black Arts movement of the 1960s, Baraka did much to define and support black literature’s mission. “It’s Nation Time” has loomed for several decades as a touchstone for makers, from Jeff Donaldson to Rashid Johnson, since its writing in 1970.