Hold: A Meditation on Black Aesthetics – Cathleen Kong ’20

The mission of the exhibition Hold: A Meditation on Black Aesthetics was twofold. On one hand it displayed the Princeton University Art Museum’s initiative to raise exposure of African American art and works from artists of the African diaspora. On the other it tackled a conceptual problem: exhibiting black aesthetics without strictly defining black aesthetics.

On an warm day in February, I entered the Joseph Henry House, the pastel yellow home of Princeton’s Adlinger Center for the Humanities situated between Nassau Hall and Firestone Library. After attending guest curator Professor Nijah Cunningham’s lecture on the exhibition the week before, I was curious to learn more. Professor Cunningham is a Cotsen Fellow in the Princeton Society of Fellows and Lecturer in the departments of African American Studies and English who has spearheaded projects in black studies, visual culture, performance studies, sexuality and gender, and postcolonial criticism.

For Cunningham, the second component of Hold’s mission was challenging. He said of curating and of his teaching, “Sometimes when I’m engaging with the idea of black aesthetics and black art inside the classroom my fear is to enclose it.” Hold was an attempt to tackle this problem, illustrating the broad field of black creativity rather than pinning down black aesthetics. Cunningham recalled influences from Toni Morrison, in her speech about novelist Romare Bearden on the lines of influence between his visual art and her writing process. This “cross-pollination of art forms” was represented throughout the exhibition.

Romare Bearden, American, 1911–1988. Moon and Two Suns, 1971. Paper, cloth and plastic on masonite. Gift of The American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, Childe Hassam Fund. y1972-1 Art © Romare Bearden Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

The title of the show, Hold, was drawn from debates in the field of black studies of the legacy of slavery and its afterlife in modern times. The word “hold” makes reference to the hold of a slave ship, a physical representation of dispossession. The space evokes imagery of violence, abjection, and confinement. However, the exhibition attempts to bring artworks together to give a new meaning to “hold.” Especially upon encountering Kara Walker’s no world, which depicts two hands holding a slave ship, the word takes on new meaning. The hands that envelop the ship, and the concept of bringing artwork together to hold, evokes tenderness. Instead of just images of containment and slavery, there is then also the support for the black aesthetics exhibited, and the history that is brought together.

Kara Walker, American, born 1969. no world, from the series An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters, 2010. Etching, aquatint, and drypoint. Courtesy of the Petrucci Family Foundation of African American Art.

Besides practical matters of how many pieces could fit in the physical space of the museum, Cunningham considered the narrative Hold proposed. He avoided creating a linear story, instead allowing viewers to put pieces together to open up ideas, leaving material for viewers to leave the exhibition with questions about the relationship between art works. For Cunningham, curating was also a research process. By looking into different ways to bring pieces together, he was able to uncover fascinating connections. For example, he discovered that Terry Adkins and Sanford Biggers, two artists featured in the exhibition, were tight collaborators. From then, it became an organic decision to include both artists, and similar discoveries helped Cunningham select other art for the show.

Sandford Biggers, American, born 1970. Tunic, 2003. Bubble down jacket and feathers. Princeton University Art Museum. Museum purchase, Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921, Fund 2003-147.

In regards to the constantly generated connections in the exhibit, Cunningham said, “People always wonder, are museums where art comes to die? No. A museum can become a place where you reanimate over and over again through curation.” By discussing the exhibition with students in his fall course Black Aesthetics: Art, Literature, and Politics in the African Diaspora and giving tours, Hold was also continually reanimated for Cunningham. Instead of strictly defining black aesthetics, Hold: A Meditation on Black Aesthetics created an inhabitable space for viewers to engage in the expansiveness and vitality of black aesthetics.