It’s rare when an exceptional artist connects with a burning zeitgeist. It happened a decade ago when Ai Weiwei emerged as a political tour de force in China by undermining his totalitarian regime with scathing rebukes via social media. Njideka Akunyili Crosby is also such an artist. But instead of raging against the machine like Mr. Weiwei, Ms. Crosby tells subtle, complicated stories about her homeland, herself and colonialism in a way that’s far less bombastic, yet just as powerful.
The 32-year-old Nigerian, who moved to Swarthmore, Pa., at age 16 after winning a green card lottery in her hometown of Enugu, is, like many around the world, part of the African diaspora. But the particulars of her story, a complex one that contradicts what we think we know about modern Africans, is what has truly moved her fans both in and outside of the art world.
She’s part of a growing Afropolitan contingency (a name sometimes used for Africans living around the globe) that is proving it has a much more nuanced view of African culture to offer us through their writing, music, and in Ms. Crosby’s case, painting.
Ms. Crosby’s artworks—luminous interiors teeming with eye-catching collage elements that offset delicately painted figures—while political, are very much about her day-to-day life. Her subjects include herself, family and friends caught in quiet moments like having afternoon tea, a prolonged hug or a slow dance. But imagery from Nigeria’s revolutionary history, portraits of brutal dictators and other remembrances from her homeland also stew within these constructed dramas, which evoke the lush quietude of the Post-Impressionist painter Pierre Bonnard’s century-old domesticities.
Speaking with Ms. Crosby on the phone from her Los Angeles, Calif., studio (she moved there a few years ago from the East Coast), I immediately sense the presence of a formidable person steeled with a palpable thirst for knowledge and experience.
After moving to the U.S., the artist spent a gap year studying for SATs and taking classes on American history and literature before returning to Nigeria to serve a year of National Service—a policy instituted after the Nigerian civil war to promote unity—far from her home in the southwestern part of Nigeria. After her tenure, she came back to earn a bachelor’s degree from Swarthmore College, followed by four years of academic post-bachelor training at the highly-regarded Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
For the average person, attaining this level of achievement while adjusting to life in a very different, far away country would be rightly seen as a tremendous accomplishment. But Ms. Crosby is not average.
In 2009, she was one of a handful of artists selected to attend the top-ranked fine arts graduate program in the nation: the Yale University School of Art’s Master’s program. The real work was now beginning.
“It was two years full of anxiety and self-doubt,” she said of her time at Yale, a common response to being under the microscope of the school’s distinguished faculty, visiting artists and fellow students. “But during the summer between my first and second year, something clicked for me.”
In her first year, Ms. Crosby’s studio practice saw a lot of experimentation, mostly grounded in drawing and painting the figure, along with a heavy dose of information about the sprawling world of Contemporary art, courtesy of her renowned teachers Catherine Murphy and Peter Halley. She also took full advantage of the course offerings, enrolling in classes in postcolonial history and diasporic studies in addition to art. It was a lot to take in, but during a summer off, it all “crystallized,” as she put it. And her maturation was immediately noticed.
Erin Cone’s paintings could have been pulled straight out of a high-end fashion magazine. Her work brings together realistic portraits of women and abstract elements to create an overall minimalist ambiance.
“I emphasize visual impact over narrative context,” Cone says, going on to add that she likes to focus on the “subtle orchestration” of her differing subjects within a design-based style. The result is a series of stylistic paintings that, on a surface level, look like a collection of simple portraits but, dig deeper, and they hold hidden meanings.
“I create a deliberate push-and-pull between near-photorealistic detail and my own vocabulary of visual glitches that challenge that very realism,” she says.
Erin Cone, a New-Mexico based artist, uses a variety of methods and techniques to create her finished pieces. She starts by sketching poses, distinct gestures, and details which are then fused together to provide inspiration for photographs of herself, but sometimes of models.
Then it is time to experiment. Though Cone uses certain inspiration for her subjects, the end result comes about in a spontaneous way – almost intuitively. “It’s more about the visual effect than the story content,” she says. “That’s why I concentrate on the subtle placement of the subjects within the frame.”
It takes some experimentation for Erin Cone to settle on the specific elements she’s happy with in a piece. “I intentionally create a tension between near photographic detail and my own vocabulary of visual disturbance,” she says.
Death has the tendency to encourage a depressing view of war.—Donald Rumsfeld
I will try to clarify, in eight points, why it is important—today—to look at images of destroyed human bodies like those I have used and integrated in different works such as Superficial Engagement (2006), The Incommensurable Banner (2008), Ur-Collage (2008), Crystal of Resistance (2011), and Touching Reality (2012).
The images of destroyed human bodies are made by non-photographers. Most of them were taken by witnesses, passersby, soldiers, security or police officers, or rescuers and first-aid helpers. The provenance of the images is unclear and often unverifiable; there is a lack in our understanding of what the “source” is here. This unclear provenance and this unverifiability reflect today’s unclearness. This is what I am interested in. Often the provenance is not guaranteed—but what, in our world today can claim a guarantee, and how can “under guarantee” still make sense? These images are available on the Internet mostly to be downloaded; they have the status of witnessing and were put online by their authors for multiple and various reasons. Furthermore, the origin of these images is not signaled; sometimes it is confused, with an unclear, perhaps even manipulated or stolen address, as is true of many things on the Internet and social communication networks today. We confront this every day. The undefined provenance is one of the reasons why it is important to look at such images.
The images of destroyed human bodies are important in their redundancy. What is redundant is precisely that such an incommensurable amount of images of destroyed human bodies exists today. Redundancy is not repetition, the repetition of the same, because it is always another human body that is destroyed and appears as such redundantly. But it’s not about images—it’s about human bodies, about the human, of which the image is only a testimony. The images are redundant pictures because it is redundant, as such, that human beings are destroyed. Redundancy is important here. I want to take it as something important, and I want to see this redundancy as a form. We do not want to accept the redundancy of such images because we don’t want to accept the redundancy of cruelty toward the human being. This is why it is important to look at images of destroyed human bodies in their very redundancy.
Today, in the newspapers, magazines, and TV news, we very seldom see images of destroyed bodies because they are very rarely shown. These pictures are nonvisible and invisible: the presupposition is that they will hurt the viewer’s sensitivity or only satisfy voyeurism, and the pretext is to protect us from this threat. But the invisibility is not innocent. The invisibility is the strategy of supporting, or at least not discouraging, the war effort. It’s about making war acceptable and its effects commensurable, as was formulated, for example, by Donald Rumsfeld, former U.S. Secretary of Defense (2001–2006): “Death has the tendency to encourage a depressing view of war.” But is there really another view to have of war than a depressing one? To look at images of destroyed human bodies is a way to engage against war and against its justification and propaganda. Since 9/11 this phenomena of invisibility has been reinforced in the West. Not to accept this invisibility as a given fact or as a “protection” is why it is important to look at such images.
The tendency to “iconism” still exists, even today. “Iconism” is the habit of “selecting,” “choosing,” or “finding” the image that “stands out,” the image that is “the important one,” the image that “says more,” the image that “counts more” than the others. In other words, the tendency to iconism is the tendency to “highlight”; it’s the old, classical procedure of favoring and imposing, in an authoritarian way, a hierarchy. This is not a declaration of importance about something or somebody, but a declaration of importance directed at others. The goal is to establish a common importance, a common weight, a common measure. But iconism and highlighting also have the effect of avoiding the existence of differences, of the non-iconic and of the non-highlighted. In the field of war and conflict images, this leads to choosing the “acceptable” for others. It’s the “acceptable” image that stands for another image, for all other images, for something else, and perhaps even for a non-image. This image or icon has to be, of course, the correct, the good, the right, the allowed, the chosen—the consensual image. This is the manipulation. One example is the image, much discussed (even by art historians), of the “Situation Room” in Washington during the killing of Bin Laden by the Navy Seals in 2011. I refuse to accept this image as an icon; I refuse its iconism, and I refuse the fact that this image—and all other “icons”—stands for something other than itself. To fight iconism is the reason why looking at images of destroyed bodies is important.
A small but wondrous Alma Thomas retrospective at the Studio Museum in Harlem put me in mind of a desert plant that spends all year as an innocent cactus and then, in the middle of the night, blooms. Thomas, who died in 1978, at the age of eighty-six, was a junior-high-school art teacher in Washington, D.C., whose own paintings were modernist and sophisticated but of no special note until she retired from teaching, in 1960, and took up color-intensive abstraction. Her best acrylics and watercolors of loosely gridded, wristy daubs are among the most satisfying feats (and my personal favorites) of the Washington Color School, a group that included Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, and others associated with the prescriptive aesthetics of the critic Clement Greenberg: painting shorn of imagery, the illusion of depth, and rhetorical gesture. Wielding brushes, Thomas eschewed the group’s signal technique of working strictly with stains of liquid paint on raw canvas, proving it inessential to an ordered glory of plangent hues. She seemed to absorb in a gulp the mode’s ideas—rational means, hedonistic appeals—and to add, with no loss of formal integrity, a heterodox lyricism inspired by nature. The boldly experimental work of her last years suggests the alacrity of a young master, but it harvested the resources of a lifetime.
Thomas, who was African-American, was born in Columbus, Georgia, in 1891. Her father was a businessman, her mother a dressmaker. She had three younger sisters. In 1907, the family moved to Washington and took a house in a prosperous neighborhood, in which she lived for the rest of her life. She concentrated on math in high school, and dreamed of becoming an architect. Unsurprisingly, given the time’s odds against her race and her sex, in 1914 she found herself teaching kindergarten. In 1921, she enrolled at Howard University as a home-economics student, but gravitated to the art department, newly founded by the black Impressionist painter James V. Herring, and became the school’s first graduate in fine arts. Later, she earned a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Teachers College and studied painting at American University, where she encountered Greenberg’s doctrines.
Though she initially hung back from a studio career, Thomas was active in Washington’s cultural circles, including a “little Paris salon” of black artists, in the late nineteen-forties, which was organized by the educator and artist Lois Mailou Jones. Thomas’s modern-art influences included Vassily Kandinsky and Henri Matisse, especially after she saw a show of his paper cutouts at the Museum of Modern Art, in 1961. Recognition came slowly but steadily. When she became the first black woman to have a solo show at the Whitney Museum, in 1972, she told the Times, “One of the things we couldn’t do was go into museums, let alone think of hanging our pictures there.” She added, “Look at me now.”
Thomas said that she was moved to paint abstractions after studying the shapes of a holly tree in her garden, and that she based her color harmonies on her flower beds—or on the way she imagined them looking from the air. Space exploration fascinated her. A painting of a disk in reds, oranges, and yellows is titled “Snoopy Sees Earth Wrapped in Sunset” (1970)—a whimsy that seems meant to deflect any hint of mysticism. Thomas was not sentimental. Nor, after painting some semi-abstract, resonant oil sketches of the 1963 March on Washington, was she political. She said, in 1970, “Through color, I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness, rather than on man’s inhumanity to man.” She did so with panache in such works as “Wind, Sunshine, and Flowers” (1968), which deploys touches of hot, warm, and drenchingly cool colors in vertical columns. Intervals of white canvas align here and there to form horizontally curving fissures: wind evoked with droll economy.
I met Julius Eastman in early 1981. We were both hired to be vocalists in a theatre piece by Jim Neu for which Hugh Levick was writing the music. At the first 10 a.m. rehearsal, Julius showed up in black leather and chains, drinking scotch! Julius, while externally outrageous and almost forbidding, was genuinely generous and warm, and not unkind. He was brutally honest, which doomed him (as well as many others) in a field which, if not dishonest, certainly is not forthcoming and can be surprisingly timid and conformist (and which has become increasingly so since that time).
In the fall of 1998, I was asked to teach a course in composition at Cal Arts for "real" instruments. I thought a really interesting approach would be to focus on music for multiples—pieces written for four or more of one instrument—and one piece for multiple cellos that I knew I wanted to include was Julius's The Holy Presence of Joan d'Arc (Joan) for ten cellos. I had attended the premiere of it at The Kitchen in 1981, and I loved its energy and sound. Thus began an almost quixotic seven-year search for the music of Julius Eastman who died in 1990 and whose final years were a life spiraled out of control to the point where he was living in Tompkins Square Park. He'd been evicted from his apartment in the East Village—the sheriff having dumped his possessions onto the street. Julius made no effort to recover any of his music. Various friends, though, upon hearing of this, tried to salvage as much as they could. Most was probably lost.
One of the problems of writing about Julius is that it is difficult to state anything with certainty. A lot of the information out there, if not contradictory, has slightly different details. Julius Eastman (born in 1940) was a gay African-American composer of works that were minimal in form but maximal in effect, who had a life of minimal possessions combined with outrageous behavior. He was also an incredible performer (vocalist and pianist), best known for singing on the 1973 Grammy-nominated Nonesuch recording of Peter Maxwell Davies's Eight Songs for a Mad King. Raised in Ithaca, New York, where from an early age he was a paid chorister, he started studying piano at fourteen and was playing Beethoven after only six months of lessons. He went to Ithaca College for a year, then transferred to Curtis as a piano major where he studied with Mieczyslaw Horzowski but soon switched to composition. Although best known as a vocalist, he never formally studied voice. While at Ithaca College, in the course of accompanying dance, he also took up choreography, and eventually choreographed dances to some of his compositions. In 1968 he moved to Buffalo where he was a member of the Creative Associates, which was under the leadership of Lukas Foss and later Morton Feldman. While in Buffalo, he performed and toured music by many of the most prominent contemporary composers, as well as had his own music performed. He eventually moved to New York City, where he was associated with the Brooklyn Philharmonic, then also led by Foss. Julius performed in jazz groups with his brother, Gerry, a guitarist and bass player in many jazz ensembles, including the Count Basie Orchestra. (The only work by Julius registered with the U.S. Copyright Office is as a lyricist, with his brother listed as composer.)
Looking over what has been written about him, I notice a number of misperceptions. For instance, Tom Johnson, who wrote so well about the New York Downtown scene for the Village Voice during the seventies and early eighties, wrote in 1976 that Julius was a performer discovering his voice as a composer by writing pieces that he could perform. However, Julius had been writing ensemble pieces that were widely admired before that time. Even though the pieces had quite a lot of performances, perhaps they hadn't been performed in New York, or Tom hadn't attended those concerts. I have a feeling that once Julius left Buffalo, he didn't have a ready group of musicians to perform his work any more, so he started to write pieces that he could perform. Indeed, a look at his list of compositions shows that his earliest pieces were for solo piano, and then, once he got to Buffalo, he wrote compositions for ensembles and/or instruments that he didn't play.
Another observation that I've made is that once he left Buffalo, the tone of the titles of his pieces started to change, from The Moon's Silent Modulation (1970) to If You're So Smart, Why Aren't You Rich (1977), Evil Nigger (1979), etc. Not only had Julius left the protective and nurturing environment of Buffalo, but in New York the divisions between Uptown and Downtown were more evident, and Julius was caught between both worlds. He had a foot in both camps. He appeared with the Brooklyn Philharmonic and performed works by Hans Werner Henze and Peter Maxwell Davies. Meanwhile, he was also performing and/or conducting with Downtown composers such as Meredith Monk, Peter Gordon, and Arthur Russell. Evan Lurie, who studied composition with Julius, told me that Julius insisted on clear penmanship when writing scores, the correct way to notate music, which materials to use, etc., while at the same time producing scores that could test the patience of a saint to figure out.
I didn't know Julius all that well, but I did have conversations with him about composers of that time, and he was dismissive of a lot of them. I think that what it boiled down to was integrity.
The Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, who died yesterday at the age of seventy-six, was simply one of the most original and influential directors in the history of cinema. He achieved something that few filmmakers ever have: he seemed to create a national identity with his own cinematic style. He was the first Iranian filmmaker who expanded the history of cinema not merely in a sociological sense but in an artistic one, and his tenacious, bold, restless originality—an inventive audacity that carried through to his two last features, made outside of Iran—focussed the attention of the world on the Iranian cinema and opened the Iranian cinema to other directors who have followed his path.
Art is born of a confluence of temperament and circumstances. It’s amazing that Kiarostami was able to work copiously and free-spiritedly within the rigid constraints imposed by the religious and political doctrines of the Iranian regime. Yet he also seemed to thrive on conflict, arising from his over-all sense of resistance to authority and defiance of norms, which he expressed subtly but decisively in dramatic action and in cinematic form. He was one of the greatest ironists and symbolists in the history of cinema, bringing out grand philosophical ideas and depicting independent-minded characters, while nonetheless apparently deferring to imposed conventions and expectations.
In the nineteen-seventies, Kiarostami made his earliest films under the auspices of the Kanun, or Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults. They were didactic films, for and about young people. After the Islamic Revolution, he continued to make educational films, but a sense of his sly radicalism appears in the short film “Orderly or Disorderly,” from 1981, a sort of cinematic “Goofus and Gallant” of large groups, in which the orderly one appears terrifyingly dehumanized (and enforced by the authority of the police) and the disorderly appears lively and vital—but not without risks and conflicts. It’s also a reflexive film, in which each sequence is prefaced by a slate and a clap, as well as a film of passionate observation, expressing the sheer joy in seeing and filming the alluring details and large-scale patterns of daily life.
The first paradox of Kiarostami’s career is the clash between documentary and dramatic elements, between the observed and the imposed, between the discovered and the determined—and between the closed world of the movie shoot and the total one behind the camera. He worked mainly with non-actors whom he encountered on location, as in his 1987 feature “Where Is the Friend’s Home?,” the story of a schoolboy in the rural village of Koker who travels to another village to give a classmate a notebook, in the process defying parental authority, and other authorities as well. That region was devastated in 1990 by an earthquake; in the 1992 feature “Life and Nothing More,” Kiarostami dramatized his trip to Koker after the disaster to inquire about the movie’s young star, with an actor playing the director. One of the film’s key incidents is an encounter with a newlywed man who married his fiancée the day after the earthquake (they spend their first nights together in the shelter of ruins). Kiarostami followed that film with “Through the Olive Trees,” a story based on the life of the local mason who played the newlywed groom in “Life and Nothing More.” The director is a character, too, and he gets involved in the couple’s relationship. For that matter, the movie opens with an actor addressing the viewer, identifying himself as an actor playing a director who has come to Koker to choose an actress for a film.