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33 ways to say 'black' and 'box'

A museum show of African American photography finds out just how volatile two simple words can be.

December 09, 2007|Lynell George | Times Staff Writer

"Blacks In and Out of the Box." As rubrics go it seemed straightforward enough. It had a certain directness, but with enough play built in for a bit of interpretive wiggle room -- or so curators Jill Moniz and Lisa Henry thought.

When they settled on the title, which also worked as an organizing theme for their current photography exhibition at the California African American Museum, they weren't thinking poetically. They saw "the box" as a camera, the actual apparatus used to still a moment, provoke a narrative or cue critique. What they didn't quite count on was what artists would read between the title's lines, or how charged the words "blacks" and "box" in close proximity might be. "The artists were having these real expectations," says guest curator Lisa Henry. "They'd say, 'That's a weird title,' or, 'What do you mean?' "

There was a certain power in the words' juxtaposition: It was an incantation of sorts that pulled in an array of work from the show's 33 invited artists, an intergenerational roster that includes instantly recognizable names -- Charles Gaines, Betye Saar, Lorna Simpson -- and others to watch for. As Moniz and Henry began to consider the pieces collectively, they couldn't ignore a not-so-subtle thread that looped through many of the pieces and the emotional conversations that attended it.

What was the box? "Stereotypes." "A school of thought." "A niche." "The museum." "The brain." "Fear." "A frame." "Blackness . . . . "

The concentration of works that deliberated, deconstructed or dabbled in notions of identity gave Moniz pause. "I was shocked if not dismayed," she admits. "I wasn't thinking about blackness at all. Except that the artists were black."

The show, as she and Henry had conceived it, was to highlight California's groundbreaking photography traditions through the prism of African American artists, says Moniz, the museum's visual arts curator. Juxtaposed against rare historic images of African American life in California drawn from the Steve Turner collection, it would be not just a survey of black artists living or trained in California, but a way to root around, exploring the medium and how African Americans "commemorate or critique" it. The topic seemed wide open, but "the exception to the rule were the folks who didn't focus on race," she says. "Race is still at the forefront of people's thinking in terms of their artistic endeavors. I had expected something different on the whole."

Still, there was nothing monolithic about the responses. As the work was laid out end to end, grouped by aesthetics, not by racial charge, ultimately much of it spoke to the complexity of experience -- both in the pieces' ambition and their subject matter.

Carla Williams, 42

How she saw the box: "Art history, a particular kind of practice."

Williams is a San Francisco-based archivist, a portrait photographer who's been immersed in landscapes and the many ways in which race is literally inscribed there -- towns called "White Settlement," "Negro," "Squaw" and "Jap Road."

One of the pieces in the show, a landscape titled "Nigton, Texas" -- is at the core. Short for "Nigger Town," the settlement was founded in the late 1800s by a group of recently freed slaves and christened by a white rancher -- named, incredibly, Jim Crow. Nigton is still entirely African American, and the majority of those who live there don't want the name changed. "It's this, 'Well it's always been this way' thinking" -- played out again and again from town to town.

"It's also complicated by the fact that every reference to 'Negro' gets changed to something like 'Rolling Hills,' which erases the history entirely." It leaves her of two minds.

The elision is a bitter metaphor: "We had a huge multicultural movement in the '90s, then there was a complete reversal -- 'Aren't we past all of that?' So the discussion of identity, race is totally paramount. It's my entire focus."

Through assemblage, collage, video and all manner of hybrids, the works explore a wash of themes: The names we call ourselves. The masks we wear. The legacy of ancestors. How we mark territory and how it marks us. Staring point-blank at excruciatingly painful history. Erasure and its antidote: writing yourself into being.

Lauren Woods, 28

How she saw the box: "The frame."

Relocating from Texas to San Francisco, filmmaker woods found herself searching -- "looking for my own reflection." Art school in the Bay Area was a shock after life in Texas. "I had to seek out a black experience," she says, both in the traditions of filmmaking and the communities themselves.

That quest laid the groundwork for "Outside of the . . . ," woods' 16mm/digital video hybrid, which she shot at a black arts flea market in Berkeley. Her camera wanders through the environment, focusing tightly on fine details -- mouths, noses, cheekbones -- its gaze almost like a caress.

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