This exhibition celebrates major acquisitions made possible by funds from an anonymous donor to purchase work by contemporary Black artists based in the United States. Acutely aware of the underrepresentation of works by artists of color in museum collections, she offered to support acquisitions over a multiyear period, culminating in this special presentation of work by twelve artists. Her motivations were also personal: as the descendent of slaveholders, she was eager to support art that sparks critical thinking and conversations around race. A forthcoming catalogue will also be published to foster new scholarship and amplify the voices of emerging writers and curators of color.
Assembly includes paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs, textiles, and a monumental print, all produced between 1980 and 2019. Although diverse in style and subject matter, many of the works have ties to Southern history and reveal what scholar Saidiya Hartman refers to as “the long afterlife of slavery.” For example, the shared surname of two—unrelated—quiltmakers in the exhibition, Arie Pettway and Sally Mae Pettway Mixon, is that of the plantation owner their enslaved ancestors were forced to serve in Gee’s Bend, Alabama. Kevin Beasley’s resin sculpture incorporates raw cotton from his family’s farm in Virginia. Nari Ward’s immersive installation honors overlooked places, people, and traditions in Savannah, Georgia. Cauleen Smith made her recent neon work in memory of Sandra Bland, a Black woman who died in police custody after a routine traffic stop in Waller County, Texas.
The title of the exhibition, Assembly, embraces the heterogeneity of work made by Black artists, refusing generalization, essentialization, and definitive interpretation. As theorized by the late British cultural critic Stuart Hall and expanded on by American philosopher Paul C. Taylor, with “assembly” comes the potential for disassembly and reassembly. In this gathering, we encounter acts of representation, resilience, reclamation, and resistance.
Organized by Veronica Roberts, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art
Genevieve Gaignard, Blackish, (detail) 2018. Chromogenic print, 32 x 48 in. Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, Purchase through the generosity of an anonymous donor, 2020. Image courtesy of the artist and Vielmetter Los Angeles © Genevieve Gaignard