Behind the Scenes of the Black Portraitures Conference

with ReSignifications Show Curator Awam Amkpa and NYU Trustee Robert Holmes

Juliette Harris

 Note: For a broad sampling of images in curator Awam Amkpa's ReSignifications exhibition, see this article.  A number of images in the article below are from his previous exhibitions)

The Long Run Up to the Conference

Awam Amkpa. Photo: New York UniversityRobert Holmes. Photo: New York UniversityFor Awam Amkpa and Robert Holmes, two of the organizers of the May 29-May 31, 2015 Black Portraitures conference in Florence, the travel from the U.S. to Italy, is not just a several-hour flight but a metaphorical journey of a lifetime — one that employs art to support their social, economic and political convictions, and vice versa.

Awam Amkpa is associate professor of drama at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and associate professor in Africana Studies Social and Cultural Analysis in NYU’s College of Arts and Sciences.

Robert Holmes is an  art collector, New York University trustee and former corporate counsel.

Amkpa curated the ReSignifcations exhibition held in conjunction with the conference and on view at three sites in Florence. Holmes helped to fund the exhibition and assisted with planning and preparations. Holmes is also presenting at the conference.

Actually Seeing is Key For Awam Amkpa

The view of African “otherness” has often been biased against it because conventional ways of seeing have favored its opposite.  

But it hasn’t always been that way.  

Drawing by early European explorer to Africa. Photo: from journal in British Library collectionAdmirable depictions of African others embellished utensils, jewelry and coins in classical Greece and Rome, for example. And early explorers to Africa were fascinated by physical difference and unusual styles they saw there. “(Both) sexes…weave their hair into beautiful tresses which they tie into various knots, though it be very short,”  Portugeuse explorer Cado Mosto wrote of the Senegalese in 1455.

But an inability or unwillingness to see African otherness from the viewpoint of the "other," as well as what we have in common, has informed much of how Westerners "see" (i.e., do not see) Africans.  As a consequence, the news about Africa in the West generally is bad: failed states, genocide, disease. 

The news out of Europe about the Africa immigrant experience there is usually bad too: boat people, unemployment and race riots.  

These biased views and bad news continually to feed on themselves and each other.  It’s jaundiced, bad news machinery of intersecting forces, not an individual operative, that overwhelms the collective seeing. An individual operator can become enlightened but how to enlighten a mindless machinery perpetually in motion? The ReSignifications exhibition grew out of curator Awam Amkpa’s sustained quest to employ photography as a tool to answer this question.

Matteo Danesin photo for the AfroEuropa: Incontri exhibitionHe was concerned that immigration had become a problem — that African immigrants were “portrayed exclusively as a problem and as victims.”  Fleeing impoverished and oppressive conditions, Africans who made their way to Italy were generally seen as hawkers of overpriced goods on the street and prostitutes soliciting money. Feeling that the contributions of African immigrants were not recognized, he asked, “Can we actually see these people in their diversity, can we give them a chance to be human in their adopted homeland?”  Can we actually see?

Marco Ambrosi photo for the AfroEuropa: Incontri exhibitionSo with Annalisa Butticci and Madala Hilaire, he organized the AfroEuropa: Incontri Photography exhibition which was on view in 2010 at contemporary gallery in Florence.  It had opened under a different name at Schomburg Center and at the MOCADA museum in Brooklyn. 

His current exhibition is Africa: See You, See Me which was commissioned by Africa.Cont of Lisbon, Portugal. Since its inception in 2010, Africa: See You, See Me has traveled to in Florence and Rome, Italy; Beijing, China; Lagos, Nigeria; and Dakar, Senegal.

Kiluanji Kia Henda, Merchant of Venice photo for Africa: See You, See Me exhibitionThe "See You, See Me” core of the title was taken from a sign on one of the many produce transport trucks in West Africa that are painted with colorful imagery and slogans. Pithy "See You, See Me" suggests how visual imagery is key to facilitating parity among various peoples and global understanding.

Africa: See You, See Me Patrizia Guerresi photo for Africa: See You, See Me exhibitioncombines artistic photographs by numerous African photographers with works from non-African image makers such as Lyle Aston Harris and Hank Wills Thomas.  Its purpose is to create an open dialogue and show how “Africans view themselves when they are left in charge of creating/showcasing Africa’s image for global viewership,” says Amkpa.

Mounting the ReSignifications Exhibition

A few days before the ReSignifications exhibition opened, Awam Ampka, intensely busy in Florence, gave this account of the final prep:

This week I feel like a conductor of a large orchestra, bringing the various strands of the artworks, the three venues and different versions of the primary narrative of reframing and resignifying the history of representing African bodies. I am cleaning up editorial problems with the catalogue which unfortunately will come out a week later. I am matching my designs with the challenges of each exhibition space. I am also installing in three venues within four and half days!

Zak Ove photograph for Africa: See You, See Me exhibitionMy curatorial vision includes bringing into unusual artistic dialogue, famous and emerging artists who not only aesthetically reference each other but participate in developing visual mosaic of a specific historical phenomenon. 

The research took me to various exhibitions large and small in Africa, Europe, South America and Caribbean — meeting artists and venues. This project began six years ago. I intentionally brought the superbly famous artists with those whose works are either just beginning or never been juxtaposed with those of the more successful artists. 

The honor all the artists gave us to bring their works together is perhaps the most exciting part of the project for me.

The Challenges of Organizing a Large International Exhibition

Lyle Aston Harris photograph for Africa: See You, See Me exhibitionAlfredo Oliveiria photograph for Africa: See You, See Me exhibitionIt is conceptually exciting to imagine bringing various artifacts and artists from different parts of the world. The cosmopolitanism of my projects demand that. 

Our challenges include legal and administrative documentation, shipping nightmares and good relations with Customs. 

The specter of missing works enroute keeps me awake most nights, the disappointments of not being able to bring all the artists physically to the venues also frustrates. These ventures are financially demanding and it is hard to rely on one source due to its scope. 

Andrew Dosunmo photograph for Africa: See You, See Me exhibitionAnirban Outtagupta photgraph for Africa: See You, See Me exhibitionFortunately, being NYU, we were able to garner support from various sources including the university and trustees like Robert Holmes. The other challenge which is exhilarating and the same time intense, is the ability to fluently install in two existing collections thereby creating a visual dialogue between their pastness and the contemporary reality of black bodies and citizenships.

Research and Collaboration

Majida Khattari photograph for Africa: See You, See Me exhibitionI was on sabbatical when I began the research and processes of developing the concept of the exhibition. I spent a semester in the Acton collections at NYU Florence. This project is a collaboration and convergence between 3 sectors of the university. A trustee, an administrator and a member of the faculty collaborated in developing and sustaining the idea and finding the financial and administrative support to actualize it. Our collaboration has developed into a most comfortable and reliable friendship and comradeship.

Engaging Contemporary Artists with the Blackamoor Image

It was our collective idea to take another look at the blackamoors in NYU's collection, engage them in the kinds of knowledge we produce and find ways of relating them to contemporary meanings and ways of seeing black bodies. 

Angèle Etoundi Essamba (Cameroonian ReSignifications artist) Dans L’autre Regard 9, mounted on aluminum and plexiglassThe support from the producer (Robert Holmes) and the executive producer  (Ellyn Toscano) made it easy for me to pursue the ambition of firstly, attracting some artists to take residence and respond to them, then using such outcomes to relate to other contemporary artists broadly working on contemporary ideas on the same subject. 

These intersections between contemporary artists and the works, with those whose works continue to use artistic conventions to speak to representations of blackness not simply as objects but protagonistic subjects of history and cultures. The intellectual support of my NYU colleagues such as Deb Willis and Manthia Diawara adds to the audacity with which I challenge and trouble the boundaries of knowledge in the African and African diasporic world.  

 Ebony G. Patterson (Jamaican Resignifications artist) Entourage, “Fambily” Series, 2011, digital print on nylon with metal grommets. Monique Meloche Gallery, ChicagoThe exhibition runs until the end of August and even before its opening, has attracted invitations from museums in Europe and the Middle East. 

I look forward to audience and locational engagements with the exhibition. Interesting, we are working in the same cultural environment animated by the brilliant and exciting Venice bienale curated by Okwui Enwezor. It is a gift and honor of sorts to broaden the wider scope of Venice with the specifics of our project.

With Alfonso Alvares Attitude

Let me borrow from a certain Alfonso Alvares who, in a play about a Portuguese African saint said: "My color does not disfigure my honor or my wit." 

The artists honored us with their works and our task is to return such honors by expanding the rhetorical and socially discursive histories of their works. 

Bob Holmes — “Possessed”

Robert Holmes. Photo from Fall 1976 issue of black art: an international quarterlyBy age 32, Robert Holmes was working in Hollywood as chief counsel of Motown Record Company and Film Works and despite his relative youth and residence in the capitol of glitz, had become a wise patron of African American artists and a steady steward of their work.  So intent was his support for their recognition that he, not entirely jokingly, referred to himself as “possessed.”  It was 1976 and he was dismayed that so much great talent was being overlooked. 

To appreciate African American art, he wrote, at the time, “is not necessarily to collect it, to savor it, to store it, to adore it, to catalog it, to hunt for it, to hoard it, to meet with other collectors, to write articles such as this one, to pressure to cajole or entreat museums to acquire the works of black artists, to introduce black artists to galleries, to read books about black artists or to acquaint friends with the works of newly discovered black  art talent.  These things separate the collector from the sometime buyer — or, as some would characterize it, the possessed from the sane.”

Holmes' spirited litany, in an otherwise straightforward account, suggests that he viewed his support of the art as a calling, a devotion, not an avocation. 

He was writing the collector’s column for the Fall 1976 issue of the IRAAA (then called black art: an international quarterly) based on having already amassed an art collection that included masters such as Elizabeth Catlett and emerging artists whose talent he knew how to recognize.  It is not enough “to buy a work by an artist who happens to ‘draw well’… Technical ability is but a given criterion for art talent today,”  he said. He advised the aspiring collector to learn how to discern artists with exceptional imaginations and to keep up with developments in art.    

After Motown, Holmes' upward trajectory continued as he became a vice president of Arista Records and then executive vice president of Sony Pictures Entertainment’s Music Group and president of its music publishing companies.

Robert Holmes (right) with artist James McMacmillan, 2009. Photo: Patrick BradfordAlong the way, Holmes amassed an art collection of more than 600 works. And while he’s witnessed advances for African American artists over the four decades of his collecting life, he insists that problems persist.  “Literally thousands of books have been written about Picasso, Monet, Matisse and Modigliani, detailing who they were, what they did when not producing art and who their marriage partners or lovers were,” he explained to IRAAA in 2011.  We don’t know these kinds of details about African American artists, he said. Holmes also believes that “the value of African American art is terribly depressed” with regard to the value assigned to comparable works by other artists.

Fred Wilson work loaned by Robert Holmes to ReSignificationsSo he continues to vigorously “proselytize” for African American artists — "for their art and for the whole art movement.” His patronage includes supporting the Black Portraitures' ReSignifications exhibition.

Derrick Maddox, Blackamoors No More, 2015, mixed media collage/painting,  50 x 44”“My involvement was giving funds to assist in the exhibitions, writing an article for the catalog, consulting with Awam (Amkpa) and Ellyn (Toscano) and lending four pieces to the shows, including a piece by Fred Wilson, to pieces by the Los Angeles based artist Derrick Maddox as well as a piece, ArtGuard, 2000, by the Los Angeles-based artist Deni Ponty," he wrote in an email from Florence. "Also, I will be a panelist on two panels during the conference, one on the subject of blackamoors and the other on the Motown sound.” He’d arrived in Florence several days before the opening to help with prep.

 Derrick Maddox, You See Sinner, 2014, mixed media assemblage 

With Robert Holmes’ underwriting support and the administrative support of Ellyn Toscano, director of NYU’s Villa Pietra center, curator Awam Amkpa was able to arrange for some artists to travel to Florence to reside in the Villa and study the blackamoors in its art collection as preparation for their “significations.”  

Why Are The Oppressed So Revered?

Some ReSignifications artists conducted research on the blackamoor tradition from home, including Derrick Maddox who received a commission from Robert Holmes to to create two works that he would loan to the show. 

Shortly before the show opened, Derrick Maddox reflected on his research and said it was based on this question, “Why are the oppressed so revered?”: 

Detail of Derrick Maddox, Blackamoors No More, 2015I did not travel to Italy but have done extensive research about the blackmoors history in Europe, especially in regards to blackamoor imagery appearing the family crest of royal families through out Europe and seeing that some of these families have blood relations to the moors. So I am trying to figure out the riddle of why the colonizers of people would have a black person on there family crest.

I don't quite buy the myth that the black person appears in the family crest because he saved someone in the family from a dangerous animal, and if that is the truth, why is it that same myth is shared by almost every royal family in Europe? Why is that these images of oppression and servitude are so prominently displayed in the house of the wealthy?

So my question is "Why are the oppressed so revered?" You can see this today with the influence of 'African American' culture around the world. It's like everyone wants to be  "black" without being black. I don't want to go to deep because I'll be writing all day. so my pieces question the inner and outer perceptions of race."

This is one of a series of articles on the Black Portraitures conference.  The other articles are:

A Blackamoor Is Not A Jigaboo

Beauty, Power and Struggle

Post Cards From Firenze

Portraitures (11) Portraits