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  • Writer's pictureLilly Cao

Uptown Triennial 2020

Updated: Feb 28, 2021

The Wallach’s fall show is shamefully blind to its own context.

By Lilly Cao.

According to its online exhibition text, the Uptown Triennial 2020 aims to present the work of contemporary artists in dialogue with art of the Harlem Renaissance, aligning the aspirational values of the historical movement “distinctly” with the current anti-racism protests. The powerful irony of this proposition is that the show is staged in the Wallach Art Gallery, on Columbia’s Manhattanville Campus—on land seized from Harlem residents through the highly controversial practice of eminent domain.

With the question “who is this really for?” continuing to haunt the newly opened campus, the same must be asked of Uptown Triennial 2020—alongside other Wallach art shows that center on Black art and subjectivity. If the Wallach displaced and excluded residents of Harlem, with what authority does it now get to celebrate Blackness and represent this community? How progressive can an art exhibit really be if it ignores the contested politics of its own site? In a show explicitly about Harlem, these questions may no longer remain peripheral: they intrinsically frame every artwork, every text, and every curatorial choice. To truly evaluate the exhibit means to reinscribe this excluded context; to have ignored it at the outset was a massive curatorial failure.

I am not currently in New York, so I was only able to view the show online. On the Wallach Art Gallery website, the exhibition takes two forms: a long page of artworks arranged linearly and an interactive 3D model that beautifully reproduces the sense of being in the gallery. The curatorial approach for each model varies slightly. In both, the exhibit constellates related contemporary works around six Harlem Renaissance artifacts, broadly organizing them according to similarities in form, style, medium, and subject matter. In the linear online version, each Harlem Renaissance work is accompanied by a historical summary of the artist and artwork; the related contemporary works, which lack explanatory text, follow.

Illustration by Lilly Cao

In the physical exhibition, these groups are arranged spatially. For example, on the southern wall across from Joseph Urban’s 1929 stage model for the musical Show Girl sits a 2020 painting of two drum majors performing. On the wall adjacent to this theatrical grouping hang two of James Van Der Zee’s historical portrait photographs, which in turn are accompanied by two contemporary portrait works: a painting of an MTA worker by Jordan Casteel, and a series of black-and-white portraits by photographer Gerald Cyrus. Similar groupings around the remaining historical touchstones populate the gallery. Most notably, the show features a painting and two illustrations by the famed Harlem Renaissance artist Aaron Douglas, who gained widespread recognition for his spiritual, silhouetted paintings of African American life. Douglas’ works share a wall with two 2019 collages by Damien Davis, which recreate Douglas’ bold, colorful forms and dark silhouettes in new media.

Considered alone, these curatorial arrangements beautifully trace continuities between Black contemporary art and the Harlem Renaissance, physicalizing historical and cultural pride and celebrating Blackness in the wake of recent violent acts of racist police brutality. Many of the show’s works investigate this theme through the motif of Black spirituality, invoking music to depict the liberating power of religion over past and present struggles. Kahlil Joseph’s Black Mary (2017) is a haunting short film based loosely on the work of Harlem Renaissance photographer Roy DeCarava, visualizing the raw emotion of a powerful Nina Simone song with transitions between footage signifying present and past. Joseph depicts the singer Alice Smith in color, performing in a contemporary bedroom setting, then he shifts to her in black and white, crowned in tangled leaves and a thin veil, singing into an old microphone. These wonderfully hauntological transitions are then interrupted by a jarring cut to three graffitied phone booths with sirens wailing in the background. Past, present, spirituality, and hard reality are all compressed into one five-minute video, evoking cultural pride and contemporary struggle in a single ethereal breath.

Broaching similar themes, Dianne Smith’s God’s Trombones is a large installation in the gallery’s southeast corner, consisting of braided and wrinkled brown butcher paper framing three videos: “The Crucifixion,” “Listen Lord,” and “Let My People Go.” “Listen Lord,” the centerpiece, begins with religious music and depicts footage of Black sermons, prayers, and churches. In stark contrast, “The Crucifixion” begins with the audio from the murder of Jacob Blake, after which it cuts to photos of contemporary Black victims of police brutality interspersed with symbols of slavery like chains and scars. Recontextualizing an essential Harlem Renaissance work—James Weldon Johnson’s God’s Trombones (1927), which is also on view—within the political reality of the present, Smith’s installation epitomizes Uptown Triennial 2020’s proclaimed mission of juxtaposing these pivotal historical moments.

Despite the importance of these individual works, their curation and location in the Wallach Art Gallery feels hollow. Beyond Columbia’s use of eminent domain and displacement of thousands of residents, Renzo Piano’s design for the new campus has been widely criticized for its austere, uninviting exterior and for its failure to appeal to the surrounding community. The Wallach itself is located several floors up and behind a security checkpoint with a gate and turnstiles; the eastern wall of the gallery is made of floor-to-ceiling windows, which gaze over Harlem from a sweeping, privileged height. Moreover, the exhibit is currently only open to Columbia students due to COVID-19 restrictions. While the original intention was to eventually open the show to the general public, it appears that the Columbia community has always been the primary audience. As much as Uptown Triennial 2020 focuses on Harlem and its history, and is in fact located in the greater Harlem area, it targets Columbia’s transient, nonlocal population and remains materially and symbolically removed from Harlem as a result of Piano’s elitist architectural design.

Parts of the exhibit feel like the product of an anthropologist observing a culture rather than an internal celebration by a community itself. The linear online format is the biggest driver of this ethnographic sense of distance: The lengthy, didactic essays accompanying each Harlem Renaissance work historicize the neighborhood, privileging these works over the politically engaged contemporary pieces. Harlem’s history is important, but in this context it only serves to excuse the exhibit and the institution from engaging with the complex politics of Harlem in the present—and with Columbia’s own role in these politics.

The wounds opened by the Manhattanville construction remain fresh, and in the wake of this summer’s protests, criticisms of the new campus and of Columbia’s relationship with the NYPD have been reinvigorated. To ignore the controversies of the site in the context of this revivified discourse is to forfeit any pretense of criticality, despite the curatorial claim of overt political alliance with recent Black Lives Matter protests. This is not to say that Uptown Triennial 2020 is apolitical, or to criticize its participating artists: many of the works shown are deeply politically engaged, including Smith’s God’s Trombones and Xaveria Simmons’ The Whole United States is Southern (2019). These individual artworks are incredibly important in their own right, but for the institution to include these generalized criticisms against urban segregation, housing discrimination, and police racism without acknowledging Columbia’s complicity in these very practices is blatantly hypocritical. These works allow the Wallach to feign progressivism as it sits pretty on a campus owing its existence to the forcible removal of targeted low-income residents.

However, two of the artworks, located in a small nook in the northwest corner of the gallery, quietly allude to the site even as the rest of the exhibition surreptitiously glosses over it. Derrick Adams’ Where it’s at collages photographs, maps, event posters, service ads, Green Books, and neon signs to illuminate the historical difficulty of living and traveling as a Black person in New York in the mid-20th century. The bright, new neon signs and modern printwork bring urban segregation into the present, alluding to contemporary spatial and racial divisions that the Columbia campuses have helped widen. On the adjacent wall hang three photos from Dawoud Bey’s Harlem Redux series, which documents the gentrification of Harlem. The reflexivity of these two pieces reintroduce essential context, but they alone—especially without explanatory text panels—are not sufficient. It would be easy to miss this small section of the exhibit altogether.Wallach curator Betti-Sue Hertz deftly chooses and arranges the artworks of Uptown Triennial 2020, transposing themes from the Harlem Renaissance into modern politics, and many of the works she has selected are powerful and relevant in these turbulent times. But turning a blind eye to the fraught politics of Manhattanville in an exhibition explicitly about Harlem is an egregious curatorial failure. The freshness of the Manhattanville debate cast these omissions in stark light, but perhaps recognitions of displacement should continue to embed themselves in the Wallach’s future exhibitions. Critically acknowledging the site should be common practice in any art exhibit at any institution, even in spaces whose nefarious political charges aren’t as glaringly obvious.


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