I recently visited an art exhibit chronicling the legacy of art in Black Los Angeles. The show is at the UCLA Hammer Museum and is called "Now Dig This! Art & Black Los Angeles 1960-1980." I sat down to speak with the curator of the exhibit. Kellie Jones is associate professor in the Department of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University. Her writings have appeared in numerous exhibition catalogues and journals. Her critically acclaimed book EyeMinded: Living and Writing Contemporary Art (Duke University Press 2011) has been named one of the top art books of 2011 by Publishers Weekly. Her project Taming the Freeway and Other Acts of Urban HIP-notism: African American Artists in Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s is forthcoming from The MIT Press.
At this moment, between the '60s and the '80s, photography was being expanded in art. In Los Angeles, Ed Ruscha's work was having an impact. I only recall two examples, Ulysses Jenkins and Charles Gaines, of photography and video being used during this time period in your exhibit. Does this reflect the dearth of photography and video among Black Los Angeles artists during this period?
People have asked me that about the dearth of photography in "Now Dig This!". I didn't find photography that was as compelling to me. It was more in the documentary vein. And I was more interested in these artists working in different ways with media. Ulysses Jenkins starts out as a mural painter and then picks up the camera. He's also combining it with performance. Particularly with those artists in that last section, they're doing multimedia things that don't necessarily deal with photography. But they're still doing multimedia. There is another show you could do with photography. Like "Dentity and Affirmation: Post War African-American Photography" that just closed at California State University, Northridge that was also part of Pacific Standard Time, and that Deborah Willis consulted on. But I was more compelled by the work that I had. In the catalogue you'll see photographs of David Hammons, photographs of Watts, photographs of the art shows by two African-American photographers, Bruce Talamon and Harry Drinkwater. I'm always more interested in what Black people are making.
I just want to see what it is. How does it talk about their life as African-Americans? As painter Jack Whitten told Guthrie Ramsey in his piece that he wrote for my exhibition Energy Experimentation, which is in my book EyeMinded," if you don't experiment, you die." That was his way of putting it. So for him, as an African-American artist, he's going to experiment. Will it look a certain way? Maybe, Maybe not. But it's his way of expressing whatever it is inside of him as a racialized subject, as a man, as an artist.
I mean, is there anything unique in that? Or maybe a broader way of saying that is, in what ways did the artists covered by your show make ground-breaking advances?
I think definitely in terms of the use of the materials. "Now Dig This!" was mentioned in L.A. Weekly recently as one of the hot picks the week. And it was No. 2, so we were very happy about that. But what it said was, why was the show important? Because of the wordplay. Because the writer felt that the titles of some of these pieces were so inventive in that the work actually delivered something that really spoke to that title. Now, you could say, okay, wordplay? Is that trite? But what it says to me, in an era when conceptualism and language and words are very important, in the '60s and '70s, African-American artists were doing it. They were working with words, they were coming up with these great ideas. So conceptually, they were pushing the envelope. I think in terms of materials, they were pushing the envelope. One of the things that I maintain about -- Why I've been so interested in art from California is that, because the tradition was so young they had a lot of freedom with materials, they had a little space to experiment, they were still experimenting with painting and sculpture. I think their kind of mixed media focus was much more daring than a lot of the artists on the East Coast or in Chicago. If you think of art in the '60s and '70s, say, on the East Coast, or even in Chicago, you think of Black power paintings and fists, and things like that. Right? Things that say "Free the People," which is fine, but done in painting or in specific types of sculpture. I think what the California art showed me is that people had those same ideas, but they could be much more metaphorical with them. They didn't have to be so didactic. And they were comfortable with that.
Can you talk a little bit about the network among these artists that are little known, but may reflect the reach of the contribution of the artists themselves?
Well, they did have all these networks. They had galleries. They weren't getting into "mainstream" galleries and museums. Maybe in the late '60s, when people decided to do their "Black show," and it had no theme except people are Black. That's it, you know? I think, people always say, "Aren't you doing a show like that?" No. I'm actually talking about a historical timeframe when people were doing specific things. What were those things? How were they responding to their environment? I think it's a little different. So they have these networks, they're making their own galleries, the Brockman Gallery, open for 22 years in L.A., showing the work of African-American artists, but also a wide array of different artists, a multicultural group of artists. Gallery 32: Suzanne Jackson, who had originally grown up in Alaska, a Black woman who had grown up in Alaska and ended up coming down into L.A. She was also a dancer. She opened a gallery and showed a wide array of artists as well. And then Samella Lewis, of course, who opens three galleries and she does a museum. She does several books. She does a magazine which is still in print (International Review of African American Art). She's pretty amazing. So they all do these things which really support these artists. They're also artists themselves. But how does it influence the rest of the United States' art? Well, it influences art because many of these artists then leave L.A. and they go to New York. And they're working in New York for many years. For instance, somebody like Mel Edwards goes to New York in '67, or Daniel LaRue Johnson comes in the 1960s, or David Hammons, who eventually comes in the mid-'70s, and Maren Hassinger, who also comes at that time. When I got out of college and started curating it was the '80s, these were some of the people I met. I knew Mel Edwards and Daniel LaRue Johnson even earlier, as a child. But Houston Conwill, Maren Hassinger, David Hammons -- these were all the people I met in the '80s. These were all the people who were showing a lot, in alternative spaces, primarily, and whose work was part of the New York art world. We know that David Hammons is one of the most well-known artists in this country, his work itself has had such an influence on people all over the world.
Because of his manner of using everyday materials, discarded materials, used materials, and bringing a poetry to it that really speaks to human existence. I think that's really been the lesson of this generation of artists. Why? Because they're using multimedia, pretty easily accessible materials, and they're showing you that you can make a poetic statement, a political statement if you want, about the world. Maybe it's also about racial identity, sometimes. Using things that are not hard to acquire. Now this is also a tradition of Assemblage. People want to say Picasso invented it. He didn't, but he made it very well-known. You have something called Assemblage, which is in that second room in "Now Dig This!". That is, taking found objects that had one use and putting them together to have another use, but still having the trace of the earlier narrative flow through. But what Hammons and all these people do at the end, is that they're not even that didactic. It's an object, a statement, that is made with the lightest of gestures.
Okay, one more question. Or maybe not one, but close to one more question. About "Now Dig This!" As a history detective I would be remiss if I did not give you the opportunity to discuss the excitement of the discoveries you made during this exhibit. So please just take a moment and talk about the finds you made putting this show together. And you just simply have to talk about the extraordinary artifact of Charles White's orange suitcase.
Thank you for that question. I worked on this show for three years. We did find things. The research that goes into doing a historical show is always a lot of work, but there's always a pay-off. And that's what I'm really interested in. There's an artist in the show, John Riddle, and he has some great pieces that people love, the "Untitled (Fist)," "Gradual Troop Withdrawal," which is an anti-war sculpture. He's somebody that, if you look in the historical record, you will find nothing on John Riddle. You'll only find his obituary. If you go around to some of these African American collectors' homes in L.A. , everybody has at least one, if not five. He's well-known within African-American art communities in L.A. How can this guy be well-known, within African-American art-making communities, people have his work, they purchased his work, and yet there's nothing about him in the historical record.
Okay. There's nothing about him in the historical record. But he's totally revered. He's one of the people that David Hammons revered. Among my points in this show is, if David Hammons is so important to us in American art, these are the people that were important to David Hammons, these were the people that influenced David Hammons. In that way, these are the people that actually influenced American art. So that's one of the extraordinary finds, just the disconnect between how much work I saw by John Riddle, and how little we know about him in the historical record, which this show will change.
The suitcase: We found the suitcase in New York in an archive of the Just Above Midtown Gallery, which was around for about 12 years. It showed a wide array of artists, primarily African-American artists, and also was one of the first places that introduced the work of these California artists to the East Coast. Linda Goode Bryant was the proprietor. She has a great archive. The suitcase was one of the things that she dragged out to show me, she said you have to look at this. One of the artists in "Now Dig This!, Dan Concholar, when he came from California to New York and actually started working for her gallery, he brought this suitcase and left it. I was like, why would you keep this suitcase for 30 years? Okay. So we open it up. We find Dan Concholar's bills, his gentleman's magazine, his afro pick, ticket stubs to different museums in L.A. -- it was a suitcase filled with things about L.A. There was art in the suitcase as well, by Ruth Waddy, somebody who was organizing African-American artists in the early '60s, and another artist named George Clack. We looked at it further, and the initials C.W. were on it. And I'm like, okay, Charles White. Concholar was one of his students. Charles White was the person who helped kind of birth this whole movement in that he came, basically, from New York and was one of the most well-known African American artists of his time, and was always very generous to people, both in terms of being a teacher, but also in terms of supporting artists: Going to their shows, buying their work and things like that. So it wouldn't be surprising if this guy, who was a student, was going to New York, and he needed a suitcase, White might say, "Man, take this suitcase." It's kind of speculation, but it's something great to think about.
What movement did Charles White give birth to?
He was one of the people that inspired this whole generation of African-American artists that I showcase in "Now Dig This!" He's the one who inspired them by showing them that their art could be activist, that it could be available to African-Americans because of course in the '60s, that's one of the things you wanted to do. You didn't want to make art just for the museum. That was a "white" space where people wouldn't visit. You wanted to make art that could somehow be in dialogue with people. And how do you do that? What are the myriad ways you could do that? The Brockman Gallery is an African American run space which opened in 1967. I found letters in White's archive where he's, the first year that its open, there's correspondence between White and these young artists who are opening this gallery, Dale Brockman Davis and Alonzo Davis. They're talking to him. Can we have your support? Can we have your insight? Can we have your wisdom? And he's writing back: yes. So this is how he influenced this whole generation, he was excited to be a part of what they were doing as they moved that tradition forward.
Are there people in the museum world who aren't supportive of the daring display of African Diaspora art that characterizes your shows?
There are people who think that if you focus on African-American artists, it's bad. But my point is, all the other shows focus on white artists. You just don't say it. So what is the difference? There is no difference. I'm just telling you this is an overlooked aspect of history that I'm focusing on. And I'm telling you, it's about Black people, African Diaspora artists. What has been really exciting to me is that this show, "Now Dig This! Art & Black Los Angeles 1960-1980," has really captured the imagination of people. And I'm starting to understand why. Not that I didn't think it would. But the kind of overwhelming support that I've gotten from this show has been amazing. And one of the reasons is that, I think, people want to know about this. Not just Black people. Everybody wants to know about art of this period. They know about the Black Panthers. Maybe they know a little bit less about the US Movement. They know about cultural nationalism. They know about black power. They know about Civil Rights and Martin Luther King. We just had a big monument to Martin Luther King in Washington D.C. that was unveiled. So they know about that. People are excited to find out what artists were making at that time. What did it look like? What was it about? It was about Civil Rights, it was about power, it was about unequal access to power and changing that, and artists were commenting on that. Did they make it look figurative? Sometimes they did. Did they make it look abstract? Sometimes they did. The main thing was that they were people of their time who were commenting on that time in various modes. By the time you get to the end of "Now Dig This!", you get to work made with panty hose, with hair, with brown paper bags with grease on it, as well as with video. For me, what I love about art history is, I feel, artists comment on their time using materials that they feel are best suited to that commentary. Whether it's paint. Whether it's paper bags with grease. To me, it's about history. Artists are historical actors reacting to the murder of Malcolm X. They're reacting to the Vietnam War. They're reacting to being picked up by cops, even then, because they looked wrong, because they were Black men in the wrong place at the wrong time. They're reacting to the Watts rebellion, whether it's taken from the detritus from the rebellion itself and making art or making videos about the festival that happened later. They're going through their lives as Black people and they're responding by making art.
To what extent do you think that your work challenges the preservation of the Eurocentric sensibility that most museums have long been dedicated?
I've been working as a curator for about 30 years. And for 20 of those years, I've not been working for one specific institution. I've been doing freelance. And they still invite me back to do these shows, which tells you that these shows still need to be done. People might critique and say, "Do we still need to do a black show?" Well, is it a black show? Or is it a show about an aspect of history that is being overlooked? That's the way I talk about it. In Pacific Standard Time, there are 60 to 70 exhibitions about the time period in Southern California between 1945 and 1980. How many of those shows actually have African-American artists in them? Is it because there were no African-American artists there? No. Is it because you're doing a show and it's 80 percent white artists, and then maybe, if you're lucky, 20 percent artists of color? Some institutions actually want to have more historically accurate stories. And funders actually want to have these stories too, because they realize, in the 21st Century, some of these stories are missing. So there are places where we can talk about these different art traditions or overlooked artists. I should make clear that "Now Dig This!" also includes non-black artists who collaborated with African American artiststs during this period. The Getty opportunity, has allowed me to do is bring resources to this study. What they want us to do is create all these books, all this research, as a baseline. Then people can start making shows that are actually more accurate, in terms of who was doing what when. And they can be more integrated. But you can't do that if you're going to be doing shows that are just formed with white artists, and only one percent of your artists are African-American. No. I'm going to just do it the other way. And you know, I've been lucky that people have actually been interested in the ideas that I have been putting out there.
Thank you so much.
The photo of Kellie Jones is included courtesy of Tukufu Zuberi; all other photos and the video are courtesy of the Hammer Museum (Also see http://hammer.ucla.edu/exhibitions/detail/exhibition_id/196).
Follow Dr. Tukufu Zuberi on Twitter: www.twitter.com/TukufuZuberi