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History, Identity, or None of the Above at Princeton
The 1920's...The Migrants Arrive and Cast Their Ballots ( from The Kent Portfolio: Spirit of Independence) Jacob Lawrence, American, 1917 – 2000, Serigraph, plate: 81.2 x 63.2 cm, sheet: 87.3 x 66 cm, Gift of Lorillard, a Division of Loews Theatres, Inc. © 2007 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

PRINCETON, NJ.- Works by modern and contemporary African American artists from the permanent collection and on loan to the Princeton University Art Museum are featured in the exhibition History, Identity, or None of the Above: Regarding African American Art on view at the museum through May 13, 2007.

Chosen to reflect the range and richness of the history of African American Art from the twentieth century onward, the works in the exhibition present a diversity of periods, geographic regions, subject matter, media, and techniques.

A screenprint by Jacob Lawrence documents the great migration of the 1920s, when thousands of African Americans headed northward seeking a better, more just life, here exemplified by the casting of ballots.

In a photograph by Dan Williams, an everyday scene speaks volumes. Four men sit on the back of a pick-up truck, their movement seemingly curtailed by a twisted wire rope that hovers in the foreground. What appears to be a moment of casual conversation thus becomes a commentary on contemporary politics and race relations.

Romare Bearden’s vibrant multimedia collage blends figurative and abstract motifs in a scene of power and pride. His work enters into resonant dialogue with that of Jean-Michel Basquiat, who combines text, image, and found object to create a pulsating surface that calls to mind the spectacle and grit of New York in the 1980s, even as it offers up a profound meditation on the nature of identity and culture in the modern (or postmodern) age.

“In spite of the variety of images, we may discern shared concerns, questions, and investments from this cross-section, two of which are evoked in the exhibition’s title through the terms history and identity,” says Rachael Z. DeLue, assistant professor in Princeton University’s Department of Art and Archaeology, who organized the exhibition.

“The works of Lawrence and Williams explore the manner in which images of everyday life might stand in for or serve as historical narratives, a process that parallels similar considerations on the part of artists such as William Earle Williams, whose photograph of a Civil War battleground raises questions about how one represents, memorializes, and remembers (or misremembers) the past. Similarly, Kara Walker’s lithographic print asks if one of the ugliest, most horrifying episodes in American history—slavery—can be given intelligible form at all,” she says.

Like Basquiat, several artists in the exhibition, including Mark S. Bradford, Iona Rozeal Brown, Glen Ligon, Stephen Marc, and Carla Williams, concern themselves with the nature and construction of identity: how we define what and who we are, how others define us, and which categories, including ethnicity and race, we use in creating these definitions.

Other artists initiate a different dialogue, one prompted by the exhibition as a whole. Devoid of easily identifiable subject matter or explicit allusions to African American identity or history, works by Howardeena Doreen Pindell and Lorna Simpson question the very viability of the category “African American” when used to describe, define, and categorize art. These objects make plain the problems associated with seeing art solely in terms of history or identity, at the expense of other meanings that might fall into the category “none of the above.”

This exhibition has been organized to accompany the second-semester course “History of African American Art,” taught by Professor DeLue. It is open to the public without charge.

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