Nine Moments for Now at the Ethelbert Cooper Gallery of African and African American Art
Outside, in a street-level window, set a bit back from the entrance, are five Karmimadeebora McMillan pieces, all collages and paint on wood. Four of the five pieces are part of McMillan’s Ms Merri Mack series. These reworked echoes of racist lawn ornaments, named after a children’s rhyme, playfully, subtly, and forebodingly set the tone for the rest of the show.
The work in the entryway to the Ethelbert Cooper Gallery is deceptively demure. Nine of Steve Locke’s minimalist, abstract paintings line the first wall you see. The possibility exists that these nine images are the nine moments referred to in the show’s title, but even if not, they are frozen frames of trauma: Each is a reflection on the slave auction block—a theme Locke has also explored in a proposal to memorialize some of New England’s culpability in the slave trade at Faneuil Hall. This abstracted image of the auction block floats permanently into consciousness like a watermark behind everything else in the show.
Walking up the ramp to the “tall” and “low” galleries is a funeral march. The walls on either side of the ramp are almost all images of mourning, so you have to move through grief to get to the rest of the art. These images span from the 1950s and ’60s (images from Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King’s funerals), through the AIDS epidemic of the 1970s and ’80s, and right up to the present (the mourning of Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and Sandra Bland).
At the top of the ramp you have to choose whether to turn right or left at Matthew Gonzalez’ simple but noble bronze bust of Barack Obama. To the right is a bright area with two interactive works. Elisa Hamilton’s playful Pack Our Bags has hints of Afrofuturism conceptually but also a colorful gentleness that is one of the hallmarks of her work. The piece encourages reflection on what really matters moving forward from now toward any kind of future society. Sound and a neatly set table fill the rest of the space, encouraging perusal of the recipes that Evelyn Rydz has collected via A La Mesa/To The Table and awareness of the daily rituals that allow people to retain a sense of continuity in terms of cultural identity.
To the left of Obama, connection to the past and future is evoked in a more traditional, institutional way. Major African-American cultural figures such as Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes in photogravure form have been summoned from the Harvard archives to keep Obama’s bust company, each also having to opportunity to gaze on a simple, colorful lithograph of a church by Nelson Mandela.
Moving down the next hallway is a study in activist poster design, including several works by Corita Kent, and then a room off of the hallway holds a few more sensorial rather than literal plays on the show’s themes. Another large McMillan Ms Merri Mack piece; two of Tomashi Jackson’s works—one video, one still—both speaking sharply to the layering of identity; and Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons’ intense 2010 piece Sugar/Bittersweet. These towers of spears, stools, and cast sugar are an impressive part of the gallery’s permanent collection.
The final few rooms of the show are perhaps the most heavy-hitting, the largest one featuring a wide range of portraits of power and strength. L’Merchie Frazier’s Ericka Huggins: Liberation Groceries, a sparkling quilted portrait of Huggins delivering a Black Panther grocery bag, is reminder of how the Panthers held communities together (and fought shame at the same time) in tough times. Chanel Thervil’s Pity Party: Selfies at the Start of the Trump Era is both simple and grand—like it should be hung over the entrance to a building but would also look at home tattooed on someone’s chest. Ekua Holmes’ 3D portraits are delicate and accusatory at the same time, incorporating furniture into their narratives in a way that lets objects stand in for the infrastructure of structural violence. And this room also features the show’s most technical work: Joy Buolamwini’s AI, Ain’t I a Woman, which looks at the way technology erases the presence of strong black women. An unexpected treat was Buolamwini’s live, impromptu performance of the piece’s text at the opening.
Dell Hamilton, Nine Moments for Now’s curator, is a prolific artist in her own right, as well as a long-standing laborer in service of preserving African-American culture in the Boston area. This exhibition is no exception in that the bulk of the artists featured, though doing world-class work, are local or have strong local connections. Each artist, many of whom couldn’t be included in this review, gets a full-page biography in the show’s comprehensive exhibition guide, which also includes a multipage reading list for those committed to learning more.
Hamilton’s undertaking here is ambitious, and for the most part, highly successful.
It bases itself in political scientist Colin Crouch’s notion of a “post-democracy”—a moment where all of the machinery of democracy operates but doesn’t produce effective results. Nine Moments for Now may well be a portrait of how the hollow version of democracy came to replace the earnest one. But it’s also documentation of nuanced, and infinitely creative, ongoing activism (as persistence in artmaking).
You can’t just go with a friend to this show and kill some time before a movie. You’ve got to dig in for the long haul and be ready to go deep. You’ve got to spend some time here with the understanding that it’s the least you can do at this point in American history: investing your attention in absorbing reckonings with a hypervigilant experience of the present, rooted in a scraped-raw past, still infinitely tender to the touch.
NINE MOMENTS FOR NOW. THROUGH 1.21.19. THE ETHELBERT COOPER GALLERY OF AFRICAN AND AFRICAN AMERICAN ART, 102 MOUNT AUBURN ST., CAMBRIDGE. COOPERGALLERYHC.ORG