Black Is, Black Ain’t is an apt name for the most recent Renaissance Society exhibition, which explicates the issue of race in modern American culture. Just like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the novel from which its title comes, the exhibit offers no resolution. Black Is, Black Ain’t addresses the complexity of race and the absurdity of the simple distinction between black and white.
The first conspicuous piece upon entering the exhibit is composed of the two words “negro sunshine,” backlit and written in black metal that looks like fluorescent tubing. The abundance of irony, racial tropes, and above all the ambiguity in this opening phrase sets the tone for the entire exhibition. The thought of black sunshine at first seems grim and fatalistic. But perhaps it is an earnest heralding of a dawn for black culture.
The other works cover the same range of perspective. Several photographs simply celebrate black beauty, but others are more conceptual. For instance, two photographs entitled “The Interpretation of Dreams” portray bizarre racial images. The first is a shirtless, middle-aged white man painted black, except for a few inches of white belly peeking out from the bottom of the photograph. Viewers interpret these images in a kind of sequence. First you look at the man’s face and identify him as a black man. Then you realize that it is a white man painted black. Then you think, “Here is a white man, but what the heck does it matter anyhow?” Next to it is a photograph of a nude black woman holding a white baby against her breast.
“Horse” is another series of photographs that explores the theme of racial identity, portraying a black man covered in shaving cream. The series brings to mind the struggle of someone with black skin living in a white society.
Another piece consists of 20 drawings on graph paper, each based on a phrase. They depict quotes such as “Red people are boner cosmic,” “Green people are decidous [sic],” and “Purple people do not behave.” This piece points out the absurdity of characterizing people by their color. A few more serious frames bring viewers back to the main theme and the exhibition’s overall tone of weary sarcasm: “Black people are for rent,” and “Black people are nice to their anger.”
Other types of media are featured as well. One television showed a white masseur feverishly talking about how he reacts to black people—sometimes with blindness, other times excitement. There are several abstract sculptures, one which features afro picks with a peace sign and the black power fist stuck into a rear end clad in black leather. A broken-down armchair sits in the center of one space. Another piece is simply reflective black glass on the floor. Several more pieces use irony successfully, including “Impending Future Bus” and “Capsizing the Niggerati.” The former is a sculpture of a retro yet futuristic-looking bus with a wholesome-looking miniature black couple on each seat. The latter is a series of images that combine old photographs of prominent black and white figures from the Civil Rights Movement in the ’60s and ’70s in humorous ways.
Perhaps the most emotionally charged image is a photograph entitled “Till,” which shows the profile of a head slathered in thick red paint so that the only recognizable feature is an ear. If you have ever seen a picture of the slain Emmet Till, you cannot help but shudder at this lurid photograph. It serves as an unequivocal reminder of our nation’s past.
The exhibit captures race at a crucial moment, while as a nation we try simultaneously to atone for errors of past generations and to close our eyes to a distinction that we would like to consider only a matter of color. Barack Obama ought to be just one more candidate for president of the United States, but at the same time, he ought to be and is considered something more—just based on his appearance.
This issue of race does lend itself rather well to visual art, because black is both a color and more. The artists featured in Black Is, Black Ain’t illustrate that black is a culture which today still struggles both to mix with white American culture, and to solidify its cultural distinctness—at once ignoring and celebrating race.