DURING THE PAST DECADE, signs of black dissent have appeared with increasing frequency in American artistic production--a phenomenon that is part and parcel of a larger turn among contemporary artists toward imagery of the 1960s and '70s. Consider just a few of the more compelling examples: In a 2001 drawing, Sam Durant meticulously rendered a photograph depicting a dark hand stacking copies of Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice; as part of an ongoing performative intervention, in 2005 Sharon Hayes walked through New York clutching her own version of the I am a man poster famously held up by striking Memphis sanitation workers in 1968; and on a page in their untitled 2008 mixed-media mailing, the collective Otabenga Jones & Associates reproduced the famous image of an armed and enthroned Huey Newton, with the face cut out, asking readers to restore the Black Panther's visage to its rightful place by selecting it from among those of seven other black activists.
To be sure, the aesthetic ends to which these visual references have been put are as varied as the ambitions, identities, and commitments of the artists who deploy them. Yet in all three cases, practitioners who came of age in the wake of the civil rights and Black Power movements are looking at the past both nostalgically and critically, attempting to retrieve vital figures that might freshly frame and challenge structural inequalities that persist even now. In the process, and like many analogous works by their peers, Durant's, Hayes's, and Jones's projects concentrate on emblematic visual episodes from the recent history of African-American counterhegemonic production and, more specifically, on the possibilities and problems that the iconicity of those episodes creates for any politics of re-presentation. For while the remembrance of radical practices is crucial for liberatory visions of the present, the revivification of already known images is haunted by a cultural logic that spectacularizes black dissent, impoverishes the multiplicity of black life, and masks those processes of memory, history, and forgetting that would reduce black struggle to a series of minor scenes in the American narrative of racial progress. In other words, at issue is not only how to hold on to the past but also what exactly to hold on to.
These concerns come sharply into focus in the pictures, sculptures, and drawings of Leslie Hewitt, a New York-based artist born in 1977 whose approach to the historicization of the '60s and '70s, particularly with regard to the image, sets her apart from her thematic and generational cohorts. Take the second of five color digital photographs from her 2006 series "Make It Plain," which takes its title as well as its visual imperative from Malcolm X's oft-repeated admonition. The image depicts tattered copies of two influential paperbacks published in 1968: Joanne Grant's anthology Black Protest: History, Documents, and Analyses, 1619 to the Present and the Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders chaired by Otto Kerner. Although different in their historical sweeps and their attitudes toward violence as a means of liberation, these books share an understanding of the inversely proportional relationship between exertions of white power and imaginings of black freedom.
Accordingly, in Hewitt's arrangement, the volumes stand upright next to each other in the middle of the visual field, though their front-and-center placement is qualified by their simultaneous functioning as mere supports for a picture frame (or easel) that sits on them and leans against the wall. This internal armature dominates the composition, but Hewitt has turned whatever image it might contain away from the viewer (or covered it up). In so doing, she deflects our gaze onto literal representational effects within the photograph that are equally elusive--from the angled shadow cast by the frame to the ghosted white rectangle of paint perhaps left by another, now absent, image. …