Michele O'Marah and Henry Taylor: Sister at Rental
Breidenbach, Tom, Artforum International
In their recent exhibition, "Repeat after me: I AM a Revolutionary," Michele O'Marah and Henry Taylor considered the civil rights struggle from distinct yet complementary perspectives. The show was a chance to reflect on a political era more charged than our own with the hope of achieving social justice, and with the expectation that individual struggle might lead to meaningful participation in the fate of community and nation. Though in terms of cultural integration certain of the advances envisioned by the civil rights movement have come to pass, "Repeat after me ..." spoke to the racism that persists today, and to the economic and class issues that underlie it.
Huey Newton (all works 2007), Taylor's large portrait of the Black Panther Party leader, is modeled on the iconic photo of the man flanked by African tribal shields and seated in an elegant wicker chair, a rifle in one hand and a spear in the other. Reminding us of the continued relevance of a previous generation's commitment, the artist has collaged headlines about the recent death of Sean Bell, the unarmed black man killed by New York police on the evening of his bachelor party, on either side of Newton's sober stare.
Taylor's portrait of Eldridge Cleaver contrasts with that of Newton, alluding to the differences between the two Black Panther Party leaders themselves. Apportioned into geometric forms, this more brooding and elemental image presents Cleaver seated in iconic profile in the manner of "Whistler's Mother" (aka James McNeill Whistler's Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1: Portrait of the Painter's Mother, 1871). He is presented as the cerebral cool to Newton's confrontational heat. It's as if--unlike Newton--he needn't confront the viewer directly, or as though the individual, internal revolution were the ideal focus of contemplation.
The exhibition isn't a particularly nostalgic or romanticized take on the civil rights era, many of whose leaders were either killed or, like Cleaver and Newton, faced a range of personal trials. …