Photographer Dawoud Bey on two shows in New York [published 08/09/2018]

“I get back to my New York City hometown periodically, and more often than not I’m drawn there by exhibitions that I know will haunt me if I miss them.”

“Maren Hassinger: Monuments”
through June 10, 2019
Marcus Garvey Park, NYC

“John Akomfrah: Signs of Empire”
through September 9, 2018
New Museum

I get back to my New York City hometown periodically, and more often than not I’m drawn there by exhibitions that I know will haunt me if I miss them. Recently, I returned to see work by two artists to whom I’ve been paying attention for a long time. Both of them make art that is conceptually rigorous and visually rich, and has consistently engaged my imagination.

Maren Hassinger appeared on my radar in 1977, when Linda Goode Bryant founded Just Above Midtown Gallery in New York and began exhibiting a group of black West Coast artists who were making work unlike anything being shown in New York at that time. The black New York art world seemed caught then somewhere between high modernist formalism on the one hand and figuration recalling the self-affirmation of the 1960s black nationalist movement on the other. The moment was ripe for the kind of paradigm-shifting, not so easily labeled work that Hassinger, David Hammons, Senga Nengudi, and Houston Conwill, among others, brought with them from the left coast—work that seemed beholden to no orthodoxy other than its own unpredictability.

In Hassinger’s case, that meant using heavy industrial wire to make poetic outdoor sculptures articulating the tension between the human-made and the natural environment. She’s continued on this path, persisting and growing her practice despite periods of art world indifference—a common lot for artists whose work doesn’t fit neatly into the kind of sociological art that traffics in an essentialized or beleaguered blackness.

A walk through the neighborhood on the way to see Hassinger’s current installation in Marcus Garvey Park provided a context for what feels like an act of reclamation and transformation amid an increasingly gentrified “new” Harlem. Placed around the four sides of the park, eight sculptures made from branches respond variously to their sites, reshaping the space around them even as they echo the shape of the terrain. The sculptures range from monumental cubes and wedges to triangular and circular shapes that hug the ground and are open in the center. Others appear to mimic the park’s rocky outcroppings and curved pathways. Shape or size notwithstanding, the pieces all inspire contemplation while maintaining the commanding physical presence of monuments. In a very public way, they also assert that the brilliance of black expressivity is alive and well in Harlem, U.S.A.

“Monuments” is organized by Hallie Ringle, assistant curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem. With the museum now closed for an extended period while its new building is under construction, this program provides at least one means through which the institution, and the artists affiliated with it, can still be felt in the community.

Maren Hassinger, Monuments, 2018, eight site-specific sculptures in Marcus Garvey Park, Harlem, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and Susan Inglett Gallery. Photo: Adam Reich.

John Akomfrah’s breathtaking moving-image art always leaves me feeling deeply nourished. I first came to know his work when I started spending time in London in the late 1980s. While there, I encountered a number of black British artists, some of whom I was exhibiting with, at the center of whose community was cultural theorist Stuart Hall. Hall’s writings, which articulated the post-colonial black British experience, were embraced by many black British artists of the time as the thematic starting point for their own work. This was particularly true of the film collectives Sankofa—where Isaac Julien and Martina Attille were members—and the Black Audio Film Collective, of which Akomfrah was a cofounder.

I saw Akomfrah’s first film, Handsworth Songs (1986), in London. The New Museum in New York has mounted the first American survey exhibition of the increasingly ambitious work that followed. What has held my attention all these years is Akomfrah’s willingness to raise the bar in terms of technical, narrative, and conceptual complexity. While his earliest work grappled with the postcolonial and black diasporic realities, increasingly epic works have taken on broader subjects. Vertigo Sea (2015), for instance, examines the ocean as a site of varied histories and conditions, touching on maritime trade, slavery, migration, and climate change, along with literature and poetry, and using a multiple screen/multiple image structure as a vehicle for poetically interwoven narratives.

In this and other moving-image works Akomfrah makes extensive use of archival footage, as he has from the outset, deftly interweaving it with his own beautifully filmed footage to create a dynamic visual conversation between past and present. Just observing how Akomfrah uses the lens and the frame to describe shifting relationships to space and place is an advanced seminar in filmmaking in itself. The exhibition offers a satisfying lot to take in, so allow some time to see it. It’s a rare opportunity to observe the development of an artist now working at the height of his powers.

John Akomfrah, The Unfinished Conversation, 2012. Installation view: “John Akomfrah: Signs of Empire,” New Museum, New York, 2018. Courtesy Smoking Dogs Films and Lisson Gallery. Photo: Maris Hutchinson / EPW Studio.

Dawoud Bey is an artist currently living and working in Chicago. A forty-year survey publication of his work, Dawoud Bey: Seeing Deeply, will be published by the University of Texas Press in September. The National Gallery in Washington, D.C., will mount an exhibition of his work “Dawoud Bey: The Birmingham Project” from September 12, 2018, through March 17, 2019.