Deadly Dull: The Whitechapel Hoped Its Show of Black Art Would Seem Relevant. Larry Herman Found It as Lifeless as an Egyptian Mummy
Herman, Larry, New Statesman (1996)
Walking into the Whitechapel is walking backwards into the past in ways that the curators of "Back to Black" certainly did not have in mind. This group show of 47 artists is really about nothing more than a curatorial schema. The gallery administrators ought to have known that postmodernism has lost its credibility. "Back to Black" raises waffle to a point of high principle. The show is like opening an embalmed Egyptian mummy, and gives us just about the same insight into an epoch.
The misrepresentation of history at the Whitechapel is not only diversionary; it is slanderous of a generation that changed the course of history. The exhibition is opportunistic and cliche-ridden. It is pompously described as being about the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s in America, Britain and Jamaica. There was no such movement. The period was not a reincarnation of the Harlem Renaissance--several paintings (really illustrations) by Ernie Barnes have a feel of that extraordinary and creative time but, true to the show's postmodern kitsch, they contain every cliche. And I am not sure why a 1956 oil painting by Aubrey Williams and a 1950 watercolour/inkwash by Edna Manley are included.
The show's inherent problem is that it simply degenerates into deadened entertainment. It fossilises a period of time that is still affecting us. It is apparent, wherever one looks, that the impact of the decolonisation of Africa on people of African ancestry--and everyone else, too--remains vivid, and that the anti-colonial struggles distilled and built upon by the American civil rights movement are still present. The news has recently been full of the exhumation of Emmett Till, whose lynching and open-coffin funeral 50 years ago emboldened Rosa Parks to remain seated on an Alabama bus in the face of violent threats. These "events" sparked a generation to say "no more". The conviction last month of the Klansman Edgar Ray Killen for the manslaughter of three civil rights workers in 1964 proves that the period covered by this exhibition is not over, and underlines the wrong perspective of "Back to Black".
After passing by a few insipid photographs of a naked actress with afro hair and mannequins (sculpture?) dressed up in period clothing, I began to wonder where the exhibits were that related to what caused all this culture. Afro hair was not simply a fashion statement, but an expression of the profound effect of Africa's decolonisation and the American civil rights movement. I thought things could only get better, and regained some of the enthusiasm I had felt walking along Whitechapel High Street and watching a demonstration by people defending the Koran against its desecration in the Camp X-Ray and Camp Delta prisons at Guantanamo Bay.
I then found Gordon Parks's photograph of Muhammad Ali in training, sitting on a chair with taped hands. This image of the extraordinary athlete doesn't indicate his profound political impact on radically minded young people who needed a public voice to declare "enough is enough". Parks's expressive photograph of Ethel Shariff in Chicago, on the other hand, does reflect the turmoil and acute optimism of those times without depending on much knowledge of the subject, which is why it's a gem. …