To commemorate the year that was, we invited an array of artists, writers, designers, and curators—from abstract painter Jack Whitten to musician C. Spencer Yeh, choreographer Trajal Harrell to designer Na Kim—to share a list of the most noteworthy ideas, events, and objects they encountered in 2015. See the entire series 2015: The Year According to.
What started as a series of casual DMs between Kimberly Drew and Jenna Wortham has evolved within the last year into an ambitious and multifarious research project that launches publicly today under the name Black Futures. The hybrid project will combine short essays and original, commissioned artworks from a variety of sources, all drawn from personal networks that span from storied institutions to Internet artists to online communities. “We’re devoted to the act of preserving and documenting contemporary blackness in the post-digital age,” the state, “and our ultimate plan is to create a time capsule that reflects the deep contours of global blackness at this precise moment in history.” In line with this vision, Black Future’s year-end list offers a nuanced exploration of the year’s undercurrents, from activism and appropriation to gender identity and global interconnectivity.
Kimberly Drew (@museummammy), currently the Associate Online Community Producer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, founded the Tumblr blog Black Contemporary Art, and has delivered lectures and participated in panel discussions at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, the Performa Biennial, Art Basel, the Brooklyn Museum, the Bronx Museum of the Arts, Creative Many (Detroit, MI) and elsewhere.
Jenna Wortham (@jennydeluxe) is a staff writer at the New York Times Magazine, where she previously covered technology and Internet culture. She has also written for The Fader, The Paris Review, The Hairpin, and Vogue. Other side hustles include: Bloop, Heartline on Bel-Air Radio, Everybody Sexts, the Emoji Art Show & Girl Crush Zine.
Social activism, community organizing, and subversion have been at the foundation of art movements since the dawn of time. But, in 2015, we have witnessed (and seen some grand, financial support for) a new wave of social practice art-making. Artists like LaToya Ruby Frazier, Mark Bradford, Theaster Gates, Rick Lowe, Maria Gaspar, Titus Kaphar, and Wangechi Mutu have been making major waves place-making and fundraising. With the US election on the horizon and the world basically in shambles, these artists have the audacity to help try and make the world a better place.
New Black Geographies
Afro-Iran is a hyphenated identity that may not be familiar to most, and Mahdi Ehsaei’s gorgeous, Kickstarter-funded photography project provided a textured glimpse into the lives and communities of African Iranians that have settled alongside the Persian Gulf. African slaves were sold to wealthy families in Persia as servants and concubines, and these are their descendants. The diaspora is so vast and varied, and in recent years we’ve been afforded the opportunity to learn about our pasts and move forward deftly into the future. Additionally, that’s why the ongoing body of work by Zanele Muholi, a queer South African photographer who documents the lives of lesbians and gender-nonconforming people in Africa, is also among the most important narratives to gain global recognition this year.
#GenderMuse: Talking Gender in Museums
The gender revolution has arrived (again.) This year, museums globally have been charged with reconsidering how they can be receptive to the myriad identities of their visitors. It’s our hope that unpacking cis-gender-centric museological practices will be one of the art world’s greatest challenges in the 21st century. That said, news flash: gender equity is more than just bathrooms! Yes, gender neutral bathrooms are a step in the right direction, but they surely aren’t the only qualifier for gender-inclusive museum practices. So, get on it y’all!
Notes on Language & Internet Vernacular
Claptalking is a uniquely black gesture, an action one associates primarily with black women and black womanhood. It is a part of our colloquial vernacular as familiar as any other part of the English language. As emoji became popularized in America and social media services like Twitter adapted their software so that the colorful cartoons would show up in tweets, something interesting began to happen. People, including non-black Americans, began using the claphands emoji to emulate claptalking online. Is this linguistic minstrelsy? And is it the Internet’s fault for facilitating it? None of these questions have answers, but Martine Syms’s provocative and brilliant project helps to explore the meaning of language and, by association, the ways online media and the Internet debone culture from its origins, how we process digital representation and cultural migration in a post-Internet era. (Further reading: Manuel Arturo Abreu’s Online Imagined Black English.)
The Year of the Hoe
2015 was undoubtedly the year of the hoe (and in many ways, “whoremongering.”) Self-proclaimed, self-affirming hoes like Amber Rose and Cardi B forged a new path towards decolonizing black female sexuality. Rose’s How to Be a Bad Bitch is perhaps the first book of it’s candor since Karinne Steffans’ seminal 2005 book, Confessions of a Video Vixen. Rose doesn’t hold a candle to Steffans as a novelist, but the Amber Rose Slut Walk has had an undoubtedly profound impact on the public dialogue around black female subjectivity.
An enormous and ongoing theme from 2015 was the slow-rising awareness of the Internet as a biased, hegemonic, and very-not-neutral space. It is not the democracy we’ve lulled ourselves into thinking it could be. Plenty of dialogues have emerged about how multibillion-dollar corporations like Uber, AirBnb, Facebook, Spotify, and the like continue to reinforce—not disrupt—age-old hierarchies. But none have been as entertaining as the work of online artist Tabita Rezaire, a French-Guyanese-Danish multimedia artist living in Johannesburg, South Africa. Her work addresses the colonist attitudes of the Web and forces you to address that we might be co-opting a new form of slavery, one that’s too far embedded to extricate ourselves from.
“I’m not going to ask Lena Dunham to write a story about Asian-American girls; that’s not her experience. But if we want more stories about Asian-Americans, then we have to help foster the creators, the writers, the producers, the directors. I’m trying to read more books that are written by Asian-Americans. It’s important to me that I read these stories.” —Constance Wu
2015 was a year of strange cultural confusion. Identities were borrowed, racial histories co-opted, and the post-Internet etiquette of “sharing first and worrying about crediting later” came to a head with the Fat Jew and a handful of other popular aggregators. But perhaps no one broke it down better than Amandla Sternberg, actress and musician, in a YouTube video talking about the dangers of appropriation and what is lost when we just assume aesthetics, fashion, and ideas are up for grabs.
New Online Narratives
There’s something so revolutionary about black Internet users deciding to simply make themselves known a few days each year by flooding Tumblr with resplendent images of blackness. It’s a way to push back at an overwhelmingly Eurocentric images of beauty media and claim a little space for oneself. Acknowledging the power to create and control independent narratives—to define what it means that the Internet is intended as a democracy—was one of the most important themes for keyboard activism in 2015.
In January 2015, the New York Times ran an article outlining web initiatives by major art museum including the Whitney Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, and others making images in their collection accessible online. In the piece Ken Johnson asks, “Will global interconnectivity promote homogeneity and less idiosyncrasy?” The clear answer here is: hell no. This year was chock full of intensely creative infrastructures for global interconnectivity. For example, Tulane University’s Bounce Archive, Sonia Boyce’s Black Artist and Modernism, the #CharlestonSyllabus, the digitization of 1.5 million of the Freedmans Bureau’s papers, and many others are inflating the traditional definitions of archives or databases. Global interconnectivity was turnt in 2015 and we can’t wait to see what 2016 has in store.