In 2012, the artist and filmmaker John Akomfrah released a video installation, “The Unfinished Conversation,” an art documentary and tribute to the Jamaican-born cultural theorist Stuart Hall, who died two years later, at the age of eighty-two. The Museum of Modern Art is presenting the video as the cornerstone of its sprawling interdisciplinary exhibition “Unfinished Conversations,” which incorporates recently acquired works from the museum’s collection and represents a diverse array of artists, including the Egyptian installation artist Iman Issa, the American multimedia artist Paul Chan, and the British-Ghanaian painter Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. Hall, who wrote how “museum collections have a deep and consistent symbiotic relationship with the environment of the world as well as the communities that created them,” is the critical godfather of the exhibition, an attempt by MOMA to indirectly reckon with its exclusionary past.
MOMA has a history of excluding not only black artists but also women. Louise Lawler’s recent photography retrospective interrupts a lineup of male artists and, as Peter Schjeldahl pointed out, offers a subtle yet trenchant institutional critique. (In general, museum photography curation, at MOMA and elsewhere, tends to be much more inclusive than painting and sculpture curation.) Modernists who are both black and women, like Alma Thomas, Faith Ringgold, and Senga Nengudi, have never had retrospectives at the museum. “Unfinished Conversations” is neither a corrective nor a direct response to this history and reputation, but the exhibition makes strides. It includes a great deal of work by artists of varying racial, ethnic, and class backgrounds, and avoids trumpeting the familiar self-congratulatory liberal politics—a tuneless, corporatized gospel of diversity. Instead, the curators have managed to emphasize the work itself over the identities of the artists and, crucially, without using this approach as a justification for excluding work by women and artists of color.
What “Unfinished Conversations” does offer is a complex and interracial politics that neither condemns black radicalism as segregationist nor lionizes it as purely righteous. During a tour of the exhibition, the curators Thomas Lax and Lucy Gallun explained that the exhibition involved an unusual amount of collaboration between multiple departments at the museum, and Lax, who came to MOMA from the Studio Museum in Harlem, spoke passionately of the “power of attending to culture,” especially the undervalued and overlooked cultures of marginalized groups, as the intrinsic “lining” of all curatorial work. Both Akomfrah and Hall’s understandings of blackness comprise a kind of smooth space, where blackness does not necessarily stand in opposition to whiteness but where the illusion of that opposition—specifically, that black and white people cannot, or should not, stand on equal footing together in the same society—is continuously unravelled. The “Unfinished Conversation” video both insists on the lives of black people and advocates for the futures of black people without prescribing what those lives or futures might be.
Certain artists in the exhibition—Anna Boghiguian, Erik van Lieshout, Andrea Bowers, and Samuel Fosso—express more straightforward political narratives through their work. In a series of large black-and-white portraits, Fosso poses as black political figures like Angela Davis, Malcolm X, and Patrice Lumumba. Bowers’s large cardboard-and-marker drawing “A Menace to Liberty” features a towering figure bearing a flag labelled “Patriotism” and standing over a fallen figure with a flag labelled “Liberty.” Above the scene, a block-lettered heading reads “Mother Earth.” But the rest of the exhibition is less clearly representative. Yiadom-Boakye paints figures that appear to be models who sat for her, but, in fact, they’re inventions. Zadie Smith, in her recent profile of Yiadom-Boakye, referencing the artist Chris Ofili’s response to the work, points out that the paintings “say little explicitly, but you hear much.” Instead, we, the viewers, are meant to fill up the remaining space between the eyes and ourselves.
Kara Walker’s three-panel tableau drawing “40 Acres of Mules” offers a more troubling kind of complicity, with the naked bodies of black women exposed and crucified, but also sexually dominant among a tide of mules, white men (including a Klansman and a Confederate flag), and a few black men, too. Ever since her “Sugar Sphinx” went up at the old Domino Sugar Factory, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in 2014, critics have discussed Walker’s art in terms of the behavior of those who encounter it, and sometimes the work itself gets lost. The exhibition disrupts this preoccupation by situating the art works unevenly among each other, with one installation flowing directly into another. Not only do museumgoers encounter the art—contemplating, gawking, snapping selfies—the art works encounter each other. They are not statuesque but dynamic in open space, never crushed under the weight of viewership.
Ultimately, the exhibition doesn’t offer a flatly optimistic integrationist space, but it does ask the very question that Stuart Hall once posed: “How then can the particular and the universal, the claims of both difference and equality, be recognized?” “Multicultural” now has a negative connotation as the forebear of “diversity,” signalling a haphazard, quota-filling mixing bowl of identities for appearance’s sake. But for Hall the word indicated a commitment to inclusion and openness, to “liv[ing] with difference”—to smooth space. These ideas are born of the specific situation in Britain that Hall encountered as a Jamaican expat, and then as a citizen. “Unfinished Conversations” proposes untidy, unresolved ideas and images as valid forms of expression and engagement, and invites artists of different ethnicities, nationalities, races, and genders to participate in such “conversations” not only from the position of their politicized identities but also as investigators, as artists.
“The Unfinished Conversation,” the film, which is shown in a black-walled theatre, on three large screens, the outer two of which are angled slightly inward, is enormously affecting. It acknowledges systemic violence and exclusion before gesturing toward the act of rebuilding, which, according to Hall, requires not only full societal participation but also a kind of humanist idealism in which participants believe a conversation can and should be had in the first place.
Video still © 2017 John Akomfrah / The Museum of Modern Art
The screening room was the last one I walked into after a nearly dizzying survey of thirty-seven art works. When I entered, the video was arriving at its halfway point, and one of the panels showed a procession of white people marching in the streets—of London or of Birmingham, where Akomfrah shot much of the footage, I didn’t know. On another panel, a black jazz musician played the upright bass. Later scenes included archival footage from the Vietnam War—a young woman amputee is carried through a hospital, helicopters roar through the sky, a mother desperately holds onto her children. Hall’s voice fills the room with a booming precision that isn’t so much oratory or academic as it is urgent; his words seemed to transform the dark-walled screening room from passive to active space. At the end, a photograph of Hall appears with the caption “For Stuart Hall, with deep gratitude and respect.” Akomfrah’s video does not represent a catalogue of black identity, black suffering, or even blackness itself, but it is a triumph of imagination—an effort to use a history of obstacles and obstructions in order to see beyond them. As the video started up again, I moved to a seat at the front and watched two more times, then walked slowly back through the gallery and absentmindedly around the gift shop, stocked with extra-large Robert Rauschenberg exhibition books, before finding my way out of the museum and into the world.