What exactly is the black identity? “Embodied: Black Identities in American Art,” a new exhibition at the Yale University Art Gallery curated by students from both Yale and the University of Maryland College Park, seeks to answer just that question by conveying the disparate experiences of Africans and African-Americans as portrayed by different American artists. The exhibition, which is divided into three sections, succeeds in unifying the work of drastically different artists and creating a cohesive narrative of the struggle to uncover the American black identity.
The artwork in each of the three sections presents a different unifying theme in artists’ renderings of black identity. The most innovative section featured works that displayed artists’ reactions to the “over-representation of the African body.” These pieces sought to make a statement about black identity without using images of the body. What made these pieces so powerful was their ability to translate complex emotional issues in a simple and subtle way. One piece, “Kyoto: Positive/ Negative” by Howardena Doreen Pindell, is composed of etching and lithography on sheet paper; red dots scatter the surface. The sheet’s cracked appearance makes it almost skin-like. The piece was inspired by one of Pindell’s childhood experiences when she found out that the red dot on the bottom of her diner mug was a way of keeping track of which dishes were used to serve African-Americans. Pindell’s ability to convey a deeply personal story of racial awakening through abstract technique is what makes the piece so moving — the overlay of the red dots on the skin-like surface show how outside prejudice can change someone’s own self-perception. Without ever making a direct reference to race, she expresses its ubiquitous presence in people’s everyday lives.
The second section, “Embodying Art and Artifice,” balances the abstract pieces from the first by depicting bodies with dignity. These pieces counter the demeaning presentations of African-American and African bodies that predominated an earlier era. “Hanaku,” a charcoal drawing by Michael B. Platt, depicts a South African woman who was taken to Europe and displayed in a carnival. “Hanaku,” means “warrior” in the ancient Mesopotamian language of Akkadian. While the woman’s pose suggests softness and evokes sympathy from the viewer, the title bespeaks her inner strength. The central inspiration for the work in this section was an untitled portrait of a black female painter by Kerry James Marshall. The woman in the picture holds a paintbrush and palette. Her dignified posture commands respect.
“Displaced Embodiment,” the final section, focuses on the forced and voluntary migrations of black populations and how displacement shaped their identity. “The Incident,” by John Woodrow Wilson, a watercolor that depicts the aftermath of a lynching by the Ku Klux Klan, is done in the Mexican muralist technique. The painting represents both the artist’s own experiences with racism and the pain of oppression often associated with the mural style.
Standing in one corner of the room where the exhibit is staged, the viewer can see paintings from all three of the sections. From this perspective, the exhibit’s divisions are revealed as merely organizational devices. The pieces that contribute myriad representations of black identity become components of a mosaic that stretches across time and space.