Hang It, Install It, Perform It — and Yes, Wear Your Art on Your Sleeve

By Javaka Steptoe

MAKING A GREAT EXHIBITION
Written by Doro Globus and Rose Blake
Illustrated by Rose Blake

BLACK ARTISTS SHAPING THE WORLD
By Sharna Jackson

ART OF PROTEST
Creating, Discovering, and Activating Art for Your Revolution
Written by De Nichols
Illustrated by Diana Dagadita, Molly Mendoza, Olivia Twist, Saddo and Diego Becas

Art is about observing and reflecting on the world and then expressing ideas, feelings and thoughts about it. It forces us to create structures and systems of understanding, and then step outside of them to create new ones when the old understandings no longer make sense. Art is problem solving; it teaches us to plan, to process, to improve. These are very important concepts for children to learn at an early age.

When I was young, most of the people I knew thought of art as a hobby, or something children did but put away as they grew up. Only the truly exceptional people made a career of it. When I told my friends’ parents I was going to be an artist, they responded, “How can you make a living as an artist?” — as if there isn’t an artistic component to everything we do. They thought this because historically, art has been seen as the playground of the privileged. We couldn’t afford to sit around and daydream all day, and if we did make something, it was craft. But technology has been a transformative force for art. It provides the resources, information and time to create. We don’t need a guild, a master’s degree or a 20-year apprenticeship; we can download an app.

Three new books demystify the art world and make it accessible to budding young artists. They show them the many different ways in which they can participate in the art scene and that their art can engage with others across the globe.

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    In the picture book “Making a Great Exhibition,” by Doro Globus and Rose Blake, Viola is a sculptor and Sebastian is a painter. We see them in their studios creating art. We learn about how they see the world, their artistic process, and what happens when their artwork is picked up from their studios and travels thousands of miles to a museum. At the museum, we see all the different people working behind the scenes in the days and months leading up to the opening night of their joint exhibition. In addition to the curator, lighting designer, registrar and communications manager, there are art handlers, docents, educational staff and much more.

    Blake’s illustrations use clean swaths of bold color with graphic yet intricately painted figures and details. This style lets the visuals tell the story. Labels and brief bits of text elucidate the process without cluttering the page or detracting from the images. The language is simple, clear and precise, making it easy for children to understand all the various ways they could take part in making a great exhibition.

    In “Black Artists Shaping the World,” a beautifully designed short encyclopedia of contemporary art, Sharna Jackson features Black artists who work in many different mediums and are “brilliant at making us look and think about art and life.” Each artist’s chapter is four to six pages long, including a full-page photo of the artist and a photo of a signature piece of artwork. Decorative elements inspired by the signature work accent the multicolored pages of enlightening text.

    Some of my favorite contemporary artworks are here: for instance, one of the hundreds of “Soundsuits” by the sculptor/performance artist Nick Cave, who designed the colorful auditory costumes to be exuberantly expressive while obscuring the wearer’s race, gender and class (so “you only see the artwork”); and the visual storyteller Toyin Ojih Odutola’s “Maebel,” a cropped portrait of a Black woman’s head and shoulders — created with pen, marker and paint (“black on black on black,” in the artist’s words) — against a white background. (Pens are associated with writers, we are reminded, and Odutola’s indelible “marks” are a form of language.)

    There are also fun and amazing works by other artists, such as Joana Choumali’s “Because We Actually Played Outside as Kids,” a magical photo-based collage inspired by Abidjan, Ivory Coast, at dawn (made by adding layers of sheer fabric, and hand-embroidering golden threads, onto a photograph printed on canvas); and Emeka Ogboh’s “LOS-CDG (Lagos to Paris),” a soundscape sculpture celebrating the iconic black-striped, yellow minibus taxis of Lagos, Nigeria.

    Jackson overwhelmingly chooses artists from countries within continental Africa, illustrating its qualitative effect on the contemporary fine art world.

    “Art of Protest,” by De Nichols, is a compendium of modern protest art practices. Nichols’s own journey from social work graduate student and teaching artist to artivist (artist activist) provides its narrative framework. (Her “Mirror Casket,” whose reflective surface allows us to see ourselves as both voyeur and victim, was created with the help of six other artists in the aftermath of the 2014 Ferguson, Mo., police killing of the teenager Michael Brown Jr.)

    “How to” activities are paired with basic protest art methodology — symbols, colors, fonts, etc. — and historical context. For example, the “Create a protest sign” activity precedes a passage on the “I Am a Man” posters for the 1968 sanitation workers strike in Memphis. Groups like the feminist “Guerrilla Girls” in New York and individuals like the artist Banksy, who blur the lines between fine art and street art for the purposes of satirical social and political commentary, are featured. Initiatives like the Thousand Paper Cranes (Japan/antiwar), as well as the Umbrella Movement (Hong Kong/democracy) and South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement, are also highlighted.

    Sometimes the information is repetitive, and the narrative doesn’t flow seamlessly, but what stymies me is the “brief history” section. Passages like this one — which is the book’s full discussion of Egypt’s contribution to protest art — are misleading (especially given the lack of context and sourcing): “Political satire has been used as far back as ancient Greece and Rome and perhaps even earlier. Ancient Egyptian artwork depicted men as animals.” This severely minimizes Egypt’s long satirical history and its influence on Greco-Roman culture, not to mention that the type of animal depiction is never explained. I wish the writer had dug deeper.

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