Black voices in print: the African American experience through portraiture
Witness to this Game: Selections from the Collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and His Family Foundation, brings together works by Kerry James Marshall, Ellen Gallagher and Romare Bearden
Jordan Schnitzer is not a collector of art in the traditional sense. He may own the pieces in his collection, but in his own words he is a ‘steward of the work, a facilitator between these brilliant artists and the institutions that mount these shows.’ The artists in this exhibition, he says, ‘are chroniclers of our times. It is their job to put images in front of us which are sometimes difficult to look at, but which help us think. They show issues of our time through their perspective, through their voice — most importantly, they teach us how to see.’
The collection, which consists of major postwar and contemporary artworks across all mediums, is the largest private holding of prints and multiples in the United States. It features contemporary stars like Kehinde Wiley, Kerry James Marshall, and Mickalene Thomas alongside established 20th-century artists like Romare Bearden, and Robert Colescott. Witness to this Game, comprising 64 works by 17 United States-based artists, is on view at Christie’s San Francisco through 25 March 2022.
In this exhibition, the complex shape of the African American experience is examined through portraiture, a form which has historically been used both to preserve identity and to demonstrate the importance of a sitter. Rhea Fontaine, partner and gallery director of the Bay Area-based Paulson Fontaine Press, says that ‘When Black artists make images of Black people, they are also repairing, amending, and reclaiming their image. When Black artists make prints, they join a long tradition of collaboration that has thrived because of printmakers like the great, late Robert Blackburn.’
‘When Black artists make images of Black people, they are also repairing, amending, and reclaiming their image’ — Rhea Fontaine
The exhibition title comes from Mildred Howard’s series I’ve Been a Witness to this Game, eight of which are on display in the gallery. The lifelong Berkeley resident has had her work displayed in myriad institutions and public spaces around the country — from the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., to San Francisco’s Fulton Street Bridge, and Battery Park in New York City. Here, her prints contribute to the overarching idea that representation itself operates as a form of preservation.
‘Artists have been doing this for years,’ says Howard. ‘What they do is interpret the way they see the world, and I’m just an extension of that, from my perspective, my story, and the way I view things. The more we see work like this, the more people will begin to pay attention to artists. It takes an African American artist so much longer to be ‘recognised’, as if they weren’t there. When you look from space, you see the world is divided by landmasses and bodies of water. The artificial borders have been set up by man, by woman, by humans.’
Assembling the fragments of memory
Collage, central to many of the prints on view, is a way of reconciling how these borders are dealt with through time. As an appropriative medium, it holds a mirror to history through its use of found, often antique materials. The use of these objects from the past provides the viewer with a dissection of these divisions by looking at how they are upheld, and can be dismantled through their fragmentation.
In Howard’s series Assegnazioni con De Seingalt, for example, she repurposes images from an 18th-century edition of Giacomo Casanova’s journals, bringing his legacy into a more modern context through digital techniques, as well as chine collé, and collage.
This technique is echoed throughout the exhibition, as shown in Romare Bearden’s Slave Ship, a screen print portrait of Joseph Cinqué that depicts the mutiny he led as a captive on the Spanish ship La Amistad. Though he, as well as the other enslaved people aboard, were eventually captured and imprisoned in the United States, they were given their freedom by the Supreme court two years later in 1841. As such, he is depicted here not as a lamentation, but a symbol of victory against the kind of oppression that initially brought him and countless others to America.
Slave Ship encapsulates Bearden’s work as a whole, which deals often in the cataloguing of Black history and culture through an abstract style between Cubism and collage. His colours, often the crux of the poetry he deploys, are applied rhythmically. Their disjunct nature plays a significant part in fortifying the nuance between the themes of protest and pride which characterise his later work, but it is still portraiture in the traditional sense: a testament to the importance of the sitter, and a preservation of their identity. As Myron Schwartzman quoted Bearden: ‘“Art celebrates a victory,” over the circumstances that gave rise to it.’
The paradox of ‘otherness’
More recently, movements like Black Lives Matter have sought, among other things, to reveal this subjectivity. As much as they set out to achieve equal rights and representation both socially and politically, they also seek to dismantle the stigma of otherness. As Howard says, ‘So many of us are “other”, whether we say it or not.’ Like borders, ‘race is made up, but it’s real, and people are judged for the melanin in their skin.’
In Ellen Gallagher’s Duke, named for a popular brand of pomade in the 20th century, presumed roles are more specifically addressed as she presents 110 faces in the form of a barbershop placard. Their hair, the focus of the piece, is cut in varying shapes of Afros and other natural styles.
An element of Black culture and identity, Gallagher uses hair as a way of calling attention to how being Black in America has been defined throughout history. For much of it, Black social worth in the eyes of white society was often measured by assimilation into white culture. Pomade, which Gallagher uses as a paint to colour the hair on this piece, served as a way of ‘taming’ natural hair in the earlier parts of the 20th century.
By using the Afro, Gallagher is showing how these seemingly small details work to bolster the detrimental and pervasive sensibility of a singularly American identity. She is bringing the discrepancy between perceived and real multiculturalism into focus, while also celebrating Blackness as an independent identity central to the American experience.
This is an idea that Fab 5 Freddy, the New York street art icon, continued in his series of portraits featuring Huey Newton, Jack Johnson, and Bumpy Johnson. Jack Johnson, who in the height of the Jim Crow Era was crowned America’s first heavyweight boxing champion, was frequently targeted and ultimately imprisoned by the government for breaking racially motivated laws. His legacy and his achievements — like those of Huey Newton and Bumpy Johnson — was and is often still framed only through the perspective of the crimes he committed.
‘The exhibition is a testament to Jordan D. Schnitzer’s lifelong collecting journey, guided by the civic spirit he learned from his parents,’ explains Richard Lloyd, Christie’s Deputy Chairman. ‘He collects prints specifically with the intention of sharing them with the public, inviting professional curators to organize exhibits at qualified museums in diverse communities. The numerous exhibitions organized from his collection have traveled to over 160 institutions.’
Witness to this Game seeks to generate conversation around the perceived controversy of many of the subjects of these portraits. It also reveals the ways in which our understanding of the past, through education and experience, shape how we see these so-called revolutionaries and mutineers. ‘I am the “other”’, says Howard, ‘But I am also me.’ Her work, along with the others in this gallery, invites everyone to bear witness to this game, while celebrating those who continue to push the boundaries of art, and the experiences that it can portray.