Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 29, 2003
Christine Y. Kim, Vijay Prashad, and Latasha N. Nevada Diggs Black Belt Exh. cat. Studio Museum in Harlem, 2003. 120 pp.; many color ills. $25.00 (0942949269)
The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, October 15, 2003–January 4, 2004. New York: Studio Museum in Harlem, 2003. 120 pp.; many color ills. $25.00 (paper) (0942949269)
Installation view. Black Belt, Studio Museum of Harlem, October 15–January 4, 2004.

While a handful of exhibitions have looked at the relationship between African Americans, Asians, and Asian Americans in visual art, such as Ancestors, a joint effort by Kenkeleba House and the Asian American Arts Centre in 1995, Black Belt is the largest exploration to date. As the title implies, it is structured around the premise of a cross-cultural fascination with Asian martial arts epitomized by the messianic icon Bruce Lee. Yet despite the backing of a thriving institution and the obvious energy and optimism on the part of the artists and curator Christine Y. Kim, the exhibition is disappointing, its promise undermined by surprisingly flat work and insufficient conceptualization.

Nineteen artists, mostly in their early-to-mid thirties, exhibit a dizzying array of works in various media, with a strong emphasis on video. Some of the art was specially commissioned for the exhibition; perhaps because of this several works appear as “efforts,” giving the impression of an art student dutifully following classroom-assignment instructions. Receiving top marks in this sense is Rico Gatson’s video The Art of the Battle (2003), a cacophonous multimedia amalgam of hip-hop artists, Bruce Lee, images of war, and an accompanying soundtrack, all of which seems calculated to beat audibly the viewer into submission. Not as successful in this regard is Kori Newkirk’s Untitled (Neon Throwing Stars) (2003), a visually attractive re-rendering of Ninja throwing stars in glowing red neon. Like Nanchakus (2003) by Sanford Biggers, featuring the martial arts weapon connected with a solid gold chain and encased in a vitrine like a museum specimen, Newkirk’s piece suffers from conceptual simplicity and is a disservice to both the artist and the viewer, who leaves with the impression that “hybridity” in this show is really only a matter of adding different cultural references together. If, as the catalogue states, “the selected artists have been making work inspired by Afro-Asian connections” (27), one wonders why certain works feel so contrived. The mere employment of a referent accepted as indicative of “Asian” culture by a non-Asian does not make for an effective cross-cultural mediation. At any rate, a greater inclusion of artists who have made works originating from transcultural connections (Camille Billops and Allan d’Souza come to mind) may have made for a less belabored experience.

Indeed, a disappointing trend in the show is the number of unexpectedly weak offerings by artists whose past works have provided provocative and refreshing investigations into the collision of race and cultural differences. Michael Joo’s video Chasing Dragons (2003) blends images of Topper Headon, drummer for The Clash and Bruce Lee–phile, so that the optical effect recalls the famous hall of mirrors scene from the 1973 film Enter the Dragon. While thought and time went into the piece, it lacks the sly, often sardonic humor underwriting Joo’s other endeavors. Patty Chang also shows a video reenactment of a fight scene: a battle between Lee (played by herself) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar from the 1978 film Game of Death. Possibly the least convincing piece in the show, this poorly orchestrated work fails to produce an effect greater than the sum of its parts, unlike her other performances.

A more salient example is Glenn Kaino’s video Society 2 Menace (2003), which was created by taking a scene from the 1993 film Menace II Society and giving the characters new vocal tracks. What was once a biased and syncretic depiction of a robbery of a Korean convenience store by two young African Americans has been transformed into a complex portrayal of emotions that spans anger, indifference, cynicism, and fear. In its resonance to almost any urban environment, this work denotes borderlessness, although necessarily in the way that the curator may have had in mind. But while these mostly negative emotions are shared, why is it that violent conflicts such as the one in Society 2 Menace, and, more implicitly, by the violence of representation as unfurled by the Hughes brothers in their direction of Menace II Society, must still occur between those of different racial backgrounds? Put differently, how does one reconcile the borderlessness of urban sorrow with the persistent existence of very real divides of race, class, and gender? The formal strategy of Kaino’s video remains at a basic level—take two culturally different “forces,” cast them in an antagonistic frame, and then attempt to overcome conflict by transposing a shared language—but nevertheless the work sharply reminds the viewer that feel-good borderlessness is frequently only an illusion.

There are, however, a number of visually intriguing works, many of which do not seem to fit the exhibition theme directly. This is far from a bad thing, given that the most on-point works tend to be ill conceived at best and embarrassing at worst. Ellen Gallagher shows Psychoalphadiscobetabioaquadoolop (2001), an expanse of black enamel on linen that is atavistic in its visual allure. Texturized rubber dots enhance the surface tactility, further securing the viewer’s attention. This work is welcome proof that formal complexity can exist in exhibitions probing racial representation, where an art object’s credibility is usually tethered to its ability to deliver a particular social message or operate as anecdotal evidence. Paul Pfeiffer exhibits a video loop entitled Live Evil (2003), which depicts a headless, kaleidoscopelike image of Michael Jackson. In endless repetition, the figure resembles an insect shedding its skin, or perhaps, given the work’s title, a soul in torment vainly trying to escape its morphological predicament.

While the presence of some works in Black Belt is puzzling, the absence of a broader contextualization of the history of cross-cultural interactions in visual art is even more so. Exhibitions of contemporary art often suffer from a lack of historical import or an awareness of the need for such, but this show’s premise especially calls for further background information. Indeed, the core problem with Black Belt is not the works but the startling lack of reflexivity in its organization, save for Vijay Prashad’s fascinating catalogue essay on kung fu against a backdrop informed by a consciousness of Third World solidarity. The roundtable discussion, also in the book, is long on nostalgic reminiscence and the enumeration of facts but short on specific self-criticality. The constant appearance of “hybridity” and various synonyms for such throughout the catalogue text and wall panels implies that their usage is a sufficient means to explain the complexity of issues evoked by some of the more provocative works such as, for instance, Iona Rozeal Brown’s a3 (Afro Asiatic Allegory) (2003), a series of acrylic portraits that stylistically borrow from ukiyo-e to “blacken” the faces of ostensibly Asian subjects. In addition, no attempt is made to probe the use of the hybridity concept, or what perhaps is its fatal flaw—complicity with binary logic of East and West, or in the case of Black Belt, African Americans-plus-Asians. In fact, the exhibition is an almost perfect heuristic of how hybridity, a once-useful term, is now ossified as an empty buzzword in contemporary curatorial and critical practice.

Although calls to go beyond old notions of identity permeate the exhibition wall text and catalogue, not enough attention is given to the dangers of reifying the notion of a monolithic Asia in the participants’ enthusiasm for border busting. “Eastern philosophy” is constantly touted as a thematic in certain works, such as those by David Hammons and Roy Williams, but this immediately brings one back to the East-West binary, contradicting the show’s attempt to debunk the myth of “purity.” The failure of the show to acknowledge the complications implied within the notion of “Asian” also indicates a lack of homework done on the part of the curator. Specific provenances of “Asian” influences are conveniently glossed over. For example, ukiyo-e is not a static nor quintessential mode of Japanese pictorial expression: any cursory look at its development reveals significant stylistic changes, not to mention the intensive use of Western perspective by its masters. The exhibition would have benefited from an emphasis on how the concept of purity in any time or place is a fiction, constructed to serve various individual and political agendas.

Borderlenessness itself is also a double-edged sword that, if celebrated too enthusiastically, facilitates disregard for the presence of specificities and other sticky obstructions to the clarity demanded by notions like “hybridity” that do more to essentialize than complicate. Black Belt collapses the distinction between Asian and Asian American. It aims to clarify a relationship between Asians and African Americans but does so through the creative impulses of African American and Asian American artists without an attempt to explicate terms such as “Asian” and “Asian American.”

Despite its flaws, Black Belt breaks new ground. The exhibition takes on the vital task of addressing race in contemporary visual art outside of the exclusive and dangerously preclusive paradigm of black-versus-white. But one hopes that the organizers and participants of similar initiatives in the future will look critically upon the premises from which they work. This is crucial, lest explorations of intercultural and interracial issues in contemporary art stall when forward movement is so desperately needed.

Joan Kee
Visiting Scholar, Centre for the Study of Globalization and Cultures, University of Hong Kong