Visual Activism

Helen Jennings

The face of the United States is changing rapidly everyday. Protests fill up the streets of cities around the world, and in the background, our country is still struggling with a global pandemic that has destroyed normalcy in every facet. But a new normal doesn’t necessarily have to be bad; it’s actually quite the opposite. A fresh perspective on race relations has manifested quickly in the art world, with the birth and death of many important displays of art. From calls to remove Confederate portraits and monuments around the country, to “Black Lives Matter” murals on the streets and protest art aligning the gates of the White House, art has been an avenue to mobilize the Black Lives Matter movement. Art tells a story about the creator, audience, and time period, and calls on artists and institutions to question what story they wish to tell through their work. Most importantly, art amplifies voices that have historically been silenced. This type of art can be referred to as visual activism and is one the significant ways in which people can support and uplift minority groups in the US. An image can spur action more greatly than almost any other medium, making artwork more necessary than ever, whether it hangs in a gallery or on your Instagram feed.  

Although the art world has been invaluable in facilitating the spread of the Black Lives Matter movement, it has also inwardly sparked questions in art museums and galleries around the world, as employees and boards question how they can better represent BIPOC through staffing choices, exhibitions, and collection pieces. But one institution that has been committed to diversity since its conception is our very own Nasher Museum of Art at the heart of Duke’s campus on Campus Drive.

Since opening in 2005, the Nasher’s primary mission has been to build a revolutionary Contemporary Collection with an emphasis on the work of artists of backgrounds that have been traditionally excluded from the white-dominated art world. Specifically, the Nasher intends to collect and boast the work of African and women artists. In addition to their impressive and constantly growing Contemporary Collection, the Nasher has also held many temporary exhibitions that feature the work of diverse artists, and in the process, have goaded the Duke and Durham communities to have many important conversations about the representation and exclusion of these groups. Throughout their Collection Galleries, the Nasher sprinkles some of their contemporary pieces to juxtapose those by predominantly white and Western artists, to spark important discussions on the history of art and where its future lies.

Since opening in 2005, the Nasher’s primary mission has been to build a revolutionary Contemporary Collection with an emphasis on the work of artists of backgrounds that have been traditionally excluded from the white-dominated art world. Specifically, the Nasher intends to collect and boast the work of African and women artists. In addition to their impressive and constantly growing Contemporary Collection, the Nasher has also held many temporary exhibitions that feature the work of diverse artists, and in the process, have goaded the Duke and Durham communities to have many important conversations about the representation and exclusion of these groups. Throughout their Collection Galleries, the Nasher sprinkles some of their contemporary pieces to juxtapose those by predominantly white and Western artists, to spark important discussions on the history of art and where its future lies. 

The Nasher aims to continue these conversations through representing black women in artwork in a way that’s impossible at many other historic art institutions. After experiencing a long and continuing exclusion from discussions on sexism and racism, black female artists have used art as a way to make their voices heard in space that is completely their own. The Nasher actively displays the work of Nina Chanel Abney, Lorna Simpson, Ebony Patterson, and many other black women.

In 2017, the Nasher held a solo exhibition of Nina Chanel Abney’s work titled Nina Chanel Abney: A Royal Flush. Her most notable piece in the exhibition was Class of 2007, in which she represented her fellow white peers from her graduating class at Parsons as black inmates and portrayed herself as the white prison guard. Her racial artistic commentary is even more impactful in today’s political climate and forces viewers to question racial roles in American society. Although Class of 2007 is no longer at the Nasher, you can still see her other impressive works titled Hobson’s Choice and First and Last in the permanent Contemporary Collection. If you wish to learn more about the topic of visual activism, you can listen to the extremely impactful panel titled "Art, Activism, Race and Law" in response to this exhibit. 

Pulling from their Contemporary Collection in 2011, the Nasher held an exhibition called “A Selection of Women Artists”, which analyzed themes explored by female artists from the 1950s to the present day. One black artist stood out significantly in this exhibition: Lorna Simpson, a photographer and mixed media artist. Through portraiture, Simpson focuses on the interaction between race and gender, and their implications for American society and identity. Simpson uses both historic photographs and her own work, and alters them by imposing text, multiplying the image, and other techniques. Her subjects are often portrayed facing away from the camera, which simultaneously creates a sense of ambiguity and individuality. The viewer’s attention is drawn to qualitative parts of the subject, such as African hairstyles, that creates universal commentary. Her work is internationally renowned and Duke students can experience it for themselves at the Nasher, where her work Holding and Breaking (to the right) is located. The piece features a male figure with his back to viewers and the composition is divided into a vertical triptych that centers around a broken promise, implied through both the subject, text, and split canvas.

The Nasher is currently holding an exhibition for Ebony G. Patterson titled “...while the dew is still on the roses…”. Patterson is a Jamaican born artist who works in many different forms of media, from sculpture to canvas, that all feature intricate flowers, embroidery, glitter, and beads. Her technique and subject matter both draw upon her Jamaican heritage, specifically black youth and dancehall culture. In this exhibition, her work is positioned in the context of a “night garden” in the gallery, and asks the viewer to look beyond the embellished facade to truly see what lurks beneath the surface. Through analyzing with a close eye, her artwork reveals the violent and complex underbelly of gender dynamics in Jamaica. In the Contemporary collection, you can view her piece titled “...shortly after 8- beyond the bladez” (below). In accordance with her other works, the viewer initially sees a green and colorful composition made of glitter and detailed fabric. Further analysis reveals an unconscious male subject in between the bright grass on a red path, undoubtedly a victim of violence. This male subject, adorned with glitter, challenges the typical representation of black males universally. 

Generally, Patterson’s work conjures in viewers the honorable practice of close looking. This artistic practice is one that can be taken into our everyday lives, which are filled with a constant flow of media from a myriad of platforms. With close looking, we can question and prioritize the information we receive, and deem what is truly worth our time.

Although the Nasher’s doors may be closed for the time being, you can still see the works listed in this article on their E-museum or look up past exhibitions on their website. Now more than ever, we must educate ourselves on the current racial climate in the US and also support our fellow women artists, especially black artists.  At the Nasher, we can view artwork that prompts us to have these important conversations with ourselves and others. The Nasher has the tools to be a visual activist. We just need to use them.

 

Picture 1: Ebony G Patterson “...shortly after 8- beyond the bladez”

https://nasher.duke.edu/artwork/20229/

 

Picture 2: Nina Chanel Abney “Class of 2007”, Photo by Chi Lam

https://nasher.duke.edu/exhibitions/nina-chanel-abney-royal-flush-2/ 

 

Picture 3: Lorna Simpson “Holding and Breaking

https://emuseum.nasher.duke.edu/objects/8931/holding-and-breaking?ctx=1676d1b9-ae8d-4ac6-8a28-ae11778001b2&idx=1