In 2018, Nigerian curator and art critic Okwui Enwezor began planning “Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America,” an exhibition centered on the themes of Black grief and white grievance, at the New Museum in New York City.
In his plans, Enwezor cited Donald Trump “appealing to white grievance” to win the presidency.
But Enwezor’s exhibition, which is on view through June 6, reaches beyond this point to feature more than three dozen contemporary Black American artists who represent the concepts “of mourning, commemoration, and loss as a direct response to the national emergency of black grief,” he imagined.
Some events, however, unfolded differently than the curator could have predicted.
In March 2019, Enwezor, 55, died of cancer. A group of curatorial advisers soon stepped in to realize his vision for the exhibition.
In the midst of their planning, new manifestations of Black grief in America emerged: In the first few months of 2020, the killings of at least two Black men, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, were caught on film; those deaths, along with the police killing of Breonna Taylor, spurred national protests. They also came at the start of a pandemic that disproportionately impacted Black Americans.
Those events “put the notion of grief into a completely different context,” according to Massimiliano Gioni, artistic director of the New Museum and one of the curatorial advisers for “Grief and Grievance.”
“All of America was grieving, and the African American community was grieving even more,” he added.
In the wake of Enwezor’s death, the advisers considered how they could craft a show that both met the moment and situated it on a continuum of Black grief “endemic to American history,” Gioni said.
But there was also the challenge of curating a show about Black grief without characterizing it as the fundamental condition of Black life in America. The result is an exhibition that features depictions of Black grief alongside Black joy and other aspects of Black life.
This spectrum of Black experience in America underlies cinematographer Arthur Jafa’s “Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death,” a seven-minute video montage — set to Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam” — on view at the beginning of the exhibit that features snippets “of protest and dancing, virtuosity and pain,” according to curatorial adviser Glenn Ligon. Among them include President Barack Obama singing “Amazing Grace” at the funeral for one of the nine Black people shot dead by a white man in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015; historic and recent instances of police brutality against Black people; James Brown dropping to the ground in a passionate onstage performance; and Beyoncé dancing on a balcony.
“It’s the most explicit in the use of images of violence, and it’s also the most explicit of the images of joy,” Gioni said of Jafa’s film.
Other featured works are similarly realistic in their representations, relying on reportage to document the many manifestations of Black grief alongside Black hope for better futures.
In the room next to where Jafa’s film screens is “Alone,” a 12-minute documentary film, directed by Garrett Bradley, focusing on Aloné Watts, a young Black woman in New Orleans wrestling with whether to marry her fiancé, Desmond Watson, an incarcerated Black man. In the galleries upstairs, documentary comes in the form of photography — a medium about which Enwezor wrote and thought extensively. (The first exhibit Enwezor curated — “In/Sight: African Photographers 1940 to the Present,” at the Guggenheim, in 1996 — challenged Western perceptions of Africa by presenting the works of 30 African photographers.)
“Photography constructs these ideas of truth, so he was particularly interested in artists who, through photography, question those accepted notions,” Gioni said.
Dawoud Bey’s “The Birmingham Project” — undertaken in 2012, ahead of the 50th anniversary of the Ku Klux Klan’s bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four Black girls — pairs photographs of Black children the same ages as the victims with Black elders 50 years their senior. LaToya Ruby Frazier’s “The Notion of Family” documents the decline of her hometown of Braddock, Pennsylvania — which occurred due, in part, to gentrification, white flight and redlining — from the perspectives of her own family members.
For Enwezor, these works of film and photography called into question the ethics of viewing Black grief, Gioni said.
“I think Okwui was asking himself and asking the artists, how appropriate is it to look at these images?” he said. “How can we look at these images without being voyeuristic or pornographic or exploitative about it? How can artists legitimately use those images and mobilize them to political or social ends?”
One of Enwezor’s answers came through abstract art — a genre the curator felt was “particularly well suited to address the ‘emergency of black grief,’” wrote Ligon in his essay for the exhibit’s catalogue.
The abstract visual artist Julie Mehretu painted and printed over blurred and reduced images — from events including the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and protests in Ferguson, Missouri, that took place following the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown — to produce the canvas “Black Monolith, for Okwui Enwezor (Charlottesville),” one of the many abstract works featured in the exhibit.
To Ligon, Mehretu’s approach positions Black grief as both a backdrop of American life and a condition that can be transformed.
“When we live our lives day to day, Charlottesville is in the background, protests in Ferguson are in the background. ... I think that’s an interesting thing that Julie’s doing through abstraction. She’s talking about what it means to live with these things literally in the background but also that we don’t ignore them — that they’re there, they’re formative,” he said. “In her work, because there’s such a sense of exuberance and freedom, there’s a possibility of this kind of transcendence.”
For Enwezor, Gioni said, art offered a way to envision this transcendence, in the form of a world in which Blackness is neither equated with grief nor defined by white grievance.
"That’s what Okwui was hinting at," he said, "that these images are so unbearable, that we have to find a way to look at them, to process them, but that we also need to find a way to move beyond them."