A reflection on Black grief and art

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“I’m not arguing that art has to be activist-oriented, but when it revolves around topics such as these we have to wonder what’s next for the mourners,” writes William C. Anderson, meditating upon the New Museum’s latest exhibition, Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America

Grief can be hard to describe. For those of us who have struggled and do struggle with it, there are many reasons why. There are also many ways we go about expressing grief and mourning. In my opinion, one of the best ways to understand grief is through the unexpected. It can be the suddenness of something unwanted engulfing you with its presence. Many things can bring it on; loss, separation, and memories included. And when we’re in it, we may look for ways to mourn and express sorrow as a means of coping. 

On 17 February 2021, the late Okwui Enwezor’s Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America, opens at the New Museum and runs until 06 June 2021. It deals in some of the trappings of this subject, and does so through almost 40 artists, working across a variety of mediums; artists “who have addressed the concept of mourning, commemoration, and loss as a direct response to the national emergency of racist violence experienced by Black communities across America”.

The artists featured include many well-known names: Kara Walker, Theaster Gates, Arthur Jafa, Carrie Mae Weems, and Deana Lawson to name but a few. And one of the project’s intentions is to grapple with how grief has galvanised social movements from the civil rights era to now. This aspect is interesting because of the different ways grief has been both utilised and exploited. At this point, it seems fair to say that a market surrounding Black grief exists.

Jouvert, Flatbush, Brooklyn. 2013 © Deana Lawson. Courtesy Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York.

Politicians, corporations, celebrities, and others who want something from Black people know they have to engage with Black mourning. The irony was overwhelming when the world watched entities like Chevron and Amazon, which help police and pollute Black communities, asserting “Black lives matter” during the uprisings of 2020. Knowing Black deaths, and the emotions that come with them, are commodifiable and marketable should inform every perception we have about efforts that deal with Black grief and mourning.

There should be no qualms about carefully observing and questioning how art institutions and artists work with this subject when our lives and deaths are the raw material used to inspire work that draws from our grief. Several of the pieces in the show like Jack Whitten’s Birmingham (1964), Carrie Mae Weems’ Birmingham Rising (2008), and Dawoud Bey’s The Birmingham Project (2012) deal with my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama. Birmingham is the place that taught me intimately that Black grief and mourning are extractable matter, which may be employed to authenticate compositions. Though I’m not saying this is the case with the aforementioned artists, the city’s streets, like many throughout the nation, are stained by perdurable violence. And many draw inspiration from this. The bigger question here is about risk.

Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death. 2016 © Arthur Jafa. Courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels
Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death. 2016 © Arthur Jafa. Courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels

Oppressive violence can become recyclable as energy to push protests. And, when art draws inspiration from the results of it, it may minimise countering that violence. The injury becomes loss and victory, and this is how healing gets conflated with recognition. The media and segments of the public then pat themselves on the back for seeing and/or being seen. But when we are witnessing horror, sometimes, we have to drop what we’re doing and actually stop it. 

Grief and Grievance opens during a pandemic in which people are fighting for their most basic everyday needs like food, housing, and healthcare. We can wonder if some people even feel they can afford to grieve or find the time in this sort of environment. The many beautiful pieces that deal with our traumas remind us where we’ve come from amid disasters we have not yet escaped. And if the catalogue to the show helps start a fire that needs to burn, I will be grateful. I’m not arguing that art has to be activist-oriented, but when it revolves around topics such as these we have to wonder what’s next for the mourners.

I can tell you about grief. The last five years have brought me copious amounts of experience with it in ways that I never imagined, peaking with the loss of one of the most important people in my life. My familiarity has been forced by the unpredictable hand of death, which I have come to know as an unexpected guest that comes and goes as it pleases. Yet, I still struggle to find the language or compositions that feel needed to grasp this relation. I do what I can to overcome, and I appreciate the artists that help me with their music, visual arts, and more. I want them to know that I want to see the end of the forces that are causing us harm. So when we grieve and mourn together, I hope the consideration is always there that we will overcome by destroying what destroys us in whatever ways we can. If we don’t contend with this, we’ll only be seeing more of the same sorrows. 

This reflection is dedicated to the memory of those who have passed away, and those who are grieving and mourning during a time of tremendous loss. 

Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America at the New Museum, New York opens 17 February 2021 and runs until 06 June 2021.

William C Anderson

William C. Anderson is a writer and activist from Birmingham, Alabama. His work has appeared in the Guardian, MTV, Truthout, and Pitchfork, among others. He is the co-author of the book As Black as Resistance (AK Press. 2018) and his writings have been included in the anthologies, Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Protect? (Haymarket, 2016) and No Selves to Defend. His forthcoming book The Nation On No Map will be published in 2021 by AK Press.