Comparing Black Male Representation: 1994 – Now

by Shantay Robinson

Black men have been known to be strong, strong in the fields when working on slave plantations but also strong in the wake of their families being torn apart and their lovers being sexually assaulted for generations. That strength often gets misconstrued for aggression. Though the race of black men has had to endure a lot of struggles, there are many reasons why some black men are seen as threatening. Poverty and hopelessness are ills that chip away at many black men’s spirits. But there are many black men who don’t pose threats to the community at large. With the rise of social media’s pervasive sharing of video footage, the struggles many black men endure at the hands of authorities and vigilantes highlight the necessity of exhibitions like the Smithsonian’s Men of Change: Power. Triumph. Truth and the Whitney Museum’s Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art.

Men of Change: Power. Triumph. Truth opened at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture in Baltimore in March 2022. And as the exhibition makes its claim for speaking about the lives of black men, I’m reminded of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art exhibition curated by Studio Museum in Harlem Executive Director Thelma Golden. The state of black men is a contentious subject especially as we consider the convictions against the murderers of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbrey. Seemingly, now is a very different time from when the Black Male exhibition opened in 1994.

Home Team [Ryan Coogler] | Alfred Contech | 2018

Though I was not in New York City when the Black Male exhibition was there, it seems to have responded to the same need the Men of Change exhibition responds to today. Two years after the racial reckoning that was the George Floyd protests, Men of Change highlights the way black men have changed America with their intellect, athleticism, and talent. Yet the two exhibitions are drastically different. Whereas Men of Change presents black men and the work they do to people who might not be immersed in black culture, Black Male exhibited images of black males that allowed viewers to imagine the many personas of black men. Men of Change deals in realism, whereas Black Male reveled in interpretations.

In 1994, the Black Male exhibition happened before there was a black man as president of the United States. Honestly, in 1994, we probably couldn’t have imagined a black president. But by the time he came along the world was ready for something new, especially after the economic downturn of 2008. In 2022, we’re at a moment when many people are willing to understand the plight of black men. They are interested in how to make a more just society after witnessing via mobile phone video the injustices black people face at the hands of authority. If Emmett Till wasn’t a wakeup call, the cell phone videos of today are awakening our country to brutality linked to blackness.

When Thelma Golden curated Black Male, times were different yet many things were the same. Black men were being lynched but, aside from the Rodney King case, there was not much evidence of these lynchings captured on video. Stills from the Rodney King video, which were included in the Black Male exhibition, highlighted an important aspect of being a black male in the United States. For years, black men spoke about being harassed by police, but the proof of the Rodney King video made it real for many.

Though Black Male was exhibited in the ivory tower of the Whitney Museum of American Art, it had an impact on the public discourse in a way that Golden did not expect. Though the exhibition was about black masculinity, it featured art by non-blacks, women, and spanned generations. Golden tells Artforum in 2016, “’Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art’ included artists across race, culture, ethnicity, and generation but united through their interrogations of black masculinity. It was my attempt to understand the trajectory of a conceptual black imagemaking, beginning with three critical artists whom I came to refer to as my Holy Trinity – David Hammons, Adrian Piper, and Robert Colescott.” In addition to these three artists, Golden included the work of emerging artists at the time, Lorna Simpson, Gary Simmons, and Glenn Ligon, and she also presented the work of familiar artists in this new context including Leon Golub, Jeff Koons, and Barkley L. Hendricks.

Black Male exhibited the work of artists that depicted the black male form in many ways. From the work of white male photographer Robert Mapplethorpe that showcased black male sexuality to the work of black queer artist Lyle Ashton Harris that questions black masculinity, Black Male exhibited the black male body in a way that celebrated it while showing diversity in perspectives. Mapplethorpe’s work in the show exhibits mythic black male genitalia, but in the same show Harris questions that genitalia by placing it in traditionally feminine poses and dress, allowing for a range of perspectives to be considered.

The Men of Change exhibition highlights the lives and legacies of actual African-American men who accomplished feats as artists, activists, and athletes. Though the exhibition features quotes about these men, it also features artworks that depict interpretations about their work. Though Nina Chanel Abney, Derrick Adams, and Alfred Conteh created portraits of Andrew Young, Kendrick Lamar, and Ryan Coogler respectively, there were also works of art inspired by the men. Robert Pruitt created an artwork of a woman with a map of redlining neighborhoods on her head to depict Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Shaun Leonardo depicted LeBron James as simply large hands.

The major difference between these two exhibitions besides the fact that they occurred nearly 30 years apart is the idea between realism and interpretation. The artworks in Black Male were largely created from imagination, and Men of Change depict facets of reality. Mapplethorpe’s photographs depict the fantasy that white men have of black male genitalia and Pruitt depicts a singular black man’s impact on the state of the black community. Black Male depicts what Adrian Piper experienced dressed as a black man, and Men of Change features stories of actual black men.

While both exhibitions feature the lives and legacies of black men, they differ in the sources they used for inspiration. Black Male revolved around art for source material while Men of Change relied on the real experiences of black men to tell the story of black male circumstance. The times in which they occurred might be different, but the story is largely the same. Though black men are consistently contributing to society, the value of their existence is still being negotiated. While Black Male was telling us about how black men are perceived within the larger context, Men of Change is showing us how black men are changing society. Men of Change doesn’t only feature men who are in the limelight, it’s also showing us men who have changed the infrastructure of the academic, arts, and aeronautics industries.  

Though these exhibitions are nearly 30 years apart, the overarching narratives are the same. Black men are an integral part of U.S. culture. They impact the society in significant ways. And their existence should not be minimized for the myths that are told about them. Their presence is aligned with the changes that face our society. And, as their circumstances change, the country changes alongside them. As Thelma Golden states in the catalog for the exhibition, “Black masculinity suffers not just from overrepresentation, but oversimplification, demonization, and (at times) utter incomprehension.”

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. pens an essay in the exhibition catalog for Black Male that states the context to which this exhibition was ushered. It was a time shortly after 1990 when it was reported that 2,280,000 black boys and men were jailed or imprisoned while only 23,000 earned a college degree. This statistic was used widely, and also by Obama, but was it ever true? It was found that some colleges were reporting that there were no black men at their schools, including some historically black colleges and universities. Ivory Toldson, a professor at Howard University conducted a study and it proved that in 2015, 1,437,363 black men were in college compared to 745,660 black men who were incarcerated.

Kehinde [Kehinde Wiley] | Devan Shimoyama | 2018

Both exhibitions respond to the need for the narratives surrounding black men to change. Assailants who have murdered black men and walked free signal to the world that it is reasonable to fear for your life when encountering a black man. Judges and juries have allowed murderers to walk free because the black man is seen as threatening.

Black Male allowed for its audience to see the many aspects of black men they might not be privy to learn in casual interactions. And Men of Change affords its audience to see the possibilities of who black men can be when approaching black men. Both exhibitions are intent on broadening the scope of possibilities we intellectually conjure when thinking about who a black man is. They are both attempting to dispel stereotypes and the presumption that black men are a monolith. By depicting a diverse array of personalities, both exhibitions attempt to divest black men from the confines of prejudicial thought and discrimination.

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SHANTAY ROBINSON was a participant in the inaugural class of Burnaway Magazine’s Art Writers Mentorship Program, a fellow in Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies Digital Publishing Project Editorial Fellowship and was chosen for the CUE Art Foundation’s Art Critic Mentoring program. In addition to writing for Black Art in America, she has written for Washington City Paper, Arts ATLNashville Scene, ARTS.BLACKAFROPUNKSugarcane Magazine, Number, Inc., and International Review of African American Art. She also published a scholarly article in Teaching Artist Journal. She presented papers about art and education at SCAD’s (Savannah College of Art and Design) Symposium on Art and Fashion, Georgia State University’s New Voices Graduate Student Conference, Georgia State University’s Glorious Hair and Academic Identities Conference, Northeast Modern Languages Association Conference, Mason Graduate Interdisciplinary Conference, and New York African Studies Association Conference. In 2019, she sat on a panel at Prizm Art Fair during Miami Art Week. In 2020, she served as visual arts judge in Shreveport Regional Council’s Critical Mass 8 Art Competition.

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