Presentation of black artists at the Rose Art Museum
The museum’s curatorial team is dedicated to amplifying diverse and marginalized voices as a form of radical storytelling.
February 14, 2022
The current exhibition at the Rose Art Museum, subject: collections, Six Decades at the Rose Art Museum places the works of historically underrepresented artists on an equal footing with well-known and iconic pieces. Running through 2024, with multiple rotations, activations and scheduled interventions, the show amplifies diverse and marginalized voices as a form of radical storytelling.
Gannit Ankori, Henry and Lois Foster Director and Chief Curator and Brandeis Professor of Fine Arts and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, worked alongside Caitlin Julia Rubin, Associate Curator and Director of Programs, and by Dr. Elyan Jeanine Hill, guest curator of Rose’s Africa and African Diaspora Art, to select a wide range of artists to include in the exhibition. The curatorial team selected works from the Rose’s permanent collection that provided a broader understanding of art histories and socio-political histories, highlighting the narratives presented by black artists. Each piece offers a different perspective, with many works connecting to a larger shared message.
Art history has often been told from a narrow Eurocentric (essentially white male) perspective. Ankori, Hill and Rubin wanted to shake up familiar narratives. “We wanted to explore and amplify a more complex, inclusive and multi-vocal story,” Ankori said. “When we think about developing the Rose collection, we are grateful and appreciate the great canonical pieces we have, but we also need to consider what we are missing: the gaps and gaps in our collections. The team and I- even we are committed to ensuring that artists who have been overlooked, marginalized or invisible in the past have a central place at the Rose.We have expanded our collection to include diverse artists, and we mount exhibitions that listen to previously diminished voices silent as they tell powerful new stories about art, society and the human condition.
The artists highlighted below create art in different mediums, but share the same passion: reclaiming the narrative of African and African Diaspora stories.
Embrace the controversy
When visitors enter the Rose Art Museum, they are greeted by an alarming sight: numerous depictions of the mother figure – a stereotypically racist trope from American visual history used to represent black servants, who often cared of white families, the most famous mom being an aunt. Jemima. These controversial images are (or at least should be) shocking to modern audiences; however, the works presented in the museum aim to reclaim this narrative.
“We deliberated long and hard before deciding to include these images,” Ankori said. “As a team of curators, we did not want to post offensive images that could cause harm. But we also didn’t want to censor the art or bury a motif so ingrained in American pop culture. Like the artists whose work is featured, we wanted to challenge our visitors and Brandeis students to confront racism and its stereotypes. It sparks provocative and difficult conversations, in dialogue with contemporary artists, who confront this deep and troubled past and present.
Thematic works are grouped throughout the museum. Pieces that represent a mammy figure are exhibited together on the first floor.
by Robert Colescott I get a thrill when I see De Koo (1978) is hung in dialogue with Willem de Kooning Untitled (1961). The two works placed together reinforce Colescott’s direct reference to de Kooning’s signature painting style and de Kooning’s monstrous depictions of women. Colescott goes one step further by turning de Kooning’s naked woman into a mammy. With I get a thrill when I see De KooColescott combines subversive humor with art historical irreverence to interrogate and address the racism and sexism entrenched in American society.
This painting may disturb contemporary audiences, but challenges the viewer to reflect on mundane harmful and stereotypical cultural images that are only now being scrutinized in society at large…
Grouped alongside Colescott’s painting are two additional works that employ the figure of the mum. One by Andy Warhol and a second by Betye Saar. by Warhol Mom (Sylvia Williams) (1981) features an image of a black woman posing as a stereotypical mom. Warhol’s use of the mammy trope erases the identity of the babysitter, she becomes the stereotype. while the Sarre piece, Supreme quality (1998) transforms the mammy into a heroine of black liberation. Saar’s piece features a mom figure armed with guns, with the words “Extreme Times Call for Extreme Heroines” prominently above. In doing so, Saar reclaims the mammy’s narrative, making her a hero in combating the forces of white terrorism. His ideas behind the work are displayed nearby on the museum wall.
“The reason for using [Aunt Jemima] was to take a negative image and turn it into a positive image. I set out to take all those negative images that had been part of black history and turn them into warriors,” Betsy Saar said of her works.
Additional works by Saar can be found in the museum’s Lower Rose Gallery, which also interrogates the history and work of black domestics in the United States.
Reclaim the power
The museum’s Lower Rose Gallery includes a section depicting several black women with children. These pieces evoke the motif of the Virgin and Child that is frequently found in Western art. The artists featured in object: collections, recast the standard white mother and child of the story by illustrating motherhood through the perspective of black women. A quote from each artist on display allows audiences to connect more deeply with their stories. “We chose these pieces because we wanted to tell this well-known motif through the experience of black women,” Ankori said. “There are so many stories to share.”
warrior and child (2012) by Nona Faustine serves as a “love letter” to black women. Faustina shows up holding her child in a strong position, portraying herself as a powerful warrior. “I knew the power of the black body, and specifically my big fleshy body,” she explains. “[My work] was to recognize the pain, but also the beauty of my body, of the body of a black woman.
Nearby stands the imposing self-portrait, Hi Mom (1993), by Renee Cox holding her child in another reconfiguration of the Madonna and Child. She poses nude, holding her child horizontally in this larger-than-life gelatin silver photograph. “I refuse to be belittled, crushed or made invisible. Here I am, seven feet tall, larger than life.
Several artists use their medium to redefine the narrative. They produce their pieces to express their art, but also to share their point of view.
Howardena Pindell’s video is on display in the Fineberg Gallery, but her powerful voice echoes throughout the museum’s lower gallery. his piece, Free, White and 21 (1980), alternately voices Pindell’s own experiences with prejudice and plays the role of a privileged white woman, who rejects those lived experiences and the pain they inflicted. His quote, displayed on the wall of the museum, highlights his point of view.
“I decided to do Free, White and 21 after yet another encounter with racism in the art world and white feminists… It was about dominating and erasing experience, undoing and rewriting history in a way that made a group feel safe and unthreatened.”
Ankori and her team select emotional and powerful artworks because of their deep meaning. “I don’t see art as ‘entertainment’ or ‘fresh’,” Ankori said. “Art is an essential human activity, a means of reflecting, resisting or reimagining reality. It is a medium through which those who create art and experience art make sense of the world.”