Glenn Ligon Untitled 2006
© Glenn Ligon; courtesy Thomas Dane Gallery, London
In this guest blog, produced for Tate Liverpool, I talk of my recent visit to the gallery's major exhibition curated by one of America’s most distinguished contemporary artists, Glenn Ligon (b.1960, New York) - Glenn Ligon: Encounters and Collisions.
My first guest blog for Tate Liverpool also happens to be during UK Black History Month (rather than US Black History Month which is in February). Dr. Carter G. Woodson, often referred to as the father of African American history, established what was originally called ‘Negro History Week’ in 1926. The week became a month, February chosen as it contains the birthdays of influential figures such as Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. It was against this backdrop that I visited Glenn Ligon: Encounters and Collisions at Tate Liverpool.
I was firstly drawn to the work of Bruce Davidson (in the Ligon-selected grouping of works on the first floor) whose images of the New York subway in the 1980s took me back to a visit I made to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem as part of my PhD in 2002. I still remember the nervous excitement I had getting a subway to Harlem – a place that I only knew from countless TV shows and Ralph Ellison’s 1952 classic Invisible Man – a book that addressed the many social issues that African Americans faced in the early twentieth century, from the creation of Black identity to the place of African Americans in society. This is a world familiar to Ligon.
Chris Ofili Afro Margin Four, 2004
© Chris Ofili. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York / London
I moved seamlessly to The Death of Tom 2008 a video installation which had originally intended to show Ligon’s vision of the final scene of the 1903 silent movie Uncle Tom’s Cabin, that was based on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel. However the film came back damaged from the laboratory which resulted in a Turin Shroudesque abstraction now accompanied by a commissioned Jason Moran jazz score. Lurid, disorientating.
On exiting the first floor I see Ligon’s Untitled 2006 work, a neon sculpture that spells AMERICA. Bold, black, and considering the electric aura one expects of neon signs, rather cold and unmoving. For me, this is a strong paradigm of Ligon’s work, visually steeped in good old Americana yet scratch the surface (as quite literally, you can see with this work that some of the paint has flecked off) and not everything is quite as it seems.
Continuing up to the fourth floor I was drawn into numerous visual excursions, particularly the work by artists that I was familiar with such as Chris Ofili’s Afro Margin Four 2004 a deft pencil on paper work conjuring up the contours of maps next to a precarious pillar of pebbles and the cruel yet beautiful shadow puppetry of Kara Walker’s 8 Possible Beginnings or: The Creation of African-America. Walker’s work demands you take notice and it does not in any way sugar coat or romanticize the history of slavery and enslavement. Walker brings together a mass of difficult subject matter – the Middle Passage, illicit births, the cotton trade, lynching’s and what she terms African America. These are staple narratives that also flow through the International Slavery Museum.
Glenn Ligon Study for Condition Report (Glenn Ligon and Michael Duffy) 2000
Courtesy the artist. Photograph by Ron Amstutz
And if there was one work in the exhibition that I associated with imagery in the International Slavery Museum it was Ligon’s 2000 work Study for Condition Report emblazoned with the words I AM A MAN, a reference to the Memphis sanitation workers strike of 1968 and reminiscent of an abolitionist jug in our collection with a 'AM NOT I A MAN AND A BROTHER’ slogan, a variant of those seen on various eighteenth century Wedgewood medallions and domestic objects as part of the anti-slavery movement.
Malcolm X #1 (small version #2) 2003 once again took me to New York, as the Schomburg is located on Malcolm X Boulevard (once Lennox Avenue which in the 1930s was at the beating heart of the Harlem Renaissance).
Glenn Ligon, born 1960 Malcolm X #1 (small version #2) 2003
© Glenn Ligon 2015, Courtesy Rodney M Miller Collection
In summary I feel Ligon’s work is imbued with the Renaissance, as some if its key figures such as Zora Neale Hurston and James Baldwin are central to his world, an often hostile world but one that does not go unchallenged by him or his past or present peers.