Post Cards From Firenze

The Black Portraitures (11) Conference, May 29-31, 2015

The 3rd in a 5-part series on the conference

Standing: unidentified (partial view), Kalia Brooks, Ellyn Toscano, Mary Schmidt Campbell, Chirlane McCray, Deborah Willis, unidentified, Kellie Jones (partial view) Photo: Riccardo Cavallari/courtesy of New York University

Artist Omar Victor Diop. Everyone was all smiles. Photo: Riccardo Cavallari/courtesy of NYUThe "Post Cards From Firenze" documentation initially was planned as a way for participants in the Black Portraiture{s} II: Imaging the Black Body and Re-Staging Histories conference to share moments from their experience in Florence (Firenze), Italy with IRAAA readers.

Ellyn Toscano, director, NYU Florence However, we knew that the conference experience would be all-consuming for our three correspondents, two of whom were presenting, and they wouldn't have much time for reporting. So this documentation has been abundantly augmented by photography provided by New York University.

The post card idea nostalgically recalls the time when "having a great time - wish you were here" messages were scribbled on cards with “post-card blue” sky scenes, affixed with unusual, collectible stamps and saved, as small souvenirs, by recipients.  We would like to infuse some of that old sentiment into the new technolgy: so much love to share from Florence as well as information to impart. 

Conference Opening Remarks by Chirlane McCray

Remarks by Chirlane McCray opened the conference. Photo: Riccardo Cavallari/courtesy of New York University Because of her husband Bill deBlasio’s roots in the country, the Italiano-Africano connection at the conference was perfectly exemplified by New York City First Lady Chirlane McCray. Her opening remarks at the conference addressed the role of art in helping young people develop a healthy self-image and the de Blasio administration’s efforts to help New York City cultural institutions become more diverse and inclusive. 

Unindentified woman. One of many spirited moments. Photo: Riccardo Cavallari/courtesy of New York University  Unidentified woman: yes! Photo: Riccardo Cavallari/courtesy of New York University During her talk, McCray expressed her love of art and her concern about low African American visitation at museums. She also spoke poignantly about beauty — the concept of “blackness and beauty” that conference organizer Deborah Willis has made a speciality of documenting and dissecting.  McCray recalled an adolescent experiment of trying out a wig. “I thought I looked pretty damn good,” she said. Then she overheard this whispered comment: “Chirlane kind of looks like a prostitute, don’t ya think?”  A full account of Chirlane McCray remarks at the conference is in this New York Times article

From Firenze—“Con amore,” Dell M. Hamilton

Activating Histories: Visualizing the Restaging the Archive. Photo: Dell M. HamiltonDell M. Hamilton sent her first post on May 29, 2015 with the message below. Hamilton is an artist, writer and curator and former assistant director at the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.  Her presentation for the “Blackness in the Public Sphere: A Dark Room Roundtable” session of the conference was “Trouble My Water: Public and Private Actions of Self” on her art and how she deploys her own body and personal memories “to engage with the aftermath of trauma and its implications for understanding race, gender, and history.” 

Art historian and curator Renee Mussai presented a rich discussion on what she calls "The Missing Chapter" — images that were uncovered in the Hulton Archive of Getty Images and which were presented in 2014 at Autograph ABP in London. This complex array of reproductions depicted the various and distinguished Africans who traveled to Britain during the 19th and early 20th century but whose countenances have not been viewed by the public in over 100 years. While the images reverberate with not only the absences and presences that shadowbox with the past, they also reveal the savvy use the photographic medium as a tool for political agency, beauty, dignity and black subjectivity.

(Photo above) Mussai is far right during the "Activating Histories: Visualizing and Restaging the Archive session."  Also on the panel, l-r, are Tiffany Gill, Tanisha C. Ford, Kalia Brooks, Kellie Jones and Mary Schmidt Campbell.

Dell M. Hamilton’s second post (photo below right) came with these remarks:

From left to right; Kwame Coleman, Nikki Greene, Imani Uzuri, Matthew D. Morrison, with moderator Hank Thomas.

Out of Body panel. Photo: Dell M. HamiltonFor the panel "Out of Body: Composing Blackness through Sound, Music and Performance" Kwame Coleman, Nikki Greene, Imani Uzuri and Matthew D. Morrison argued for closer readings of musical genres that play a crucial role in providing visual artists and performers important frameworks to manifest their aesthetic concerns.

 In a beautiful shift from theory and history Uzuri, who is a vocalist and composer, did what she does best when she raised her vibration and joyously altered the atmosphere with her soulful rendition of "Wade in the Water" and "Bread of Heaven.”

Professor Greene also provided a deeper look at the work of Sun Ra and the complex impact that his "Afro-Futurist" outlook as articulated in his 1974 film "Space is the Place" has empowered contemporary artists like Radcliffe Bailey, Ellen Gallagher and many other artists. Such an "Afro-Futurist" vision engenders artists with the audacity to say "I'll Make Me a World" - a world that is riven with art, possibility and the transcendence of space and time. 

From Firenze and Venezia — “Sweet inspiration!” Michelle-Renee Perkins

View from my balcony (in Venice). Photo: Michelle-Renee PerkinsCalle de la Pozzeta. Photo: Michelle-Renee PerkinsMichelle-Renee Perkins sent shots of her Venice and Florence visits with brief notes. Perkins' is an artist, art educator and student at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts.  

Click, click, click — wandering through the pavilions at the Biennale, Michelle-Renee Perkins merrily shot  Adrian Piper’s Probable Trust Registry, Kerry James paintings,, Melvin Edwards sculpture, a photo-based Lorna Simpson piece and other artwork at the Venice pavilions  and submitted them with her message. 

We’d forgotten to give her complete instructions!  As a rule, IRAAA does not reproduce views of artworks without the permission of the artist or artist representative or curator, unless they are public domain images,
Canal with red boats. Photo: Michelle-Renee Perkinsinstallation views or are part of a scene. The policy is followed although in the wild, wild west that is the digital publishing world, art image nabbing without permission is commonplace.   So because we play by the (copyright) rules, we are mostly illustrating Perkins’ “postcard” messages with the charming outdoor scenes she shot. 

My first trip to Venice was in 2013 for the 55th Venice Biennale. Simply put, I was awestruck.  The town itself was breathtaking and picturesque but to see the display of art on such a grand scale caused me to come down with case of serious sensory overload. In the best way imaginable, I experienced hyperesthesia. 

Rainy day in the plaza. Photo: Michelle-Renee PerkinsWhen it was announced that the curator was 56th Venice Biennale International Art was Nigerian-born writer, curator and art critic Okwui Enwezor, I made up my mind to find a way to attend. 

Enwezor’s appointment is an event in the international art world because he serves as the first African curator in the 120 years since the first art exhibition began (1895).  Enwezor serves on many advisory boards including the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art and in 2014 Art Review listed him as one of top 100 most powerful figures in the art world.  Therefore my thinking, along with a host of others, was that this 56th Exhibition would be an opportunity to potentially see a more comprehensive presentation of African 16-century warehouse that serves as a Biennale exhibition spaceDiaspora art featured throughout the central pavilions.    

Installation view, Biennale exhibition. Photo: Michelle-Renee Perkins ‘La Biennale’ is displaying artists from 53 countries from May 9  to November 22, 2015. The artworks exhibited Giardini and Arsenale exhibition halls, in addition to other sites through out the city, reflect a combination of traditional and non-traditional art forms and artists posited within Enwenzor’s principal question: how art and artists may bring “order to make sense of the current upheaval?” 

Some of the African American artists featured at the exhibition are Mel Edwards, Theaster Gates, Glenn Ligon, Kerry James Marshall, Wangechi Mutu, Adrian Piper and Lorna Simpson.    

Kara Walker set design. Photos: Michelle Renee-PerkinsHere’s Kara Walker’s set design for the Teatro La Fenice’s production of Norma by Vincenzo Bellini. I attended the performance.

In announcing Kara Walker's involvement, the Teatro said:

Photo: Michelle-Renee PerkinsDirection, sets and costumes will be by the American artist Kara Walker who, in the light of her artistic experience, will try her hand at the strong themes of this opera; she has always focussed on the implicit contradictions of domination and power, the political and psychological consequences of racial and sexual prejudice, as well as on the trauma that accompanies identity formation in contexts of oppression and violence.

As the artistic director of Fondazione Teatro La Fenice, Fortunato Ortombina points out, “The concept of domination plays a key role in Norma: the Roman proconsul Pollione seduces and falls in love with a priestess of Gaul, conquered by the Romans. This theme is very close to Kara Wallker’s heart, who was also chosen owing to the distance and alterity of her art compared to our operatic traditions."

“Norma represents the high point, if not the absolute peak of canto in the opera”, the artistic director continues, “and the paradox of an art that transforms the narration of acts of brutality and the abuse of power into something beautiful is one of the main themes of .Walker’s work. She is known for her elegant and seemingly traditional black silhouettes set against a white background, the allure of which is unsettled by the artist’s complex and provocative reworking of this form to narrate the history of black slavery in the American South." 

.(Left) Thomas Allen and others at the Villa La Pietra. It was something to behold! (Photo: Michelle Renee Perkins. Also shown: Andrea Barthwell Brownlee, Spelman College Museum of Fine Art [center].) (Right) Michaela Angela Davis and yours truly (Michelle-Renee Perkins). 

From Firenze  — “as always,” Michele Wallace  

Michelle Wallace (c) with Imani Uzuri and an art historian from WellesleyMichele Wallace is a Professor of English, Africana Studies, Women’s Studies and Film Studies in the Ph.D. Program in English at The CUNY Graduate Center and at the City College of New York. Her presentation for the “Representing Place and Race” conference session, “Reading the Harlem Renaissance in Toni Morrison’s Jazz,” examines visual, musical and historical (i.e., the Great Migration) aspects of Morrison’s novel.

Concerning Renee Mussai's talk on the archival photos from the African Choir, a stunning deeply moving presentation, perfectly executed on these 120 year old photos of South Africans performing in London to raise money for a project at home, bringing to mind the DuBois Negro. (The panel is shown in the photo above by Dell M. Hamilton.)

With Thomas Allan HarrisExhibition photos first shown at the Paris Exposition of 1900, photos of Ota Benga at the St Louis World's Fair of 1904, of The Dahomey Village at the Columbian Exposition in 1893 and other world's fairs, as well as the recently rediscovered wealth of photographic images of slaves in Brazil. Since slavery did not end there until the 1880s, when photography was entering its global prime, brazil may have the largest digital archive of slave photos of anywhere in the African Diaspora.

With Andrea Barthwell Brownlee (director of Spelman College Museum of Art)I have been following the work of her organization's Autograph APB since I first learned of them at the first Black Portraiture's Conference. They organized this exhibition, of which she displayed installation shots at Black Portraiture juxtaposing these unvaryingly distinguished faces with quotations from the great British  Cultural Studies Master (of Jamaican origin) Stuart Hall. The challenge to the idea of photography as canonical was palpable.

Talk on Lampedusa's photos. Photo: Michele Wallace

(Right photo) Discussion concerning Lampedusa's photographs of the resulting travesty of desperate migrants fleeing war and poverty on the African continent, abandoned to the waves of the Mediterrean by Europeans who might rescue them.

Migrants' sheet-covered bodies. Michele Wallace's photo of Lampedusa's photoThe "Lampedusa’s Burning: Black Corpses, White Sheets" discussion was led by Allesandra De Maio, a professor at the University of Palermo, Italy.  Here's the abstract of her talk:

Black Italia panel. Photo: Riccardo Cavallari/courtesy of New York UniversityThe Mediterranean has become one of the world’s most critical sites of illegal mass-migration. People from the Maghreb and Sub-Saharan Africa have crossed the sea hoping to find democracy and better life conditions in Europe.The small island of Lampedusa, Italy’s most southern outpost, has become a favorite landing destination.

On October 3, 2013, a boat sank off the coasts of Lampedusa. Hundreds of corpses were stranded on what that year was voted by Trip Advisor the world’s most beautiful beach. The images of those dead bodies have remained in everyone’s mind, transforming Italy’s collective imagination. However, only 26 dead bodies were found after the February 2015 shipwreck. Despite the intensive rescue operations, the remaining corpses were nowhere to be found. Families, friends, communities were deprived of the possibility to mourn the bodies of their beloved – a recurring story in the history of the Mediterranean ‘burning’. While Italy, Europe, and the world continue to watch and participate in this blatant violation of human rights, part of the civil society is responding by invoking one of the oldest human impulses – mourning through commemoration. A flash mob was staged in Milan ensuing the shipwreck. Hundreds of people lied down in Milan’s elegant Galleria wrapped in white sheets, commemorating in solidarity the dead of the Mediterranean. The missing black bodies were represented by “white ghosts”, gathered to re-member and mourn those who had not survived the crossing. As always in the diaspora, the power of representation fills the gaps of dis-membered narratives, proposing new connections and ultimately assuring endurance. 

Walking the streets of Florence these past few days, one can feel the desperation of the African vendors and beggars, many of whom say they are Senegalese, although they speak Italian.

David Driskell. Photo: Michele WallaceArt historian, artist, art collector, art everything(!) David Driskell came down from Sienna to attend the conference at the Villa La Pietra. He was teaching African American art history at the University of Sienna.

Renee Cox. Photo: Michele WallaceFine art photographer Renee Cox kept her camera ready. 

Here are Renee and Marilyn Nance checking their pictures at the Villa.

Renee Cox and Marilyn Nance. Photo: Michele WallaceI first met Vera Grant at Stanford when she invited me for a conference on black feminisms. Now she spearheads the Elbelbert Cooper Center at Harvard. She is one of the most brilliant people I have ever met.

Good to see Angela Ards.  She was my editor at the Village Voice when I took over Lisa Jones's column.

One of the talks was on reactions to Exhibit B, an installation by the white South African artist Brett Bailey.  

Vera Grant and me at the Villa. Photo: Michele Wallace collectionThe exhibit in which actual black people are caged is based on the exploitative “ethnographic” displays of Africans as freaks of nature and oddities at European fairs in the 19th century and early 20th centuries.  It’s been shown at various venues in Europe.

Brett Bailey said his intent is to expose the old racist practice — to show its horror and subvert it  — but black protesters say that he is continuing the degrading spectacle of putting blacks on display in cages for the curious gaze of whites.

Here's an image from University of Chicago film scholar Jacqueline Najuma Stewart presentation on filmmaker and comedian Spencer Williams (of Amos and Andy fame). The moderator Sam Samuel D. Pollard on her right. Soon after her return to the U.S., Stewart will be introducing a screening of Williams' "The Blood of Jesus" at the Museum of Modern Art. All the films are ones he directed, not always black. 

Took some shots of this wonderful talk on my panel, "Representing Place and Race" on May 31. Presenters were Marilyn Mobley, Ann Rice, Lena Hill, Deborah Jack, Carol Dixon

Schwanda Rountree − Always On-the-Go for Art

Schwanda Rountree. Photo: Riccardo Cavallari/courtesy New York UniversityWashington DC attorney, art collector and art advisor Schwanda Rountree attends major African Diaspora art events, where ever they may be. She's feeding her Florence photos to Instragram. 

Deborah Willis Appreciation

Carrie-Mae Weems. Photo: Riccardo Cavallari/courtesy New York University On May 30, after artist Carrie Mae Weems made her presentation on the Art in Embassies panel, she came back onto the stage to thank Deborah Willis for convening the extraordinary gathering. Overtaken by her depth of feeling, Weems begin to cry but pulled herself together. Deeply touched, the audience seconded that emotion.  

Ellen Toscano, Deborah Willis, unidentified, Cheryl Finley. Photo: Riccardo Cavallari/courtesy of New York UniversityWhen art historian Cheryl Finley came onstage for the next panel, she continued the appreciation. "Thank you for loving us so boldly...and for building institutions around it," Finley told Willis.

More From Michelle-Renee Perkins

The grounds of NYU's Villa La Pietra. Photo: Michelle-Renee PerkinsMichelle-Renee Perkins sent these four photos quickly as she was departing Florence for home, with this message: "The woman in the selfie is Diana Baird N'Diaye, Ph. D.  She is the Curator and Cultural Heritage Specialist at the Smithsonian Inst. Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage."  Deborah Willis (c) with friends. Photo: Michelle-Renee Perkins

With Diana Baird N'Diaye.  Photo: Michelle-Renee Perkins

With Carrie-Mae Weems. Photo: Michelle-Renee PerkinsThis is one of a series of articles on the Black Portraitures conference.  The other articles are:

A Blackamoor Is Not A Jigaboo

Behind the Scenes at the Black Portraitures Conference

Beauty, Power and Struggle

Portraitures (11) Portraits




Conference participants at opening event. Photo: Riccardo Cavallari/courtesy of New York University