.The New Big

Museums are tackling contemporary issues with focus and flair 

Museums are no longer mausoleum-like buildings displaying 2- and 3-D art on or within walls, most of it created by or plundered from its rightful owners and origins by dead white males. Although glacial in pace, awareness and respect for global art and wider art-making traditions has grown in the Western world with the advent of entire museums and permanent collections devoted to East Indian, Asian, South American, African, Indigenous and other non-West European art. 

The “jail break” mentality is especially evident in 20th and 21st century site-specific, protest, experimental, street, public, community and avant-garde art movements and exhibits that take radical perspectives, sometimes combining or commenting on the work of “The Grand Masters” with novel or progressive perspectives coming from contemporary artists.

One glance at upcoming or current exhibits at three large art institutions on the local scene shows at least one notable feature that isn’t exactly new—but is at least obvious and welcome—which could be called “The New BIG.” 

These exhibits aim for the colossal and serve as examples of art presented with multi-prong, multimedia, multi-curated, multi-accessible exhibits with multiple purposes, mandates, missionary messages and more “multis.” Interestingly, they also have in common a micro, focusing especially on the manifestations throughout history of biased aggressions or disregard directed at people of color, people living with disabilities, women and the aged.

At the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA), “Brightness: Artists from Creativity Explored, Creative Growth & NIAD,” May 19-Jan. 21, is a major, big blitz exhibition featuring works by world-renowned, local contemporary artists with developmental disabilities producing work across multiple mediums and styles. The artists arrive from three Bay Area institutions, Creativity Explored in San Francisco, Creative Growth in Oakland and NIAD (Nurturing Independence Through Artistic Development) in Richmond. 

Featured artists include Saul Alegria, Peter Cordova, Tranesha Smith-Kilgore, Marlon Mullen, Dorian Reid, William Scott, Dinah Shapiro, Nicole Storm and Marilyn Wong. The works expressed in multiple disciplines—painting, sculpture, film, multimedia, textiles and more—are organized in three sections.

Section one, “Welcome,” presents visitors with introductions to artists involved in creating the exhibition with large-scale video portraits, a video showing the artists working in the gallery, and brief profiles of each of the three institutions and artists working in their studio locations. In the gallery space, a curated arrangement of artworks on display encircles a large table where artists and visitors can sit together. Visitors meet the artists Elias Katz and Florence Ludins-Katz, who founded the partnering organizations during the disability rights movement in the 1970s and 1980s. 

In the exhibition’s second section, “The World Around and Within,” artists’ works reveal their visions of individual, immediate worlds and the larger world around them. The final section, “Language and Communication,” highlights the artists who concentrate on using text, language and other communication models as the form and subject matter for their art.

NIAD executive director Amanda Eicher, responding in an email to interview questions about the partnership with OMCA and greater visibility for artists with developmental disabilities, says, “It is rare that museums approach projects with the depth of curiosity that OMCA brought to this exhibition, from early and informal conversations at NIAD (and all of our spaces) to the intricate layers of consultations with and among organizations that have generated this show. 

“I remember early on voicing that we didn’t think this show could happen without acknowledging the pandemic,” Eicher notes. “It couldn’t be out of place with time and context, as that would negate our artists’ approach, which is inherently contemporary. 

“The way that OMCA has opened a channel of communication with each organization through the Artists Advisory Group and the many sub conversations surrounding exhibition development has illuminated many new possibilities. While our organizations had already developed a culture of rich collaboration over the past 5-10 years, the process of this show has proven there are infinite ways we can seek opportunities for artists to come together, and to allow their leadership to bring organizational collaboration to new levels,” she continues.

Speaking specifically about NIAD’s artists, and on the broad platform of artists with developmental disabilities working in collective studios, Eicher says they represent some of the most committed artists and practices in the art world. “Many of our artists work five days a week, in conversation with each other and with facilitators who are contemporary artists, and for decades (they have built) highly nuanced portfolios and presences which have the power to redefine our contemporary art world for the better.

“The choice on the part of OMCA to devote its largest exhibitions space to this survey show echoes a gesture by many museums and galleries—SFMOMA, MOMA, Studio Museum of Harlem, the Whitney, among others—to collect and present works by artists working in conversation with each other in collective studios designed by these artists’ continued practices for collaboration and support. Our studios are not unlike graduate schools, but practices often extend to become lifetimes in the arts,” she states.

All of which makes future collaborations a ripe topic for discussion. Eicher says NIAD is already exploring future programs and exhibits. While all three organizations are working intently with various museum and gallery partners to advance their individual missions, joint opportunities present appreciable benefit to the Bay Area community.  

“From strategic direction and policy at the board level, to reciprocal sponsorship of each others’ development activities, to program-level collaboration on a daily basis, NIAD is committed to this partnership throughout our operations and programming, and we are thrilled to have committed partners in Creativity Explored and Creative Growth,” says Eicher. “Beyond this, it is a gift to work with museum teams like the Into the Brightness working group at OMCA, whose excellence really does help realize additional possibilities from sponsorships to traveling exhibitions and more.”

Across the Bay Bridge, “Black Venus” opens April 5 at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco. The exhibit, curated by Nigerian-British curator and art historian Aindrea Emelife, surveys the legacy of Black women in visual culture and explores their historically fetishized, colonial-era caricatures.

The 19 contemporary artists whose works are featured include Sadie Barnette, Deana Lawson, Zanele Muholi, Kara Walker, Carrie Mae Weems, Yetunde Olagbaju, Alberta Whittle, Amber Pinkerton, Ayana V. Jackson, Carla Williams, Coreen Simpson, Frida Orupabo, Ming Smith, Maud Sulter, Lorna Simpson, Renee Cox, Shawanda Corbett, Tabita Rezaire and Taiye Idahor.

Along with depictions dating back to 1793, over 45 contemporary works present a global, cross-generational investigation that was originally created for Fotografiska in New York and debuted in 2022. Primarily photographic, the exhibit also includes sculpture, mixed media and film. Expanded and updated for Bay Area audiences with the inclusion of local artists and pieces from local collections, “Black Venus” travels to Somerset House in London after its West Coast stop at MoAD.

The Hottentot Venus, a visual-culture archetype named for the assigned stage name of Saartje Baartman (born 1789 in South Africa), tells the story of a Black woman enslaved by Dutch colonizers, who was toured around Europe as part of a “freak show” due to her non-Western body type. 

“Caricatured depictions of her spread around the globe and indelibly catalyzed the Western exoticization and othering of Black women. In ‘Black Venus,’ archival depictions of Baartman and other historical Black women pair with vibrant, narrative portraiture by some of today’s most influential Black image-makers whose work deals with layered narratives of Black femininity,” according to MoAD’s program notes.

“Viewers are invited to confront the racial and sexual objectification and embodied resistance that make up a significant part of the Black woman’s experience—and to celebrate the current upheaval of this stereotype, at the hands of Black artists,” says curator and historian Emelife in a press release. 

“In an age where Black women are taking positions in power, fronting the covers of fashion magazines, and taking up space in all manner of fields and industries, it is a reminder to look back and see how far we’ve come, so we can look to the future,” Emelife continues. “The most contemporary examples in the show are unabashed, riotous affronts showcasing all that Black womanhood can be and has always been.”

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