Exploring Black grief and white grievance in Okwui Enwezor’s exhibition at the New Museum

Exploring Black grief and white grievance in Okwui Enwezor’s exhibition at the New Museum

“Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America,” an exhibition originally conceived by the late Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor, will open to the public Feb. 17 at the New Museum.

Comprising a myriad of art forms — including painting, sculpture, photography, video and more — the exhibition aims to address “the concept of mourning, commemoration and loss as a direct response to the national emergency of racist violence experienced by Black communities across America,” according to a statement from the museum. It will run through June 6, 2021, and include works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Carrie Mae Weems, Hank Willis Thomas, Kara Walker, Rashid Johnson, Daena Lawson, Arthur Jafa, Okwui Okpokwasili and more.

[Ellen Gallagher, Dew Breaker, 2015. Pigment, ink, oil, graphite and paper on canvas, 74 1/8 x 79 7/8 in (188.2 x 202.9 cm). Private collection. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth]
“With the media’s normalization of white nationalism, recent years have made clear that there is a new urgency to assess the role that artists, through works of art, have played to illuminate the searing contours of the American body politic,” Enwezor says in the exhibition narrative.

“Grief and Grievance” will extend through all three main floors of the museum, exploring American history from the civil rights movement in the 1960s to the ongoing issue of police brutality still seen today with the Black Lives Matter movement.

[Arthur Jafa, Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death, 2016. Video, sound color; 7:25 min. Courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels]
According to the museum’s statement, Enwezor had been working on the exhibition from the fall of 2018 until his death on March 15, 2019, bringing on artist Glenn Ligon as an advisor in the process. After his death and with the support of his estate, an advisory team was established by New Museum, including Ligon and other long-time friends and collaborators of Enwezor, with assistance from Edlis Neeson Artistic Director at the New Museum, Massimiliano Gioni.

Enwezor had hoped to open the exhibition at the time of the 2020 presidential election as a powerful response to former President Donald Trump’s racist politics. The late curator even points to Trump’s Oct. 2016 rally in Gettysburg, Pa., in the exhibition narrative, writing: “Trump’s rally was a surreptitious attempt to obscure and blur [Abraham] Lincoln’s statement and shape a completely new narrative of American purpose.”

To honor Enwezor’s intentions, the museum released the exhibition catalog ahead of the exhibition’s opening; it includes contributions by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Judith Butler, Claudia Rankine and more.

[Kerry James Marshall, Untitled (policeman), 2015. Acrylic on PVC panel with plexiglass frame, 60 x 60 in (152.4 x 152.4 cm). Museum of Modern Art, Gift of Mimi Haas in honor of Marie-Josée Kravis. © Kerry James Marshall. Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York]
The museum says the exhibition is seen as a tribute to Enwezor’s work and legacy.

“‘Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America’ is a tribute to Okwui Enwezor’s courage, relentless focus, and fierce intelligence as a giant in our field and one of the most important curators of his generation,” said Lisa Phillips, Toby Devan Lewis Director of the New Museum, in the statement. “His presence remains vivid, as does his legacy to transform the history of art and exhibition-making … Okwui’s vision and the voices of the artists selected for this exhibition could not be more relevant.”

[Julie Mehretu, Rubber Gloves (O.C.), 2018. Ink and Acrylic on Canvas, 96 x 72 in (243.8 x 182.9 cm). Private Collection. © Julie Mehretu. Courtesy of the artist, White Cube, London and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York. Photo: Tom Powel Imaging]
“Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America” will be on view at the New Museum from Feb. 17 to June 6, 2021. For more information, visit the museum’s website.

Top Image: Dawoud Bey, Fred Stewart II and Tyler Collins, from the series “The Birmingham Project,” 2012. Archival pigment prints mounted on Dibond, 40 x 64 in (101.6 x 162.6 cm). © Dawoud Bey. Courtesy Rena Bransten Gallery, San Francisco, CA and Rennie Collection, Vancouver