Black Visual Archive (BVA) is dedicated to the documentation and review of contemporary black and post-black visual culture. Founded in 2010 by Meg Onli, BVA is a collection of critical writings that contextualizes the work of African American artists through historical and visual history. Based in Chicago, BVA investigates the city as a unique site for black visual culture with articles, reviews, and interviews that have surveyed the works of Kerry James Marshall and Theaster Gates while also reflecting on the defining archives of Johnson Publishing Company and Numero Group. With a particular interest in how contemporary artists mine the complex history of black representation in America, BVA will continually reflect and link works within their sociocultural constructs.

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Written by Meg Onli
Edited by Gracen Brilmyer

A project of the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant Program.

Revisited: Leslie Hewitt’s Untitled (Structures) and the Project of Black Memory Part I

No. 33
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Leslie Hewitt in collaboration with Bradford Young
MCA Screen: Untitled (Structures)
Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago
May 17–Sep 21, 2014

Edited by: Jamilee Polson Lacy

Last year I spoke at the Spencer Museum of Art about online platforms for art criticism and was asked if I ever rewrite essays or reviews. At the time I hadn’t considered it, as the option of revising works could create an incessant cycle of editing. However, I wanted to take advantage of the flexible format of this blog to revisit Leslie Hewitt and Bradford Young’s Untitled (Structures) to provide a more formal consideration of the installation.
This essays has will be posted as two separate posts.

 

The sculptural photographs of Leslie Hewitt regularly investigate notions of black cultural memory through the lens of new historicism and non-art images. Creating photographs by layering a series of snapshots with printed media and then photographing the arrangement, Hewitt’s work provides a flattened visual representation of black domestic and public life in post-civil rights America. The artist pays particular attention to photography’s capabilities of documenting mundane instances of existence, creating visuals for what political theorist Michael Hanchard outlines as the project of black memory, which, according to art historian Huey Copeland, makes “visible the actual or imagined experiences of black people that would have been otherwise forgotten or neglected.”1 Reflecting her capacity for mining cultural archives through her consumption of materials and images, Hewitt’s work possesses the capability of transcending time, feeling both new and familiar at once. In his “Openings: Leslie Hewitt” essay, Copeland expanded upon Hanchard’s concept of black memory: “Instead of allowing a single image to sum up a specific time, [Hewitt] presents various pictures as elements in a scenario of her own production … bringing fragments of the past into contingent configurations that are newly open onto the historical record.”2 In line with Hanchard’s call to broaden the historical canon—most specifically the imagery included as part of such a canon—that constitutes black visual culture and memory, Hewitt prioritizes new strategies in her work for expanding the record of black life—past and present. With this essay, my aim is to provide a flexible framework on how Hewitt’s body of work, especially Untitled (Structures), a 2012 collaboration with cinematographer Bradford Young, contributes to the project of black memory.

Untitled (Structures) (2012), a16 minute dual-channel film, continues Hewitt’s preoccupation with the intersection of the personal and the political. Commissioned in 2010 by curator Michelle White of The Menil Collection, this film project was directly inspired by The Menil’s acquisition of Edmund Carpenter and Adelaide Menil’s significant collection of civil rights-era photographs. White, in her own search for “ways to facilitate a deeper engagement with the photographs, [and] to investigate them in the present rather than confine them to the past,”3 invited Hewitt and Young to intimately explore the collection’s iconic images, which were captured by photojournalists Elliott Erwitt, Dan Budnick, Bruce Davidson, and Charles Moore, among others. Hewitt was struck by the images ability to encapsulate extraordinary events in addition to a subject’s particularities through posturing, framing, and spatial relationships. Untitled (Structures) reimagines these defining images from the civil rights era to provide a renewed visual record of the movement and all that it entailed, as well as the Great Migration, a historical migration of blacks from the rural South to urban centers like New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Atlanta.

Historical texts frequently separate the Great Migration and the civil rights movement as two distinct entities even though they occurred congruently and intrinsically. Unlike the civil rights movement, the Great Migration exists as a largely undocumented part of American history. Indeed, migrants’ stories were merely passed on from generation to generation through oral traditions because, until very recently, journalism and scholarship failed to note the monumental importance of blacks’ migration North. This migration occurred almost unnoticed for a major part of the 20th century not only due to a lack of historical documentation but also because many of the migrants themselves saw their relocation as singular acts rather than as part of a mass exodus. Contrastingly, the civil rights movement was conceived and executed as an organized effort; its purveyors employed numerous strategies to highlight their struggles, efforts and successes at the local and national levels, consistently working to draw attention and thusly document their cause in myriad ways that best accomplished the goals of a diverse group of people. Hewitt’s work traverses the wide breadth of these documented and undocumented histories, connecting the experience of the 1940s migrant and the 1960s activist to the contemporary post-black female artist whose forays into new historicism are the byproduct of these complex narratives.

Charles Moore’s Walter Gadsen Attacked by K-9 Units, Birmingham, Alabama (May 3rd, 1963),

Noting the usefulness of still and moving photographic imagery, civil rights leaders utilized photography, television and film to emphasize the dire conditions and treatment of blacks in the Jim Crow South. Though identifying the exact beginning and end dates for the civil rights movement is impossible, two deaths bookend the fight for equality. The first, represented in the images of 14-year-old Emmett Till’s bloated and mutilated visage that were circulated throughout black newspapers and multiple national publications, provided documentation of the nation’s longstanding racial malevolence. Bravely defying advice to not release the photographs to the press, Till’s mother, Mamie Till Brady, directly influenced leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to consider the power that images could possess. Till’s death and the consequent images turned a mirror to a society who refused to see children as children, men as men, and women as women based on the simple fact that they did not share the same skin color. Maurice Berger, historian and author of For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights, writes of the significance of the Till images:

African-Americans in the South saw reflected in Emmett Till’s battered face their own physical vulnerability under the rule of Jim Crow segregation. Blacks in the North and elsewhere, and a few whites, might have seen something else: the haunting specter of their complacency or inaction. The social implications of these photographs were extraordinary. After the initial shock subsided, one could not have avoided thinking about their meaning and its consequences.4

The death of King, documented in Joe Louw’s photograph, April 4, 1968 – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Assassination, Memphis, TN, stands in as an apt visual end to the movement. One of the most circulated images from the late 1960s, the photograph was taken moments after King was shot while standing on the second floor balcony of the Loraine Motel. The consternation and emotional heaviness of this exact moment is precisely illustrated in the image frame as King’s associates stand pointing in the direction from whence the gunshot came. Hewitt undoubtedly knows the details of this and other epochal moments in black history but does not feel the need to entirely unpack them as many artists before her have already done; rather, she alludes to them with a light touch in her efforts to conjure the past, alter or add to it, and move forward in investigating the more gestural concerns allowed by post-black theory.

A number of images correlating to the civil rights movement rely on the same strategy as those documenting the untimely deaths and repercussions of Till and King—they serve as evidence of an unjust society caught up in the rapture of violence and bigotry. From photographs like Joseph Postiglione’s Firebombed Freedom Rider’s Bus Outside Anniston, Alabama (May,14, 1961) to Charles Moore’s Walter Gadsen Attacked by K-9 Units, Birmingham, Alabama (May 3rd, 1963) (pictured above), these images frequently result in viewers reading blacks as victims, depriving them of any power. In his seminal book on reinterpreting civil rights imagery, Martin Berger argues for new ways of reading these photographs. Observing that the movement has frequently been pared down to a handful of images, Berger discerns that “most photographs that northern whites deemed representative of the struggle showed whites in charge.”5 Accordingly, Hewitt’s imagery widens the parameters of black influence and power in regards to the goals of the civil rights movement by presenting individualistic experiences and personalities in her artworks. Ultimately, Hewitt’s body of work makes room for usually excluded narratives and more inclusive readings of black cultural history in America for generations past and present.

  1. Copeland, Huey. Leslie Hewitt, Artforum Magazine, February 2010, pg. 185
  2. IBID, Copeland, pg. 185
  3. Untitled (Structures), exhibition pamphlet, The Menil Collection, Houston, 2012
  4. Berger, Maurice. For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights. New Haven: Yale UP, 2010. Print. p. 105
  5. Berger, Martin A. Introduction. Seeing through Race: A Reinterpretation of Civil Rights Photography. Berkeley: University of California, 2011. pg.7. Print.