With “The Black Index”, the Palo Alto Art Center explores representation | New
When printed photographs became available to the public in the mid-19th century, the phrase “the camera never lies” was coined, in large part because the photograph was considered to be an accurate representation; an accurate and infallible record of people or events. We now know that the medium of photography is open to all kinds of manipulation and distortion. The current exhibition at the Palo Alto Art Center, “The Black Index,” seeks, according to a press release, “to question our reliance on photography as a privileged source of objectivity and documentary understanding”, in particular with regard to black subjects.
The show, curated by Bridget Cooks, associate professor of African American studies and art history at the University of California at Irvine, features the work of six black artists working in various media. The exhibition could not have been more timely, but it was in fact planned several years ago. The director of the Palo Alto Art Center, Karen Kienzle, and Cooks were former colleagues at the University of Santa Clara. When Kienzle heard about the exhibit and that it would be available for travel, she immediately sought to have it shown in Palo Alto.
“We knew this show would be important, but the math around race and fairness that has taken place over the past year has made it more important than ever,” Kienzle said. The presentation of the exhibit coincided with the release of the report of the Human Relations Commission of the City of Palo Alto on the experiences of Blacks and Browns in Palo Alto and their subsequent goal of facilitating 100 conversations about race in the community.”
Cooks said the inspiration for the show came in 2017 when she first saw work by artist Whitfield Lovell. Here he is represented by “The Card Pieces”, executed in charcoal on paper. These 24 portraits of ordinary working class men and women are beautifully rendered and very expressive. At the bottom of the portrait, a real playing card has been affixed, perhaps to make a statement about how our lives are often affected by the luck of the coin toss. In the accompanying wall tag, Lovell said he wanted to portray black Americans like everyone else because “They have lives and hopes and dreams. They have families.”
Also included in the Main Gallery is the work of Bay Area artist Lava Thomas. In 2018, she produced a series of 12 portraits entitled “Mugshots: Women of the Montgomery Bus Boycott”. Three of these large-scale drawings, done in graphite and Conté pencil on paper, are included here. Thomas was taken by the fact that women were largely responsible for the organization behind the notorious boycott. Although Rosa Parks is well known for the position she took, Thomas wanted to celebrate the other women who worked quietly and effectively behind the scenes. Many of them, she said, had a long history of activism and, when they were arrested, wanted to “take control of their representation” by dressing formally for their passport photos.
These carefully drawn portraits, which lasted over three years, represent women with proud and provocative expressions. Thomas explained that the choice to use pencil on paper (a very laborious process) was deliberate because “the act of drawing is accessible; everyone used pencil and paper. My drawing technique is detailed and precise – every pencil stroke is visible – which draws the viewer in and invites them to take a closer look. “
The decision to make drawings slightly larger than the actual size was also a conscious decision because, “hanging at eye level, it allows the viewer to have a one-on-one engagement with them.” There is a sense of connection with these three women that wouldn’t have been the same with a black and white photograph. Thomas added, “My goal was also to take the passport photo, a photograph designed to represent crime, and turn it into a memorial portrait, lovingly created, to honor the work and leadership of these women.”
Thomas’ work can also be seen in the adjacent Glass Gallery, where his “Looking Back 1” portraits are installed. This is an ongoing project for the artist, inspired by an archive of family photographs. These depictions of women, some in formal dress, are framed in cameos, which the artist said was a common feature for portraits of the early 20th century. In these works, Thomas said he wanted to honor “the resilience of my ancestors and the women of the South”. Their direct gaze and their calm, calm dignity mask the often difficult and disturbing conditions that marked their time. As she became aware of their life stories, Thomas was compelled to pay homage to “what these women saw, what they saw and what they had to endure”.
Another Bay Area artist on the show is Kenyatta AC Hinkle who in 2016 read a statistic that around 64,000 black women were missing by the Black & Missing Foundation. She decided to draw attention to this through a series of “deportraits”. Executed in India ink and watercolor, these small drawings are ethereal abstractions rather than realistic renderings. Hinkle explained that “every character has been channeled and represents unfathomable loss.” Since the fate of the women is unknown, Hinkle refers to their status as “passed out” as there may never be documentation of their presence, similar to the enslaved individuals of The Middle Passage. The way she chose to perform these deportraits is unique: she made hand-made paintbrushes from branches, plant fibers and other materials that she found in the woods. “I make handmade brushes to honor the inventiveness of my ancestors who used their intuition to shape tools for survival even under the most brutal of circumstances,” Hinkle said.
Cooks hopes that by bringing the exhibit to a predominantly white and wealthy demographic like Palo Alto, viewers will see that “black people are valuable. We are not disposable. We are more than something to fear. We are beautiful and complex. We live, we feel joy and sorrow. We resist containment and will be part of the future. Perhaps this will be a novelty for predominantly white viewers. For blacks, the exposure will be a validation. “
“The Black Index” also includes works by Dennis Delgado, Alicia Henry and Titus Kaphar.
Kaphar and San Jose artist Diana Pumpelly Bates will join Cooks for a online conversation about black creativity and the importance of mentoring July 16 at noon.
The exhibition is on view until August 14 at the Palo Alto Art Center, 1313 Newell Road, Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. More information is available at cityofpaloalto.org.
Contributing writer Sheryl Nonnenberg can be emailed to [email protected]