Wangechi Mutu, Untitled (from Tumors), 2004. Courtesy: Sikkema Jenkins & Co.
Code Z, Arts Reporting, and the End of Black Art
by Cinqué Hicks
I have a verbal bomb I like to drop whenever I give lectures to idealistic and passionate college art students, particularly to black audiences: I make sure the room is quiet, let an awkward moment or two go by and then say, "We are living through the end of black art." Pause.
Or something like that.
It is a statement designed for shock value, calculated to offend with some intensity. But it is not merely that; I actually believe it. I'll return to the so-called "end of black art," but first a very long detour.
Code Z: Black Visual Culture Now went live online in the late summer of 2006 and I served as both its founder and editor-in-chief for that first crucial year before retiring to an advisory position and letting someone else have a turn at the wheel. Beginning from nothing, Code Z grew to attract some 8,000 to 10,000 visits per week, not to mention a fair number of critical accolades elsewhere online and in print. Not bad for a website with a promotions budget of exactly $0 and no paid staff.
The site's popularity should surprise no one. Code Z came into a world with a vast information gap: On one hand, the black popular culture magazines and websites served up a steady diet of mass market bling in which art was treated at best as a funky, if somewhat mysterious, lifestyle accessory, while on the other hand the "serious" (read: white) art publications treated black artists and their production only as one buffet item among many, a taste for which any particular publication may or may not have in any given month. None of these publications was poised to examine the current state of black visual art in both a sophisticated and sustained way. And none of them was poised to carry on an ongoing conversation directly and specifically with my generation of black visual creatives as an ongoing mission. Code Z was designed to fill this information gap.
Anyone familiar with the art press will rightly point out that the International Review of African American Art, or Revue Noire, and possibly a small handful of web sites such as Community Action Network provide reliable news and information on black visual culture. What was missing, however, was an outlet that placed a younger generation of artists squarely at the center, both as subject and audience. This was a generation equally influenced by the Black Arts Movement, MTV, jazz and punk rock, by a civil rights history and by the explosive internationalism of the Internet. What we needed was a publication devoted exclusively to all that is risky, visionary, and radically of the moment. From its inception, Code Z's mission has been to chart the territory of black unpopular culture happening right now.
You understand this contested territory the moment you lay eyes on Wangechi Mutu, subject of Code Z's first feature interview. Speaking to culture critic and writer Greg Tate with her electric blue hair extensions and leather pants, Mutu symbolizes the kind of square peg that Code Z attempts to bring out into the light. Speaking of the privilege of her own generation, she says, "I feel like the beauty and benefit of what I'm doing is that I don't have to focus on one particular critique or argument. I don't even have to be critical, as such. I am, but I don't have to be, and that's a really privileged position. Because you get to the point where you don't want to have to address the--poor choice of words--but, the oppressor, as such, every time you make an image."
Or do you?
By Laylah Ali. Courtesy: Judy Ann Goldman Gallery.
Wangechi's words encapsulate a shift that has been occurring in black unpopular culture since Thelma Golden's 2001 Studio Museum survey "Freestyle" first blew a hole in the critical reception of black art. Introducing the unfortunate (and ingeniously tenacious) term "post-black," Freestyle made as the object of its investigation the shifting sands of post-post-modernism on which racial identity was being situated (or not) by turns as a central trope, an incidental complicating element, and an utter irrelevancy. Artists such as Layla Ali, Kori Newkirk, and Jerald Ieans who addressed race only obliquely if at all now had a critical home, a context in which their work could be understood as black art and yet could experience some breathing room in which that blackness could make its appearance in otherwise unrecognizable ways.
If "Freestyle" showed how flexible the artistic manifestation of blackness could be, the Studio Museum's 2006 non-follow-up follow-up, "Frequency," showed just how vulnerable that construction was to falling apart completely. "Frequency" was a curatorial conundrum in which, according to the curators, the only unifying factor among the artists on display was that they had all managed to escape any kind of unifying factor. How else to justify a Rodney McMillian readymade salvaged garbage chair and a Robert Pruitt pseudo-anthropological drawing in the same space?
Meanwhile, the Black Panthers celebrated their 40th anniversary in 2007 just as other black artists of a new generation were insisting more strongly than ever on the political and radically racialized content of their work. Thus Theodore Harris, Kara Walker, Carl Pope, and Radcliffe Bailey make unambiguous statements through their work about the troubled history of blackness and its ongoing struggles, albeit to very different effects.
Code Z entered this debate with more questions than answers. It attempts to draw some collective meaning from the fragments left behind by "Frequency"'s explosion, to document a moment in which the meaning of "black art" is an open, living organism, re-birthing itself daily, artist by artist, work by work.
The idea that black unpopular culture is developing its own aesthetics and mores did not, of course, begin with Code Z. James Hannaham's 2002 Village Voice article "The Rise of the Black Nerd" collected disparate cultural actors (Suzan-Lori Parks, Outkast, William Pope.L) who were poking their heads up through the ghetto fabulousness of "keep-it-real" black America under the banner of an ascendant nerd aesthetic that is defined more by what it is not than by what it is. Among the list of nots: monolithic and predictable, but still very much black and very much real.
Code Z embarked on a similar reclamation project. It became for me a way in which artists such as Kori Newkirk and Julie Mehretu who had been lost to the majority white art press could be reinserted into a specifically black context, but in a way that did not reduce their work to mere racial agitprop and that paid attention to all the complex ways in which their work signified internationally.
So what about the "end of black art"? If black art is supposedly ending, then what exactly is Code
Z documenting? Art made today is moving toward a condition of greater and greater individual quirkiness and autobiographical specificity, not less. The future looks more like "Frequency" than it does like the Black Arts Movement. As a younger generation of artists moves from margin to center, that world is likely to be filled with a cacophony of divergent and incompatible visions of blackness and ways of signifying it. Anyone using the phrase "black art" as a generic category will have to deploy a cascade of caveats, footnotes, and asterisks to explain exactly what version of it they are referring to. The work will be implicitly hybrid, always hyphenated in some dialogue of gender, class, technique, or medium. By "end" of black art, I really mean "transition" to something that is increasingly multiple and complex, something that the flat and historically-weighted term "black art" will finally prove insufficient to describe.
Code Z walks the razor's edge between the dangers and opportunities of that critical moment. By taking blackness as a baseline quality, Code Z is uniquely free to explore the other side of that hyphen, to complicate what we think we understand as black art and how it operates in the world.
Cinqué Hicks is an artist, writer, curator, and former editor-in-chief of Code Z: Black Visual Culture Now.