5 Books for Black History Month
From fire hoses to free jazz, these art books will make for compelling and thought-provoking additions to your bookshelf
“History’s authority over us is not broken by maintaining a silence about its continued effects,” writes the American poet and essayist Claudia Rankine in our new book, Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America.
Rankine was referencing the long shadow American race relations casts over today’s bloody politics; in her essay, she argued for the need to remember and grieve this history, in order to “interrupt the course of normal life,” as she puts it.
Of course, you need a little more than a single book, or even a shelf of books, to record the highs and lows of black history. Nevertheless, there are a few titles you might wish to add to your bookcases this Black History Month.
Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America This remarkably timely book accompanies the New Museum exhibition of the same name, which was conceived by the late, great curator Okwui Enwezor. In this title Enwezor and his fellow authors consider the intertwining of black mourning and white nationalism in the US, as articulated in the work of contemporary black American artists.
Essays by such authors as Glenn Ligon, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Enwezor himself place the works in context, while the paintings, sculptures, videos, photographs, installations by such artists as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Melvin Edwards, Rashid Johnson, Kerry James Marshall and Lorna Simpson, express truths and sentiments that are, in a sense, beyond words.
Theaster Gates Few artists understand the history contained in objects better than Theaster Gates. The Chicago artist has created abstract tapestries from the old fire hoses used to subdue civil rights protestors; he converted a derelict, black-owned bank into a thriving arts centre, and he’s preserved everything from DJ Frankie Knuckles’ record collection through to the editorial archive of Jet and Ebony magazines. In every instance, Gates thinks about how these old things can lead to renewal.
“while I don’t identify as an activist, I do recognise the value of an ethical life and the importance of fighting for things you believe in,” he says in our book. “I’m constantly making decisions that consider the symbolic effect that I want to ring in the city. If it’s a reflection on a 1960s moment of struggle, and a fire house helps me to articulate that, it’s like, ‘Let me just stay here for a minute until I find a way to bring us back to materiality in relationship to that political moment.’”
Adam Pendleton Don’t turn to our Adam Pendleton book for a straight, linear account of art history. This extraordinary young American artist is best known for his Black Dada Reader, a thrilling juxtaposition of works by white, European dada pioneers such as Hugo Ball, and equally challenging black American pioneers such as free-jazz recording artist, Sun Ra.
Drawing on everything from minimalism to civil rights, post-colonial movements and the Black Panthers, Pendleton uses history in a way that opens up new possibilities. As the critic and essayist Andréa Picard puts it in our book “his use of radical visual vocabularies and his fostering of interaction among documents confirm that the past is never dormant, and that our contemporary moment is one that must continue to mine history for future possibilities.”
Kerry James Marshall Marshall might not be painting Washington Crossing the Delaware or Liberty Leading the People during the French Revolution, yet this American painter is deeply concerned with the ways in which the historical is set down in fine art.
“We tend to assume there is one history of America: the mythical, heroic narrative of an all-inclusive, grand project that had at its inception the goal of embracing differences and treating all as equal,” Marshall once argued. “If we allow ourselves to be lost in this mythology, we overlook the more disturbing, less humane dimensions of our history.”
Marshall’s pictures derail that grand project, by both remembering Martin Luther King’s murder, and also placing black figures scenes and settings where gallery goers might be more used to seeing white faces. As the artist explains in our book, “When I insert a figure into a painting space, I have to consider all of the things that it means and then construct, edit and revise in order to reach its maximum effect so that blackness becomes a noun, not an adjective.”
Mark Bradford Can abstract art offer historical commentary? It can be in Mark Bradford’s hands. This Los Angeles artist admires Abstract Expressionists, but still feels the need to express his own personal experience, and his place in the world, viewed from a wider historical perspective. “Abstraction for me, I get it – you go internal, you turn off the world, you’re hermetic, you channel something. No. I’m not interested in that type of abstraction,” he says in our book. “I’m interested in the type of abstraction where you look out at the world, see the horror – sometimes it is horror – and you drag that horror kicking and screaming into your studio and you wrestle with it and you find something beautiful in it.”
Bradford’s detailed, meticulous works reference slavery, the conquistadors, black oral traditions, ancient myth and civil rights. Indeed, one of the few strands missing from his work is art history. “I tend to go to politics and anthropology more than I go to art history,” he says. “It’s natural for me. Politics and anthropology live in a world of people. Art history is this tomb and art theory is a tomb.”