Culture

Necessary Scale

Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America edited by Okwui Enwezor, Naomi Beckwith, et al. New York: Phaidon. 264 pages. $80.
The cover of Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America

I’m after a worldview.

—Jack Whitten

When the living conditions that art evinces haven’t changed, one must always make more imaginaries for one to live in.

—Dionne Brand, “Temporary Spaces of Joy and Freedom”

Another arrangement of the possible . . .

—Saidiya Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments

I have gathered the epigraphs for this essay from the painter Jack Whitten, the poet Dionne Brand, and the theorist Saidiya Hartman because of the ways they speak to the necessary scale of Black responses to these catastrophes that are simultaneously new (in their distribution) and quotidian. These artists tell us that our responses must be individual and collective; that our living conditions necessitate new imaginaries to live in; and that we require different arrangements of the possible. Our responses must be planetary. So, scale is on my mind.

scale (noun): an attribute of justice; as a definite series of sounds ascending or descending by fixed intervals; Relative or proportionate [in] size or extent; degree, proportion; in relation to photography: the range of exposures (defined as the product of the light intensity and the time) over which a photographic material will give an acceptable variation in density.

LaToya Ruby Frazier’s photographs of Flint are on my mind with their intimate and expansive scale. The ones of people draw you in and slay you with their bittersweet detail—family photographs, dolls, a look—generations of Black folks who insist on making a home and family on ground so impacted with antiblackness, ecocide, financialization, and extraction that it barely sustains life. Then there are the aerial views of Flint that are all, or almost all, apparatus (water plant, Industrial Iron and Metal Company, a near-empty bridge). The people are going or gone, it is the apparatus that remains: the killing structure.

The scale of the terror of this present, of one kind of active neglect, meets the force of Jack Whitten’s Birmingham (1964) and its revealing of past violence and unequal distribution of suffering and death. Whitten’s work was made in the wake of the police attack on protesters outside of the 16th Street Baptist Church in May 1963 and, several months later, the terrorist bombing and murders of Addie May Collins, Carol Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Rosamond Robertson, as well as the maiming of others, including Sarah Collins, on Sunday, September 15. The world of Black protest toward the end of segregation and its many brutalities; the scale of forces arrayed against change; the scale of Black demand (for a new world); the state and juridical violence with which that demand was met; and Black life that exceeds those frames are all evident in Whitten’s Birmingham. In 2015 the artist wrote, “The structuring of a viable worldview is hard work, and filled with risk. Ultimately, we Americans must ask the most basic question: ‘What kind of a world do we want?’ I know what I want. I want a world without the poisonous sickness of racism, without romantic fantasies of being Black or White!”

Jack Whitten, Birmingham, 1964. Aluminum foil, newsprint, stocking, and oil on plywood 16 5/8 x 16 in (42.2 x 40.6 cm). Collection Joel Wachs. © Courtesy the Jack Whitten Estate and Hauser & Wirth
Jack Whitten, Birmingham, 1964. Aluminum foil, newsprint, stocking, and oil on plywood 16 5/8 x 16 in (42.2 x 40.6 cm). Collection Joel Wachs. © Courtesy the Jack Whitten Estate and Hauser & Wirth

The photograph that Whitten uses in Birmingham is one of a series taken by the photojournalist Bill Hudson in which a young Black man (identified as Walter Gadsden) is being attacked by a police dog outside the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, on May 3, 1963. In the work, the photograph is off center and it emerges from black paint, cardboard, and aluminum foil, covered in a skinlike mesh. Whitten has explained that the “use of the stocking mesh over the photograph was straight out of W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk, his notion of the Negro having been born with a veil that created a double-consciousness (‘this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity’).”

The tear in the skin of the foil is a tear in the world—a wound and exploding outward—that reveals that newsprint photograph of the young Black man and a dog grabbing hold of the sweater where his arm used to be. This hole/window is a jagged puncture, made perhaps by a bullet or an explosion. The unremitting violence that Whitten experienced participating in demonstrations in Baton Rouge is what sent him in 1960 from Louisiana to New York City. The world that his work entered was one in which many of those protesters, activists, and freedom workers weren’t certain they were going to survive to see the world they were fighting to bring into being, but many, if not most, believed that the liberated future they were fighting for was not only possible, it was inevitable, and it was, in no small way, in their hands.

The puncture in Whitten’s painting is also evidence of making. There is an active making evident in Deana Lawson’s photographs, an intensity. In Jouvert, Flatbush, Brooklyn (2013), what we might call witnessing is much more than witnessing. Writing about J’ouvert in High Mas (2016), Kevin Browne says: “There are no riots, no memorials for executions (extrajudicial or otherwise) occurring here and a world away, no sustained movements to address the murders of women that bookend the years. Except, of course, for Mas. It incites. It moves. And we move with it.” That is, you don’t just witness J’ouvert, you get caught up in it—it is internal, you feel J’ouvert in your chest, and your heart, your calves, arms, and feet. You are moved. The intensity in photographs such as Jouvert, Flatbush, Brooklyn and Congregation, Port-au-Prince, Haiti (2012) is interior; it is the threat and the promise and the memories of Black people congregating.

Then there is Nari Ward’s Peace Keeper (1995), an installation consistent with Ward’s long-standing concerns with memorials and time. Ward uses familiar materials toward a process of defamiliarization. We are familiar with the hearse as a signifier of mourning and death: it is the means by which the body of the deceased is moved. The hearse is not death, for death happens before the hearse arrives: the hearse is about movement. But the hearse here is inert—it has bars around it that block its ability to move. The hearse is burnt out, covered in tar. Parts are suspended, dripping from the ceiling. Its multiplied innards—exhaust pipes with their silencing mufflers—seem to have exploded out of it. They sit gathered around the hearse like so many bodies, like so many bones. We enter into a state of incomplete, unfinished mourning. Mourning itself is under siege.

Excerpted from “Scale” by Christina Sharpe. The full essay is published in Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America, conceived by Okwui Enweznor, published by Phaidon in partnership with the New Museum.