The Hessel Museum of Art at Bard College brings together a compelling exhibition with the work of 28 artists from across the African diaspora. The exhibition counters the historical perspective on melancholy, which has mostly been told through the experience of White males, and reframes melancholia as a pervasive part of the Black experience, with a specificity that comes from the historical violence experienced by Black people the world over. The works, which date from the 19th century through the present day, are supported by extensive wall texts that are an integral and critical part of the exhibition, providing both an analysis of individual pieces and biographical information about the artist.
The Pervasiveness of Black Melancholy
Melancholia has been a subject of discourse across the centuries. Here we are asked to see it as a constant within Black culture. In the catalog accompanying the exhibition, it is likened to “‘the weather’ or the pervasiveness of anti-blackness, which permeates even the most intimate parts of Black being.” The early pieces in the exhibition are from the 20th century and, like Charles McGee’s Despondency, are the most literal in the representation of melancholia.
It is also in this first room that you encounter Realization (c.1938) by Augusta Savage, which is represented by three photographs (photographer unknown) because the sculpture itself has been “lost.” Although Savage had attained recognition with her piece Lift Every Voice and Sing in the 1939 World’s Fair, most of her work has also been lost. The inclusion and central placement of this piece points to a core thesis of the exhibition: that the systematic lack of support for Black artists within the art world has resulted in a profound loss of cultural expression.
Video as Document and Medium
There are a number of video pieces in the exhibition that range from documentation to poetry. Pope.L’s pointedly titled The Great White Way (2001-2006) is a video excerpt of a five-year performance piece in which Pope.L crawls on his belly from the Statue of Liberty to his home in the Bronx. This trek, made in a Superman suit, challenges us to think about the distance, both physical and cultural, between an icon of freedom at the far end of Broadway to the Bronx, a neighborhood often denied access to upward mobility. Pope.L (b. 1955) is best known for his public interventions and performance works. He has said that much of his work is about “have-not-ness.”
In contrast, there is an elegiac meditation by Ain Bailey, Untitled (Our Wedding), which was commissioned by Bard Center for Curatorial Studies for the exhibition. This multimedia installation utilizes video to intertwine imagery from her parents’ wedding album with poetry by Remi Graves and an original soundtrack. Together with wall text and photographs, it speaks to the transitory nature of our experience, our memories of those experiences, and our knowledge that we cannot hold life in statist.
A number of the artists have created their own conceptual frameworks and lexicons, often facilitated by the inclusion of materials from other contexts: historical photographs, fabric, personal objects, and family narratives. As an example, Kenyatta A. C. Hinkle (b. 1987) has three pieces in the show from her series “THEY.” In each of the pieces, she appropriates imagery from her archive of colonial postcards. In utilizing these images, she forces us to acknowledge the direct link between the trafficking and exploitation of the colonial period to today. In THEY: The Meeting, we see three figures that, in scale and composition, hark back to Three Graces by Peter Paul Rubens. Their solemn expressions contrast with the vibrant, gestural environment leaving us to contemplate the relationships between the three women and between past and present.
An Eclectic Exhibition
The pieces in the exhibition represent virtually all media, including sculpture, assemblage, painting, photography, printmaking, video, and installation art. The wall text and accompanying catalog provide history, biographies, and a new chapter in the discourse on the representation of the Black experience. If the connective tissue of the exhibition is found within the realm of sadness, loss, memory, exploitation, dislocation, and systemic racism—the aspects of life that may lead to or sustain a sense of melancholia—there is also within these works beauty, tenderness, brilliance, vibrancy, intimacy, community, and challenges to White culture. It may take two visits or more to really take in the just over 30 pieces in the show. It is well worth the time to sit with the images and the narrative of Black Melancholia.
Details and Guided LLI Tours
LLI members will be provided two exclusive tours followed by a light reception and group discussion led by Casey Robertson, Hessel Program Outreach Coordinator, on Wednesday, October 5, and Wednesday, October 12, beginning at 2 p.m. Each tour is limited to 25 members. Look for a MailChimp invite mid-September. The exhibition Black Melancholia is open through October 16, 2022. There are guided tours by Bard personnel of the exhibition at 1:00 p.m. on Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Admission is free, but visitors should sign up for timed admittance at ccs.bard.edu.