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Four years after "The Cosby Show" premiered, NBAF joined the wave of institutions designed to acknowledge otherwise under-acknowledged art to a mass audience. That wave also included the Hammonds House Museum, an Atlanta institution devoted to exhibiting African-American art, which opened the same year NBAF began. "For decades," reads NBAF's 1988 souvenir program, "Black Americans have dreamed of producing an event that would display the richness of our cultural heritage." The new festival would "make our dream a reality."
In 1988, it was relatively easy to pin down the supposed political agenda of black high art — images and sounds to uplift the race in the eyes of the world. But by the end of the '90s, that agenda had all but collapsed. Curator Thelma Golden made the collapse explicit in her 2001 group exhibition Freestyle at the Studio Museum in Harlem, a leader in contemporary art by emerging and established black artists since 1968. Freestyle unleashed a war of ideologies still raging today by introducing the term "post-black" to describe a rising tide of artwork that was much less interested in an agenda of uplift.
The term post-black has been widely misinterpreted to refer to artwork that refuses to discuss racial concerns. To the contrary, Golden's term referred to art by largely art-school trained artists who usually did think about race. But unlike previous generations that went looking for common denominators and stories shared across the race, Freestyle artists such as Rashid Johnson, Kira Lynn Harris, and Atlanta's Kojo Griffin instead made highly individualistic art that attempted to integrate the dizzying variety of experiences thrust upon all modern people. According to the Freestyle catalog, these artists were "influenced by hip hop, alt rock, new media, suburban angst, urban blight, globalism, and the Internet," making art that was "both post-Basquiat and post-Biggie."
Writer and media pundit Touré's 2011 book Who's Afraid of Post-Blackness? explained the new generational attitude by pointing out that those born after the Civil Rights Movement didn't experience the same massive group trauma as earlier generations, writing, "The fight for equality is not over, but that shift from living amid segregation and civil war to integration and affirmative action ... has led many to a very different perspective." Being removed from the front lines allowed later generations to relate to the Civil Rights era in ways unthinkable from within the Civil Rights generation: irreverently, ironically, and from the point of view that one's race could be served up as just one subject among many.
Similar ideas emerged throughout the 2000s in literature, film, and theater. What Was African American Literature? (2011) author Kenneth W. Warren has even written that African-American literature is a historical form that "has already come to an end." Obviously, African-American people continue to write books. But without the politics forced by Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement, the race of an author today provides no reliable clues to a book's content, language, or tone. And a category with no unifying characteristics isn't a category.
NBAF isn't the only African-American arts organization standing at a crossroads as the nature of both art and race undergo rapid change. The International Review of African American Art, for which I'm currently guest editing the upcoming summer issue, is likewise recalculating what does and does not fall into its territory.
Founded in 1976, IRAAA gave voice to art movements such as Africobra and the Black Arts Movement that had mostly already peaked, but were slowly becoming institutionalized in museums and academic programs. The quarterly journal saw itself as part of the human effort to "realize the uniqueness of each culture and the value of its art," as its inaugural issue stated. As long as everyone had some idea about what the uniqueness of black culture was, there was no problem. Thus Elizabeth Catlett's woodcut of Harriet Tubman and a painting of African masks by Loïs Mailou Jones both found a comfortable home in the pages of IRAAA bound by the fact that both artists had the same political agenda. Almost 40 years later, there are increasing numbers of artists whose work has more and more to do with personal idiosyncrasies and less to do with a common, well-defined political cause. It's not at all clear how to thoughtfully turn that into a coherent story about what was once called black art.
The Studio Museum's recent exhibition Fore (November 2012-March 2013) provided even less of a unifying vision than Freestyle. In the exhibition catalog, Fore's curators pose a question: "So what happens to black after post-black?" The question remains unanswered in the catalog, but Fore's collected works, ranging wildly in subject, aesthetics, medium, and scale, seemed to abandon entirely the notion that anything at all unifies the work of young black artists, or indeed that it has anything to say about blackness at all.
Little harsh, in'it?
Oh that's right...I DID say enjoy yourself.
Go to hell Kombo!
When will you be accepting applicants for the 2014 competition?
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