Opening: The New Museum’s ‘Grief & Grievance’ Exhibit is an Artistic Meditation on Race in America

In the wake of the horrifying murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police on May 25, 2020, the Twittersphere, the TV talking heads, the often clueless politicians, and seemingly everyone else with a social media account was forwarding an opinion on what it all really meant. And sadly, nothing seemed to be resolved.

But nine months later, perhaps it’s even more important to grapple with that question with the benefit of time to reflect.

Of course, artists and their art/insights can often articulate what we struggle to find the proper words for. (Read Shinique Smith’s poignant June 2020 essay on race for BlackBook.) And to that end New York’s New Museum is thoughtfully presenting ‘Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America’ (opening today, February 17) which examines Black despair and melancholy through the works of 37 carefully chosen artists. It comes at a time just after voters had decisively decided that they would no longer tolerate race-bating in the White House – but who are also as a society still very much dealing with the hateful and violent fallout from disgraced president Donald Trump being given his electoral walking papers.

Tellingly, the exhibition was actually conceived back in 2018 by the venerable, visionary Nigerian curator and critic Okwui Enwezor, who tragically succumbed to cancer in 2019 at aged just 55. He is still billed as the lead curator on ‘Grief and Grievance,’ his one last chance to carry on his work of shifting the art world towards a less Western, more global and inclusive perspective.

Epochal talents are represented in the show, both living (Theaster Gates, Kara Walker) and dead (Jean-Michel Basquiat); and amongst the more than thirty others are such well regarded names as Carrie Mae Weems, Okwui Okpokwasili, Cameron Rowland, Terry Adkins, Sable Elyse Smith and Melvin Edwards. Heroically, upon Enwezor’s death, several colleagues rallied to see the exhibition through, including artist Glenn Ligon; Mark Nash, co-curator of several of Enwezor’s previous projects; and Naomi Beckwith, the Manilow Senior Curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. Clearly, they understood the exigency at hand.

But one should not take the exhibition’s title as a suggestion that it is meant as something of an elegy. In fact, Enwezor considered that it was his most political project to date. Indeed, as he had written of the impetus of ‘Grief and Grievance, “With the media’s normalization of white nationalism, the last two years have made clear that there is a new urgency to assess the role that artists, through works of art, have played to illuminate the searing contours of the American body politic.”

It is also a comprehensive survey on a most urgent subject, sprawling out over all three main exhibition floors, and on into the Lobby Gallery. The multi-disciplinary show features unique elements such as documentary film and photography, experimental filmmaking, performance, and social engagement, in conversation with the traditional mediums of painting, drawing, and sculpture. It weaves a narrative from the civil rights battles of the 1960s to the high-profile police brutality cataclysms of the 1990s on through to the escalating racial tensions of our current times. Its intent to provoke thought and inspire edification is very much its strength.

“‘Grief and Grievance’ is a tribute to Okwui Enwezor’s courage, relentless focus, and fierce intelligence as a giant in our field and one of the most important curators of his generation,” observes Lisa Phillips, the New Museum’s Toby Devan Lewis Director. “His presence remains vivid, as does his legacy to transform the history of art and exhibition-making. We are honored that he embraced our invitation to present at the New Museum an exhibition that confronts the uncomfortable truths and ongoing pain of racial injustice in America. Okwui’s vision and the voices of the artists selected could not be more relevant.”

And they are also exceeding proof that, even a year into this terrible pandemic, art still finds a way to raise its voice in the service of justice.

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