Nov 28, 2016

Notes on Freedom

Jessica Bell Brown


When she wasn’t picking cotton as a part of her family of sharecroppers in Georgia in the midst of the Great Depression, I’d like to think that my late grandmother had dreams of being an artist. The details about the early years of her life in the sleepy farm town of Sandersville, Georgia are unclear. But as a young child, I saw my grandmother sit at her living room chair, tinkering with silk flowers, ribbons, and glimmering beads. She would repurpose cardboard boxes of Kleenex and plastic jugs of sweet tea as pots, commanding each scrap of material into sculptural arrangements of wonder. Unlike the six million black Americans who packed their hopes and dreams for a better life into tattered suitcases, boarding buses and trains bound for places like Detroit, New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, Geneva Pinkston and her family stayed behind. When agriculture waned in economic prosperity and factories propagated along the Bible Belt, she worked for years sewing rubber sole after sole onto canvas tennis shoes, which drifted down conveyor belts and into stores that hung signs that read “COLORED ENTRANCE.” Nonetheless, my grandmother had this special relationship to the architecture of things. I’d like to think that in her private life, she found freedom obsessively tinkering with orchids and lilies, in humming spirituals and hymns her ancestors wearily sang on plantations, as she tended beds of her garden in the front yard and pruned the branches of her muscadine vine in the back. No threatening amount of hardship, social oppression, or state-sanctioned segregation could ever stifle her unrelenting urge to create and celebrate beauty in the world around her, to be free. This was her gift to her twelve children. This is her gift to me.
Catherine Sullivan install

Catherine Sullivan with George Lewis, Charles Gaines, and Sean Griffin, Afterword via Fantasia, 2015. Single-channel video (color, sound) and mixed media installation; dimensions variable. Installation view, The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to Now, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania. Photo: Constance Mensh.


Rio Negro II (2007/15), a sprawling sound and sculptural installation by composers and artists Douglas R. Ewart, George Lewis, and Douglas Repetto, captures the crucible of black creativity as one seated in diasporic gestures that constellate Chicago within the Global South. This work of robotic plywood pendulums adorned in ribbons, rocks, and beads, scattered along the gallery floor in soil, took me back to my grandmother’s creations in her living room and front yard. The South, after all, is but one locus within the Transatlantic world for a set of musical, spiritual, and visual traditions that would nourish black avant-garde activity. To recount my recent visit to The Freedom Principle at the Institute of Contemporary Art, I began with my grandmother, because, though hundreds of miles away from the South Side of Chicago, she was a descendent of Southern blacks two generations removed from the end of slavery in America, like many of the founding members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). The ghostly undulation of each towering form, each emoting whispering sounds of instrumentation, transported me to an alternative realm of chalked cruciforms on the grounds of Haiti, altars and shrines found in the black diasporic world, from candomblé in Brazil, to Palo Monte in Cuba, to uttering shouts of encircled worshippers in Trinidad and black Baptist churches in South Carolina. These works I experienced were capacious enough to hold the expansiveness of black resilience, and the will to create a world within the world that desires to keep you on its margins.
Rio Negro install

Douglas R. Ewart, George Lewis, and Douglas Repetto, Rio Negro II, 2007/15. Interactive “robotic-acoustic” sound installation (rain sticks, chimes, bamboo, earth, wood, robotics, sculptures, sound files); dimensions variable. Installation view, The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to Now, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania. Photo: Constance Mensh.


What does it mean to emanate such majesty, such beauty, such elegance and wonder, despite a social and political context of subjugation? How do microphones emerge in cotton fields, bearing witness to the sorrowful sounds of back-breaking labor, recording the solemn hymns our ancestors sung to weary land that was never ours? Was my grandmother planting such seeds in her own garden? I return to the gallery, arriving at what resembles a makeshift boarded-up shack. I walk inside, where, to my surprise, Catherine Sullivan presents an awe-inspiring wunderkammer of black expressivity in her filmic installation Afterword via Fantasia (2015). Sullivan gathers together the sounds and storied history of the AACM, an avant-garde enterprise that sprouted from the South Side of Chicago, as documented by composer George Lewis, appearing here again, within the film, which he structures into the form of a libretto. Sullivan immerses the viewer into a world teeming with recitatives, dance, and theatrical readings of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Heyward and Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. Conceptual artist Charles Gaines adorns the theater room’s black walls with architectural renderings of an Italian opera house. In the film, I hear the voice of Pope.L, appearing seated by a lone tree reading Lewis’ declaration to young black artists: “If you find yourself written out of history, you can feel free to write yourself back in.”
TFP - Terry Adkins

Terry Adkins, Native Son (Circus), 2006-15. Cymbals with magnets/electronics. Diameter: 108 inches. Installation view, The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to Now, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Photo: Nathan Keay. Courtesy of The Estate of Terry Adkins, Salon 94, New York.


I refer to the poet Amiri Baraka, who reminded us to be emboldened in all of our cultural inheritances in 1987:

Tell us again about the negro artist and the racial mountain, so we will not be negro artists

Our finger prints are everywhere– Césaire told you that

We make everything “blue”

Elizabeth Catlett

Charles White

William White

Bob Thompson

Overstreet and the 60s muralists

We are the composers, racers and gun bearers

We are the artists

Don’t tell me shit about a tradition of deadness and mutilation

Don’t tell me shit about Bach or Beethoven.

Get outta Europe [1]

Walter Benjamin once said that amongst history’s most oppressed peoples, a state of emergency is always present. Yet Fred Moten reminds us, even within this state of emergency, one that perpetuates “blurred dying life,” that blackness and black performance is the condition of possibility for “liberatory, improvisatory, damaged love; freedom drive.”[2] We claim you, Beckett. We reclaim you, Gershwin. We claim you, Modern Dance. We claim you, Opera. We reclaim you, Blues. We are the wellspring of the avant-garde, in all of our suffering, in all of our triumphs.
Jae Jarrell install

Jae Jarrell, Brothers Surrounding Sis, 1970. Suede suit and acrylic paint, 35 x 13 in. Installation view, The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to Now, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania. Photo: Constance Mensh.


Quieter moments in the exhibition were perhaps even more profound. For example, Jae Jarrell’s revolutionary suede two-piece suit, Brothers Surrounding Sis (1970), offers a subversive commentary on the ways that black women, women like my grandmother, embraced the radical potential of “domestic” craft. But there is an unresolvable tension within femininity here from which Jarrell does not shy away. On the skirt Jarrell has hand-painted gestural strokes of red, blue, and orange black men, linked arm in arm in solidarity. I think of Ida B. Wells, who dedicated her life to protecting black bodies from swinging from trees by making anti-lynching speeches. I also think of the contemporary protest movement Black Lives Matter, started by three women who have made space for us to publically mourn and protest the lost lives of mostly young black men. We see their deaths infinitely regress like GIFs and flee like CNN tickers on the bottom of television screens.


“We want the things to shine, to have the rich luster of a just-washed ‘Fro, of spit-shined shoes, of de-ashened elbows and knees and noses,”[3] Jeff Donaldson wrote in the AfriCOBRA manifesto, first published in Black World in October 1970. Donaldson advocates for an aesthetic of “shine,” or what I would call its 21st century post-black counterpart: an elusive slickness, or an unwillingness to be defined outside of self-definition. Oily feathers, a shea butter-splattered altar to Roscoe Mitchell, glistening cymbals rumbling in intervals on the gallery floor, hand-written dictations of a treatise on silence, black ink fountains and mirrors: all stage propositions for unyielding self-determination, from jazz to contemporary art.

“This little light of mine/ I’m gonna let it shine,” my grandmother used to sing, with intervals of off-kilter hand claps, her body swaying down the hallways of her house and the aisles of a small country church in Jefferson County.

“Let it shine/ let it shine/ let it shine.”
Pope.L install

Pope.L, Another Kind of Love: John Cage”s Silence, By Hand, 2013-14. Yellow legal paper and dyed wood lattice, 220 sheets, each: 8.5 x 11 in., overall dimensions variable. Installation view, The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to Now, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania. Photo: Constance Mensh.

[1] Amiri Baraka and Amina Baraka, “In The Tradition” as printed in The Music: Reflections on Jazz and Blues (New York: William and Morrow Company, Inc., 1987), 105–112.

[2] Fred Moten, “The Sentimental Avant-Garde” in In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), 26.

[3] Jeff Donaldson, “Africobra Manifesto?: ‘Ten in Search of a Nation,’” Nka Journal of Contemporary African Art, No. 30, Spring 2012, 76–83.

Jessica Bell Brown is an art historian and writer based in New York. Currently a doctoral candidate in the Department of Art & Archaeology at Princeton, her dissertation project takes up experimentation with painterly forms in the post-civil rights decade, where she reexamines art of the 1960s and 1970s in climates of sociocultural upheaval. Brown holds a B.A. in art history from Northwestern University, and an M.A. in Modern and Contemporary Art from Princeton. She is a Teach for America alumna and has worked in various programming and curatorial capacities at cultural institutions in New York City including Creative Time and the Brooklyn Academy of Music. She has published critical essays on contemporary artists, including Senga Nengudi, Eric Mack, and Wilmer Wilson, among others, and has given talks at UCLA, the Ogden Museum of Art, and the Studio Museum in Harlem. Brown is a co-founder of the Black Arts Incubator, a social sculpture project for contemporary art, which debuted at Recess in July of 2016, and is currently the Mellon Research Consortium Fellow in the Department of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, where she will co-organize the presentation of the Robert Rauschenberg retrospective (May 2017) and contribute research and writing to the forthcoming publication Black Artists at MoMA (2018).