O ne of the New York spring season’s most anticipated exhibitions is Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America, now open at the New Museum. Conceived and curated by the late Okwui Enwezor, it was one of the final projects the great exhibition-maker was working on when he died in 2019. Grief and Grievance explores the interrelated phenomena of white grievance and the sustained violence against Black people that grows from it, and grief, which results as a defining condition of Black life in the US. The show includes a roster of stars from Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jack Whitten to Carrie Mae Weems and LaToya Ruby Frazier.
Artforum and Sotheby’s recently organised a panel discussion that paid tribute to one of the great curators of our time while exploring the show’s themes. Moderated by artist Malik Gaines, the panel included the Guggenheim Museum’s newly appointed deputy director and chief curator Naomi Beckwith, and New Museum artistic director Massimiliano Gioni along with artists Theaster Gates and Julie Mehretu.
Gaines launched the discussion with weighty questions: How do we attend to Black death? Can the resources of Black imagination and expression ever be exhausted?
Beckwith, one of the curatorial advisors on the project and formerly a senior curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, volunteered that “The show proposes, I think, that the way to crystallise Black grief is as myriad as all the artists in the show,” pointing to the great diversity of Black artistic practices. And those are ever-changing. “The truth of life sometimes requires that we transform our forms,” suggested Gates. “There are moments when revolutionary acts cause us to do things that are not in the nature of our artistic practice but that seem necessary for the times.”
Gaines observed that Enwezor’s influence runs deep, starting with the many exhibitions he created, such as The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa 1945–1994, Documenta 11 and the 2015 Venice Biennale. What Mehretu called the “decolonial moment” that Enwezor helped to create was “foundational to who I am, and to a whole generation,” she said.
“You are constantly exposed to the sound of life”
A visibly emotional Gates seconded the note about Enwezor’s profound influence. “Before meeting Okwui,” he said, “I couldn’t bring my entire practice to the museum. It was Okwui that gave me permission to be my whole self, and it was Okwui that gave us all permission to be as fabulous as we wanted to be, to be as radically thinking, to be as intellectually coherent.” And that influence wasn’t just on artists, he added. “If artists of colour and Black artists do their best,” Gates said, “curation could do its best.”
The exhibition explores two of Enwezor’s abiding interests – photography and abstraction – and the discussion returned several times to the point that those are not opposite artistic forms. “There’s a false binary between abstraction and figuration, set up through a Western modernist dichotomy,” Beckwith said, “and Okwui arrived to explode those false binaries. Abstraction can have content and figuration can be void.”
And if death is the subject of some works in the show, as Gioni pointed out, “Okwui wanted the show to have life in it. You are constantly exposed to the sound of life, in contrast with some of the sombre images.”
Enwezor’s thinking was ambitious enough even to allow room for the incomprehensible, Gates revealed. Recounting a conversation about an upcoming performance by his group the Black Monks of Mississippi at Enwezor’s Venice Biennale, he said: “I told Okwui that the monks might start speaking in tongues, and he told me, ‘Some things are not meant to be understood.’”
Gates added a lesson he took from Enwezor’s thinking that all would do well to remember, and that applies to the manifold forms of Black expression in the show.
“The modalities of artistic form,” Gates said, “should be complicated.”
LEAD IMAGE: Installation view of Grief and Grievance featuring Dawoud Bey, Michael-Anthony Allen and George Washington and Taylor Falls and Deborah Hackworth, from the series The Birmingham Project, 2012