Complexity in the Face of Praise

by William Whitney

March 6, 2019

Kara Walker, 8 Possible Beginnings or: The Creation of African-America, A Moving Picture, 2005 [still]
Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York and David Zwirner

Excerpts from James Baldwin’s writings lined the walls of each gallery in “God Made My Face: A Collective Portrait of James Baldwin” recently on view at David Zwirner Gallery, a show that presented viewers with a visual portrait of the celebrated writer. Curated by Hilton Als, a Pulitzer prizewinning writer and theatre critic who is also known for his intimate curatorial practice centering around artists that have affected him, “God Made My Face”was a group exhibition that examined Baldwin not only as an artist but also a human being. Baldwin has long been acknowledged as legendary thinker who scrutinized racial injustice. In recent years, both his writing and activism have experienced a renaissance, in part due to the commercial and critical success that the documentary I Am Not Your Negro (2017) and the film adaptation of Baldwin’s 1974 novel, If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), received. With works ranging from drawings by Marlene Dumas to photographs by Eugène Atget, Als highlighted both Baldwin’s humanity and his distinctive interest in the visual arts.

The first gallery, titled “A Walker in the City,” examined the early influence that the two cities where he spent much of his life—New York and Paris—had on Baldwin. A 1941 painting by Beauford Delaney, titled Dark Rapture (James Baldwin), depicts a portrait of Baldwin in his teenage years. Baldwin met Delaney while working on his high school magazine in the Bronx, and next to the painting is a quote from Baldwin that the older artist was “an example of courage and integrity, humility and passion. An absolute integrity: I saw him shaken many times and I lived to see him broken but I never saw him bow.” Viewers were also presented with a contact sheet of images of Baldwin with his mother Emma Jones, as well as a singular photo of his stepfather David, taken by Baldwin’s high school classmate, Richard Avedon. Photographer Eugène Atget died three years after James Baldwin was born, but his photographs of the French capital were Baldwin’s earliest introduction to Paris, where he would later dwell as he wrote his 1956 masterpiece, Giovanni’s Room. Baldwin’s interest in Atget also prompted the teenage Baldwin and Avedon to attempt a project (never completed) titled Harlem Doorways, which would mimic Atget’s interest in doorways, arches, and arcades.

Beauford Delaney, Dark Rapture (James Baldwin), 1941
Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY and David Zwirner

Much of Baldwin’s life story has been presented to the public through the lens of race, most recently with the 2017 critically acclaimed documentary I Am Not Your Negro. Likewise, Als did not shy away from the idea of blackness in this exhibition. On the back wall of the second room, titled “Colonialism,” Als enlisted Glenn Ligon’s Stranger #73 (2013), a dominating presence which features the full text of Baldwin’s 1953 essay Stranger in a Village painted on a large, black canvas smothered with coal dust. Another Baldwin quote, “though black had been described to me as the absence of light, it became very clear to me that if this were true, we would never have been able to see the color” was present nearby. An additional work by Ligon, Malcolm X, Sun, Frederick Douglass, Boy with Bubbles (Version 2) #8 (2001) featuring coloring-book prints of the eponymous historical figures, among others, also presided. Painting over the prints, Ligon added lipstick to each character, displaying a child-like playfulness and comfort with drawing outside the lines, and exploring concepts of gender normativity in regards to historically masculine black figures. Baldwin was both a black man and a homosexual; the inclusion of this work emphasizes the historical struggles and complexity of dealing with these dual social injustices in a discriminatory society. It hung beside Kara Walker’s video 8 Possible Beginnings or: The Creation of African-America (2005), a silhouette-driven explanation about America’s history of racism,  slavery and the overall creation of “the negro,” featuring black people being hanged and working in the fields. As entertaining as it is disturbing, Walker’s piece alludes to the kinds of ideas and beliefs regarding America’s longstanding blind eye towards racism that Baldwin himself often referenced. In I am Not Your Negro, the writer remarks that “what white people have to do, is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place, because I’m not a nigger, I’m a man, but if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it.”

Marlene Dumas, Hilton Als, 2018 from the series Great Men, 2014–present
© Marlene Dumas
Courtesy David Zwirner

A sense of martyrdom has frequently accompanied Baldwin’s reemergence, a factor that threatens to override him being an actual person, and turn him into a myth. Underscoring Baldwin’s intersectionality, Als peeled back layers of the folktale surrounding him to examine who Baldwin truly was. Playing through a Victrola record player situated on the floor towards the back of the room, a recording of Baldwin singing could be heard throughout the gallery. The recording humanized Baldwin, adding a soft, musical element to an exhibition that offered a reminder that there are still layers of his persona left to examine and understand.  ”God Made My Face” was a reminder that revisionist history can be as harmful as it can be helpful, especially if we forget to acknowledge the struggles that preceded the fame.

God Made My Face: A Collective Portrait of James Baldwin was on view from January 10—February 16, 2019 at David Zwirner Gallery, 525 & 533 West 19th Street, New York.

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