FOL makes comeback with museum talk

By Page H. Gifford

The Friends of the Library made a comeback online on Feb. 24 after an absence of nearly a year with a program on black artists celebrating Black History Month. The speaker was Nancy Hirshbein, who is a docent with the Hirschhorn Museum and the Smithsonian Art Museum as well as a volunteer with the National Gallery, in Washington D.C.

With the museums shut down to the public, Hirshbein, like her fellow docents, were tired of sitting around at home with nothing to do and she formed a group of docents who would go online and give talks on a variety of subjects about museum exhibits. Her specialty is modern and contemporary art. The program called Dial-a Docent has not only reached out to communities throughout Virginia but throughout the entire U.S.

The lecture on art was just as effective online and well-organized and informative as it would have been in person. Hirshbein discussed three specific, influential, and contemporary black artists who were changing the dynamics in the art world through their vision of society. Many art movements have been influenced by many societal changes and Hirshbein pointed out that Black Lives Matter has been a key factor in this present art movement.

“This is a dense subject matter,” she said, referring to the detailed talk on how museums view their future outlook. She added it was unusual to have a societal movement like BLM affect museums which have been seen as less than progressive when it came to diversity. Museums are now looking at how to define their missions, their audience, displays (including interpreting monuments), and collections.

She explained that the role of  museums in the past was  to house and maintain  collections, usually legacies left by wealthy elitist benefactors. The museums became arbiters of culture.

“They are heavily critiqued because they are the cultural gatekeepers,” she said. “Now they are looking at public engagement, diversifying the museum audience.” She illustrated her point with an example of a protest  against an exhibit called “Harlem on My Mind” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1969.

“The exhibit was inclusive of black curators but not inclusive of black artists.” She noted another example from artist Howardena Pindell’s analysis of the New York art world in 1986-1987. Pindell’s analysis showed that exhibitions were predominantly white and there was a stunning lack of African-American artists.

Hirshbein opened her discussion with artist Amy Sherald, famous for her portrait of first lady Michelle Obama. Sherald began as an abstract painter, eventually evolving into portraits. She noted the lack of pigmentation in the figures and explained why Sherald chose to paint her portraits in grayscale with colorful and bold clothing and accessories. She explained that Sherald had her models pick out things to wear or use that they would gravitate towards and reflected their personalities.

“She did this to let the interior person shine through.” Viewers were critical of Michelle Obama’s painting because she wasn’t smiling. One participant pointed out that in all the masters’ portraits, except for the Mona Lisa, no one was smiling.

Michelle Obama’s portrait was more about emotion than intent,” said artist Susan Lang.

Recontextualization was the subject of Titus Kaphar’s work. Deconstructing works of art that were representative of history such as his “Behind the Myth of Benevolence,” featuring a painting of Thomas Jefferson as a curtain is being pulled back to reveal a slave woman. It’s a strong and compelling work.

“It was referencing the myth that slavery was benevolent because slave owners took care of, clothed, fed, housed, and gave slaves work. Kaphar paints it in the style of the 18th century, calling attention to the narrative we’ve always heard.” She added that the painting was so offensive to the public it was damaged three times.

Another painting, “Absconded from The Household of the President of the U.S.” refers to the 22-year-old runaway slave, the dressmaker for Martha Washington,  Ona Judge who fled to New Hampshire and was never returned. Kaphar’s message is clear yet veiled in strips of old wanted runaway slave posters nailed to his neck.

“It became an obsession with Washington.” It is a powerful statement regarding what we don’t know about history and our historical figures.

Museums are looking at their wording of exhibits such as The Dutch Golden Age which also references the slave trade. It may have been their economic golden age but today’s museum audiences share a different perspective.

“They are moving away from using such phrases and now call it 17th –century Dutch painting.” Reconceptualization is changing how we view, think about, and understand art. Emma Amos, a multifaceted artist uses realism and abstraction along with symbolism to tell her visual stories. Her “Falling” series features a painting called equals which shows an African-American woman falling into a montage of past and present symbols. But when viewing it, it appears she may not be falling but pushing forward toward something better and more hopeful than what she has known.

Wrapping up her discussion she mentions British artist Hurvin Anderson, who is known for his unique paintings of Jamaican life and cited one featuring American icons of the Civil Rights movement.

One interesting question came from a local artist who asked if white people should paint African-Americans?

“That is an interesting question,” said Hirshbein, who paused to ponder her answer. “I’m not sure how to answer that but I can give you an example of an artist, Dana Shutz, who painted Emmett Till in his casket. The painting received criticism.” The painting was abstract but many saw it as non-representative of the black experience and a mockery at best.

Those who attended were left with a new perspective on art. Nowadays, museums will be thinking about the narrative when setting up exhibits and their effect on the audience who views them.

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