The notion of blood has many meanings, some tied to violence, some to death – and some to belonging and fealty and love. “BLACK BLOODED,” an exhibition curated by Jessica Moss at the New Gallery of Modern Art, explores some of these connections.
Some 400 spectators crowded the small uptown gallery and outside courtyard for its May 30 opening, viewing 70 works by 50 artists that look at the complexities of identity, race and representation. The standing-room-only crowd ran the spectrum of ages, orientations and ethnicities, all assembled to experience an exhibition that is, in Moss’s words, “undeniably, unapologetically black.”
Works by art-world stars Mickalene Thomas, Theaster Gates and Kerry James Marshall – whose “Past Times” recently broke the record for the highest price for a work by a living African-American artist, when Sean Combs paid $21.1 million at Sotheby’s – hang alongside pieces from rising artists like Hebru Brantley and Rashayla Marie Brown. Intimate portraits of laughing men painted on copper like religious icons, a 24-karat-gold-plated afro pick, a life-sized prison door, a playwright’s journal and a larger-than-life painting of Kermit the Frog are a few of the pieces on display.
“It’s been remarkable to have an opportunity to show these works in person to my community, who otherwise might not have a chance to see it,” said Moss.
Irina Toshkova, director of the New Gallery, said she has worked with Moss for years. “BLACK BLOODED” began as a conversation, she said, and evolved.
“I trusted her vision,” Toshkova said. “There’s a diversity in work and range and length of career I thought was very special for us to see in Charlotte. And also I’m excited about the fact that we are a retail space. People can engage with the work, purchase the work and support the artists’ careers.” (Opening night saw the sale of 10 pieces, she said; prices of pieces in the show range from $40 to five figures.)
“This is not one type of artist, one type of work, one type of black,” Moss said. “Often we get overwhelmed by what that word, that history means. Although there is the pain and hurt that might be associated with it, it is not the only story.”
Moss said she finished her master’s degree in legal studies in May at the University of Pittsburgh with a concentration in property law, adding to a fine arts degree (painting, drawing and printmaking) from Carnegie Mellon, and a master’s in arts administration, policy and management from the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. Now an independent curator, she was formerly creative director at the Gantt Center, and co-founded the local Sphere Series of art history lectures, founded a Knight-Foundation-supported artist residency/community-connection program (The Roll Up) and plans a mural festival this October.
The main graphic used to promote this show has been Stephanie Woods’ “Weave Idolatry”: It shows a woman’s torso, skin luminous and black, her face entirely obscured by what appears at first glance to be a rough hood. That perception is vaguely foreboding; whether the context is the KKK, Trayvon Martin or slang, the word carries a negative connotation. However, a closer look reveals something far more routine: It’s hair weave, worked on a loom to create a mask.
“And think about someone wearing a weave. At some point it does become a mask, right?” Moss said with palpable enthusiasm. “This thing that you adorn yourself with becomes part of your identity and often makes it hard to see what’s underneath. So she’s really tapping into a lot of bold ideas, of hair as a tool and a cultural expression. It’s also a shield of identity.”
Jimmy Thompson, who makes art under the name Dammit Wesley, designed the promotional images, artist catalogue and post-event visuals for “BLACK BLOODED.”
“Jessica is a very talented curator, but she outdid herself with the amount of prestige and level of quality involved in this specific show,” he said. “There’s not going to be another time in Charlotte that you’ll be able to see all these artists in the same room again.”
Visual and performing artist Marcia Jones was invited to create an on-site piece on opening night. In her signature headdress of raven feathers and loose white shift, she knelt on canvas and went to work, creating a deeply meditative atmosphere despite the noise and heat. One of her dresses, heavily stained with charcoal, hangs in the exhibition.
“In Charlotte in 2018, to say ‘Yes, I’m black blooded’ is a political statement,” Jones said. “And the work that I’m doing is dealing with fundamental darkness: the dirt and soot and ashes of my DNA. I want that to come to the surface … I’m asking the ancestors too bring this up and negotiate a plan on how to eradicate it.”
Other artists pushed against the overtly political – a statement in itself.
“There’s the hashtag-ization of #BlackJoy that I wanted to get away from,” photographer Zun Lee said. “I’m looking at joy as a practice rather than a response to trauma or pain.
“When we say Black Lives Matter, how does that manifest in our everyday lives, as a practice and not as a response? How is it linked with an intrinsic kind of blackness that already is, and doesn’t have to explain itself to white people or people who don’t understand queerness?”
Lee’s work in this show, from a series called “Holding Patterns,” shows one man holding another as he learns to float in a pool. Lee called it “a moment of care that doesn’t have to symbolize anything other than just being who you are, being black and loving blackness.”
This is hardly the first exhibition of its kind. “30 Americans,” “Now Dig This” and, locally, “Mood: BLACK,” an exhibition at Goodyear Arts last year which Moss also helped curate, have all explored similar themes. But “BLACK BLOODED” makes no claim to be first. Rather, it’s a continuation of exhibitions adding to the spectrum and fleshing out the geography of blackness in the cultural imagination.
As Mario Moore, originally of Detroit, said, every artist thinks about what it means to be black in a different way.
Moore paints what he calls “small moments of rest” for black men, mainly drawn from photographs or videos of men with their wives. But he isolates his gaze to the men’s faces, “so when someone looks, they see an expression that’s vulnerable and endearing – it’s about bringing the audience to see something they don’t usually see in the portrayal of black men.”
Chris Watts eschews figures altogether. The High Point, N.C. native’s piece, “I Learned to Dance Without a Life Vest,” is a dramatically scaled maroon-brown abstract that reflects light and myriad colors, depending on the angle from which it is viewed. The piece grew out of an inundation of videos depicting police brutality, he said. He began considering how the black body is depicted – and devalued – by easy atrocity.
“These are actual images of events, actual evidence, that somehow don’t hold up in a court of law,” Watts said. “So by not including the figure in my work, I’m privileging the body and challenging the viewer to actually experience the surface of things. Because it’s our surface that’s supposedly getting us into the situations.”
“People of color have always been engaged in the cultural dialogue,” said Asheville artist Sherrill Roland. “But now more than ever we need our voices in different arenas, speaking on gender, sex, everything. And art is a great platform to speak those truths.”
Coming up: Related talks
Several talks related to the exhibition (which has been extended into August at the gallery, 435 N. Tryon St.) are ahead, with more to be scheduled, Moss said. All are free and open to the public:
June 19:“Community Building: Circle of Sisters,” led by the Knight Foundation’s Christa Newkirk and community leaders including Sharon Holm, Jasmine Hines and Davita Galloway. New Gallery.
June 27: “Love Talks Guggenheim, Vision and the Succulence of BLACK BLOODED,” with Guggenheim Fellow John W. Love Jr. New Gallery.
June 28: “BLACK BLOODED: An Exploration of Black Life Through Art,” with artists Stephanie J. Woods, Carmen Neely and Brianna Robinson. Main Library uptown.
July 19: “Let’s Talk Dammit: The Making of BLACK BLOODED,” with the exhibition’s graphic designer Dammit Wesley. BlkMrkt at Camp North End.
July 26: “Stimulus Sessions: BLACK BLOODED Edition,” with artists sharring films, videos, books and more that influenced or inspired the work in the exhibition, in panel and small-group format. McColl Center.
This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.