A triumph of artistic variety, Assembly: New Acquisitions by Contemporary Black Artists will be at Austin’s Blanton Museum of Art’s Huntington Gallery through September 4, 2022. The temporary exhibition spotlights paintings, photographs, textiles, and more from 12 different Black artists from 1980 to 2019.
While diverse in style, much of the curation ties to Southern history and the ongoing repercussions of slavery to celebrate representation, resilience, and reclamation. As theorized by the late British cultural critic Stuart Hall and expanded on by American philosopher Paul C. Taylor, with “assembly” comes the potential for disassembly and reassembly.
Assembly was made possible by an anonymous donor, who curated a variety of works to lessen the underrepresentation of works of artists of color in museums. Over half of the featured artists were women, including Austin, Texas local Deborah Roberts.
Intentional Creative Mediums
Roberts is known for her mixed media canvases, where she blends photographs and paint. Creating portraits of mainly Black children, Roberts comments on how societal pressures and racism often shape childhood experiences. Her acrylic collage “That’s not ladylike” depicts a girl wearing a Hello Kitty shirt and underwear with her arms on her hips. The work reveals the empowerment girls often feel upon gaining their individuality and the unwarranted sexualization that can come when maturing into a woman.
Choosing a variety of creative mediums was intentional: it recognized the diversity within Black artists’ work to break down generalization. From paintings to drawings to photographs to reclaimed materials, the exhibit had no shortage of visual variety.
One powerful multimedia piece was Cauleen Smith’s “Light Up Your Life.” The neon banner flashed between the phrases “I will light up you life” – taken from 1970s singer Debby Boone’s lyric “You Light Up My Life” – and “I will light you up” – a quote from Texas state trooper Brian Encinia. Encinia shouted the phrase at Sandra Bland when arresting her at a traffic stop in 2015. Smith, who usually works with film, worked with neon for the first time to create the piece. She used alternating phrases to mirror the possibility of alternative social conditions.
“Getting the sign to flash between the two different phrases was also just something neon could do,” Smith said in a conversation with Blanton curator Veronica Roberts. “It wouldn’t be exciting in a film, and it’s not possible in other forms, so it was really exciting to use (neon).”
Textiles: Quilts to Tapestries
The exhibition also incorporated textiles, from quilts to tapestries. “Hits” by Emma Amos used zebra-striped material to show two athletes running across a tapestry. Commenting on the exploitation of Black athletes, Amos also highlights how physically taxing contact sports are. Amos, an artist-activist, helped shift the perception that weaving was more than a woman’s household craft. She spent decades incorporating textiles into her work to increase the medium’s legitimacy in the art world.
“It’s always been my contention that for me, a Black woman artist, to walk into the studio is a political act,” Amos said in the exhibit’s “Hits” description.
Altogether “Assembly” is an engaging and thought-provoking exhibition. The art breaks down centuries-old themes and sprinkles in each artist’s experience through their use of different mediums. I could not recommend the collection enough, whether you want to enjoy the art or you are looking to understand more about differing experiences.
Assembly: New Acquisitions by Contemporary Black Artists: works by Emma Amos, Kevin Beasley, Genevieve Gaignard, James “Yaya” Hough, Arie Pettway, Sally Pettway Mixon, Robert Pruitt, Noah Purifoy, Deborah Roberts, Lorna Simpson, Cauleen Smith, and Nari Ward. Organized by Veronica Roberts, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art.
The Blanton Museum of Art
Written by Brooke Weatherbie
Images provided by the Blanton Museum of Art