Django may be unchained in movie theaters across the country, but no amount of blood-spurting revenge splatter from Jamie Foxx can make us feel any more comfortable about slavery – this country’s eternal shame. But while debates have been, and will continue to, rage on about the appropriateness of Quentin Tarantino’s racially charged spaghetti western, there’s no question that the artists in the Norton Museum’s new exhibition “Say it Loud” have every right to express their views on black history, of which the scourge of slavery – both institutional and otherwise – is a frequently appearing topic.
Taking its name from a militant 1968 recording by James Brown, “Say it Loud” was organized to showcase the depth and variety of African and African-American artists in the museum’s permanent collection. More than 20 artists’ works are displayed, and the dozens of pieces – ranging from figural to abstract, and from sculptures and tapestries to paintings, photographs and woodblocks – paint a diverse if culturally cohesive corpus of art that reflects and expounds upon African and African-American heritage, history and mythology. Spiritual consciousness runs through a multitude of works, from Carrie Mae Weems’ “Sea Island Songs” series, whose accompanying text includes pointers on how to rid a house of a spirit, to an untitled piece from Radcliffe Bailey’s “Kindred” series, which seeks to convene with African-American ancestors of the artist.
The supernatural and physical is just one coexisting duality that manifests in the best pieces of “Say it Loud,” which seem to operate on multiple levels. Whether overtly expressed, covertly embedded or artfully subtextualized, double meanings abound, and nothing is exactly what it seems. Thus, Willie Cole’s “Shield Field,” which may appear to the average viewer as an array of football-shaped autumn leaves floating across a rice-paper canvas, is really an abstract gaze at African-Americans’ shackled past, with the iron-shaped images suggesting slave ships, the “branding” of slaves and more.
Furthermore, Nick Cave’s “Soundsuit” (above), a mannequin studded from neck to toe with buttons and with the head replaced by a swirling vortex of red-and-white metal fibers, is both an aesthetically inventive costume and a commentary on the erasure of personal identity, which Cave has experienced as a double minority – as a gay man and a black man. The three street photographs by the legendary Gordon Parks are both poetically beautiful and strikingly social-realistic, revealing life even while they artistically enhance it.
While color-blind art movements from Renaissance painting to abstract expressionism to cubism all are represented by the black artists on display, the content of the pieces are distinctly African-American, and that’s what makes this exhibition so special. With few exceptions – Bob Thompson’s small painting “Bacchanal #7” achieves racial harmony through hedonistic abandon – the works are less about integration and assimilation than they are about asserting black identity and hammering home culturally specific points. Which brings us back to Quentin Tarantino, ironically enough, who would probably love my favorite piece in the exhibition, Betye Saar’s “Lest We Forget, on Whose Shoulders, We Now Stand.” A triptych of images rendered onto three washboard panels, this profound piece of agitprop liberates Aunt Jemima from her history of racist iconography. On a device designed for cleaning, she stands proudly opposite an image of a servile cleaning woman, and she’s clutching a machinegun, looking like a force to be reckoned with – the embodiment of “I’m Black and I’m Proud,” the rhyming couplet completing James Brown’s “Say it Loud.”
Or, to put it another way, she is Jemima unchained.
"Say it Loud" is at the Norton Museum of Art, 1451 S. Olive Ave., West Palm Beach, through March 3. Call 561/832-5196 or visit norton.org.