Stories and Pictures: Charlotte Burns in Conversation with Naomi Beckwith

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Jamal Cyrus, The Dowling Street Martyr Brigade – Towards a Walk in the Sun, Pride Catalog #2235, 2005

In a new recurring feature for Ursula magazine, Charlotte Burns talks with curators about how they are adapting to the current climate.

Museums are storytelling machines. What happens to the stories when the machines go quiet? The COVID-19 pandemic has quickly cut through the fabric of life and culture, affecting everyone in different ways and capsizing civic institutions. Many of the places where we once gathered in expressions of democracy—our schools, libraries and museums—are still closed, or opening with drastic restrictions and worries.

For curators, the challenges are enormous and uncharted. The question of when things ‘go back to normal’ has been tempered by the growing understanding that normal didn’t work anyway – that this is no longer a brief battle but a daunting new frontier. In a new series for Ursula magazine, veteran art writer and podcast host Charlotte Burns will be talking to curators about how they are adapting—and what they imagine for the future of their institutions and profession.

The first interview in the series — conducted during the initial weeks of the lockdown and resumed in the wake of the unparalleled nationwide protests over the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police — is with Naomi Beckwith, the Manilow Senior Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. A curator with a reputation for recognizing new talent—honed during her time as an associate curator at the Studio Museum in Harlem, where she managed the artists-in-residence program—Beckwith has focused on stories in the art world that would otherwise go untold. She has thought deeply about how institutions are run (by whom and for whom), and is often mentioned as a future museum leader. An academic with her eye on bringing a much broader swath of cultural history to as many people as possible, she is also reliably frank.

As the pandemic has unfolded, she said, most museums have been simply scrambling to keep up. ‘So many folks are talking about this ‘extra time’—but I have not found that time to be materializing yet. Right now, institutions are doing triage work. Museums are being affected financially—and fairly harshly.’

Institutions are also intently watching each other’s reactions and struggles. ‘Because so much of our work is linked,’ she said, ‘we’re seeing this weird domino effect around the country in terms of how museum programming will play out for the next few years.’

Foreground: Terry Adkins, Native Son (Circus), 2006–15. Left: Nari Ward, 'We The People,' 2011. Right: Sanford Biggers, 'Ghettobird Tunic,' 2006
Renée Green, Space Poem #3 (Media Bicho), 2012

Beckwith said she finds herself coming back to the question: ‘What are we doing with art without an audience in the museum? We are the places where art and audience meet, so what do we do when half of that equation disappears—and probably won’t come back in the same way even when the stay-at-home orders are lifted?’

She and other curators have also been thinking about the deep societal fault lines exposed by the virus, not just in the United States but around the world. So-called ‘essential workers’—many of whom do not receive a living wage or subsidized health care—have been dying in disproportionate numbers to wealthier people. Black and Latino people have been dying twice as fast as everyone else.

‘I have heard that word ‘unprecedented’ so many times it is nauseating. But we keep forgetting these are acute moments in a long history. The Trump election was the latest moment in a long history of a set of political machinations that Nixon set off.’
—Naomi Beckwith

Issues of identity, power, politics and conceptual thinking are central to Beckwith’s practice, which has been shaped by her academic experiences. Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago, she came of age in the 1980s in the wake of the Black Power movement, attending an experimental public school that fostered high academic achievement in its pupils, 98 percent of whom were African American. Learning Black history alongside the standard curriculum was a profoundly formative experience.

‘I had no idea that as soon as I was going to leave that school, Black history would no longer be part of my formal education anywhere else,’ she said.

Shortly before the MCA closed, Beckwith opened the exhibition ‘Duro Olowu: Seeing Chicago,’ guest-curated by the Nigerian-born British designer.

‘There is a question of cosmopolitanism at the center of that show that I keep mulling over: how do you bring cultures together and engender conversations across time, language, geography and aesthetics?’ she asked. ‘How can we do that better in the future, so it doesn’t just look like the privilege of being able to move around the world all the time?’

Beckwith has also continued work on co-organizing a forthcoming exhibition to be called ‘Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America,’ a title whose perpetual relevance has been heightened dramatically by the pandemic and, more recently, by the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police and the subsequent, ongoing protests.

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Glenn Ligon, Give us a Poem, 2007

Originally a show developed by the late, celebrated curator Okwui Enwezor, the exhibition was commissioned by the New Museum in New York before his untimely death last year, and is now being organized by Beckwith alongside Glenn Ligon, Mark Nash, and Massimiliano Gioni. For her part, Beckwith said, she has been spending a lot of time in the context of the show considering the role of the image—specifically images of the Black body—in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, thinking about differences in reception and impact of such images and similar ones that were published during the Civil Rights Movement.

‘Images of violence against Black bodies and the death of Black bodies were a galvanizing force in the Civil Rights Movement, but now there is more of a sense that those images work against Black bodies—and I am fascinated by that shift,’ she said.

Part of her thinking dates back to 2017 and the highly controversial inclusion in the Whitney Biennial of a painting by the artist Dana Schutz depicting the battered body of Emmett Till—the African-American teenager who was lynched by two white men in Mississippi in 1955. The painting was inspired by the original photograph of the boy’s mutilated corpse, which had been released by his mother to the media.

‘We have entered an era that, in my mind, feels full of real sympathy. It is not about ally-ship—which was a term served up in the 80s and 90s about the select few who were interested in, sympathetic to and, in fact, joining oppressed folks in their struggle.’—Beckwith

‘She offered the images to white publications who refused them, so they only circulated at first within the Black community at first, and then later in white publications,’ Beckwith said. ‘So that sense of control was important to the Black community.’

‘Now we are in a moment where we can essentially watch snuff films on Facebook Live, and it has a traumatizing effect—but it is not having the same mobilizing effect on people who are from different communities. This means people within the community have become less forgiving of the use of degrading images, which I think was part of the response to Dana’s work.’

She said she was unsure what she herself would have done as a curator at the time in the case of the Schutz painting.

‘I will forever defend the right of the artist to make whatever image they want. Once the image is out there, however, you need to be able to have the hard conversation. The thing is that I don’t know that I would have had the instinct to not show that work. What made it so inflammatory is that it reflected the pulse of that moment—which I can, in retrospect, see that I, too, was somehow feeling.’

Now, more than ever, Beckwith said, images of the body—who suffers, and how they are depicted—are of paramount importance.

‘I have spent most of my career grappling with uncertainty and thinking about questions for which there will never be easy answers. It turns out that art has been a kind of training for living with the unknown.’—Beckwith

‘We need to rethink our relationship to images at a moment in which every image has become a commodity. An image is something that circulates within an economy. We see this play out with the migrant crisis: The faces shown are not those of xenophobic politicians who helped create the crisis but of the dead children who are face down in the water. We need to stop allowing the degradation of people who are marked as outsiders—stop letting their pain be the image to justify a probably unnuanced political stance. A picture can be used as stand-in for political action and it is not the same thing.’

Art Ensemble of Chicago

Beckwith and I picked up that part of the conversation again in the wake of the rising protests of George Floyd’s death.

Charlotte Burns: How is your museum responding to what’s happening?

Naomi Beckwith: We have been doing a fair amount of work trying to process what’s going on now and it’s been really beautiful and interesting work. Our management team has really sat back and got quiet and allowed a lot of junior members to talk. The team is really clear and cogent about what they see happening in terms of anti-Black state violence. They are insistent about saying that this is a moment to support Black people explicitly—not a time for general platitudes about world peace for people of all colors. This is a time to articulate direct support. It has been kind of amazing.’

CB: Have you ever experienced that before?

NB: No. On individual levels, yes, but not in this mass-understanding way. We have entered an era that, in my mind, feels full of real sympathy. It is not about ally-ship—which was a term served up in the 80s and 90s about the select few who were interested in, sympathetic to and, in fact, joining oppressed folks in their struggle. Now we are talking about this as a problem that creates bigger issues for everyone, not just the people who are the focus of this, which is mainly Black people and especially Black men.

CB: As a Brit, I sometimes think about the differences between policing in the United States versus the United Kingdom and how the rest of the world regards America’s police might, especially now.

NB: The U.S. militarized after 9/11 and the Iraq War and plenty of people have taken pen to paper to talk about the seepage of the excess military gear into cities, for profit, which has also ramped up a kind of policing that is basically about putting down insurgencies and existing in a more antagonistic relationship with citizens. But some would argue that the United States has always been a police state, so those differences have been about two things — about the variance in policing depending on communities and about how some police departments now have the equipment to act truly like military forces, a police state even more so than you would have had in the past.’

Interpretive installation by artist John Preus
Nick Cave, Speak Louder, 2011

CB: The upcoming exhibition ‘Grief and Grievance’ seems now to be almost clairvoyantly — tragically — prescient.

NB: Well, we’ve been talking about these moments we’re living in as unprecedented history since Trump’s first campaign. I have heard that word ‘unprecedented’ so many times it is nauseating. But we keep forgetting these are acute moments in a long history. The Trump election was the latest moment in a long history of a set of political machinations that Nixon set off. The pandemic is different. But its effects are not unprecedented in that any mass illness will affect poor people, people of color, more than it will wealthier white communities.

George Floyd’s death is clearly not unprecedented and a lot of the reaction is because it is not unprecedented. It is so eerily familiar to the Eric Garner case [Garner was killed in a police chokehold in New York City in 2014] that there is no way you could even discuss it as unprecedented. The protests themselves are not unprecedented. The only thing that feels unprecedented to me is that I feel a stronger sense of coalition of non-Black people who have come around en masse—finally—to say that this is a real problem. There are plenty of white people who are coming out to say they really can’t stand this violence.

We have had long conversations about the presidential campaign, definitely precipitated by the pandemic. But finally now there is a critical mass of forces coming together in one big stewing pot. None of the topics are new—not the topics about social justice or inequity or addressing poverty. But right now, they have come to a head in one massive condition.

CB: Has George Floyd’s death had any effect on your thinking about media imagery, which we had talked about earlier?

NB: Last time we spoke I was very clear about the fact that I take issue with the utter proliferation of these images and maybe it is worth amending that a little bit. The issues come down to a question of what you want from the world. If you want to see the end of white supremacy then these images are not going to serve that end and will, in fact, further degrade Black bodies. It is still the case, clearly, that these images have the power to convince some folks—maybe those who have been less than convinced in the past—that people are not crying wolf, that Black Lives Matter is not an excuse for some kind of state takeover but an indictment of a systematized state of violence against Black bodies. But again, we have so many images of these kinds of deaths. We do not need another image to add to the cache. What we need are mechanisms to fight against the systematic state anti-Black, white-supremacist violence.’

Stan Douglas, Hors-champs, 1992

CB: Does any of what has happened have an impact on the exhibition ‘Grief and Grievance’?

NB: The show is now wrapped up and has a neat bow around it, and none of these changes are in the arc of the show in that direct way. But what’s interesting about this project is how it is definitely a walk-through of the historic arc of violence against Black Americans — from lynching campaigns through the Civil Rights Movement, from Emmet Till to Rodney King and into the present moment — and what’s really shifted in terms of the relationship to images. Before, there was faith that these images were going to be our aids and tools in fighting anti-Black violence. But now there is a suspicion of the over-proliferation of these images. Again it comes back to whose bodies we use. The image for the refugee crisis should not be the bodies washed up on the shore but the faces of the politicians who enact these policies.

This recent skepticism of violent images has implications for how we as curators and historians should be working with images. There should be new-found sympathy and sensitivity in describing and displaying works, especially documentary images.

Ambiguity is the space we are all in and it’s an issue that’s dividing folks right now: Does it drive you to distraction, or can you find comfort within it? The gift for me in working with art is that I have spent most of my career grappling with uncertainty and thinking about questions for which there will never be easy answers. It turns out that art has been a kind of training for living with the unknown.

All images: Installation view, ‘The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to Now,’ MCA Chicago, 2015, organized by Naomi Beckwith and Dieter Roelstraete © MCA Chicago