She's So Articulate Arlington Arts Center June 10 - July 19, 2008
She’s So Articulate: Black Women Artists Reclaim the Narrative presents eleven artists all operating on the front lines of contemporary culture. They employ the strategies and conventions of narrative for a variety of purposes: from dissecting new media technology, to critiquing popular culture, to attempting to alter the way our national story itself is told. Ultimately, these artists all strive to reveal some aspect of how our lives are constructed around certain images and ideologies through works that are dense with allusions, piercingly intelligent, and visually arresting.
There was a time when forward-looking visual artists sought not to embrace narrative but to rid themselves of it—of the anecdotal, allegorical, or literary—at all costs. From the end of the nineteenth century to the 1960s, from James McNeill Whistler, to Henri Matisse, to Ad Reinhardt (who advocated for “art as art,” art as an academic pursuit entirely separate from life), modern artists worked to make an art supposedly not dependent on historical context, personal biography, or any one particular story or culture. This was the norm for much of the valorized white male art of the last century. Artists created massive abstract works about color, shape, and scale above all else—a succession of mute objects resisting interpretation.
The taste for the impersonal and the formal lingers in galleries, as does the strange sentiment that narrative or story art is the province of outsider artists, folk artists, and the disempowered and disenfranchised—the other. Yet since the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, it has been clear that art must be regarded as a social phenomenon—a discourse, all about positioning oneself relative to other works, other cultures, and other histories of arguments and counter-arguments. This change in understanding was accompanied by ever-bolder experimentation and visibility amongst African-American artists, who had spent so many decades more or less ignored, pushed to the margins. Narrative is far from being the refuge of the marginalized; it is an inherently contemporary strategy, and all of the artists presented in She’s So Articulate accordingly employ it to make powerful arguments about how they, their work, and our world should be experienced and understood.
This show attests to my co-curator Henry L. Thaggert’s general fascination with artworks made by black women, and his specific preoccupation with the influence of Kara Walker. Walker is a highly visible young African-American artist whose drawings, films, and large cut-paper silhouettes employ disturbing imagery of slavery, racist stereotypes, and violent sexual acts. Walker’s work is both affecting and polarizing. But regardless of how viewers respond to her images, the widespread influence of the story she tells—of the debased horrors of slavery and racism in this country—has arguably eclipsed the much wider range of ideas represented by so many other contemporary African-American women artists.
She’s So Articulate sets out to restore some of that complexity in order to present a sort of expanded field of black narrative art. Some of these pieces are undeniably concerned with race, gender, and personal histories; others appear to be as much or more about globalization, voyeurism/fetishization, or the iconography of pop culture. In choosing the artists for this show, our hope was that no matter how widely we cast our net, the works we brought together would appear nonetheless to be voices in a continuous conversation, resonating together, amplifying one another’s content and significance.