Like the ghost of Othello hovering overhead, a dazzling chandelier of jet-black, hand-blown glass fills the rotunda of the United States pavilion for Fred Wilson’s installation, Speak of Me as I Am, at the 50th Venice Biennale (which opened to the public on June 15 and continues through November 2). The title—a quote from Shakespeare’s play about the troubled Moor—plays on the dual history of Africans and other dark-skinned folks in Venice, prominently depicted in fiction and works of art, yet barely recognized in official accounts and abhorred by contemporary politicians.
Wilson is not the first African American to represent the United States at Venice; Robert Colescott crossed that color barrier in 1997. Nor could he possibly be the first gay artist in the U.S. pavilion since it opened in 1895, though it’s unclear who would claim that position. But Wilson, 49, is the first to take on Venice—its rich and complex history, its politics and its art—creating an installation culled from paintings and decorative objects found in the city itself. Weeks before the exhibition opened, in an interview in New York, Wilson seemed most concerned about fabrication deadlines, hoping that the glassblowers in Murano, costume makers at the Fabric Workshop in Philadelphia, and technicians at Eyebeam in New York would all finish in time for the installation. But infiltrating the conversation was a greater fear—one that Wilson could not shake even by concentrating on more immediate concerns: What did it mean to represent the U.S. and how would the rest of the world receive his work at this point in history?
“It’s one thing if you are doing an exhibition somewhere in Europe,” says Wilson, a recipient of the 1999 MacArthur “genius” award, whose career has become increasingly international since he began showing at Metro Pictures in 1991. “It’s another whole thing if you are doing an exhibition where the pavilion says right across the outside ‘The United States of America.’ ” For Venice, Wilson created a mini-museum in one of the pavilion’s four rooms with works by Tiepolo and others loaned by local Old Master dealers, and mannequins depicting figures from more famous paintings in the Academe, all featuring black characters from the 14th through the 16th centuries. Arias from Verdi’s Otello drift in from an adjoining room, where four monitors play footage of staged performances of the opera. Wilson is intrigued by the predominance of black fictional characters that have filtered into European art, due primarily to the cosmopolitan culture of Venice in this period. Yet, like Othello—perhaps the most famous black character in Western literature, but too often played by white performers in blackface—the darker-skinned residents of this region are still treated as intruders, a specious stereotype that re-emerged in the recent Italian elections.
Wilson hopes that his work will not be read so narrowly, since there are plenty of American politicians equally at fault for harping on fear of dark-skinned others. “This is a year when Americans are not much in the position of being critical of anybody,” he says, explaining that as an artist who specializes in site-specific interventions, he felt compelled to address the history of the site in which he was working. In fact, the artist, accompanied by curator Kathy Goncharov, went to Italy in 2001, on a grant from the Peter Norton Family Foundation, to work on a proposal for a Venice-based project, never thinking that it would result in a commission for the Venice Biennale. Goncharov, curator of Public Art at M.I.T. List Visual Arts Center, submitted Wilson’s name last spring to the Fund for U.S. Artists at International Festivals and Exhibitions, a public-private partnership of the U.S. Department of State, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Pew Charitable Trusts. They were informed that they had been chosen—Wilson as U.S. representative and Goncharov as U.S. commissioner—in October, leaving barely nine months to prepare for the prestigious exhibition.
Wilson, a thoughtful and self-effacing artist with a boyish smile and an incongruous crown of gray curls, seems almost bashful about being in the spotlight. He is far more comfortable talking about his research than his biography. Born in the Bronx in 1954, Wilson moved with his family to Westchester in pursuit of, as he puts it, “the American dream.” His father, an African American civil engineer, and his mother, a schoolteacher whom Wilson has described as “Anglo-Amerindian,” were not welcomed into the wealthy suburb as a multiracial couple; neighbors put up a “Niggers Go Back to Africa” sign on the front lawn as the house, designed by the artist’s father, was being built. “I was the only black child in the school, in the neighborhood, but I had a huge backyard where I played by myself, which is, I think, why I am an artist today.” After his parents divorced, Wilson moved back to the Bronx with his mother, where he felt equally displaced as a wimpy kid, sorting out his sexual identity while frequenting art museums. Music & Art high school, and later SUNY-Purchase, proved havens for Wilson; though he was still the only black student in school, he was treated as just another “other” among all the many self-appointed “others.”
“When I was leaving Purchase, one of the deans—and he was one of the nice ones—asked me, ‘Do you want to be part of the black art world or the white art world?’ and I didn’t even know what he was talking about,” says Wilson, who graduated in 1976. “But when I came out of school, it was very clear that there was a segregated art world, from the top all the way to the bottom of the system, and it was like nobody noticed that this was going on, except for people of color.” Wilson moved into arts education, first running a children’s program in East Harlem, then teaching in the education departments at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Natural History, and the American Crafts Museum. In the meantime, he met his longtime partner, Whitfield Lovell, and the two young artists moved into an East Village loft in a building owned by Larry Rivers, where they continue to live.
Wilson’s breakthrough occurred when he took over as director of the Bronx’s Longwood Arts Center in 1986, where he began to play with ideas about display and curatorial practices. For the 1987 exhibition, “Rooms With a View: The Struggle Between Culture, Content and the Context of Art,” he installed works by emerging artists as if they were artifacts from non-Western cultures. The illusion worked, convincing audiences that this was a show of “primitive” art. Three years later, Wilson staged his first solo installation, “The Other Museum,” at White Columns, a re-creation of a natural history display, except that the bones in the vitrines were tagged “Someone’s Father” or “Someone’s Sister.”
From the outset, Wilson’s museology encompassed people as well as objects. When he was invited to give an artist’s talk at the Whitney in 1991, he greeted his audience in the lobby and met with them over lunch, then excused himself and changed into a guard’s uniform. When the group reconvened in the gallery, they failed to spot the artist, though he was standing right beside a sign with his name to mark the beginning of the tour. Dressed as a museum guard, he was one of the few African Americans on the floor, yet he was invisible. Similarly, in his most exhibited work, Guarded View (1991), four headless, brown-skinned mannequins, each wearing a uniform from a different New York art museum, form a costume display that forces viewers to think about the people inside the clothing. Throughout his work, Wilson maintains a love-hate relationship with museum display—wall labels, vitrines, lighting design, and most recently, digital interaction—tools that appear to share information with the public but can be insidiously elitist and obscure the need for change.
“I had no interest in doing work on social issues when I got out of school, but the art world made me realize that someone had to address the heavy denial going on,” says Wilson. Today, the artist, who has long made work about visibility, is getting so much attention that he is uncomfortable with his role in the limelight. In addition to his spot in Venice, Wilson has a mid-career retrospective, curated by Maurice Berger, traveling through the U.S. and coming to the Studio Museum in Harlem in April 2004. “It’s a different world now than in the 1970s, and I am definitely representative of how much things have changed,” he admits. But he’s careful to add, “I don’t know how it feels to young African Americans, but I am glad if they see me as sort of the light at the end of the tunnel, because there were older artists there for me, and it’s always good to see someone ahead of you.”