“… by the time you read this, I will be even blacker.”- Amiri Baraka
“Loyalty, got royalty inside my DNA. Cocaine quarter piece got war and peace inside my DNA…”- Kendrick Lamar
It has been more than twenty years since the prolific scholar and curator Thelma Golden organized her seminal exhibition Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art at The Whitney Museum of American Art. Some critics praised the collection for its broad depictions of black masculinity, which included perspectives from artists that neither identified as black or male. Most critics, however, considered the collection as exploitative, problematic, and not reflective enough of everyday black male identities. When the show traveled from New York to UCLA’s Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center, it was met with protests, and counter-exhibitions by those who felt the work did not reflect their ideas or lived experiences of black masculinity. Golden maintained that the exhibition was not intended to be a “survey on black men” or a “catalog of types” rather, the exhibition worked as a sprawling mirror, a museum of refracted perspectives and imaginaries about black masculinity.
The aroused, triggered, enraged and enamored responses Black Male evoked ripple into contemporary dialogues. We artists, curators, critics, and patrons of color, each persist in our struggles to complete works that are at once contemplative of black and brown, queer and non-gender specific, marginal and interstellar representation, but not singularly limited to racialized, gendered, sexually oriented or planar contextualization. One wonders if works created by black artists that feature black subjects, will ever be conceived beyond the identities assumed of the bodies portrayed; if black art can ever just be, art.
Gallery CA which rests in the gritty and quickly gentrifying arts enclave of Greenmount West in East Baltimore City is no Whitney Museum. The humble gallery resides on the bottom level of a low-income housing apartment complex that frequently opens its doors to Charm City’s emerging and established artists. Despite the city’s nearly 64% black population, it is still rare for art works created by regional black artists and other artists of color to receive solo exhibitions at major art institutions and museums. Rarer still for those exhibitions to be curated by black artists, and representation of people of color in arts administrator roles are abysmally deficient. And yet, Two Lanes Stories, an exhibition currently on view at the at Gallery CA, falls in line with the spirit and intention of Black Male and prompts similar queries towards deeper and broader black masculine identity definitions by resisting caricature.
The exhibition prominently features painting, photography, and a short documentary film from contemporary emerging and established regional African American male artists including E.L. Briscoe, Ken Royster, Ernest Shaw Jr., Jeffrey Kent, Stephen Towns, and M. Anthony. Collectively, the works selected by curator and artist Charles Mason III examine and critique singular black artistic identity narratives.
Upon entering the space visitors are greeted by M. Anthony Cooper-Jenkins “Self Study #1 (Barkley Hendricks tribute).” Cooper-Jenkins’ self-portrait, rendered in a style familiarized by the late artist Barkley Hendricks, displays a fashion forward black male, a hip-hop influenced dandy, who stands with his back turned to viewers against a bright pink background.
Adjacent to that installation, four crisp black and white portraits shot by veteran photographer, Ken Royster are installed on the long wall of the gallery. Each photograph captures an innocent portrayal of black youth engaged in the mundanity of daily life. In “Tiffany & Brittany” two young girls drape their arms around each other’s shoulders and waists, smile, and pose for the camera. A young man turns towards the camera as he brushes the mane of a white horse in “Grooming.” In “Teen Girls” and “Boy’s ‘t Men,” Royster turns his lens towards the interiors of city classrooms; a collection of girls are gathered in one image, a group of boys clustered in the other. Neither group smiles.
I could not help but smile as I looked at the photographs and remembered the beauty, frustration, boredom and constant curiosity of adolescence; Go-Go and Aaliyah and Mr. Webb’s English class that always turned into conversations about the Black Arts Movement and Haki R. Madhubuti in relation to Robert Frost. I could exhale looking at Roysters images of black children depicted as children, not predators in the white imaginary, or victims of violence or trauma. I could breathe and remember joy for a second, and in those seconds, short lived seconds, forget that we are under attack.
Jeffrey Kent’s inverted graphic portrait “Colored Art (Race)” is installed at the center of Royster’s four photographs. The word DOPE boldly lettered in purple and black appears as if written backward, or reflected in a mirror. The juxtaposition of Royster’s collection with Kent’s definitive assertion is at once an obvious statement and query; does the context shift if the lettering does? does the history rupture, reform and revise itself to include the surrounding bodies when the words break from the confines of linear reading? Contrasting language derived from hip hop culture— a movement birthed from the stylistic and creative genius of black and brown youth— with images of black children, affirms and contextualizes the photographs with the lived experiences of the subjects, and offers an associative intersection between black youth and American history.
Works from the prolific painter and muralist Ernest Shaw, magical realist painter Stephen Towns, and illustrator E.L. Briscoe are situated together on the opposite wall. Each artist establishes black masculinity within a broad emotional spectrum that ranges from reflective vulnerability to supernatural resilience. Briscoe’s paintings are dually inspired by West African religious folklore and serialized American superhero comics. Rendered with a technique that transforms 2D paintings into 3D projections, his figurative black male portraits combine science fiction and afro futurist aesthetics in imaginatively revisionist ways. In “Message from Ogun, loosely translated… “You hit like a bishhhh,” a large image of a man’s face, Briscoe’s son, is loosely dressed in the torn fragments of a mask. The man in the mask breaks head first through green and red dimensions. Green shards scatter. White light peeks through cracks in the red backdrop. In these depictions, and in spite of attacks against black bodies, black masculinity remains holy, wholly intact, defiant and heroically buoyant.
Shaw’s “Taj Amir Shaw” and “Senufo Son” present similarly hyper-realized and otherworldly aesthetics. “Taj Amir Shaw” is a portrait of his deceased son, a crowned young blue-brown boy stands in a three-quarter b-boy stance, arms folded across his chest, his eyes confidently confront the viewers gaze. Blue, orange and red lines cut through the background, and map the frame in dripping streaks of color. In “Senufo Son,” a young man, adorned in a large crown, stands profile right. Thick angular strokes and residual paint drippings layer across the portrait. Shaw ruminates on potential—the occurrences that propel or disrupt the development of black boys into men— while pointing to an indelible legacy of royalty: black boys as kings, cellularly connected to regal histories.
Stephen Towns small mixed-media and oil self-portrait, “The Juice Ain’t So Sweet” is installed between “Taj Amir Shaw” and “Senufo Son.” In “The Juice Ain’t So Sweet,” the artist is haloed in gold and surrounded by derogatory racial identifications that are scrawled across a brown paper bag background. Towns pours red wine on a bowl of blackberries; the wine overflows the bowl and spills down the canvas. The contemplative work intones Greco-Roman religious iconography to resolutely critique colorist traditions. By framing himself against a literal brown paper bag, Towns recalls self-imposed segregationist histories within African American communities, as well as societal biases against people with darker complexions. Collectively, Briscoe, Shaw and Towns contributions are inspired ruminations on black persistence and endurance.
The documentary, an intimate and illuminating collection of spliced conversations between the artists and Mason, further clarifies the artists’ perspectives about black identity formations and artistic processes. The humanity and disarming quality of the interviews, many of which take place in the artists’ studios, explore and expound on the complexity of black masculine identities, as well as the specific obstacles each artist encounters while attempting to produce, exhibit and sell their creations.
Two Lanes Stories falls in line with other movements to further develop, humanize and broaden black representation and keeps in step with modest but devastatingly impactful nudges for visibility. What I find most exciting about the exhibition is that the visual works represented are unexpectedly hopeful, often exuberant reflections of black joy and critical imagining. The white walls of Gallery CA are transformed by black works from black artists. At its core, Two Lanes Stories successfully illustrates the diverse, tragic and tender shared experiences of black men, and extends those dynamic reflections so that others might be able to see themselves beyond the confines of a singular narrative.
Angela N. Carroll is an artist-archivist; a purveyor and investigator of culture, and regular contemporary art, performance and film contributor for Baltimore City Paper, BmoreArt Magazine and Umber Magazine, an emerging design and culture magazine based in Oakland California. She received an MFA in Digital Arts and New Media from the University of California at Santa Cruz and BFA in Animation from UMBC.