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Too Much for Words

From the time I was six to the time I was 11, my dad worked at Texas Southern University. There, perched on a high stool in front of a computer terminal, I would play the world's earliest computer game (hangman) and print the world's earliest computer graphic (Snoopy) on long sheets of perforated paper. There, too, I got my first inkling of what slavery meant.

I knew about slavery in a historical, abstract sense, the way at some point early on I knew what sex was and which parts were supposed to go where. Which is to say, I didn't really have any idea. But in the dim, half-marble hallways of my dad's building, I got a lesson from mural after mural, glowing with the colors of stained glass and bopping with what even my very young soul understood to be an authoritatively syncopated rhythm. Back in 1948, when the university's art program started, artist and professor John Biggers made painting a mural a requirement for every graduating senior. Thus, the walls of Hannah Hall depict an entire cosmos of Negro life and imagination, from godlike figures in Egyptian finery to African villages to farmers and graduates, preachers and choirs, to naked women pinned down on the street by white cops.

No, these murals didn't shy away from the darker side. Chains and shackles, struggling blue and purple bodies, nakedness and desperation, skeletons and confining spaces and the whites of frightened eyes were frequent elements, elements I took in the way a curious boy might devour his first porn magazine, with horror and fascination and shame, and simultaneously with gratitude for the wealth of graphic detail, the abject rendering and the emotional cues that told me, wordlessly and emphatically and in a way I could not for years articulate, how much slavery was part and parcel of being black in the United States. With considerable dignity, the murals took the dark side and purified it, making its reality as legitimate and important and varied a part of life as glory and success. More than the images themselves, I remember the sort of knock-kneed, impressionable rapture that I felt -- uncomplicated, at that age, by guilt -- my little self reborn into a kind of carnal knowledge fed by the rich, smoldering fuel of visual experience.

There are those who will say that since I am not black, I can never understand slavery, and I don't pretend to. But whatever comprehension I am capable of was broadened by those murals, and at the same time another thing expanded: my understanding of what art can do.

Fast-forward to the current "Other Narratives" show at the Contemporary Arts Museum. This multiculturalism revue is hardly interesting in terms of curatorial viewpoint; a show that "expands" the "dialogue" by presenting minority artists who address social equality is stock-in-trade by this point. But curator Dana Friis-Hansen realized that the only way to pull off such a show is to get the best and most sophisticated artists working in the genre, and that task he has laudably accomplished.

The show includes black painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose flamboyance, fame and sudden death brought out all the raging racist assumptions of the art world; the late Felix Gonzalez-Torres, who works in generous metaphors rather than bold pronouncements; photographer Carrie Mae Weems, whose more recent work has inflamed people -- and scared off the CAM from exhibiting it -- by appropriating famous images that illustrate attitudes about race; and the anonymous feminist poster artists known as the Guerrilla Girls, as well as relative newcomers Pepón Osorio, Kara Walker and Kerry James Marshall, all of whom do incredible work.

Beginning with Weems's 1978-1984 Family Pictures and Stories, but heavy on the decade between 1985 and 1995, the exhibit works as a little history of multiculti art and its various modalities. With the exception of the work of needlepoint artist Elaine Reichek, who illustrates the trials of Jewish life by whining that she was stuck with ignorant Midwestern roommates at Yale (I feel for her), this art is tough and demanding. Weems, for example, poses racist riddles such as "What are three things you can't give a black person?" accompanied by arresting photographs of African-Americans. The viewer has to slide a little panel -- that is, acknowledge her interest rather than passively listen -- to get the punch line: "A black eye, a fat lip and a job."

The artists in this show do expand the dialogue, quite literally: 11 of 16 use text in their work. They present an image, such as Pat Ward Williams's blown-up photograph of five young, collegiate black men, and then ask us churlishly, as Williams does in a spray-painted sprawl, "What you lookn at." The very act of looking is called into question, because images advance an agenda -- in our culture, often the agenda of the white male.

While some artists seek to rehabilitate or wrest control of images that have been used against them, Glenn Ligon rejects them. For him, identity is constituted in language. In one of Ligon's series of lithographs, he pairs old illustrations from runaway slave notices with texts advertising his own disappearance. Though the man pictured is invariably dark black and in one case half-clothed, the "runaway" we read about -- described by Ligon's various friends -- has "nice teeth," "tends to look down when he walks" or is "socially very adept, yet paradoxically, he's somewhat of a loner."

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