The June issue of Aeqai focuses exclusively on artwork made by artists who are African-American. I asked our writers to choose an artist/work of art by any African-American artist, as we did in May with women artists; the assignment was made before the protests following the murder of George Floyd (and so many other African-Americans) at the hands of out of control police officers. This issue should be considered Aeqai’s mark of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter protests and calls for action, and raises fascinating and important issues about the roles that art does and may yet play in furthering understanding of the systemic racism which has so long plagued America.
We begin this issue with a brilliant, timely and topical essay by Aeqai’s resident philosopher/critic/aesthetician/metaphysician Ekin Erkan, who chose the work of outdoor sculptor Hank Willis Thomas and a new work of his in Brooklyn, around which Erkan offers an amazing synthesis of what art’s purpose may be, what the sublime is and isn’t; his essay is evocative and powerful and a must-read, and provides an incredible theoretical underpinning to artwork made by African-American artist Thomas that transcends what we have come to expect from art, and possibly from art made by artists of color. I hope his essay has the impact on our readers as it did on me as I first read it.
We then continue with an analysis of Harlem Renaissance photographer James Van Der Zee, whose work was shown at Cincinnati Art Museum decades ago, by Jonathan Kamholtz; CAM owns six of Van Der Zee’s photographs, to boot (kudos here to Curator Kristin Spangenberg, Curator of Prints at CAM, who selected this work to be seen at CAM; we’ll offer more kudos to her later, too). Photography at that time still came under the curatorial direction of the print curator. Kamholtz analyzes the artist’s work with his usual acuity and thoroughness. Cynthia Kukla selected the work of artist Mark Bradford, from Texas, in another review/ essay of incredible brilliance (her essay so well compliments Erkan’s). Susan Byrnes’ essay begins with the documentary film from 2015 by Cincinnatians April Martin and Paul Hill and goes on to describe a variety of work by African-American artists, in her fascinating and brilliant essay called “America Goddam”. Our occasional critic Saad Ghosn selected the work of Cincinnatian Thom Shaw, whose woodcuts from The Malcolm X series are some of the finest woodcuts made since those of Kathe Kollwitz; we again send kudos to Cincinnati Art Museum Curator of Prints Kristin Spangenberg for choosing to curate a show of these often difficult, perplexing prints about African American street life at the Museum; it was rare for CAM to show the work of both a regional and an African American artist concurrently, and Shaw’s prints continue to manifest the enormous power now as then. (Shaw was a very early African American artist to be represented here by commercial galleries; his jazz-inspired paintings were shown at Miller Gallery in Hyde Park in the seventies, and his woodcuts, downtown at The Closson Gallery). Many consider Shaw to have been the most important African American artist of his generation, and one of the finest artists of any in Cincinnati, as well.
Steve Kemple decided to review a current show at Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center, a wall of digitalized imagery by Kahlil Robert Irving, which are compelling and brilliant and important; we expect Irving to become one of our country’s leading artists in the near future. Kemple, too, like Ekin Erkan, builds his review/essay around the very topic of what art can be; it makes fascinating and enlightening reading. New to Aeqai this month is New York critic Tim Brinkhof, who selected the work of Kara Walker (also shown in Cincinnati at Cincinnati Art Museum: kudos again), for his analysis for this issue. Josh Beckelhimer offers a fascinating essay on the work of Jean Michel Basquiat, who died at 27 , but whose work is in much demand by collectors; Beckelhimer puts Basquiat’s work in the context of hip hop and street culture to great effect. Our Louisville critic, Megan Bickel, offers a lengthy, fascinating interview with young African American artist Kiah Celeste, who’s been commissioned to make an outdoor sculpture at a park in Louisville; Bickel raises all kinds of important questions both about Celeste’s materials and her identity as a Black woman artist.
Marlene Steele selected the well known portrait artist Dean Mitchell for her analysis; his work is highly emotionally charged, and his career increasingly watched. And our fashion critic, Jennifer Perusek, selected fashion designer/couturier Jay Jaxson for her essay; he seems not as well known as he obviously should be, as America’s first fashion designer to be considered a true couturier (see her essay for how difficult that is); he was a very rare African American fashion designer in that field at all until very, very recently. Jane Durrell selected Cincinnati painter Cedric Cox, who’s quite multi-talented, and whose work will be on display in a twenty year retrospective shortly at Caza Sikes Gallery in Cincinnati; Cox is also a community activist, teacher, and nationally exhibited artist, and, we are proud to say, also President of the Board of Aeqai, Inc.
We are including Tim Brinkhof’s essay on Goya and his presumed wry eye towards his Spanish royal patrons; it came to Aeqai after our issue in April wherein our writers chose any artist in the world to write about.
I offer two book reviews this month, both dealing with a variety of topical issues in America, Kate Elizabeth Russell’s brilliant “My Dark Vanessa”, possibly the year’s finest novel to date, and Megha Majumdar’s frightening debut novel “A Burning”.
There are always other African American artists who are now well known who were not selected by our writers, including Betye and Alison Saar; Kehinde Wiley; Jacob Lawrence; Robert Duncanson; Romaire Beardon, amongst others, and Cincinnati artists Mel Grier, Jymi Bolden, Terrance Corbin, Kwame Clay; Robert Harris; Robert O’Neal; Brian Joiner; Althea Thompson; Joyce Phillips Young; Carolyn Mazloomi; Jimi Jones; Cynthia Lockhart; and Velma Morris, all widely praised and superb artists. But I hope that the wide variety of artists selected by our writers gives a real entry point to the huge amount of artistic talent by African American artists, and also hope that this issue will either introduce our readers to the work of these artists, and/or inspire us all to seek out their work, and that of others, in this national period of change in the air. To go directly to this June issue of Aeqai, click onto www.aeqai.org and you’ll go right to the site.
Daniel Brown, Editor