In: african american identity

Located at PIER 90 on Manhattan’s Westside, the 10th anniversary of VOLTA NY, the signature solo-focus artist show of the Armory Arts Week, featured a plethora of beautiful and thought-provoking works by artists from 39 nations that collectors and art enthusiasts alike were able to enjoy. Yet, of the 96 Galleries and artist-run spaces presenting this year, perhaps the most poignant, politically-oriented works were found in the show’s thematic Curated Section.

The timeliness of the artworks presented was undeniable, with their subject matter feeling ripped from today’s newspaper headlines. Beginning with a video wall at the entrance of Volta, the Curated Section, titled Your Body Is a Battleground, was aptly found at the heart of the show. Its deviser, New York-based writer and independent curator Wendy Vogel, drew inspiration from Barbara Kruger’s photomontage Untitled (Your Body Is a Battleground), produced for the 1989 Women’s March on Washington. “After the enormous turnout for the recent international Women’s Marches, Kruger’s work reads as a vital precedent for art that protests the erosion of civil rights,” said Vogel. “Though these artists’ works are a generation removed from Kruger’s, they continue her legacy of examining media and representation.”

Entrance to Your Body Is a Battleground, with installation by Carmen Winant, titled ‘What Would You Do If You Weren’t Afraid? (Women in the News Before November 8, 2016)’. Photo courtesy of Wendy Vogel.

Taking an intersectional feminist approach, Vogel selected eight artists from across North America and the Caribbean whose works explore, through various corporal representations, the treatment and controversy around Queer Bodies, Black Bodies, Latinx Bodies, and Women’s Bodies. “I was thinking about all the types of bodies that are in danger under the current political circumstances that we are living through”, stated the curator.

This is unsurprising as Vogel conceived the show last November shortly after the U.S. Presidential election. However, in a refreshing twist, not a single image of President Trump was presented —an intentional choice—, because “all of this work has staying power, and it’s political without feeling so tied to one particular moment in time.”

Melissa Vandenberg, ‘The Roof Is On Fire’, 2016. Match burn on Arches paper, 29.5 x 40 in.

With that said, much of the artwork showcased was created specifically for Volta. With most of her work out of the country, Melissa Vandenberg’s burn drawings, presented by Maus Contemporary | beta pictoris gallery, were made just eight weeks before the exhibition. Integrating text into the images created with matches, an outline of America with the phrase “Wish You Were Here” has an intentionally camp sensibility, while the use of matches add greater symbolic meaning, linking the work to Wiccan cleansing rituals and cremation. Vandenberg said:“A lot of the work has to do with mortality and loss, whether it is our innocence as a nation or personal, intimate loss.”

Nona Faustine, ‘Lobbying The Gods For A Miracle’, Image Courtesy of Baxter St.

In contrast to these typographic images, Nona Faustine’s striking photography was perhaps the most literally corporeal of the Section. Presented by Baxter St Camera Club of New York, many of the photographs depicted the artist partially or fully nude at historical sites where slaves lived, died, or were buried. In the photograph “Lobbying the Gods for A Miracle,” part of a Triptych from 2016, she embodies an escaping slave from the Lefferts House. Smoking gun in hand, children’s shoes around her waist, she presses her back against a tree in the woods anticipating her captors. The woods where she hides are the same that Americans fought in during the Revolutionary War, reflecting the complex relationship of being black in America. “My work is autobiographical; it’s more about how I feel in relationship to the history as a native New Yorker and as an African American,” said Faustine.

Works by Kent Monkman. Photo courtesy of Wendy Vogel.

With the Trans Rights Movement and the Dakota Access Pipeline in the background, Kent Monkman’s work takes on an additional level of intensity; Monkman is of Cree and Irish ancestry and identifies as both queer and two-spirit. His paintings, presented by Peters Projects, re-appropriate the narratives around indigenous people by utilizing the Western European tradition of historical paintings to poke subversive fun at romanticized depictions of Native Americans and colonialism. Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, Monkman’s drag alter ego, also made an appearance at Volta in the collage series “Fate is a Cruel Mistress” (2017), in which she transforms into Biblical temptresses. In the portrait Judith you see Miss Chief in a headdress looking out determinedly before she beheads an inebriated Holofernes, depicted as a white colonial man —a clear victory.

Joiri Minaya performing ‘Siboney’.

The idea of temptresses and fantasy women was also taken on by Joiri Minaya, presented by Casa Quien. Her work #dominicanwomengooglesearch (2016) features pixelated depictions of dismembered female limbs floating in space, a commentary on the exoticized representations of Dominican women. The piece alone is intriguing, but its message is strengthened by Siboney, a performance in two parts, displayed on the video wall. In her latter work, Minaya documents the painstaking process of copying a found tropical pattern into a mural (around a month of work). She then lies seductively before the floral wall and pours water over her form before rubbing herself against the mural, effacing and transforming the piece simultaneously. Intercut with words like “Islander,” the performance challenges the viewer’s vision of an idealized land and people.

Installation (detail view) of Joiri Minaya’s #dominicanwomengooglesearch, 2016-17. Photo courtesy of Wendy Vogel.

Through thoughtful analysis and exploration of the human form, Your Body Is a Battleground offered an introduction into several hot-topic issues without sacrificing aesthetics or relying exclusively on shock value. Yet, even though subject matter varies, when combined the artworks revealed a unified front against oppressors.

Other artists included in Your Body Is a Battleground were Zachary Fabri (ROCKELMANN & in collaboration with Aljira, A Center for Contemporary Art), Deborah Roberts (Art Palace), Sable Elyse Smith (The Museum of Contemporary African Diaspora Arts), Carmen Winant (Fortnight Institute), Chelsea Knight and Autumn Knight.


Volta NY 2017 took place at Pier 90 (W 50th Street at Twelfth Avenue, Manhattan) from march 1st through March 5th, 2017.

Glenn Ligon has always had a preoccupation with the intersectionality of race, gender, and sexuality. Ligon’s two exhibitions What We Said The Last Time and We Need To Wake Up Cause That’s What Time It Is, in which the artist illustrates his engrossment with these subjects, are occurring simultaneously at Luhring Augustine‘s Chelsea and Bushwick locations.

What We Said The Last Time features a series of seventeen enlarged prints from the paint-splattered pages of the artist’s well-worn copy James Baldwin’s 1953 essay “Stranger in the Village” from Notes of a Native Son (published 1955). Written during a stay in a small settlement in Switzerland, “Stranger in the Village” examines race as a social construct. “From all available evidence no black man had ever set foot in this tiny Swiss village before I came,” Baldwin writes as he documents his experiences as a gay black man visiting the small Swiss town as a way to better understand the African American identity. Also on view is Entanglements, a curatorial project by Ligon that examines how artists use the studio as a base from which to engage momentous cultural shifts and political events in both direct and oblique ways.

Glenn Ligon, Untitled, 2016, 71 x 49 inches (180.3 x 124.5 cm)

Beginning in 1996, Ligon has used Baldwin’s essay as the basis for his “Stranger” series, which includes prints, drawings, and paintings made from oil slick and occasionally coal dust that nearly obscures the text. While working on this series, Ligon kept copies of Baldwin’s essay on his studio table for reference, and over the years they accumulated a large amount of black paint, oil stains, and fingerprints. This show marks the first time Ligon has used the entirety of Baldwin’s essay in his career. Like so much of Ligon’s work, the resulting prints illustrate the role of intertextuality in contemporary art, and how one medium can simultaneously inform and contradict another. The use of Baldwin’s seminal essay attests to the power of language and ink on paper, but Ligon’s pseudo-redaction of the text tells us something different. One page has the page number and top right corner completely ripped off and thick drops of paint cover sections of the text, but we can still see his quick annotations, contrasting Baldwin’s ruminations with the artist’s own spontaneity.

Glenn Ligon, Untitled, 2016, 71 x 49 inches (180.3 x 124.5 cm)

We Need To Wake Up Cause That’s What Time It Is in Bushwick opened January 16 and predominantly features Ligon’s Live (2014), a silent video installation based on the 1982 film Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip. This is not the first time Mr. Ligon has engaged with Pryor’s work. The artist’s text-based paintings often incorporate references to Pryor’s stand-up, most notably in a series of gold-colored paintings beginning in 1993 based on Pryor’s groundbreaking material from the 1970s. The installation is set up in a circle of six large screens and a smaller screen in a corner. On the smaller screen, we see the unedited version of Pryor’s original performance, while the other screens zoom in on specific parts of Pryor’s body as they appear in the original footage: his head, his shadow, his right hand, his left hand, his mouth, and his groin. The projected images are visible from both sides of the screen, so the viewer can encircle the installation and almost always be confronted by Pryor’s captivating stage presence. Each screen is illuminated only when their designated body parts appear in the original film, so the screens sporadically flicker on and off as your eyes jump around the room to catch his image.

Installation view, We Need To Wake Up Cause That’s What Time It Is, Luhring Augustine Bushwick

Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip won the Grammy Award for Best Comedy Recording in 1982, and is still widely considered one of the best comedy albums of all time. Throughout his illustrious career and chaotic personal life, Pryor was anything but shy about his views on sexuality, social injustice, and drug use. On the night on June 9, 1980, for instance, Pryor notoriously lit himself on fire with nothing but a bottle of rum and a match after freebasing cocaine, an incident that undoubtedly accounts for his flame red suit and yellow boutonniere (he also begins his act by asking the members of the audience “Anybody got a light?”)

Installation view, We Need To Wake Up Cause That’s What Time It Is, Luhring Augustine Bushwick

By fragmenting the footage, Pryor’s body parts seems to move independently from the others. His rapid gestures seem second nature to him, but his expression shifts seamlessly between deadpan and animated throughout the film. The lack of audio is particularly jarring when we see Pryor erupt into fits of emotional gestures and cursing. These moments are often followed by brief periods of complete silence and darkness as the camera temporarily leaves the comedian’s body.

Installation view, We Need To Wake Up Cause That’s What Time It Is, Luhring Augustine Bushwick

Ligon, Pryor, and Baldwin all share an obsession with the idea of black masculinity, but by drawing on this idea rather than readily subverting it, all three were able to contrast the narrative of blackness with its reality. By cutting up Pryor’s image and muting his voice, and by blacking out Baldwin’s text, Ligon illuminates their vulnerability. This installation subtly critiques the social constructs of race and masculinity, but also emphasizes the limits of language in expressing ourselves to one another. The artist forces us to contemplate the ways in which we represent ourselves, both voluntarily and unconsciously. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, he also conveys the fact that to be marginalized either as a group or individually means to be silenced, or to essentially be rendered without language. If we do not have language, how do we communicate? Some say that actions speak louder than words, but it seems that Mr. Ligon does not believe the two should be separated.

What We Said The Last Time at Luhring Augustine in Chelsea is on view until April 2, 2016We Need To Wake Up Cause That’s What Time It Is at Luhring Augustine Bushwick is on view until April 17, 2016.