To commemorate the year that was, we invited an array of artists, writers, designers, and curators—from poet LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs and musician Grant Hart to artist Kalup Linzy and designer David Reinfurt—to share a list of the most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects they encountered in 2014.
Jeff Chang is a journalist, music critic, and the author of the American Book Award–winning Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation and the just-released Who We Be: The Colorization of America, which “chronicles the rise and fall of multiculturalism through the lens of visual culture.” Executive director of Stanford’s Institute for Diversity in the Arts, Chang cofounded CultureStr/ke and ColorLines, as well as the indie record label SoleSides (now Quannum Projects), which helped launch the careers of artists including Blackalicious, DJ Shadow, and Lyrics Born. He visited the Walker in 2007 and 2008 for a panel discussion on Total Chaos: The Art and Aesthetics of Hip-Hop and for a discussion with Walker Teen Programs on the state of hip-hop and politics in America today.
How did Americans see race in 2014?
All one needed to do was to spend an hour in Kara Walker’s summer installation in Brooklyn, entitled A Subtlety: or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant.
There was nothing subtle about the work or the reactions it generated. Her sugar sculpture, an inflated take on 18th century British and French court decorations, inflated stereotypes to factory size—this was a handkerchief-headed mammy-esque sphinx, with Kardashian curves and outsized genitalia. Walker’s art has always meant to provoke, and in some ways this piece succeeded bigger than any of her previous works.
Viewers fell right into their roles. Many walked into the factory, mediating Walker’s art through their camera or phone lens. They posed for each other, grinning, as if they were tourists at their destination. Quite a few mimicked caressing the sphinx’s breasts and thrusting their hands toward her vulva. The whole air was a little too carnival-like.
What was really being exposed here? When it was revealed later that Walker had filmed the crowds it seemed to confirm that she was meant to make all that implicit bias and make it pretty damned explicit.
We live in an era in which multiculturalism has taught us what not to say. From that we have won a new kind of civility—what the reactionary trolls still call “political correctness,” if ever more shrilly each day. But the price for that civility may be an abiding silence about bias and inequity and violence—both the kind that allows cops to pull the trigger on Black women, men, and children, as well as the kind that causes people to snap public photos of themselves in mid-finger-fuck and then to post those images to social media.
A Subtlety broke that silence, loudly. It was the mirror that screamed.
The day I arrived, late in June, the sticky sweet molasses smell had curled into putridity. Rot had set in. Some of the smaller sculptures of attending children had melted and collapsed in the night, their heads rolling away from shards and ponds of molasses that were once supplicant bodies holding baskets. I heard onlookers tsk-tsk Walker’s supposed sloppiness. “It’s ruined,” I heard one woman complain. “I can’t even enjoy this.”
That weekend, a group led by women of color had mobilized a counter-space within the space as if to say, “Race, gender, class, history—anyone?” They passed out stickers to anyone uninterested in playing the Ugly American type. Their organizing would eventually spawn more teach-ins, meet-ups, and mobilization around issues of cultural equity. Those representational tags they handed out that day read, “We Are Here.”
It’s a sign of these terrible times that even when your president is Black, some people still need to be reminded.
And so for all the above reasons, salute to the YAMS Collective!
Damon Davis, All Hands On Deck
The tireless Damon Davis’s All Hands On Deck project felt like one of the most urgent. In the days after Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declared martial law to mobilize the National Guard against expected protests before the grand jury decision—let’s ponder that for a second—Davis took pictures of the hands of community organizers and leaders, raised in the manner Michael Brown had when he was shot at least six times. He and a team of volunteers then wheat-pasted these large broadsides up and down West Florissant Avenue, Ferguson’s main thoroughfare, on the plywood boards that local businesses had put up in anticipation of rioting.
All Hands On Deck galvanized the local network of young organizers and community activists as they went about the hard work of putting together an infrastructure to organize peaceful demonstrations and create safe spaces for the community to deal with the expected non-indictment. It also made their work and their message visible, against a media hellbent whipping up a frenzy for teargas and fire.
In the hours after the verdict, the National Guard and the police abandoned West Florissant to protect their department, shopping malls, and government buildings. Predictably the fires started up. But many of Davis’s posters remained up, a visible testament to the community’s fight to live.
Hank Willis Thomas, Raise Up, 2014
Hank Willis Thomas’s sculpture Raise Up was completed before Michael Brown was shot with his hands in the air. He had in fact made the piece for series of works called “History Don’t Laugh,” using South African apartheid-era photos. His sculpture was adapted from one by Ernest Cole depicting mineworkers subjected to a humiliating medical exam involving full body searches.
Of course in the past month, Hank’s sculpture gathered new layers of meaning. Art as prophecy, yet again. Raise Up echoes the same transformation that protestors across the country gave Brown’s final gesture of submission, changing it into a symbol of mass resistance.
J. Cole: “All we want to do is break the chains off. All we want to is be free.”
DREAMers and Dream Defenders
I’m continually awestruck by the young activists who dare now to speak in the language of dreams, particularly the DREAMers and the Dream Defenders. The DREAMers won an unexpected victory when Obama finally agreed late this year that he did actually have the power to be able to offer deferred action to millions of undocumented immigrants. Five million more are now a step closer to realizing their dream.
The activist organization the Dream Defenders have also been heralds of this national moment in which we have been called to reckon with racial injustice. They emerged in the wake of the George Zimmerman acquittal to occupy the Florida State Capitol for a month to call attention to the travesty that is Stand Your Ground. One of their early manifestoes read, “They expect us to riot; to torch cities and burn bridges. They expect us to disperse; to wait for the next ambulance. But we challenge you to build. Real Power.”
They did all this while wearing t-shirts that read, “Can we dream together?”
I’m so thankful for Rebecca Solnit. From Men Explain Things To Me and The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness to her timely pieces in Harper’s, across the web, and on her Facebook page, she captured the shift in national consciousness around sexual assault and rape. It was gratifying to hear her tear down the specious, mansplaining rationalizations that have preserved the silence around these issues. It has been a historic year for feminism and Rebecca has been one of our truest guides.
Claudia Rankine, Citizen
More than ever race is about the politics of seeing and being seen. Claudia Rankine’s quietly beautiful book, Citizen, begins with the internal terror that comes from daily acts of microaggression.
Someone says something or does something to you that cuts at the root of your identity. It comes from a favored teacher who mistakes you for the other Black girl, a new acquaintance who can’t get over the fact that affirmative action has prevented her son from attending the school you both work at but instead forced him to attend another elite institution, or even yourself—when you and your husband have unwittingly inflicted the surveillance of white cops upon a close friend.
The flood of doubt that pours forth never seems to subside. You drown in your own questions. Race becomes the constant rupture, the perpetual ache. In precise and beautiful prose, Rankine shows how microaggressions implode you from within.
Flying Lotus, You’re Dead
In my personal life and in the world, death has surrounded us too much lately. But Flying Lotus’s album You’re Dead made me laugh, cry, shout, and just bug out. In other words, it did all those little big things that remind us why life matters, why Black lives matter, why each of us must fight so hard for all of us to live.
No words meant more to me this year than these from James Baldwin, who, perhaps in order to hold the despair at bay, modulated throughout his life from a precise, righteous rage to an unbound hope in the good of others. In a speech in November 1962 that came to be called “The Artist’s Struggle For Integrity,” he laid out an ethics of creativity, one that can apply as much to all of us, a blueprint for hopeful living. He begins by speaking about artists who, like all of us, are compelled to create because of a hurt or a trauma:
“You survive this (hurt or trauma) and in some terrible way, which I suppose no one can ever describe, you are compelled, you are corralled, you are bullwhipped into dealing with whatever it is that hurt you. And what’s crucial here is that if it hurt you, that’s not what’s important. Everybody’s hurt.
What is important, what corrals you, what bullwhips you, what drives you, torments you, is that you must find some way of using this to connect you with everyone else alive. This is all you have to do it with.
You must understand that your pain is trivial except insofar as you can use it to connect with other people’s pain; and insofar as you can do that with your pain, you can be released from it, and then hopefully it works the other way around too; insofar as I can tell you what it is to suffer, perhaps I can help you to suffer less.”