At Hunter College’s Leubsdorf Gallery, The Black Index celebrates Black art and history, seeking to change the way Blackness is viewed in the art world and beyond.
How is Black identity understood and constructed? What is the significance of self-representation and containment? How does art upend notions of convention and truth?
“The Black Index” is a traveling group exhibition of six artists who explore these questions in their body of work. Curated by Bridget R. Cooks, it was displayed at the Bertha and Karl Leubsdorf Art Gallery at Hunter College from Feb. 1, 2022 through April 3, 2022. The exhibition’s press release states that these artists offer an “alternative practice—a Black Index” meant to challenge viewers’ conceptions of the dynamic between classification, objectivity and information.
All the works on display use portraiture or the figure as a means to “transform the recorded image.” Some of the representations are more abstract, including Dennis Delgado’s ongoing series “The Dark Database.” “The Dark Database” is a collection of composite facial scans of characters in important works of Black cinema, such as Spike Lee’s 1989 “Do the Right Thing.”
The scans are created by using a facial recognition algorithm and stacked using a portrait template. The resulting image is extremely blurry, almost unsettling to view and barely recognizable as a face, let alone an individual. The portraits are displayed on iPads and the lack of individuality of each portrait shows the limitations of artificial intelligence and other data collection methods when dealing with people of color.
According to Delgado’s website, the series is a “record of invisibility” using the lens of artificial intelligence, bringing to question the reliability of what viewers perceive to be “truth.” “The Dark Database” is one of the first works displayed when entering the exhibit from within the college, opening with a powerful reimagining of portraiture and the intersection of technology and racism.
Artist Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle’s series, “The Evanesced: The Untouchables”, also uses abstract representations of the figure in what she calls “unportraits,” meant to represent the “spirits” of the women she portrays, rather than mimetic images of their likeness.
Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle, installation view and select works from “The Evanesced: The Untouchables,” 2020. India ink on paper.
Photo credit Bridget Li
“The Evanesced” was inspired by the #SayHerName movement and the internationally forgotten abuse, murder and disappearance of Black women. The series consists of 100 ink drawings, arranged on three walls of the gallery. The drawings seem almost frenetic — the ink is used to create a large variety of line weights and strokes that bring a sense of movement and life to each woman. Each drawing is identifiable as a figure, but Hinkle abstracts them by leaving out heads and limbs, pushing the viewer to identify with the “essence” of each woman, rather than their physical bodies. The number of drawings and their arrangement within the gallery envelops the viewer in Hinkle’s art, protesting narratives of the erasure of Black women and the viewer’s role in it.
Alicia Henry’s “Analogous III” is presented on the wall to the right of Hinkle’s installation. She uses recycled leather to construct a large “crowd” of faces, creating the same immersive effect of Hinkle’s ink drawings.
Although each face in the crowd has a distinct expression, the shared medium forms a collective unit. The arrangement of the faces is meant to mimic a “monumental procession,” an occasion that can span a wide range of emotions — the gaping mouths could symbolize expressions of shock, grief or exuberance. As viewers walk along with the work, they form unique interpretations with each new face. According to Henry’s plaque, the lack of clear emotion and the message behind the faces combined with their collective being displays the diverse methods of communication and interpretation.
In contrast to the abstract approaches taken by Delgado and Hinkle, other artists in the exhibit employed a more naturalistic style. Titus Kaphar’s large-scale portraits are displayed on the wall directly across Delgado’s at the beginning of the exhibit. Kaphar layers chalk portraits of incarcerated or murdered Black men in his ongoing series, “The Jerome Project.”
“XI” is a composite drawing of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin. The light chalk strokes on the black paper evoke a sense of disappearance, but the larger-than-life scale and the portraits’ direct, outward gaze toward the viewer emanate a sense of power and urgency.
Whitfield Lovell also takes a more representational approach, and pairs portraits drawn from mid-20th century photographs with random playing cards in his series, “The Card Pieces.” The cards are meant to let viewers create a story for each person and offer the portraits a “second life.” I challenged myself to do what Lovell intended and create stories for several of the portraits — I found that I would often use the cards as a basis for the identity I created, associating diamonds with career-driven lives, hearts with families, spades with loneliness and isolation and clubs with romantics.
Lovell’s work, which spans the wall directly across from Hinkle’s “The Evanesced” also brings up questions of personhood and remembrance, echoing the exhibit’s larger goal to change the role of the “recorded image.”
Lava Thomas’ “Mugshot Portraits: Women of the Montgomery Bus Boycott” renders the mugshots of women arrested during the Montgomery Bus Boycott in extremely precise detail. The large-scale and laborious process of the portrait contrasted with the subject matter of mugshots powerfully places Black women within a Eurocentric portraiture tradition typically relegated to the most privileged, honoring the women’s role in the Civil Rights Movement.
Lava Thomas, “Alberta J. James,” 2018. Graphite and Conté pencil on paper, 47 x 33 ¼ in.
Photo credit Bridget Li
Thomas’ graphite marks evoke the same sense of delicacy that Kaphar’s white chalk does; according to Thomas, her technique is meant to “[draw] our attention to the fragility of this history.”
Each artists’ work ultimately offers different iterations and interpretations of self-determination, identity and oppression.
Delgado’s computer-generated portraits call attention to flawed data collection methods and the struggle for individuality. Hinkle’s energetic figures and Lovell’s card series place the viewer in the role of inventor and spectator and remind us all of how our thoughts (or our “index”) are shaped by our societal upbringing and our willingness to either be complacent or resistant. Thomas’ and Kaphar’s large-scale portraits compel us to recognize individuality and its connection to social conceptions of Blackness and Black art. Henry’s crowd of faces questions the relationship between the collective and the individual by invoking the dynamic of the spectator and spectated.
Bridget R. Cooks, the exhibit’s curator, explains her curatorial practice as “expand [ing] your idea of what you thought Blackness was and what the limits of Blackness were in your mind.”
“The Black Index” is a reminder that art and activism often go hand in hand. In institutions such as museums, art is often represented as a vehicle for social change. For example, the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibition, “The Slipstream: Reflection, Resilience, and Representation in the Art of Our Time,” on view through April 10, 2022, attempts to “examine the placement and displacement of power” by centering the work of contemporary artists of color.
Art is also used in community organizing as an aide and act of protest. Both the Chinatown Art Brigade and the W.O.W. Project are non-profits integrating the use of art to fight gentrification and displacement in Chinatown; Chinatown Art Brigade has done a series of public art installations protesting gentrification and the W.O.W. Project often collaborates with queer and femme Asian artists with community outreach and fundraising projects.
In an interview with ArtNet News, Cook says “one should approach every Black artist as a world maker. Artists are visionaries. Artists see things in a way that no one else can.”
“The Black Index” does what it sets out to do, giving viewers an “alternative practice” that centers Black artists and stories, who capture and elucidate the power of art and its transformative nature.