Jan 14, 2022 - News

An exhibit of contemporary Black artists at the Blanton

A corner of an art installation at the Blanton.
Installation view of "Assembly: New Acquisitions by Contemporary Black Artists." Photo courtesy Blanton Museum of Art at The University of Texas at Austin

Hanging in one corner of a temporary exhibit at the Blanton flashes a neon blue-and-orange sign that looks like something from a roadside bar.

"I will light you up" blinks alternately with "I will light up your life."

  • The first phrase is what Texas State Trooper Brian Encinia shouted at Sandra Bland during a 2015 rapidly escalating traffic stop that led to Bland’s death in police custody.
  • The latter plays on Debby Boone's 1977 song "You Light Up My Life," later recorded by Aretha Franklin and Whitney Houston.

What they're saying: "I wanted to play with this threat, 'I will light you up,' by finding a response that neutralized it," artist Cauleen Smith said. "And so this flashing neon is a dance-off, a sing-a-thon, a battle, a protest, a memento mori that collectivizes Sandra Bland's resistance, reclaims her sovereignty and reifies the ways in which Black culture is inextricably woven in to national identities and cultures."

The big picture: A haunting, often beautiful exhibit concerned with historical and cultural erasure, "Assembly: New Acquisitions by Contemporary Black Artists" inhabits what the scholar Saidiya Hartman refers to as "the long afterlife of slavery," as noted in the show's introduction.

  • The shared surname of two — unrelated — quilt-makers featured in the exhibition is that of the plantation owner their enslaved ancestors were forced to serve in Gee's Bend, Alabama.
  • Kevin Beasley's resin sculpture incorporates raw cotton from his family's farm in Virginia with everyday garments to ask questions of labor and American consumerism.

The installation was made possible by an anonymous donor who herself is the descendant of slaveholders and who was eager to support art that sparks critical thinking and conversations around race, per the exhibit's introduction.

What's next: The Blanton will host a free online artist talk with Smith on Feb. 16 at 2pm.

  • "Assembly" runs through May 8.
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