“I gotta world I’m making in my own image.” Ntozake Shange’s words, printed billboard-big on a room-divider panel just beyond this show’s first gallery, address every artist’s compelling need to claim, define, and realize a uniquely personal vision. Shange might be speaking for the 94 black photographers included in “Committed to the Image,” each of whom gotta world, and who come together not for bland consensus but for an eloquent, engaging, even argumentative conversation. Though shows organized by gender, location, or ethnicity tend to be polemical and homogenized, the emphasis here is on individuality and variety, on distinctive voices and passionate visions. The result is far from coherent but surprisingly vivid; instead of a neatly packaged digest of the black experience, the curators immerse us in a multifaceted experience of blackness—many worlds made in many images.
It couldn’t have been easy. The museum’s longtime curator of photography, Barbara Head Millstein, worked with a trio of established black photographers, Anthony Barboza, Beuford Smith, and Orville Robertson, to whittle down hundreds of submissions over a period of two years. Though the final show includes some images taken as early as the 1940s, most were made in the last two decades, and all are by living American artists. As Millstein notes in the catalog’s brief preface, some artists “declined to take part in an exhibition devoted exclusively to African American photographers,” and that may explain the absence, cited in Deba Patnaik’s essay, of Roy DeCarava, Lorna Simpson, and Dawoud Bey. (Also missing but unremarked upon: Lyle Ashton Harris, Clarissa Sligh, Pat Ward Williams, and Chester Higgins Jr.) The submission process doesn’t exactly make up for these conspicuous absences, but it brought in a slew of photographers who are likely to be unfamiliar to even the most au courant photo maven, and gives the show the bright, anticipatory air of a new faces revue.
Unfortunately, both old pros and fresh discoveries have been limited to two works each—more than enough for a lively, even overcrowded show, but frustratingly little if you want anything more than a cursory sense of an individual photographer’s gift. Though this is clearly intended to maximize the number of participants and keep them all on an equal footing, that strategy is undercut somewhat by the wide range of sizes and formats here. Many of the show’s photographers work in mammoth scale or with multipart images, and these wall-filling pieces tend to overwhelm both the viewer and any smaller work hanging nearby.
Plenty of the pictures in “Committed to the Image” are scaled for intimate viewing, and the best of these survive through sheer brilliance, but others are hard put to escape the powerful force fields set up by oversize photos. I frankly don’t remember anything else in the small gallery with Renée Cox’s suddenly notorious Yo Mama’s Last Supper, but that wasn’t just because the five-panel piece dominated one whole wall. Because Giuliani, at the Daily News‘ prompting, has made Cox’s picture the culture wars’ latest succès de scandale, it was the object of inordinate attention but no apparent outrage on the show’s first Sunday afternoon. Perhaps because Cox’s work is placed in the last room of an exhibition full of artists determined to stake out a place for themselves and their visions, her audacious assumption of Christ’s role at the Last Supper seems a fitting culmination of the collective will—undeniably provocative, but far more playful than shocking. Like so many of her peers, Cox is redefining the world, and she’s never been one to do things halfway. (A second Cox photo hangs just outside the crowded room; in it, the artist, dressed in red-green-and-black superhero drag, perches on the crown of the Statue of Liberty, queen of all she surveys.) In a show whose galleries are hung thematically and labeled Beauty, Country, or The Street, Cox’s piece is pointedly placed just off the room devoted to Justice and Politics, not Religion.
Not surprisingly that room holds some of the show’s most arresting photos. Among them is the other allegedly “controversial” piece, Willie Middlebrook’s large photocollage, The God Suite, Pomp No. 628, described in a Daily News caption as “topless woman on cross.” Though it’s certainly open to interpretation, there is no cross in evidence, and Middlebrook’s picture—which centers on a partly xeroxed image of a bare-breasted black woman with her arms open wide—seems more about all-sacrificing motherhood than literal crucifixion. Rather than being nailed up to die, the woman appears poised to embrace the nude infant who’s being lifted toward her from the bottom of the frame. Middlebrook brings his goddess down to earth by placing her on a torn scrap of brown paper and giving her an aura of slathered black ink, but he salutes her with a handwritten line: “She who bares [sic] fruit, love, life is Earth!”
Todd Gray’s untitled collage nearby is less subtle but even more graphically potent. Crudely juxtaposing two torn photo blowups with a series of taped X’s, Gray creates an irresistibly visceral agitprop image: A giant black boxer, gleaming with sweat, wallops a monolithic office block. A powerfully symbolic gesture writ extra large, it’s one of the show’s true knockout images. Cocurator Anthony Barboza provides two others, also in the Politics/Justice gallery, with his artfully staged pictures of figures in beds. One explodes minstrelsy stereotypes of black supermasculinity, the other deals with death at an early age. Coreen Simpson’s gleefully vulgar painted color photo of a minstrel figure with a slice of watermelon belonged here rather than in the area devoted to Fantasy.
But it’s impossible to begin ticking off all the show’s individual triumphs. Look for the work of Accra Shepp, Barron Claiborne, Don Camp, Cynthia Wiggins, Carrie Mae Weems, Omar Kharem, Gene Young, Martin Dixon, Reginald L. Jackson, Marilyn Nance, and Mfon Essien, whose nude self-portraits are genuine showstoppers. Though flawed, erratic, and far from avant-garde, “Committed to the Image” is immensely valuable. It’s not the ultimate cure for art-world myopia, but it’s an important step in the eye-opening process.