As Georgetown University students grapple with an upcoming referendum over financial contributions to descendants of the GU272, Glenn Ligon’s exhibition, “To be a Negro in this country is really never to be looked at,” could not be more timely. The exhibit opened Jan. 24 with a reception at the Maria & Alberto de la Cruz Art Gallery, located on the first floor of the Edmund A. Walsh Memorial building.
Ligon, born in 1960 and from New York City, uses inspiration from history and literature as a way to engage with his audience through his art. The exhibit is broken down into three components: “Study for Negro Sunshine,” a series of six repeated text-based chalk pieces; “Untitled,” a partial display of James Baldwin’s essay in 1953, “Stranger in the Village”; and “Grey Hands,” displaying images of protestors in the 1995 Million Man March at the National Mall. Each part has a description written by the artist himself, which enhances the audience’s understanding of the artist’s endeavor and the questions he wanted to raise.
Whereas the previously exhibit, Jeffrey Gibson’s “DON’T MAKE ME OVER,” highlighted the intersectionality between Native American tradition and queerness, Ligon’s artwork underscores the importance of the black experience in a racist United States. Both artists, however, link their personal identities into their artistic creativity and craft to make a social commentary on issues that still pervade today.
At first glance, the de la Cruz gallery’s lack of color variation conveys a minimalist style. In contrast to Gibson’s colorful diptychs and rainbow patterns, Ligon employs black and white in his pieces to represent the racial dichotomy and history of discrimination in the United States. Precisely for this reason, a minimalist color palette works in Ligon’s favor, concentrating his message on the “invisibility and simultaneous hypervisibility of black people in America,” as he writes in the exhibition’s description.
Ligon employs letters and repetition, rather than a colorful design, to make a statement on racial inequity and prejudice. In the series “Study for Negro Sunshine,” the words “Negro Sunshine” repeat in capital letters and contrast against white paper; however, this distinction is not at all clean and simple.
Some are nearly covered in layers of black, making it difficult to barely make out the letters. Others have clearer letters, demonstrating the mutability of lightness and darkness — these boundaries are not stable or fixed. The succession of the six pieces, however, seemed to lack a pattern. The display may have benefited from starting with the most visible letters and then become increasingly darker and invisible. Nevertheless, Ligon’s point about black Americans as being both seen and unseen was very accurate.
In addition to Stein, Ligon is heavily influenced by the late James Baldwin, a black writer and social critic. In his essay “Stranger in a Village,” Baldwin documents his experience as the only black man in a tiny mountain village in Switzerland and addresses his relationship to colonialism. Ligon uses an excerpt from this essay to create “Untitled,” a piece that records letters, but also disrupts visibility by adding layers of black. According to Ligon’s description, the gaps between the letters, obscured by black blobs, marks the unknowability of the other.
Finally, the repeated scribbles of the Washington Monument catch the audience’s eye. The five large, silkscreened press images of protestors onto the canvas with the scribbles, a technique borrowed from Andy Warhol, brilliantly allude to the civil rights struggles African Americans have faced over the decades. The title of these works, “Grey Hands #2” to “Grey Hands #6”, is enigmatic and ambiguous because grey is in between black and white. Ligon calls attention to the issue of colorism, and suggests that, as Baldwin says in his essay, “The world is white no longer, and it will never be white again.”
Through his exhibit, Ligon makes clear his belief that the United States must overcome its black and white dichotomy and address the system of racial oppression and prejudice that has not only affected African Americans, but also Latinx and Asian-American communities, along with other people of color. From this exhibit, Georgetown students should take away not only what it means “to be a Negro in this country,” as the title suggests, but also what it means to be different, to be an other — because it’s not all about race, even though race is a huge part of it.
Ligon’s exhibit is powerful and compelling, playing with language and the limits of visibility to make us feel estranged and defamilizared. The de la Cruz gallery provides a more inclusive space for contemporary arts and social justice, supporting Georgetown’s Jesuit mission. Knowing the context behind a work of art and appreciating modern aesthetics certainly make the exhibit worth the trip.
“To be a Negro in this country is really never to be looked at” runs from Jan. 24 to April 7.
The Maria & Alberto De La Cruz Art Gallery opens on Wednesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sundays at 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. It is located on 3535 Prospect Street NW, Washington, D.C., 20007 and admission is always free.