As the Nation Progresses, Met Exhibit Reflects on Past Injustice


Published: December 11, 2008

After the naming of current President-elect Barack Obama, it was generally acknowledged that, collectively, the United States of America was able to do something that even its harshest European critics and democratic counterparts have yet to achieve—we’ve elected a black man to the highest office in our nation.

The echoes of this auspicious moment have been rippling throughout the world, but it is at home where we are feeling the aftershock. From California to Long Island, threats, vandalism, physical attacks, racial epithets and cross burnings are just a few of the myriad and sporadic attacks Americans have made on their fellow citizens all in the name of race—reminding us, that, realistically, 40 years since the civil rights movement is not a long time. Progress, no matter how inevitable, is almost always a slow force.

In August, at the time when it became evident that Obama would go on to accept the Democratic Party’s nomination, being the first African American to do so, The Metropolitan Museum of Art devised an exhibit called “Provocative Visions: Race and Identity.” Just about all of the 13 pieces in the exhibit preexisted in the museum’s permanent collection. However, juxtaposed together, we see how each piece helps the exhibit achieve its overall striking theme: racism is far from over.

As you first enter the exhibit, the first piece on the left is entitled “Nappy Head #1.” Usually the eyes are said to be the windows into the soul. In this pencil and cut-out drawing by Alison Saar, the eyes are removed from the face. Instead, the subject’s dreams, visions, fears and hopes appear as a panoply of visions drawn in the subject’s hair. According Saar’s inscription near the drawing, “Hair says who you are, who you want to be, how people perceive you.” This is especially key as the subject appears to be neither man nor woman, without clothes or any features that would define him or her. It is all about the hair, so to speak. The hair extends outward and onward. Pansies and daffodils are contrasted with images of a seductive spider and a creeping centipede. The provocative images: slaves working on plantation, a white woman getting her hair styled and a white man, naked and lying on his stomach, speak for themselves.

Lining the left-hand wall towards the back are 10 framed lithographs entitled “Runaways.” These ink impressions by Glenn Ligon feature 10 runaway slave advertisements. As you read them, you’ll notice there are some slight variations of the same person—Glenn Ligon. Ligon’s ads are descriptions written by his friends. Ligon seems to be paralleling the idea of these impersonal ads and the  idea of lost property with the individual.

Another striking piece by Ligon is his “Untitled.” A fan of Ralph Ellison and Zora Neale Hurston, he acquiesces the main ideas of their works in his “Untitled” work which features quotes by both writers’ most famous works, “Invisible Man” and “How it Feels to Be a Colored Me,” respectively. There are four frames done in lithographs. The first two feature Hurston’s line: “I DO NOT ALWAYS FEEL COLORED.” Though it is repeated over and over, it never looses its depravity. The second two feature Ellison’s “I AM NOT A SPOOK.” In exalting these writers’ poetry, Ligon reminds us that the conviction of these words came out of the defiance of an identity brought out by social indoctrination.

In the center of all this is a peculiar piece called “Raw Attraction” by Chkaia Booker. It is a hauntingly perverse piece in which ripped tire and iron meld together as two phallus-shaped tire tubes protrude from the heart of the piece. It is the most obviously provocative piece, yet it seems to summarize the exhibit as a whole. There is an attraction within the piece that draws the viewer in. Thrown against a white wall, on top of a white perch it is a ball of frustration, fighting to free itself and declare its oppression.

Beside each artist’s name is his or her birth year. You might notice that all of them were born during the Civil Rights movement, between the years of 1950 and 1970. These artists are the children of the civil rights movement, the grandchildren of slaves, and we, in turn, are their children. There is still a topical and direct connection to those whose experiences inspired these pieces. Yes, we’ve made progress; exhibits such as these serve to challenge why we find these images so shocking and remind us, as Hurston once said, that “slavery is the price we pay for civilization.”