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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."

The more recent the work in the show, the more likely it is to walk the dangerous plank of the purely visual. Righteous Babes, a documentary about women in rock by Pratibha Parmar screened last week at Houston's Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, presents an interesting parallel. Unlike those annoying articles in Rolling Stone and The New York Times (Extra! Extra! Women can rock!), this film seriously traces the lineage of feminism, much the way "Other Narratives" traces the development of all kinds of resistant voices. In the video, Gloria Steinem and Camille Paglia hold forth on how much the rules have changed. Early women's lib was text-based, they say, but now feminism is being communicated to young women through popular music, which means, in large part, through image. Feminist fascination with Madonna, after all, has to do with the way she's able to control and change her image at will.

Like Courtney Love singing about rape while her voluptuous woman's body is squeezed into provocative baby clothes, young black artist Kara Walker presents the contradictions and complexity of a system of oppression. Although Walker works in black paper silhouettes, her wall installations are anything but demure. In her world, Gone with the Wind has gone wild, with cutout figures in bonnets and hoop skirts suckling, fingering, lynching and otherwise violating and being violated by white masters, Uncle Toms, pickaninnies and each other under a lazy drizzling of perfectly Southern Spanish moss. With deft and graceful scissoring, Walker coaxes out the dark and dainty fantasy world of her "inner plantation," as she calls it.

Her piece at the Contemporary Arts Museum, Untitled (Milk and Bread), is more restrained than usual, yet each of its two simple motifs reappears in various vignettes until it resonates with questions about autonomy, desire and rebellion. Take the milk: A winsome black woman squeezes a drop of breast milk into a waiting jug. Women eagerly taste butter or work their churns, whose handles echo the broomsticklike penis of a white man in the distance. A child deliberately empties a milk jug onto the ground while a woman claps the back of her hand to her head, crying over what's spilled.

Walker's prowess has earned her a prime place in the '90s art pantheon, and that's gotten her in trouble. In 1997 she was included in the Whitney Biennial and received a MacArthur "genius" grant, which caused some older black artists and critics including Betye Saar and Howardina Pindell to trot out the tired whine that the white art establishment supports Walker's work because it's degrading and "mean-spirited" to African-Americans, and that's what white people like to see, a little Negro sport. This argument, that the MacArthur people's mind-set is similar to that of three thugs down in Jasper, is difficult to swallow, particularly when you consider Kerry James Marshall, whose work I was also glad to see at the CAM, and who also got a MacArthur and was in the Biennial. There's no way his paintings of practically bourgeois African-American family scenes could be construed as degrading; in fact, they're rather pointedly uplifting.

Walker's real sin, I think, is the visual power of her work, how she uses only images to communicate where many of her predecessors needed words. What's the difference, after all, between Walker's sensuous caricatures and Weems's repetition of racist jokes? Text. Walker's ambivalence -- her acknowledgment that the world of slavery, where everyone knows his or her place, can have a dangerous allure for whites and blacks alike -- mines the same rich territory as Toni Morrison's novels, and Morrison doesn't have to put up with this kind of slag. Yet where words often have the power of clarity, images have the power of ambiguity, and that's unsettling.

It's in that ambiguity, though, that complexity and possibility are acknowledged -- that Courtney Love becomes a real person rather than an icon. Neither women in rock nor artists of color have to be or communicate any one thing; if they did, they would be in an ideological prison known as political correctness. And if images of slavery are appealing, therein lies their power to transfix and teach both a young girl playing in a dark hallway outside her daddy's office, and an impatient woman who has seen too much art, standing in a cold museum.

"Other Narratives" is on view through July 4 at the Contemporary Arts Museum, 5216 Montrose, (713)284-8250, www.camh.org.

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