One dropped stitch in a hand-knit sweater can unravel the entire garment. A single plot omission or incorrect fact undermines an otherwise believable story or report. And so it is that the entire fabric of Western art history, especially as presented in mainstream museums, galleries and academia, suffers a critical, devastating gap.
For centuries, the contributions of Black artists have been excluded, marginalized, forgotten, torn from history — or relegated to politically ambitious, temporary initiatives geared to "correct" the travesty.
A striking new exhibit at Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA), About Things Loved: Blackness and Belonging Marks, brings forth major artworks by Black artists from Africa and the African diaspora aimed at permanently shifting the margins. More than thirty works from BAMPFA and UC Berkeley's Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology collections have been selected by 15 graduate student curators and professors leading the Diaspora/Migration/Exile seminar in a collaboration with BAMPFA curators. Establishing black cultural and artistic expression too often absent in white-male-centric museums, the exceptionally well-curated artworks and artifacts are presented in a large gallery space whose walls form a somber, non-neutral but remarkably stabilizing near-black gray backdrop for the stunning collection.
"Painting the gallery walls black came from a student," said Associate Professor Leigh Raiford. "I hear every students' voice in the opening panels, catalogue card section, postcards, and the show's themes."
In addition to teaching in the African American Studies department, Raiford has written books and articles involving gender, women's studies, photography and justice.
"The idea (of the course) is to increase object-based learning and to diversify the field of art history, which has been predominantly white people and the narratives they've told," Raiford said. "We addressed questions around power, race, imperialism. During readings, thinking through the politics of our moment, the class recognized that blackness and anti-backness is central. As faculty, we questioned our varying levels of expertise around curating the exhibit and our right to do this work."
Off-site trips to "the regatta," a reference to part of BAMPFA's collection, and to the Hearst's vast collection, left deep impressions. "It was like a mausoleum," she said. "It brought the issue of the absence of black artists in museums to us."
Three steps into the exhibit abruptly rewrites misperceptions about the value, power, importance, and beauty of Black art in Western and World art history. Oakland-based artist Mildred Howard's mixed-media installation, Safe House, presents a metal frame home whose floor is carpeted with vintage silver objects that shine, tarnish, overflow. A stream of items escapes; leading to 130 steel knives thrust into a wall that collectively suggest violation, warning, domestic violence.
Similarly, Chakaia Booker's Quality Time, an intricately textured, vulcanized synthetic rubber relief, uses recycled rubber tires to introduce themes associated with slavery, colonialism and consumerism. The intimate, embedded image of a young girl leaves a visitor to wonder, what number of stories and people remain missing?
The spectrum of works created by Black artists expands in full, glorious color in Faith Ringgold's The Sunflower Quilting Bee at Arles. Significant Black women from history — Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks and others — stand in front of Impressionist artist Vincent van Gogh while proudly displaying a dazzling quilt depicting sunflowers. Creativity and sisterhood bridge divides between craft and fine art, European and Black art history and more.
For Delphine Sims, 27, a History of Art Ph.D. candidate, the collaborative process was essential. "We made decisions together, which meant a lot of conversation," she said. "We all had a voice. We learned from each others' disciplines. We wanted it to not be a Black art survey show."
Laura Belik, 29, studying to earn a Ph.D. in architecture, said defining the floor plan shaped the show's flow and narrative. "What can we not have? What can we fit? It became more about the story and not necessarily the artwork and what we might love individually. It was a great moment for learning how to put this together as a group."
Captivated by stories of diaspora, immigration, exile, and colonization with museums as edifices of imperial plunder or hoarded collections, student Leslie Huang said, "It's a very real problem that everyone in the field of art history has to deal with." While earning a masters in Asian Studies, she finds herself focused on the exhibit's takeaway message. "Step back from your own perspective. When you only see things through your eyes and don't understand that's not how the rest of the world operates, you can be limited in how you feel, relate to other people."
Which leads to expectations about the long-term impact of Things Loved. A global movement to decolonize museums, an archival website, and postcards people can take away or return as comment cards combine to represent hope for the curators. "It's definitely a movement," Belik said, "We're not the first, but we're together with people rethinking what it is to tell this story and to show art."
Through July 21, Weds.-Suns., 11 a.m.-7 p.m., free-13, UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, 2155 Center St., Berkeley, BAMPFA.org, 510-642-0808