How Black Artists Use Quote Art to Build on Each Other’s Legacy

“The Ethics of Quotation (Toni Morrison) 1987” (2021). (© Ja’Tovia Gary. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.)

Black scholars have been talking a lot lately about the citation. (Check quote black women podcast which aims to make visible the knowledge production of black women, or read Katherine McKittrick, professor at Queen’s University poetic tweet that complicate a seemingly simple practice.) But what about quotation as art? Outside of academia, black artists are making creative use of citation to reach viewers who relate to references. Black quote art is a kind of code that allows artists to express themselves in secret: most works do not immediately identify the quote. If you know, you know.

Ja’Tovia Gary’s sculpture “The Ethics of Quote (Toni Morrison) 1987” (2021) debuted at Art Basel in Miami last November. The 9.5-foot neon piece mimics the shape and style of the motel signage where Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, but the text is altered. In its place, Gary inserted a quote from Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved: “There is no bad luck in the world except white people.” Gary actually quotes twice – someone who knows the iconic sign could be transported back to 1968, while the quote could resonate from Vietnam to Vancouver even if you don’t remember Suggs and the schoolteacher. But everything is connected for the spectator who “reads” all the references.

Art is often referential, but citation specifically employs citation, literary or otherwise. Take Glenn Ligon “Untitled (four etchings)” (1992): four canvases, two black on white, two black on black. The first canvases repeat a quote by Zora Neale Hurston from her 1928 essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me”, while the last two repeat the opening lines of Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel. Invisible Man. Seeing them on a white wall in the gallery, even if you read the didactics, you would not know the references if you did not know the works of these authors.

Or consider Martine Syms’ single-channel video “Notes on the gesture” (2017), in which artist Diamond Stingily interprets expressions, gestures and lines quintessential to black women. Short close-up clips of Stingily’s face or hands appear against a rich purple background. Sometimes informed by text, loops last a few beats and then switch. At Rashaad Newsome “Shadow Composition” (2005-present) also focuses on the vernacular of black women and women. The artist appears as the leader of a magnificent choir in which each voice is given its own saying or sounds like an instrument in an orchestra playing in precise harmony. For viewers intimately familiar with these references, the act of performance is relatively new in this setting. In form and content, these works reshape old ideas about who and what belongs in a gallery.

Project file for jamilah malika abu-bakare’s soundscape “listen to Black women (again)”. (jamilah malika abu-bakare)

In my own artistic practice, I consider the quotation as a dedication. Much of my work centers around black women’s words, written or spoken. My last piece “listen to black women (again)” (2021), combines the voices of Angela Davis, Amara La Negra, Azealia Banks, Jully Black, Keke Palmer and Rihanna, all talking about the issues and risks of speaking out as black women. (You can hear the soundscape in line, and if you’re in Prince George, BC, you can check out the full installation at the Two Rivers Gallery with sound policy hosted by Tyler J. Stewart.) The Azealia Banks interview I’m pulling from gone viral in 2014, but I wonder who, if anyone, will visit the gallery and know it to hear it. Where do you remember Jully Black verification Jeanne Beker on Canada reads in 2018? Imagine hearing it in an art setting! Each clip can be understood on its own, but the experience will be very meaningful to someone who recognizes a soundbyte. Different listeners will be surprised for different reasons because the piece intentionally operates on multiple levels: for black women, for non-black women, for those who know a reference, for those who don’t.

A room further Sound Policy exhibition, Michèle Pearson Clarke “Suck Teeth Compositions (After Rashaad Newsome)” (2018) is playing. Clarke’s three-channel video installation focuses on steups – sucking or kissing teeth – an expression that could take a sound-familiar viewer back to an island or childhood. The work bears witness to the range of emotions possible in a single gesture shared by 17 different black people. Clarke uses the quote in the title to indicate her inspiration, Newsome’s “Shade Composition” (2005-present). In doing so, she makes clear a cherished slogan of the art world: the artist decides and declares with whom he is in conversation.

In all of these cases, the artwork is quoting or quoting a person or group. The work is a response that recontextualizes the excerpt. Form is an extra layer to impact an audience, whether it’s print, performance, video, neon, ink, sound, sculpture, or anything else – these transformations are sort of reincarnations. It should be noted that the traditional military definition of citation is “a commendable act”. This meaning works here too: the artist chooses a contribution that he finds commendable, whether acclaimed or informal. We decide what deserves to be honored.

View of Michèle Pearson Clarke’s installation “Suck Teeth Compositions (After Rashaad Newsome)” at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. (Steve Farmer)

When black artists bring black figure texts, expressions and responses to galleries around the world, the artworks circulate and center black people in ways that can undo the representation we often lack elsewhere in the world. media. On platforms like television, radio, and magazines, so much black culture circulates without black people receiving credit or compensation. We have black ballroom culture to thank for its endless slang, but does that translate into material support, love and care for black trans women? No, because sayings like “Yasss Queen” are attributed to Jonathan Van Ness of weird eye or Ilana Wexler on vast city. Black and vernacular aesthetics flow profitably with ease and success on white bodies. However, when black artists quote black figures, one could understand the effect of the art as a musical sample: you are obsessed with a song, so you seek out the original. When I saw a photo of Gary’s sculpture on Instagram, I immediately searched for the text. I read now Beloved. That’s the power of quote art.

When black artists quote black figures, one could understand the effect of the art as a musical snippet: you’re obsessed with a song, so you seek out the original.– jamilah malika abu-bakare

Ceramist Simone Leigh recently announced that at this year’s Venice Biennale, she will host the second edition of the Loophole of Retreat conference. This gathering of thoughtful black women is named in reference to Incidents in the life of a slave by Harriet Jacobs. The Venice Biennale has never included an event like this – black women artists and scholars discussing the theory that weaves them together. The name and function of the event are quotes upon quotes in a renowned artistic setting. Some attendees may think this event is out of place, but for others it will make perfect sense.

I implicitly understand Leigh’s plans. My work is centered on black women. I collect and compose sounds with immense care. I want to elevate and honor the speakers I refer to. I wonder: what would Angela Davis think of appearing alongside Rihanna, if either of them knew how their lyrics reflect each other? Listening to and layering these women has been healing for me, and I hope it’s for black women who hear it. For non-black female listeners, I hope their next exchange with a black woman — whether famous or familiar — will move toward her freedom. By quoting these six women, their words will resonate in usually silent spaces. I hope their voices resonate in the minds of listeners long after they’re gone.

Christopher S. Washington