A Century of Pulp Fiction Offers a Window into Black Identity
'Black Pulp!' features works created from 1912 to the present.
Renee Cox, Chillin with Liberty, 1998, Courtesy of the Artist, Image © 2016 Renee Cox. All images courtesy of Black Pulp!
A biting, satirical reading of race in America emerges in Black Pulp!, the International Print Center New York’s current group exhibition. Curated by artists William Villalongo and Mark Thomas Gibson, the century's worth of comics, newspapers, magazines, novels, and autobiographies on view detail the experience and representation of black figures in art and culture from 1912 to the present. The result is a fuller vision of the past hundred years that incorporates 21 artists, including Kerry James Marshall, Kara Walker, Renee Cox, and Wangechi Mutu, whose contemporary works are mounted in the galleries alongside historical documentation.
“[The exhibition] started with a conversation that Will and I had one night in my studio about the new black imagist movement taking place,” Gibson tells the Creators Project. “We were noticing that there are all of these shows but no black artists. Historically, there has just been such a sense of representation in black art.” With current institutional exhibitions exploring figuration presenting few of those contributions, “Part of the discussion was looking at art, particularly [that of] Kara Walker, who is in the show, and making [our] exhibition about that form of expression," Villalongo says.
The art included in Black Pulp! takes on what Villalongo calls “a wild and over-the-top satirical form of address.” Walker’s 1997 series of four black-and-white etchings—Cotton, Li’l Patch of Woods, Vanishing Act, and Untitled (John Brown)—depicts a fantastical reimagining of the Antebellum South. In one, a black woman hangs her master while holding a small child, presumably conceived through rape, up to his face. The scene touches on the ways in which black artists, cartoonists, and authors have used pulp to detail their understanding of history, the future, and their own sense of personhood.
Kerry James Marshall’s comic strip Dailies, from Rhythm Mastr, uses the medium to address the lack of black superheroes in 20th century mythmaking and explore what that means for the collective black imagination. Renee Cox’s Chillin with Liberty is a self-portrait of the artist sitting atop the Statue of Liberty, dressed in a Jamaica-themed superhero costume. Kenny Rivero’s Gotham City Screams and Supermane address how fantasy and escapism can inspire people to challenge aesthetic, sexual, and racial hierarchies.
The historic printed media on view addresses stereotypes of blackness through the decades. Alain Leroy Locke’s book The New Negro, presented in a case alongside Langston Hughes’ The Weary Blues and Wallace Thurman’s The Blacker the Berry, present what Locke calls “a new vision of opportunity” for black people. The term came to define the cultural labor of artists and writers working during the Harlem Renaissance. It also served, like much of the work presented in Black Pulp!, to supplant prejudiced “coon” caricatures, which depicted black men, women, and children as physical, social, and emotional exaggerations of themselves.
One such image hangs in the show: created by an unknown artist, Ouwa Own Wattamellun Jake is an advertisement depicting a smiling black boy holding a large watermelon, his eyes wide and toy-like. Black Pulp! shows that while racist imagery dominated popular white cultural representations of black people, during the same period, a conversation about beauty, activism, and self-imaging was happening in the black community itself. The narratives presented in Black Pulp! proves that black “artists weren’t just making images and putting them out there,” Gibson says. “Artists were taking positions through the imagery that they were creating.”
Black Pulp! is on view at the International Print Center in New York through December 3. For more information, click here.