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April 2, 2020; Hyperallergic

I couldn’t help but smile in recognition as I read Hyperallergic’s Seph Rodney’s article, “What Does It Mean to Exhibit ‘Black Excellence?,’” in which he writes, “Two exhibitions currently on view in New York take profoundly different approaches to the idea of showcasing Black excellence and thus reveal something about the divergent meanings simultaneously held in this phrase.”

The first, Young, Gifted and Black at the Lehman College Art Gallery, includes 47 artists that Rodney describes as a “laundry list of luminaries who are well collected and well known in the contemporary art scene: Kevin Beasley, Jordan Casteel, David Hammons, Lonnie Holley, Kerry James Marshall, Wardell Milan, Deana Lawson, Nari Ward, Kara Walker, Tomashi Jackson, Henry Taylor.” It is curated by curator Matt Wycoff and the writer and critic Antwaun Sargent. It is slated to travel to Pennsylvania, Illinois, and South Carolina, among others.

The second, A Muffled Sound Underwater at Latchkey Gallery, curated by artists Alteronce Gumby and Tariku Shiferaw, showcases six artists; in addition to these two, Dominique Duroseau, Torkwase Dyson, Tsedaye Makonnen, and Marvin Toure. Rodney describes it as a “one-off show…installed in a scrappy Lower East Side gallery.”

Rodney’s critique is not about the artists or their work, but how they are positioned within concepts of black excellence. (The titles speak volumes too.)

He sums up Young, Gifted and Black this way: “The show feels meant to impress the viewer by the weight of the artists’ reputations, rather than by the insight of the curators’ framing.” He describes the arrangements as scattered, without meaning, not in conversation.

In contrast, “A Muffled Sound Underwater is thematically arranged around the idea of blackness as a metaphor—for failure, a void, a sense of loss, or, more positively, for beginning….Here, excellence feels like an internalized ambition, a desire to investigate, which drives these artists to find out how materials might bridge the conceptual gap between Blackness and blackness.” And, the zinger, “The show is superb in its intellectual curiosity, rather than advertising acumen.”

For Rodney, the excellence in Young, Gifted and Black is about status, while in A Muffled Sound Underwater it’s about a striving, “the earnest exploration of what excellence can and might mean in practice.”

His analysis is important in giving nuance to a concept we likely use, consciously or unconsciously, in our own work. What would it look like to earnestly explore what excellence in our work looks like, regardless of race?—Cyndi Suarez