Stars Align In Alabama: Emmett Till; Four Birmingham, Alabama Church-Going Girls; Doug Jones; Dana Schutz & Racial Reconciliation

Toyin Ojih Odutola, Representatives of State (2016/2017). ©Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Toyin Ojih Odutola, Representatives of State (2016/2017). ©Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Nigerian-born, Huntsville-raised, U of Alabama grad Toyin Ojih Odutola first got the attention of Vogue magazine when the poet Claudia Rankine published as essay in Aperture magazine, "A New Grammar for Blackness'. 

A year later, Toyin Ojih Odutola has mounted a solo show 'To Wander Determined' at the Whitney Museum in New York. Upon entering the show, visitors see a letter written by Odutola in the persona of the 'Deputy Private Secretary' for two aristocratic families in Lagos. 

artNet writes: "For Ojih Odutola, their images form a corrective to a Eurocentric art history that thinks of both court portraiture and genre paintings as belonging to a primarily white world, with black characters as footnotes—cast as servants, slaves, or left out completely.."

The topic of black identity, colonialism, and cultural appropriation have lived front and center in our national -- and international -- dialogue in 2017. 

Zanzibar-born, 2017 Turner Prize Winner, British artist Lubaina Himid also explores black identities in a historical and contemporary web of global prejudice.

On Wednesday Rujeko Hockley & Jane Panetta were named curators of the 2019 Whitney Bienniale. 

Panetta joined the Whitney in 2010 and has curated solo presentations by Willa Nasatir and MacArthur “Genius” Njideka Akunyili Crosby. Hockley, who was came to the museum in March 2017, co-curated the highly acclaimed Brooklyn Museum show “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85.” At the Whitney, she has so far co-curated “Toyin Ojih Odutola: To Wander Determined,” , on view at the Whitney until February 25, 2018, as well as the ongoing group show “An Incomplete History of Protest.”

Linking the dots here, we have the backdrop of a year that comes at the end of a year marked by intense controversies around cultural appropriation in the art world. Among the most divisive arguments was the public maelstrom around Dana Schutz's painting of Emmett Till, Open Casket. The painting prompted open letters calling for the removal and even destruction of the painting, silent protests in front of the work, and demands that other works ALL of Dana Shutz's paintings be banned from a show in Boston as punishment for her offense of the Emmett Till painting. 

AOC has written extensively on this controversy, standing on the history of my own long-held commitment to civil rights. Note that I do believe the demands that Dana Schutz, white woman artist, not be allowed to show her artwork and be banished from painting are both chilling and absurd. That pov is expressed in my writing. (See Shutz controversy articles at end of this article.) 

The Whitney's appointment of Rujeko Hockley & Jane Panetta to curate the 2019 biennial seem to be a direct response to the controversy and a willingness to address the critical topic of activism in the age of Trump's America -- the good, the bad and the ugly.

In the art world, the questions of black identity, white power, cultural appropriation, racism and politics are grounded in the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till in Mississippi.  In 2017 Toyin Ojih Odutola's Whitney show 'To Wander Determined' opened against the political backdrop of Charlottesville and the Roy Moore/Doug Jones race for a US Senate seat in Alabama. 

I became deeply involved in this Senate race, both as a symbol of hope if we could beat back Republican theocrat Roy Moore, who believes that God triumphs the US Constitution and that America was happiest when America's families were rock-solid in a Confederacy built on the backs of slaves and women didn't have the right to vote. This is Trump's own idyllic vision for America, based on his embrace of white nationalism.

Tuesday night's Doug Jones upset victory in Alabama astonished all of America, and that includes me, who felt suddenly plunged into a Kentucky Derby race as the voter tide turned for Jones.

In the age of Trump and America's love affair with Trump buddy Steve Bannon's white nationalism, the good guy won. Alabama's new senator, Democrat Doug Jones has a long history with civil rights in the state of Alabama. 

There are many sad chapters in the history of slavery, racism and segregation in America, and especially in states like Alabama and Mississippi. The brutal lynching of Emmett Till shares the spotlight with another horrific crime in the state of Alabama: the September 15, 1963 Birmingham Alabama 16th Street Baptist Church bombing by white supremacists -- the KKK, who is much weaker today but very much devoted to the Trump presidency and the white men carrying tiki torches in Charlottesville, Va. 

Described by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as "one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity, the church explosion killed four young girls and injured 22 others.  Those four girls were Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair.

Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair.

Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair.

In 1965, the FBI concluded that the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing was the work of four known Ku Klux Klansmen and white segregationists -- Thomas Edwin Blanton Jr., Herman Frank Cash, Robert Edward Chambliss, and Bobby Frank Cherry. 

At the time FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and his investigators knew the attackers' names and even had secret recordings to prove that the four men were behind the Birmingham church bombing. Because Hoover himself was a segregationist and white nationalist, he sealed those files away, making it much more difficult to prosecute the crime. 

While I write a separate article sharing all the details of how the cases proceeded -- when our focus is on the artwork of Huntsville-raised,  U of Alabama grad Toyin Ojih Odutola -- it was the new Democratic senator from Alabama Doug Jones who successfully prosecuted the two remaining living Klansmen Thomas Edwin Blanton Jr., convicted in 2001; and Bobby Frank Cherry, convicted in 2002.

According to Sharony A. Green, a professor of history at the University of Alabama, Jones’ victory is particularly significant given the state’s racial politics: Jones, a man who made his name prosecuting the KKK, beat an opponent who, when asked when American was last “great,” replied: “I think it was great at the time when families were united, even though we had slavery.”

Against this political and artistic landscape, Whitney Biennial curators Rujeko Hockley & Jane Panetta have an outstanding and unique opportunity to use the highest level of artistic activism in years for the public good -- and to discuss public morality and American values.

Many hope that Trump will be impeached as a result of the Mueller investigation and Trump-family ties to Russia. I say "no" because such an action sets up the presidency of current VP Mike Pence, who is an even more dangerous threat to American values. Pence is a true theocrat -- Roy Moore made palatable to Republicans. 

To Wander Determined” is on view at the Whitney Museum through February 25. 

Toyin Ojih Odutola’s Excavations (2017). ©Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Toyin Ojih Odutola’s Excavations (2017). ©Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Toyin Ojih Odutola’s Wall of Ambassadors (2017). ©Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Toyin Ojih Odutola’s Wall of Ambassadors (2017). ©Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Toyin Ojih Odutola’s Winter Dispatch (2016). ©Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Toyin Ojih Odutola’s Winter Dispatch (2016). ©Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Toyin Ojih Odutola’s Surveying the Family Seat (2017). ©Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Toyin Ojih Odutola’s Surveying the Family Seat (2017). ©Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

husband-wife.jpg
Installation view, “To Wander Determined” at the Whitney Museum. Left: The Missionary (2017), R: By Her Design (2017). ©Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Installation view, “To Wander Determined” at the Whitney Museum. Left: The Missionary (2017), R: By Her Design (2017). ©Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Toyin Ojih Odutola’s Industry (Husband and Wife) (2017). ©Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Toyin Ojih Odutola’s Industry (Husband and Wife) (2017). ©Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Toyin Ojih Odutola’s Newlyweds On Holiday (2016). ©Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Toyin Ojih Odutola’s Newlyweds On Holiday (2016). ©Toyin Ojih Odutola. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.