Today I stopped and stared at a carpet.
I was at the @CorcoranDC’s 30 Americans exhibit. I’d just passed through a gallery featuring works by Carrie Mae Weems, Glenn Ligon and William Pope.L. But now a carpet dominated the entire length of one wall, with a single strip of tattered and stained material extending into the path of patrons, guarded by black, rubber bumpers: Rodney McMillian’s, Untitled (2005).
I’d originally passed it by. How does an old, ugly carpet compare to Carrie Mae Weem’s portraits? Or Glen Ligon’s Mirror (2002)? Or Nina Chanel Abney’s caricatures? Granted, Abney’s twisting lines and bright circus carnival colors assaulted me if I focused too closely. And the topics were strange. Ghosts emerged from dress ties and the tails of animals. Jagged teeth gaped and spread into red, wet smiles. Disturbing. But interesting.
As interesting as the suit made of sequins, beads and old leg warmers. As interesting as the portrait of an impressively masculine black body draped in white cloth, silver vines and pink flowers. As interesting as a Kara Walker silhouette–and not nearly so problematic.
In other words, I could deal with disturbing if it was interesting. I could even be proud of disturbing if it was interesting. And I wanted to be proud of all of the black artists on display. The 30 Americans being featured happened to all be of African descent. Some (Lorna Simpson, Gordon Parks, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kehinde Wiley) were well known. All are under exhibited because it is still a novelty for African American artists to be featured in and of their own right:
We decided to call [the exhibition] “30 Americans.” “Americans,” rather than “African Americans” or “Black Americans” because nationality is a statement of fact, while racial identity is a question each artist answers in his or her own way, or not at all. And the number 30 because we acknowledge, even as it is happening, that this show does not include everyone who could be in it. The truth is, because we do collect right up to the last minute before a show, there are actually 31 artists in “30 Americans.”
—Rubell Family, November, 2008
These artists represented some of the best artists of African descent in the U.S. And on this fine fall day, I was one of many bodies of color walking through this art gallery. So what if this was only because the Corcoran Gallery happened to be offering free admission for FotoWeek DC. So what?
Didn’t matter. On this fine fall day, I was witnessing representative artists–and I represented the best of us too. I was a Smart Negress. The kind who goes to (free) galleries on the weekend, who walks through ever so quietly and patiently, who contemplates with pointed silence the images on the walls and who would be damned if she let even the security guards of the gallery see her act out of pocket. Nope. Good behavior only in this here bastion of privilege and wealth and elitist curatorial power.
Then I’d turned the corner…and run into a carpet.
Before I could stop her, a little, not very nice voice in my head cranked up:
“See, this is why we can’t have nice things. What is this carpet doing here? Who the hell thought that an old, musty, stained, frayed piece of shit like this ought to be hanging in an art gallery. See, this is what white folks think of us and our art, they just take any old thing and any old Tom, Dick or Harry can toss some paint on a wall and claim that its (black) art because of the color of his skin because white folks just don’t understand….”
I ignored the voice long enough to read the blurb beneath the title and the artist’s name. But I did not look at Untitled (2005) for any longer than it took to walk around it to the Kerry Marshall vignette on the other side. I walked very carefully around the outstretched lip of rayon (or whatever carpets were made of in 2005) and tried to put some distance between it and me. I tried to focus on the little pink hearts that floated and the black face against grey river on the opposite wall…
The carpet, in the meantime, just waited. I felt it at my shoulder. It didn’t leer. It didn’t loom. It waited with the patience of a thousand black grandmothers, a thousand Great Migrations, a thousand gallons of Pine Sol’d bucket water and bleach and elder women on their knees with yellow gloves scrubbing. Scrubbing stains out.
“You read the blurb,” the little voice said. ”You did your Smart Negresse duty admirably. Keep it moving.”
But I’d glance at it from the corner of my eye. Embarrassed. Wrinkle my nose. Turn away. Turn back. Frown at it. Glare at this especially black stain and listen to the little voice in my head complain that someone–probably some poor black folk, probably some nigger in some ghetto somewhere–didn’t know how to rub two pennies together and buy a gallon of bleach. Turn away in shame. At myself. At my people. At a long history of internalized disaffection and neglect.
But then I’d turn back again. Curious. Because something in its threads was singing to me. Across blood, across soap, across lye and smelling like talcum powder and old cigarette smoke. Something in Untitled (2005) was not telling me a story of systemic oppression turned inward and drunk down like poison. It was telling me about this or that weekend at my father’s, running around the apartment, dropping pizza and ketchup and syrup on the rug despite the roaches that were likely creep in from parts unknown for a midnight snack because we were too busy laughing to care. It was telling me of weekly chores and being made to vacuum walkway carpet so used and well loved the threads wouldn’t bounce back anymore. It was telling me of days off from school watching my abuela scrub this stain or that spot, yellow gloves on wrinkled brown hands, nylon skirt over arthritic knees, trying to get under dirt that was not our own but she would punish anyway because it would be years until either of her daughters would afford a down payment on a house. They did, eventually, but the wheels of economic boot-strappism turn slow. Abuela arrived on the mainland from Puerto Rico when she was fifteen. She never earned enough money to even dream of owning the property of her dreams.
Untitled (2005) was telling a story I was familiar with. A story of family love and dispossession and hard work and being clean in-spite-of. Of siblings who love hard and rowdy and rough. Of small spaces packed with extended family. Of bedrooms and trundle beds and sharing beds. Of shifting furniture to make a space roomy, airier, softer, hotter, more owned because we had yet to own anything of our own and because we could not assume we ever would so we had to be happy, perfectly happy, Nikki Giovanni happy living in rented apartments now. A story of foreign carpets in neutral shades that would never be white again but dammit if my mothers had anything to do with it, they would always, always be fucking clean….
It was as I turned back that I saw another young black woman, a slender and dark silhouette against the carpet on the wall. She stopped at Untitled (2005) for the length of time it took to blink twice, stalked over to read the description, and stalked away. A moment later she was back.
“Will you look at this?”
The young woman was dragging another young man with her to read the description. Her companion looked uninterested but surprised at the energy and emotion behind her insistence. She was animated. ”Look!”
She gestured to the description in disgust and consternation. Then they both looked at the carpet. The young man bored but obedient. The woman indignant. ”I just can’t get with this one. I just don’t understand it.” The young man nodded but did not commit, did not speak. He didn’t need to. He sensed (and I sensed) that the woman had simply needed an audience for her outrage because in another moment she’d thrown her hands up, turned on a flourish, and was stalking her way into the next gallery over, dragging him along. He was happy to go. His face hadn’t changed since he arrived on the scene.
As she left, an elderly black couple turned the corner and walked slowly to the piece. Black and stately, man and woman, they peered at the piece. The woman moved to the description first, followed by the man. When she finished reading, she very discreetly turned away from Untitled (2005) and moved towards the Abney caricatures, quick, quiet distance. The man looked, regarded, but seeing his companion had moved on, followed her around the corner. He looked back once. She didn’t look back at all.
I watched and witnessed. Untitled (2005)’s siren song had long since driven the little voice into its usual oppressed silence in the back of my brain. And I was still ashamed; but now for a different reason. I was ashamed of my reaction and my failure and my lack of self awareness. I’d said I could deal with the disturbing, the grotesque, erotic and flagrant as long as it was interesting. I didn’t say I could deal with my own history, tacked on a wall, right here for these high and mighty white curators to see.
But you don’t choose what your art is. Your artists do. And you don’t choose your history. You are born into it, you inherit it. You disown it at great, great risk.
I stopped and stared at a carpet today. And I fought it. But it brought me back. And it felt like home.
In many of Rodney McMillian’s enthralling instillations and performance pieces, he ignites our sensory functions as much as he does our cerebral ones. Whether it’s an empty, soiled upholstered armchair or floppy, cut-out canvas of the Supreme Court Building, his works evoke a melancholy past of bygone glory days as he depicts the emotional void. Still, there’s often a socio-political edge to his works, as they often touch upon important events and people who are sometimes omitted from conventional historical records.