Poetic Justice

Emmanuel Olunkwa at “Vision & Justice” at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study
Carrie Mae Weems. Photo: Julia ZhogniaCarrie Mae Weems. Photo: Julia Zhognia
May 9, 2019
By Emmanuel Olunkwa

“WHAT HAS MORALITY WON US?” This provocative question, posed by Bryan Stevenson—a lawyer, activist, and professor at New York University School of Law—lingered in the room on the second day of the “Vision and Justice” conference at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. It was asked during the “Mass Incarceration and Visual Narratives” panel, one of numerous events in the daylong symposium, whose ambitious programming took on the archive, gentrification, the prison-industrial complex, police states, Flint, racialized AI disparity, and the necessitities of black art and cultural production. Stevenson was discussing how we wouldn’t win Brown v. Board of Education today, given the fraught political climate, noting that the ruling was a pivotal moment right before he was born that informed his decision to pursue a career in law. He later dovetailed this point with McCleskey v. Kemp, whose bleak outcome determined that racial discrimination concerning the death penalty was “inevitable.”

Ava DuVernay, Sarah Lewis, Franklin Leonard, Bryan Stevenson. Photo: Julia ZhogniaAva DuVernay, Sarah Lewis, Franklin Leonard, Bryan Stevenson. Photo: Julia Zhognia

There was beauty, too. The summit, packed with over a hundred people, coincided with the opening of “Gordon Parks: Selections from the Dean Collection” at the Ethelberg Cooper Gallery of African American Art. The pictures—rich in intimacy, devastation, and resilience—display profound moments of the everydayness and mundanity of black life during the civil rights era and the Jim Crow South, and before now were only viewable in old Life issues. The show, the most extensive retrospective of Parks’s photographs since the early ’90s, comprises one third of Kaseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean and Alicia Keys’s collection, the largest privately owned collection of Parks’s work to date. At dinner later that evening at Harvard’s Loeb House, when speaking to Dean, I asked what drew him to Parks’s work. “When I first started collecting work, it was for the wrong reasons.,” he said. “I was collecting work that would make me money but didn’t tell a story or enhance my culture in anyway. When I learned more about the art-collecting culture, it made me realize that I could be more influential by supporting living artists, specifically black people, and help expand their careers.”

Parks’s photographs embody and echo architectural sentiments shared on the “Originality and Invention” panel with Sarah Lewis, Carrie Mae Weems, and architect David Adjaye. Weems spoke about conceiving her “Museums” series, which depicts the artist, her back to the camera in a black full-length dress, facing the Louvre, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, the Met, and other institutions. “In my twenties, there was a new type of architecture emerging where all buildings were made of dark glass which they insisted reflected you,” Weems said. She went on to speak about her time studying at University of California, Berkeley, and walking around campus—the feeling that the architecture exerted a power over her and that she felt the need to respond to it as a subject.

David Adjaye then reflected on Julian Abele, who designed the Harvard University Widener Library in 1910 and was the first black architect to attend the University of Pennsylvania. Abele achieved tremendous success in the twentieth century, but a lot of his accomplishments remain largely unsung in the architectural canon. Adjaye spoke of an all-too-common historical amnesia that takes place; Abele’s genius, we now know, and the grating reality of productivity that lay in being able to demonstrate the mastery of a language that actively excluded him.

For black creators, cultural advancement has constantly been born out of survival, but then the structures catch up and become something one must yield to and play within. That such an event was being held at Harvard, hardly a bastion of inclusion itself, was a source of subtle tension. And here is where I can only echo Adjaye’s call to use our imaginations and step outside of ourselves to build our own institutions with a new set of principles while also keeping an eye on the past.

“I’d like to add onto this notion of influence,” Weems chimed in at the very end. “Modernism, as it relates to black cultural production, has not been spelled out in any sort of sophisticated way, though the work is there. The work is there in a beautiful incredible articulated form.”

 Theaster Gates, David Adjaye, and Sarah Lewis. Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva Theaster Gates, David Adjaye, and Sarah Lewis. Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva

Swizz Beats. Photo: Melissa BlackallSwizz Beats. Photo: Melissa Blackall

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