Revoke my New Yorker card if you wanna but it’s taken me years to realize that the M3 from Harlem goes to the Guggenheim museum in almost 20 minutes! I discovered it this weekend and now I just don’t know what to do with myself. I’m a bit of a Museum nerd and it kills me when there’s a show I wanna see on the East side and all I think about is all kinds of soul sucking train line switching I have to do in order to get there. The M3 route takes me through memory lane passed Central Park East and and my High School and finally on the upper East Side where I went on first dates, saw movies, hung out at HMV (remember HMV?) and tried to catch transportation home on school day evenings before my pass expired. I love this line.
This weekend, Simone Yvette Leigh’s “Loophole of Retreat” brought me to the Guggenheim, not one of my favorite Museum spaces but for some reason, it was more than tolerable this time. I always love seeing The Guggenheim from the outside but something about walking around an incline in circles without ever knowing what floor you’re on irks me. Still, when I saw one of Leigh’s pieces on a subway ad months ago I was just viscerally struck by the power of it, the Blackness and the femininity. I finally read more about Simone Yvette Leigh and her work a few weeks ago. I visited her “Brickhouse” sculpture on the Highline and have since just been fascinated and obsessed with being close to her pieces.
Sidebar: When I got to the ticketing booth, fully ready to shell out nearly 20 bucks (It’s $18 even for students! THAT SHIT IS A FUCKING LUXURY! ) I discovered that I can get into the Guggenheim free with my student ID and bring a guest as well. When I was handed the ticket and program, I just kind of moved away slowly like I was getting away with something. LOL!
When I walked into Leigh’s exhibition and read the wall card explaining the inspiration for “Loophole of Retreat” I had to read the name Harriet Jacobs like five times before I realized it was Jacobs and not Tubman. Mind you, I’ve read like two or three pieces about how the narrative of Harriet Jacobs who as a young enslaved girl, hid from her abusive master under a crawl space for 7 years. Still, as I read the wall description, my brain refused to compute and transpose the name Jacobs for Harriet.
This is what happens when the enslaved experience of one person is made so monolithic that it becomes a challenge to absorb broader voices within slave narrative documentation. I had to wrestle and pry my mind open to allow Harriet Jacobs in. And the crazy thing is, she’s already in. I feel her whenever I look at one of Leigh’s pieces. It’s haunting, potent and just stunning; the sensual weight of it. There is such a sense of something alive, a femininity I’ve been familiar with for a long time but one I’ve rarely seen honored or celebrated in modern “mainstream” art spaces.
There are only three large scale pieces in the exhibit but they fill the space with a stillness that radiates an inner animation. I moved around them in a slow respectful orbit. And although Leigh’s female figures have no eyes (she avoids depicting gaze in her sculptures) I feel the focus and backstory in their line of site all the more. I’m excited to see what Leigh does next and Harriet Jacobs narrative is definitely on my reading list.
I also visited “The Defacement of Basquiat” which exhibited his work and the work of other artists/activists depicting the murder of Michael Stewart in 1983. This showing was timed to regulate capacity and I happened to get there just before the line behind began to grow and extend out behind me. I’ve never pretended to understand Basquiat’s form but I’ve grown to respect it more and more and allow myself to be challenged by the way he worked to document the social issues of the time he came of age in as an artist. And I remember hearing Michael Stewart as a girl. I remember that name. I remember that his life was extinguished “mysteriously” at the hands of the police without explanation and all because he was drawing graffiti on the side of a building. He wasn’t charged with consecration of property. He was killed.
In many ways, despite their ability to shed light on injustices through the exhibition of work by artists like Basquiat, museums are hugely problematic. They dictate taste, culture appropriation, classicism and feed very much into telling the “one story.”
They have also long and often catered to a classicism and elitist ideals about what art is and where it can found. Let’s not talk of the attribution of commercial value and the role that plays in regarding the “value” art. All I ever see when I go to see a Black artist in an established art space that keeps the lights on with generous donations is droves of White people and tourists.
I know there’s blood in the water and that the revolting, questioning, upstarting nature of many artists selected to grace these spaces (Leigh’s exhibit came as a result of winning the 2018 Hugo Boss Prize) are rarely reflected in the hiring or administrative practices of most. Like most things, this is a change that has to happen institutionally, from within. The role of museums in the community, as tools of education social justice and activism are not often utilized in a truly significant way.
Still, I would highly recommend these two shows. I tend to be an advocate for art wherever it maybe. From Museums to sidewalks to forgotten subway tunnels and old freight cars. I do feel like a broader definition of what used to be considered “art” is slowly emerging. At the same time, the voices, facilitators and curators need to be broader in representation as well. A good podcast to listen to if you want to learn more about people who work for real change, fair hiring practices and representation in museums and the arts in general is Cultura Conscious by my good friend Paula Santos.