A Visual Critique of Racism: African American Art from Southern California

Emmett Till

Emmett Till by George Evans. Black and white digital print. Credit: George Evans.

One of the most valuable functions of socially conscious art is its power to personalize and humanize what can easily become an abstraction. This power was evident again and again at BAILA con Duende, a recent Los Angeles exhibition featuring the works of seventy-four black artists.

A strong strain of social commentary ran through the exhibition, with many of the artists addressing issues of racism in their works. For example, in a 2011 photograph that focuses on the martyred fourteen-year-old Emmett Till, photographer George Evans reintroduces the iconic image of Till’s unspeakably mutilated, disfigured body following his 1955 murder in Mississippi. After authorities retrieved Till’s body from the Tallahatchie River, it was sent back to Chicago for the funeral. His mother, Mamie Till, insisted on an open casket, declaring, “I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby.” Jet Magazine published this gruesome image, exposing the horrific face of racial murder to a shocked nation.

Evans’s depiction of Till’s body more than a half-century later is a stark reminder of the all-too-recent past. Scarcely new to most African American viewers, its graphic presence in this show highlights the compelling message that history must never be forgotten. By forcing viewers to revisit the 1955 tragedy, Evans personalizes the violence of racism in recent U.S. history. Early twenty-first-century audiences must remember Emmett Till not simply as a distant symbol of injustice, but as a young man with hopes and aspirations, whose life was brutally ended because he was black in a white racist society. And to those who ask why now, so many years later, Evans’s work is a valuable reminder that knowledge of the past is both achingly concrete and crucially essential for present and future liberation.

Evans’s photography is just one example drawn from a wide and varied body of brilliant artwork that is often shut out by academic gatekeepers and ignored by art critics who consistently overlook exhibitions in African American, Latino, and Asian American cultural institutions and venues. Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980, the highly publicized art initiative from which the BAILA con Duende exhibition emerged, was a meaningful step toward a proper valuation of the work of artists of color in Southern California, but institutional racism within the art world remains intense, and the road ahead is long.

Critical Recognition for Artists of Color

The Pacific Standard Time project, which occurred in Southern California from October 2011 to April 2012, was one of the most highly publicized art initiatives of the early twenty-first century. As a collaboration between the Getty Foundation and the Getty Research Institute funded, it sponsored exhibitions at more than sixty museums and other cultural institutions throughout Southern California. It documented the emergence of the Los Angeles area as a vibrant postwar center for cultural production and revealed Southern California to be an authentic rival to New York as a world arts center.

Pacific Standard Time featured work by many more artists of color and women than had appeared in previous mainstream shows, thereby enabling critics and scholars to revise their sectarian outlooks and broaden their geographic horizons. The large presence of controversial feminist artists augured well for a more inclusive vision of the visual arts in the next several decades, and many Asian, Latino, and African American artists were richly represented, including many artists who had rarely had the opportunity for major public exposure. In some cases Pacific Standard Time exhibitions represented the artists’ first significant presentations before large audiences.

The African American contributions to Southern California artistic ferment were an especially prominent component of the art initiative. The UCLA Armand Hammer Museum featured Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles, a survey of some of the major Los Angeles figures of postwar African American art, including David Hammons, John Riddle, William Pajaud, Betye Saar, Ulysses Jenkins, Noah Purifoy, John Outterbridge, Suzanne Jackson, and many others. California State University at Northridge showed a comprehensive exhibition of African American photography depicting arts, politics, religion, and family life in Los Angeles-area black communities after World War II.

I co-curated the most comprehensive show of African American art, Places of Validation: Art and Progression, at the California African American Museum in downtown Exposition Park, near the center of black Los Angeles. It featured both well-known artists and those who have been severely neglected in mainstream academic and journalistic criticism over the years. Places of Validation also presented documents and photographs about the alternative exhibition venues that have featured African American artists who have long been excluded from dominant museums and commercial galleries on racial grounds––sometimes explicitly.

Effects of the Pacific Standard Time Initiative

The exhibitions and associated public programs of Pacific Standard Time helped put artists of color on more mainstream national and international cultural maps. A serious issue, as always, is the follow-up: after the initial enthusiasm, what will be the future for the region’s artists of color? Some developments have suggested that the initiative helped generate more sustained attention and critical recognition for these artists. For example, the Hammer Museum’s Now Dig This! exhibition moved to Long Island City, New York, at MoMA PS1 (an affiliate of the Museum of Modern Art) through March 2013. This provided East Coast viewers a rare opportunity to see striking examples of the vibrant tradition of Southern California African American art.

In Los Angeles, the most exciting African American artistic development emerging from the Pacific Standard Time effort was BAILA con Duende, a massive group exhibition at the Watts Towers Arts Center that ran from early September 2012 until early January 2013. Curator and artist/activist Lili Bernard selected a stunning array of talent for this show. Its list of participants included internationally known figures such as Betye Saar, Mark Bradford, Kehinde Wiley, William Pajaud, John Outterbridge, Artis Lane, Samella Lewis, and many others. It also included several artists known widely and respected throughout the region, as well as younger men and women whose works join this burgeoning tradition of visual excellence.
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