Diversity, Connections and Community: Black Collage Comes to MFAH

The richness and diversity of collage as an expressive medium for Black artists first came to prominence with Romare Bearden, who began his collage work in the early 1960s. Bettye Saar created her first assemblages in the late ’60s, and other pioneering Black artists, including Jacob Lawrence and Faith Ringgold, embraced the process. Building on this legacy are the numerous Black artists who focus exclusively on collage or make it an important part of their practice.

Multiplicity: Blackness in Contemporary American Collage, on view Feb. 18 through May 12 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is the first museum survey of Black collage artists. Bringing together over 100 pieces by some 58 living artists, the show explores notions of beauty, power, gender fluidity, history, memory, and more.

Prominent artists such as Howardina Pindell, Kara Walker, Mickalene Thomas, and Kerry James Marshall are included, as well as established Texas-based artists like Rick Lowe, Deborah Roberts, Jamal Cyrus, Lovie Olivia, and Tay Butler. Although the show was organized by Nashville’s Frist Art Museum, MFAH associate curator Anita N. Bateman was involved early on, contributing an essay to the catalogue.

“I added a few dynamic Texas artists to highlight the quality of work being done in our city and state,” Bateman said. “Tay Butler was one of my recommendations, as was Yoyo Lander, who works in Manville, and Evita Tezeno, who is from East Texas and works in Dallas.”

Bateman also organized “Black Art Houston,” an opportunity for Black artists to open their studios to visitors on opening weekend. “I want to amplify the idea of multiplicity and give some love to the spaces in Houston that have been showcasing Black art for years,” she said. “We are building on the legacy of people like John Biggers and Alvia Wardlaw, as well as Rick Lowe and Project Row Houses.”

Butler is a Houston artist who explores photography, collage, video, music, installation, and performance. His piece, Hyperinvisibility, deals with the adulation of professional basketball players by the culture whose opinions on anything other than their sport are often viewed as invalid. Austin-based Roberts uses distinctive portraits of children to comment on the failure of the white world to recognize Black beauty.

Multiplicity is organized around seven themes: Fragmentation and Reconstruction, Excavating History and Memory, Cultural Hybridity, Notions of Beauty and Power, Gender Fluidity and Queer Spaces, Toward Abstraction, and Digital Stitches.

The works of art in Fragmentation and Reconstruction are constructed with paper, denim, lace, wallpaper, glitter, feathers, string, sequins, photographs, and paint and include pieces by Roberts, Marshall, and Yashua Klos. Cyrus, who evokes Ghanaian Kente cloth with fragments clipped from newspapers and vintage Jet magazines, and Walker, known for her tableaux of cut-paper silhouettes that often address slavery, are part of the section on History and Memory.

Cultural Hybridity brings together first-generation Americans who stay connected to their parents’ homeland while becoming an integral part of contemporary culture. Wangechi Mutu splits her time between Kenya and Brooklyn; Njideka Akunyili Crosby was born in Nigeria but lives and works in Los Angeles; and Helina Metaferia was born in the U.S. but is of Ethiopian heritage. These and a number of artists from the Caribbean illustrate the extensive influence of the African diaspora.

In Notions of Beauty and Power, Zoë Charlton, Genevieve Gaignard, Tschabalala Self, and others explore and deconstruct notions of female beauty and power in the fine arts and popular culture. Gender Fluidity and Queer Spaces artists investigate their place in an increasingly non-binary world. Troy Montes Michie, raised on the U.S.-Mexico border, weaves together vintage images of fashionable Black men with abstract patterns that suggest the border wall. Lovie Olivia’s collages about A’Lelia Walker, thought to be the first self-made female millionaire in the U.S., highlight Walker’s Harlem soirees that welcomed queer people at a time when safe social spaces were rare. The last two thematic sections highlight abstract and digitally produced work by artists such as Howardina Pindell, Mark Bradford, Lowe, Arthur Jafa, Paul Anthony Smith, and Kahlil Robert Irving.

According to Frist Art Museum curator and organizer Kathryn E. Delmez, Multiplicity has been germinating in her mind for 10 years. “Although it is a nearly ubiquitous art form used by everyone from kindergarten students to the notables mentioned above,” she writes, “twenty-first-century collage is an arguably understudied and undervalued medium, especially in museum exhibitions.”

Delmez structured Multiplicity like a collage in that it brings together artists, authors, students, and professors, as well as participation by each host city’s Black community. She hopes the project will spawn future exhibitions that explore the medium’s power and reach.