Teaching with Contemporary Art

Glenn Ligon, Ai Weiwei and The Art Cops

Glenn Ligon, “Rückenfigur”, 2009, Whitney Museum of American Art

Three things this week…

Maika Pollack recently wrote a wonderful review in The New York Observer about the current Glenn Ligon show at the Whitney Museum. As I visited the galleries about a week ago I kept coming back to questions around ways to teach about race and even perhaps making sociopolitical statements through the use of beauty. I mean, really, this is a beautiful show and it should be seen by teachers and students, as hard as that may be in late spring with the proverbial “testing period” hanging over everyone like an anvil. Yinka Shonibare MBE came to mind immediately. Not since Shonibare’s participation in the group exhibit, Ahistoric Occasion, just a few years ago at Mass MoCA, had I been confronted with work that was so simultaneously tough and gorgeous. The mammoth work, “Hands”, greets viewers stepping from the elevator- an obvious protest image (in this case, from the Million Man March) that needs no wall text to explain its connection to dissent. The text pieces in the adjoining room quietly pelt visitors with quotes about being black in America. Legible passages at the top of each work become muted and ambiguous as they return to the floor- much like fireworks as they explode and disappear. Even the installation, “To Disembark”, inspired by the story of Henry “Box” Brown, a former slave in a Virginia tobacco factory who literally arranged to be mailed in a wooden crate to Philadelphia in order to escape slavery, pulls you toward each piece in order to hear artists such as Billie Holiday and KRS-One. By the time you come full circle and are confronted with Ligon’s recent neon works, including “Rückenfigur”, America is literally turning away and facing the other direction. Being black in America- past and present- is shared through music, text, painting, installation and sculpture. It isn’t pretty, but the initial beauty of this show is what gets us to consider the works thoughtfully in the first place.

This brings me to my second item for the week, since we’re discussing turning away and facing the other direction.

Judith Dobrzynski (Real Clear Arts) and Lee Rosenbaum (Culture Grrl), among many others, have taken a stand regarding the Milwaukee Art Museum’s upcoming Summer of China show. Both authors, as well as this one, feel that museums have to begin making some kind of statement about the two-month detention (kidnapping) of Ai Weiwei. Museums that put together shows at this point with art on loan from China, without making any kind of attempt to address the issue surrounding Ai Weiwei, run the risk of appearing indifferent to the whole situation. Mary Louise Schumacher really sums it up in her May 20th Journal Sentinel piece which got Judith and Lee going in the first place.

Finally, a public service announcement… of sorts.

A few posts back I took on the idea of teaching graffiti in the classroom. Just thought everyone might enjoy this follow-up from The Art Cops. Priceless. Also kind of wondering what these two would dig up on a trip to China. I mean, why stop in L.A.?


  1. Nettrice says:

    Great entry, Joe. I love the visual for “turning away and facing the other direction.” It makes me think the other direction is frozen in time and stagnant. Race and politics are sensitive issues in the United States and this culture war will not end soon (unfortunately). Glenn Ligon has historicized the language of self-description to draw out the trauma, but also the ironies, of modern black experience. I just returned from a soul-lifting retreat with art college faculty and students, most of whom are of color and can trace their family origins to the Caribbean and Africa. During a percussion jam session (out in the Rhode Island woods) we learned about ourselves, our cultures (and subcultures), and how the drum can be used to unite people.

    In America, slaves played drums in the tradition of both eastern and western Africans. The drumbeat not only accompanied chants and dances, but was also used to send messages. By striking and holding the drum in certain ways, drummers could replicate tones of speech almost exactly. Fear of slaves communicating through these uncanny sounds led white slaveowners to outlaw slave drumming. The connection to dissent in Ligon’s work is part of a legacy of oppression (and exclusion) in the U.S. Through drumming these art college students and faculty were able to re-discover and re-connect through sounds that have united oppressed people all over the world. Graffiti is also an expression of people who are often marginalized or unseen/unheard in traditional venues. Many of the art students have practiced graffiti, breakdance and Capoeira, an art form created in Brazil mainly by descendants of African slaves with Brazilian native influences.

    It isn’t pretty, but I find it all to be beautiful and inspiring. It gives me hope.

  2. Joe Fusaro says:

    Nettrice, the retreat you describe sounds fantastic. Would love to hear more about it! And thank you for such a wonderful comment on the post. The drumming and graffiti connections with regard to dissent makes me think even further about the thread running through all three items I mentioned this week…

  3. Nettrice Gaskins says:

    I also meant to add that some of the students can trace their family origins to Asia and all were united by the drumming. This is a program at MassArt and you might know the coordinator (Lyssa). I made her aware of your entry and these comments. I’m also reading “Shapes for Sounds” by Timothy Donaldson and it contains 26 illustrated charts that track how spoken languages developed into written alphabets. What’s missing from the book is the gestural writing of graffiti and breakdance. At the retreat (after the drumming session) I witnessed a young female b-girl (art student) teaching her male peer how to perform the “baby freeze” and recalled a Doze Green interview from Style Wars where he talks about how this dance pose (and others) translates into graffiti writing, or vice versa. In this instance, the body is the tool for creating language (signs, code)… for shaping sound!

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