- Aaron Siskind, Church Interior, Harlem, 1938
Jean-Marc Superville-Sovak has a passion for history, especially those corners of history that don't make it into textbooks. "New York State was the number one destination on the Underground Railroad," he informs me. "John Brown [the radical abolitionist] is buried in the Adirondacks." Superville-Sovak is also an artist, who has combined his love of history and art to curate "We Wear the Mask: Race and Representation in the Dorsky Museum Permanent Collection." The show will be on view until November 22.
"We Wear the Mask" is an ambitious survey, including an Ethiopian Christian gouache, a portrait of a child by the Harlem photographer James Van Der Zee (1925), an ancient Egyptian pottery figurine of a slave, and two pieces by Richard Howard Hunt, the first African-American sculptor to have a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, in 1969. Two Polaroid portraits of the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat by Andy Warhol are included. The photographer who took these pictures was not the aloof, blasé Warhol persona everyone knows. He was a careful, sensual observer, especially attuned to the private pain of celebrities.
You can see Andy Warhol's envy in these photos, as he stares at the inspired artist with luscious, creamy skin who is electrifying the art world, while Warhol's greatest work was behind him. But in Basquiat's face we see the torments of a young man who too swiftly became famous for his bitter paintings mocking racism. One of the Basquiat portraits is paired with a famous Goya etching, The Dream of Reason Produces Monsters, showing a man asleep at his desk, as bats and owls flock around him. Basquiat was also beset by a host of demons. He died of a drug overdose in 1988.
The stereoscope was a 19th-century gadget allowing one to see three-dimensional images by placing a card with two identical photographs in a wire holder. The paired photographs were usually black-and-white, like the one in this show, of African-American sharecroppers picking cotton, as their overseer lurks behind on horseback (Cotton is King Plantation Scene, Georgia, circa 1900). Tourists would watch cotton pickers the same way they might gaze at a marina full of colorful sailboats—without considering the near servitude and penury of the workers before them. "To me, there is something obscene about this image," Superville-Sovak writes in the wall text.
This is the first show the artist has curated, but he is not entirely new to the process of selection. "Every good artist has to curate their own work," he points out. The exhibition doesn't feel didactic, but rather like a gathering of neglected jewels and surprises.
Only a small percentage of the 6,000 items in the Dorsky collection is typically on view. It's gratifying to see pieces that usually remain in storage. Often, African-American art objects find themselves on those sad shelves.
The Black Lives Matter movement challenges us to examine the racism within us. It's a long, grueling, and liberating effort. "We Wear the Mask" is a visual companion to that struggle.