Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America

Theaster Gates, Gone Are the Days of Shelter and Martyr, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 6 minutes 31 seconds.
Theaster Gates, Gone Are the Days of Shelter and Martyr, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 6 minutes 31 seconds. Courtesy the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles

2020 WAS A YEAR OF RELENTLESS DEATH, HORROR, AND ALIENATION. 2021 promises more of the same. As we process and endure a time that will be remembered by many as the worst of their lives, we are rightfully reminded that the year’s exceptional badness was, in no small part, the culmination of decades of state-inflicted neglect, deprivation, and antagonism, particularly towards communities of color. A new show at the New Museum, Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America, conceived of by the late Okwui Enwezor before he passed away in 2019, illustrates the longue durée of Black life in the United States. The exhibition and accompanying catalogue contribute to an honest and durable—albeit painful—memory project, one that does not careen from crisis to crisis only to reset after each calamity is glibly “resolved.”

This intergenerational survey, which features the work of thirty-seven artists, shows Black life to exist in a state of perpetual exception, defined by racial terror, reactionary white grievance, and almost incalculable loss. It all compels scholar and contributor Christina Sharpe to ask: “What are the words to grasp—even incompletely—the scale of this unfolding disaster?” The multimedia visual works fulfill Enwezor’s vision of the show as a “direct response to the national emergency of Black grief.” Contemporary pieces by Arthur Jafa, Sable Elyse Smith, Okwui Okpokwasili, Henry Taylor, and others are, to borrow the title of Mark Nash’s essay, meditations on the “registers of mourning.” The essays are reflections of both watershed events—from the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church to Dylann Roof’s massacre of worshippers at Mother Emanuel—and the arc of tragic history. They juxtapose the acuity of evental grief with the devastating weariness of these events’ repetitions.

While some of the show’s supplemental images reproduce what has since become spectacle—the beating of Rodney King, and Mamie Till Mobley at her son Emmett Till’s funeral—the featured works take up the quotidian practice, meaning-making, and semiotics of frequently precarious Black life: the melted, strung-up Air Jordans in Kevin Beasley’s Strange Fruit (Pair 1), 2015; the haunting ruins of a Chicago church in Theaster Gates’s Gone Are the Days of Shelter and Martyr, 2014; the diasporic bacchanalia of J’Ouvert festivities in Deana Lawson’s Jouvert, Flatbush, Brooklyn, 2013. Grief and Grievance presents a collective celebration and honorific recognitions—often inflected with heartbreak, reckoning, resistance. It is an adamantly pursued life-making in the hold of the ship where, to use Saidiya Hartman’s word, Black death is a “nonevent.”