Q: Why the name “Black Pulp!”?
A: We came up with the name “Black Pulp!” because the material we’re focusing on is pulp. A lot of it has to do with pulp fiction, a lot of the work in here is on paper, so it was a play off of the notion both print media and a type of attitude that is in a lot of the work there.
Q: I was reading another interview you gave about the exhibition, where you referred to the ways in which the artists deflect the cultural attitudes going on around them by using “strategy,” and I was wondering if you might be able to explain whether they’re conscious of that strategy or what that strategy is.
A: The works themselves explain the way in which they do that. We’re starting here [at the entrance of the gallery] with this Isaac Julien documentary called “Badass.” It’s a documentary on “blaxploitation” films of the ’70s. It breaks down, for example, a very complex idea about blaxploitation — these films were not called “blaxpoitation” films by a white society; they were actually chastised by the NAACP and other African-American groups. But at the same time, you have this young group of black actors with no work [previously], and they’re getting work, and they’re making these films and having careers. What you find in those films is in some way an expression of fashion, and expression of attitude through culture. All of the films are about sticking it to the man, for example, and getting over, in some way, the tough predicament economically, socially, politically that black people exist in.
When I think about strategies at play, for example, we have this wonderful print by the artist Derrick Adams [depicting the ace of spades]. This is one out of a deck of cards of the royalty suite — so you know, king, queen, jack, ace. What’s interesting about that is that it plays with a lot of language that you hear within a sort of conversation of black uplift or celebration slogans, such as, [being black] kings and queens. The subversive nature of that is in choosing [to depict] the ace of spades in particular, Derrick taps back into this kind of longer history of racist language, in other words, black people used to be referred to as spades. It’s the black card in the deck. He both talks about the celebration and the ambivalence and issues surrounding race within a deck of cards. So that’s what I mean by strategy. A lot of these things are sometimes a little counterintuitive.
Q: Would you say that most if not all of the artists are conscious of the strategy they’re using?
A: I would say the great majority of the artists in this show are conscious of what they’re doing with the strategy. The way I see the strategy is really about communication. Art in and of itself is a strategy. When you look at publications like “The Crisis” and “Opportunity,” and some of the publications from the associated publishers, we’re talking about three major publishers, spearheaded by editors who were black men in the early part of the twentieth century who were absolutely literally trying to use print media as a strategy, and they say as much. In other words: ‘here’s this terrible Jim Crow social situation that we exist in, racist imagery is rampant in American society, pop culture, throughout the 20s and 30s and 40s, and we need to publish, we need a medium that is highly disseminated in order to change that narrative. People need to understand who African-Americans are, what our concerns are and that they are concerns not too much unlike theirs.’ Those editors are Charles Spurgeon Johnson, with “Opportunity” in the National Urban League, and W.E.B. DuBois, who you may have heard of, who started “The Crisis” in 1918, and “The Crisis” is probably the first of these publications to start circling around in the black community in Harlem. The third person, who is really important to this narrative, is Carter G. Woodson, who spearheaded and founded the Associated Publishers. He was a Harvard professor and probably one of the first people to actually study African-American history as an actual study as opposed to how people like DuBois were putting together a history, in a way that the information was very spread out and very uncontained. And Carter G. Woodson was one of the first people to say, I’m going to really look at all this stuff and start pulling together a structured history of African-American life.
Q: Could you talk about how the idea for this exhibition began?
A: I guess myself and Mark Gibson were having a conversation around the artwork of Kara Walker. We were seeing that she did this large installation in Brooklyn called “A Subtlety.” It was this large Sphinx-like figure, sort of Mammy and Sphinx covered with sugar, larger than life. There were a lot of debates around that piece as there always is with Kara’s work, and we were starting to think about this conversation of strategy that I said earlier: What is that? What’s happening here? And the fact that it’s so wild, wild and tough, it’s pulp. It’s something that you see in Ghostbusters 2, where the Statue of Liberty comes alive. It’s like that. That’s so pulp. Can we find that thread? What is this literary and visual connection to the pulp attitude in art and in literature? Where is the history of that? And we slowly asked a lot of questions and bumped into a lot of these pieces, in particular these historic print media pieces, over the course of our research. Some of them just kept coming up as extremely important things. The question was to go find them and look at them in relation to the contemporary artists that we had a sense about, that would fit with them visually.
Q: You’ve written about “orchestrating conversations between history and art,” so I was thinking about whether art can be made in a vacuum, or be ahistorical. What is the division between history and art?
A: There’s nothing. I don’t see a vacuum. Art goes with time. I think historians tend to write about art in that way, and because they do they tend to lose the general public. They tend to sound elitist and it tends to make people feel they can’t walk in front of an art object and get something from it. With these artworks on display, if you are sensitive enough to understand the world around you, you will find things in any works of art that connect back to it. For me, everything is connected, and that becomes this wonderful thing for Mark and me, in thinking about the show. The exhibition’s really about us finding a medium to have that conversation to connect the dots, or to at least lay everything out so that the audience can start to do it themselves.
Q: What’s the ideal reaction or experience you want a viewer to get out of the exhibition?
A: I would want the viewer to consider the complexity of personhood, the complexity of human subjectivity in relationship to black people, and take that and think about that relationship to very narrow, limited, generalized notions of who and what African-American people are, particularly in this country but abroad as well.