Art Today-October 2011

La Revolution Surealiste Obama La Revolution Surealiste Obama, collage by Jerry Harris

BAWA, in Swahili means wing or bat, but it is derived from popobawa, which has some remarkable meanings, usually associated with darkness. BAWA typically visits homesteads at night. Its simple assault, or Poltergeist-

like phenomena, might attack all households. BAWA does not refer to form of spirit. It is liable to change.

Well, the art market is in a free fall, but my man Obama says that we are on the road to bigger Big Macs. It doesn’t bother me, or thousands of artists. Somehow we survive. What really worries me is the state of art in these United States. If one looks at all the MFA’s coming out of the universities and art schools, there is a lot of, oh well, bad art out there. ( Tea MakpaaPhoto: Finnish artist, Tea Makpaa, “My life as a Reindeer.” Photograph, Vesa Ranta.) Simply put, “Where’s the beef?” It’s as if these newly minted artists don’t give a damn–just roll it out. There is hardly any creative effort that I can see. Maybe I am just an OG(old gangster) ready for the old artist’s dung heap. There are some worth while conceptual artists out there, but isn’t all art conceptual? What’s next? The artists hanging themselves on hooks in the gallery, and waiting to be spoon fed by the art dealers? Sooner or later, one reaches the blank canvas(This has been done too.), and has to put something on it. There are some creative individuals out there like Willie Cole, Phoenix Savage, and a few old heads like Martin Puryear and Richard Hunt. Keep on pushin’ because the ‘younguns’ seemed to have abandoned it all. Jerry Harris, ed.

BAWA WRITERS. We will have a very eclectic group of writers and guest journalists. Our aim is to present the most up-to-date writing about the contemporary art scene in the world, not just America. There will be art, music, performance, and hip reviews of everything connected with the multi cultural world  that we live in today. To start with, I have chosen three very different writers. John Haber is an independent art critic based it New York City. Wim Roefs is Director of the if art Gallery in Columbia, South Carolina. He is a Dutchman who is also a professor of African American History at the University of South Carolina. These writers will be appearing shortly.

Photo: John Haber

John Haber

Marlene Dumas


John Haber

In the winter of 2009, three shows make clear what can go wrong with political art. With Marlene Dumas, its message becomes too simple, refusing even to admit controversy. Dumas, naturally, would insist that you start with her. So repeat after me. Nobody is innocent, not even a child–or an artist. No, not even you, and definitely not a white artist from South Africa. For all that, she does believe that no one is innocent. Her children–when not already dead look sullen, even sinister. In a room lined with nearly one hundred of their faces on paper, one has morphed into an insect’s head. A naked infant stands like a street fighter. Dumas has painted an icy blue and his left hand red, as if covered with blood. For a moment, one could remember how Amy Wilson shocked The Daily News by juxtaposing blonde little girls with the hooded figure of Abu Ghraib.

Dumas embraced her own responsibility as well, including the responsibility for the blue and red overpainting. She titles that portrait of an infant The Painter. Perhaps she is responsible for the suffering as well. With its rail-thin body and outstretched arms, a dancer could be you. As the painting is titled here, you could be Measuring Your Own Grave. In this earnest concentration of political art, even ambiguity need spelling out. Dumas paints from photographs. She paints, too, as if nothing, however gorgeous or horrific, can speak for itself. A comfortable museum-goer like you has to accept guilt along with the artist. And you had better know just who is guilty–and of what.

Losers and no winners

The retrospective spans two floors by theme rather than chronologically, but Dumas hardly seem to have evolved. She has lived in Amsterdam for thirty years, and she has a far greater reputation in Europe than in America. The grays link her to hard reserve of Luc Tuymans, but without his cool literalism. The smear link her to Francis Bacon, but without his transformation of sitter into dead meat. The basis in photography links her to Gerhard Richter, but without the allure of evil. She wants something much,much plainer.

Like arbitrary titles, her technique insists on the subject’s anonymity. Sometimes Dumas adds a rectangle in black or white, in imitation of a censor’s mask. One woman’s nipple appear to have migrated upward. Imagine some kind of plastic stick-on, like a police marker on a corpse. Elsewhere, a reduction in gray scale and a thickening of the black outline gives her sleepers their aura of death.

The same newborn appears in two different works, as Cupid and, with black skin, as Reinhardt’s Daughter. Of course, Dumas has smeared its flesh with black. The title once again alludes to the artist’s culpability. It also marks her inheritance of black oil from Ad Reinhardt. Still, with their flat style and placement outside the exhibition’s entrance, one could easily mistake both works for reproductions.

Americans tend to prefer the immediacy of the headlines to existential crises, at least in art since 9/11. They also tend to let irony and the viewer’s culpability permeate the top most layer of oil. Dumas goes back to an older ideal–a unity of content and form in which content clearly takes the lead. As with Leon Golub, art documents torture by torturing the painted surface. The formalists who mocked that ideal as “mere illustration” may have departed long ago, including Reinhardt. Yet she cannot top arguing with them.

At its most elaborate, a sheet of color escapes and half eradicates its outlines. It appears dragged across the figure with a dry, thinly loaded brush. It shows how much more she can achieve, as an artist and as her own subject. Yet it shows, too, her temptation to smother possibilities. She understands that political art inhabits that strange domain between public and private spaces. Somehow, though, Dumas art always breaks down along sharp lines of gender, races, and culture.

From time to time, the clipped brushstrokes and poster colors have an eager, even comic frankness. In a self-portrait, they exaggerate her bushy hair, and lend a welcome glint of light to her eyes. For once, she forgets to paint her subject as a victim. Elsewhere, she could never, as in late Goya, plunge head first into the abyss whole laughing. In this war between an artist and her subject matter, no one is a winner. Other Dumas work is on BAWA’s main pages, edLink to this article,

dumas Jen, by Marlene Dumas(2005)

What is Black Art


Jerry Harris

I have always had a problem with classifications. Today we hear about black art, women’s art, gay art, et al. For me the question has always been, is it art? Classifications put you into a corner, and I don’t like corners. Sure, each artist brings his or her cultural, sexual, and political mindset to their work, but I will take art every time. The Europeans looked at African art for many years as “primitive art,” yet the moderns, Picasso, Henry Moore, Giacometti, and countless others embraced African art. The most striking thing about so-called primitive art was its intense vitality: The sense of living form was so strong.

Now, one must not get trapped in anything. I remember a few years ago, while lecturing at the University of Oregon, Eugene, there was an African American female sculpture student. For four years, her professors encouraged her to just concentrate on African art, and when she graduated and applied for Grad school, she was denied–wasn’t post-post modern enough, I suppose. So, let’s keep it open and pursue great art, not black art, etc. And this then! This art blog? Why call it Black Art World America? Well, It’s a celebration. We’ve got to have some heroes too.


BY Jerry Harris

This article was first published in 1999 in Philadelphia City Paper

Artist: Lester Kern

When someone suggested that I go and see the black art show at the Apollo of Temple, I didn’t know what to expect. I was new in Philly, and I thought that this might be the local version of the famed Apollo theatre in Harlem where our best and worst got a chance to perform. I called my sister’s boyfriend for directions. “Is it far from me?” “No, it’s located in the ghetto surrounding Temple University, but the school doesn’t broadcast that.” Ah! Race is such a factor in this city–really there is no escape.

It’s billed as the “14th Annual October Gallery Philadelphia Art Expo in Celebration of an American Phenomenon—Whew! The title didn’t suggest an awareness of minimal art, and it put a dent in my allotted 650 words. Anyway, what’s so phenomenal about African-American art? We’ve had African-American artists as far back as Pittsburgh, Pa. born Henry O. Tanner—hatched in 1859. Tanner’s work even begs the question: What is black art? His work is indistinguishable from that of his white contemporaries–pre-modern portraitists and landscape artists.

Cooking up labels is as American as Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans.  We have feminist art, hispanic art, and even elephant dung art, which  is being shown at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York City, and has made Mayor Rudy rude. It is all Chinese to me. Certainly each artist brings his or her temperament to a work of art, but at the end of the game, art is the winner.

A week before the show, I listened to Mercer Redcross, owner of the October Gallery, and promoter of the exhibition. He was guest on a local black radio station. “The mainstream media has never given much space to the event,” he said.  I couldn’t confirm that, but I certainly was going to go and support my brothers and sisters. Two of the participants were on the show with Mr. Redcross. One painted children’s pictures, and the other artist, a former technocrat, said that he liked to paint boxers who never fought each other—Muhammad Ali bumping off Joe Louis. Well, LeRoy Neiman, the society painter, has made millions painting boxers and other celebs, so why not this guy?

Friday art night arrived and I emerged from the Cecil B. Moore station, and got my first look at Temple University—a row of rather uninspired buildings. I entered the Apollo of Temple (weird name) and was greeted by two beauties. Philly must have the greatest concentration of beautiful black women on the East Coast. There was a fairly good crowd of African Americans walking about, looking and talking to the artists who had their wares on display. The work was a 50-50 split between art and crafts. All of it, with the exception of a few, emphasized African-America themes: family, roots, children and society—nothing wrong with that, but most of it was commercial flimflam from the velvet school of art.

Now (using the words of our low-esteemed Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas) “high-tech lynch” me if you will, but there was a lot of bad art at the Apollo, and if this show was likened to the famed Apollo shows in Harlem, a lot of tomatoes would have been tossed at the participants.

Where were our leading African-American artists? I mean critically acclaimed artists, such as Martin Puryear, Richard Hunt, Sam Gilliam, Betye Saar, and Lorna Simpson? Mr. Redcross would have served the white and black community much better by having a crafts show and a separate professional exhibition at his October Gallery. Well, arty-tarty, I left and went over to Baltimore Avenue, ordered a pizza and a well-deserved beer. The waitress asked a long-haired customer what he was painting these days. “Oh, just a still life with a coca-cola bottle,” a perfect description of my night at the Apollo.

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