Your 2020 Gift Guide — From My Friends!

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If you need to buy gifts this holiday season, but aren’t sure where to turn in a pandemic, may I suggest you look to my many talented friends? There are all different kinds of art to choose from here — books, comics, prints, albums. I left this post a bit late, my apologies, so keep in mind that Christmas shipping cut-off dates might have passed for some of these, but don’t let that deter you; I’m sure whatever you’re buying will be a great New Year’s gift. Shop local, shop small business, support your artists!

“The Lice” by Miranda Featherstone, in A World Out of Reach

Look, you may think reading more about the pandemic is the last thing you want to do, but what if the writing was really good? Miranda has been developing a clear, drily funny, and insistently honest style since at least the creative writing class we took together in high school. She’s written an essay about the worry and care we have for our children and the sickening fear and awareness of the frustrating limits of our own efforts that a novel coronavirus (or lice infestation) can induce.

The other essays in this book, selected by poet and memoirist Meghan O’Rourke, are sure to be as thoughtful and interesting.

Horned Warrior Friends and photos by Jez Kemp

Jez’s mind is a wonder, coming up with wonderfully smart and silly ideas at an astonishing speed. He writes and performs his own music, he’s perfecting the sunset timelapse photo, and he’s got a whole universe of characters that he draws and writes about. You can check out Horned Warrior Friends on their dedicated site, and if you go to the Redbubble site you can put the comics on just about anything (phone case, t-shirt, greeting card). You can also buy his photography and other artwork there (I am really partial to the sunset ones, but there are a lot of great pieces).

Quantum Leopard comedy by James Ross and many others

One of my favorite nights out in London, back when we had nights out, was the Quantum Leopard comedy night, run by the mustachioed Victorian waistcoat himself, James Ross. It’s a pay-what-you-can night with an explicit “no kicking down” policy, which means I can split myself laughing for three straight hours, without worrying that someone on stage is suddenly going to throw in something transphobic or go on a rant about fat people. And the quality of comedy is just top-notch. James was able to record one of the few shows he was able to put on in the midst of the ever-changing government rules this year, and you can buy it on the Patreon page.

Saving Ruby King by Catherine Adel West

Cathy and I worked together when I lived in Chicago. She helped train me, and we bonded over being from the same part of the southside. She’s written steadily for years, and I’m thrilled to see her debut novel — about faith, friendship, and family — make as big a splash as it has. It’s been featured in USA Today, it’s won the #SheReads Best book of the Year award, it’s been given 5 stars by Terry McMillan! Seriously, it’s one of the big books of the year, and for good reason — it’s powerful and impossible to put down. And lucky for us, Cathy’s got new books coming out in 2021 and 2022!

Now I Understand by Mikael Järvelin

I’ve spent many happy hours singing along with Mikke, and listening to him at open mics and my salons. He plays with delicate precision and writes introspective lyrics to match the mood. Think Elliott Smith via The Beatles, but Finnish. He’s released his first solo full-length as a digital album, and I highly recommend it (and I’m not just saying that because I appear on the track “Space”!).

Kit: A Bar Supply Store in Chicago by Lindsey Miller and Rachel Miller

Opening a brick-and-mortar specialty store in 2020? In this economy? Yes! Lindsey and Rachel, twins and Chicago natives, have jumped into this project, and I’m so proud and inspired by them. Rachel is an expert bartender (she literally gives classes on making cocktails — online! you can join!) and Lindsey is the project manager of your dreams. They’ve opened a store in the Portage Park neighborhood of Chicago, where pros and amateurs alike can pick up beautiful, useful bar kit. If you’re in the greater Chicago area, stop by to say hi!

Can We Talk About Consent? by Justin Hancock

Justin is an extremely knowledgeable and approachable sex educator. He runs BISH, a place for young people especially (but anyone, really) to get accurate, judgment-free sex advice (it’s like the UK’s version of Scarleteen). With Dr. Meg-John Barker, he runs a podcast and has co-authored a book. And now he’s got more! Can We Talk About Consent? is for anyone 14 and up, so if you’ve got teens in your life, I highly recommend you get this guide to talking about how we can build healthy relationships for life — that includes sex but also everything from how we make choices to how we can make respect for ourselves and others a foundation for everything we do. Pre-order so you have it by its early January release.

Mother of Orphans by Dedria Humphries Barker

Dedria has dug deep into her own family history to uncover the, as she puts it, “true and curious story of Irish Alice,” a white woman who married a black man in 19th century Ohio. When he died, Alice had to make the agonizing decision to put her children in an orphanage because she couldn’t afford to raise them. Dedria shares the voices of five women in her family, from Alice on down to herself, and the result is poignant and moving.

Anchorless Prints by Alithea O’Dell

Alithea’s studied the craft of letterpress and she uses a Chandler and Price machine, powered by foot treadle, to painstakingly make each item by hand (and foot, I guess!). She’s got stationery, greeting cards, stickers, and more. You can even request a bespoke commission via her contact page (not for Christmas this year, it is too late for that, but for the future). I think each print is just gorgeous.

Black History Month: Visual Artists from the 1960s and ’70s

Today was so packed that I’m afraid I haven’t had time to write up anything new for this post, so let me point you back to another post on black artists that I really enjoyed writing and even more enjoyed researching: the Soul of a Nation exhibition at the Tate Modern from the autumn. It was one of the most challenging, upsetting, and thrilling art exhibitions I’ve been to in years. It highlighted artists from across the United States during the period of Black Power — Malcolm X, the Panthers, explicit resistance, self-protection, declarations of self-worth and ability, communal action. Black American visual artists from this time covered the spectrum from paintings to sculptures, abstract to meticulously detailed realist, purposely political to more personal explorations. Many of the issues of representation and artistic responsibility or freedom which were explored then resonate today. Take a look at the artists mentioned in that post and I’m sure you’ll find someone whose work speaks to you.

Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power at the Tate Modern

If you’re in London in the next week, and you’ve not yet visited the Soul of a Nation exhibition at the Tate Modern, let this be encouragement to see it before it closes on the 22nd. If that’s not you, let this be a way to enjoy some excellent art. Content warning: some of these images are violent. Super important and well done, but potentially disturbing. Copyright note: I believe this falls within the Tate’s photography requirements of “personal use.”

The Soul of a Nation at the Tate Modern is one of the most challenging, upsetting, and thrilling art exhibitions I’ve been to in years. Before you even enter the exhibition space, you can watch snippets of speeches from five leaders of civil rights, Black Power, and liberation movements (Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Stokely Carmichael, and Angela Davis). You see Stokely responding to MLK and Malcolm X, James Baldwin teaching Europeans about American racism, Angela Davis taking a broad and pragmatic view of how the struggle fits in her life and she in it. This introduction to the exhibition is small but important. It situates us firmly within the black community in the United States in the 1960s and ’70s. We’re not hearing what white people thought about the issues or what approach white people thought black people should take; we’re hearing how black people had this discussion amongst themselves, and the myriad approaches they took to dismantling systemic racism and building a better world.

soul of a nation black power art london

April 4 by Sam Gilliam

Once you enter the exhibition space, with the voices of cultural and political leaders still ringing in your ears, you immediately meet the artistic leaders. Let no one tell you that art and politics don’t interact: the Spiral artistic group was formed in direct reaction to the March on Washington in 1963, so members could discuss how to represent black folks in their art, and how to fight political battles in their art.

soul of a nation black power art london

America the Beautiful by Norman Lewis

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Processional by Norman Lewis (apologies for the slight blurriness)

My favorite thing about these two paintings by Norman Lewis is how they talk to one another. “America the Beautiful” on the left is a collection of white figures on a black background, which as you look more closely you see is a KKK rally, taking over the canvas and popping up almost randomly, like you never know where they’re lurking, intending harm. “Processional” on the right is a collection of white figures on a black background, which as you look more closely you see is an energetic crowd of people marching forward. It’s the Selma march, and as the museum placard suggested, the gradually widening scope of the view of figures is like a flashlight leading through the darkness. Two similarly simple approaches, two radically different results.

The next room cleverly combined art of the Black Panther group (mostly from their paper but also from posters they mass-produced to reach more people) and murals painted in black neighborhoods in cities across the United States — this room was “art on the streets,” art that was made to inspire and fire up. Some of the murals have fallen into disrepair, but I know I’ve seen some — or some like them — on the south side of Chicago, although I can’t recall if I’ve seen the Wall of Respect, one of the first murals to go up during this time.

Some of the stories behind the pieces I was familiar with, and others were new to me. I did not know about Fred Hampton — Black Panther activist shot to death in a raid by Cook County cops after being drugged by an FBI informant. I did not know that during his trial for conspiracy and inciting a riot as part of the Chicago Eight, Bobby Seale was ordered bound and gagged in the courtroom by the judge because the judge didn’t like his outbursts. (Also Seale’s later prison sentence was not for the original charges but for contempt charges the judge applied during that trial.) Archibald Motley, who painted “The First One Hundred Years” over a ten-year period, never painted again after he completed this work.

Other groups and collectives formed, including the Weusi collective, the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition, AfriCOBRA, Smokehouse Associates, and many others. A few of the rooms in this exhibition feature work from just one or two groups, so you can get a good sense of the general approach and what they focused on.

soul of a nation black power art london

I Got Rhythm by Betye Saar

A room full of collage, sculpture, and found object art had some truly chilling pieces. Betye Saar’s work is deeply affecting — titles that seem carefree like “Sambo’s Banjo” and “I Got Rhythm” are attached to mixed-media punches to the gut. Each tiny item in each piece adds layers of meaning — the little crucifix at the bottom of a lynched man in “I Got Rhythm,” the toy gun nestled in the top of the banjo case so Sambo might have a chance of resisting and surviving in “Sambo’s Banjo.”

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Revolutionary by Wadsworth Jarrell

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Detail of Black Prince by Wadsworth Jarrell

Walking into the AfriCOBRA room midway through the exhibition was like walking into an air-conditioned building after walking for miles in summer heat, a relief. The AfriCOBRA manifesto was explicitly hopeful: they wanted an aesthetic of “rhythm,” “shine,” and “color that is free of rules and regulations.” They made works to lift people up, and they reprinted them for wide distribution, so that black people all over the country could be inspired by positive images of black folks. Which is not to say that this isn’t itself a challenge, because it certainly challenges the white supremacist myth that black people are inferior and not worth celebrating. And in fact most of the art was explicitly political as well, like the work by Gerald Williams reminding people “don’t be jivin” or Wadsworth Jarrell’s portrait of Angela Davis, made up of words from her speeches radiating from the center of the painting. Make no mistake, representation on your own terms is a powerful form of resistance.

One of the debates within the black artistic community at the time was whether abstract art could be considered part of the movement as a whole. Abstract artists argued that because the art was theirs, and they were black, it was therefore part of the political black art movement. It’s like improve in jazz, William T. Williams said, and then he painted Trane, named for John Coltrane, which I think is an excellent way to win an argument.

There was a room on photography and how different ways of developing film brought out different skin tones in the black subjects; there were connections to the wider Black Arts Movement and samples from poets who collaborated with visual artists; there were many reminders that one of the constant themes in black liberation movements of 50 years ago was an end to police brutality — for all those who want to talk about “how far we’ve come”; there was a Spotify playlist you could listen to on your headphones during your walk around the exhibition and which I listened to after, getting pumped up to Gil Scott Heron as I strode along the Thames. There was so much to see, read, and absorb. Much gratitude to the artists who fought the good fight and explored their own creativity during the 1963-1983 period explored here, and beyond.

soul of a nation black power art london

Bill & Son by Roy DeCarava