Despite the current controversy, devote your next free afternoon to the Brooklyn Museum of Art’s latest exhibit, "Committed to the Image: Contemporary Black Photographers."
The museum’s absurdly ambitious show features black-and-white and color photographs by a staggering 94 photographers. The images cover every conceivable subject matter and dozens of techniques. The show contains the political hot potato of Renee Cox’s feminist interpretation of the Last Supper, which has Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in a righteous uproar, but it truly is a critical success.
"Committed to the Image" is an interesting follow-up to "Passages: Photographs in Africa by Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher" - spectacular color photographs taken all over Africa by two white women. "Committed to the Image" is even more exciting because of the sheer number of talented photographers whose works are contained in it.
The museum’s curator of photography, Barbara Head Millstein, tackles the exclusive nature of the exhibit immediately. The show, which features living black American photographers, was curated by Millstein and three photographers (Anthony Barboza, Beuford Smith and Orville Robertson, publisher and editor of the journal Fotophile).
"I am sure we overlooked some notable artists," writes Millstein in the exhibition’s opening statement. "There were also a few who declined to take part in an exhibition devoted exclusively to black photographers."
As visitors walk into the seemingly infinite show, which stretches for rooms and rooms on end, they are initially greeted by projections of details of Tony Gleaton’s arresting portrait "Black Girl, White Flowers, Beliz, Central America." The young girl’s dark face is accented with brilliant white petals over each ear. A shadow obscures - and at the same time reveals - the side of her face closest to the camera. An enigma of a smile plays at her lips, and her watchful eyes are turned towards the viewer.
Gleaton’s portrait is a metaphor for the show, which makes a point of identifying the exhibition’s voyeurs: the photographers, the curators and you - the viewer.
The show then unfolds - not chronologically, but thematically, exploring "The Street," "Religion," "Family" and more. Each photographer is represented by just two works, which are not always hung near each other. The works run the gamut from staged photographs to photojournalism, black-and-white to color, and photomontages to computer-generated works.
The decision to hang the works thematically barrages the viewer with one stunning image after another - by different artists with varied techniques. There is more on display here than can be comprehended in one viewing.
The museum’s full-disclosure approach extends beyond the curator’s note to the photographers. The Brooklyn Museum invited the artists "to speak for themselves by providing explanatory statements with their works."
Hugh Bell’s "Billie Holiday, Carnegie Hall Dressing Room" (1956) captures the singer with her guard down. Her eyes are half-shuttered, her strapless dress slipping down, her brow furrowed and her mouth open mid-speech. This realism is not flattering but full of stinging truth. In his note, Bell says his photo "shows [Holiday] distracted and addicted."
Unfortunately, Cox’s 1996 "Yo Mama’s Last Supper," which has garnered the most media attention thus far, is the most cliche work in the exhibit. Like Sam Taylor-Wood’s "Wrecked," a 1996 color print from the 1999 "Sensation" exhibit, there are clothed figures seated at a table. The photographers only shared innovation is a nude female figure standing in for Jesus.
There are many arresting portraits in the exhibit, primarily of women. Delphine Fawandu’s classical female nudes are set in gritty settings. An undulating, slender torso perches on the side of a claw-footed bathtub - her back to the viewer. The human figure’s glistening skin, her perfect form, transcends the bathroom setting of exposed pipes and dirty corners.
Roland Freeman’s portrait of Nellie Morgan and her granddaughter in "Bicentennial Outfits Made by Mrs. Morgan" is sheer bliss. At first it’s a seemingly happy portrait of a pleased grandmother and granddaughter, but the girl’s quizzical eyebrows, appearing to question the meaning of this absurd - but sweet - patriotic fervor, bring the photo back from the edge of a saccharine abyss and into telling social commentary.
Adger Cowans’ "P.B. Nude" is a brilliant piece of minimalism, akin to a Brancusi sculpture. The figure is bent in half, isolating the form of a curving, sloping, peach-shaped silhouette of a woman’s buttocks.
Other compositions in the show also hark back to the memorable shock value of "Sensation."
One of Anthony Barboza’s provocative images, "Untitled" (1996) depicts a black man, with minstrel-like white paint on his lips and splayed palms, lying on his back on black sheets. But it’s the exaggerated phallus poking through the sheets that arrests the viewer’s attention.
Ronald Barboza’s works, on the other hand, have a less staged quality. His "Nanna (Emily Barrows)" depicts an elderly woman, holding a portrait of herself in her younger days, while blankets, a nearby plastic cup and straw and a box of medicine hint at grave illness.
Gerald Cyrus’ photographs belie an anthropologist’s approach to middle-class America, much like British peer, Richard Billingham’s photos of his own family, also shown in "Sensation."
In one image Cyrus captures a child tearfully crouched in the kitchen, while a woman holds a baby in the foreground. In another shot, a family sits at dinner, with cans of Budweiser at their plates and the television set silently blaring behind them. Cyrus’ work is searing, truthful and revealing.
"Committed to the Image" includes an array of celebrity portraits, including Ernest Withers’ famous "Martin Luther King Jr. Confronted by the Police at Medgar Evers’ Funeral"(1963).
Don Camp’s painterly portraits of prominent men, "Man Who Writes, John Edgar Wideman" and "Man Who Hears Music, Andre Raphel Smith" are incredibly intimate. (Camp told Go Brooklyn he keeps his camera just 10-inches from his subject).
In the "Man Who Writes," the casein pigment tears at the paper, leaving texture and drips like teardrops near Wideman’s eyes. The portraits came about after the artist became infuriated by the idea of the "extinction of the black male." He said he was provoked to "catalog them if we were going to be extinct." The resulting series is a triumph of both technique and subject matter.
A portrait of singer Erykah Badu was taken when the photographer, Imari DuSauzay, was 71 years old. This photo - a collaboration generations apart - captures the pop star with her towering headdress in a weary pose, her forehead resting on her hand.
Oggi Ogburn’s "World Champions" (1986) features Michael Spinks, Jersey Joe Walcott, Smokin’ Joe Frazier, Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard in a sobering group portrait. The collection of boxers in their serious suits with serious faces stand at Joe Louis’ grave with their hands clasped.
Most of the "Committed to the Image" work was created in the ’80s and ’90s and many have a staged, cinematic quality to them. Ron Campbell’s "Smokin’" reminded me of Prince’s "Purple Rain" album cover with its figure astride a motorcycle, surrounded by a crowd of people obscured by the bike’s swirling exhaust.
In addition to Withers’ King portrait, there are many political images both humorous and chilling, like Omar Kharem’s 1966 "On the Beat" capturing several police officers. This nocturnal silhouette gives the square-jawed officers an unsettling anonymity - depending on your point of view, of course.
Reginald Jackson’s "Ghana: Things Go Better?" (1970) is a successful, satirical look at colonialism. The locals walk on bare feet, balancing baskets on their heads, while an enormous billboard advises them that "things go better with big, big Coke."
Of course no exhibit of black photographers would be complete without the multi-talented photographer-author-filmmaker Gordon Parks. The curators chose his classic 1942 "American Gothic" - a cleaning woman, buttons missing from her dress, framed between a broom and a mop, standing in front of an American flag.
Jeffrey Henson Scales’ 1993 version of "American Gothic" is on display too, but his is a hilarious, Technicolor portrait of a black family. The father, decked out in hunting gear, is seated in his wood-paneled living room - with a shotgun on his lap. The absurdity of the formal pose is reinforced by his beaming wife and three children standing around him. Perfect satire by a photographer who is also photo editor for the New York Times’ House & Home section.
"Committed to the Image: Contemporary Black Photographers" reminds us of how many talented black photographers are working today, and more importantly, just how few black photographers’ have become household names.
The exhibit serves as an important reminder of how far we have yet to go to integrate the collections of art museums and art history textbooks. Take advantage of this rare group show.
"Committed to the Image: Contemporary Black Photographers" is on view at the Brooklyn Museum of Art [200 Eastern Parkway, (718) 638-5000] now through April 29, 2001. Admission is $4, $2 students and seniors. The museum is offering public programs in conjunction with the exhibition. Call for details.