Angèle Etoundi Essamba. Héritage 2 from the series Masks. 1999. Gelatin silver print, 15 × 18 7/16" (38.1 × 46.8 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Committee on Photography Fund. © 2024 Angèle Etoundi Essamba

An ode to the neglected and seeing in the shadows

In President Gerald Ford’s 1976 speech marking the national recognition of Black History Month, he called it a moment “to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” But neglected by whom? In the Chicago summer of 1915, six decades prior to President Ford’s speech, Dr. Carter G. Woodson attended a celebration of the 15th anniversary of Black emancipation. The occasion was an opportunity to recognize the long history of Black suffering in the country and to celebrate Black American accomplishments. Such a gathering laid the groundwork for what Dr. Woodson would later call Negro History Week in 1926. Considering these occasions of Black recognition that predate President Ford’s (mis-)diagnosis of “neglect,” one might see what Ford failed to: an engagement of care, celebration, and commemoration done in the dark. I am drawn to artworks in MoMA’s collection presenting a similar care-full darkness, luminous blackness, and clarifying mystery, works whose mechanisms of memory and meaning lie in their shadowy areas.

In curator Ashley James’s introductory essay to the catalog for Going Dark: The Contemporary Figure at the Edge of Visibility (currently on view at the Guggenheim Museum), she writes, “What would the blackness of the painting mean if we considered not only its sociopolitical symbolism, but also its literal effects as a color whose qualities acutely influence sight and perception? To consider black not only as a component and symbol but also as material occlusive force?”1 What James offers us is an invitation into the dark, into blackness, and into neglect, to encounter what it holds, not what it lacks.

Considering James’s invitation, I come to the dark spaces in five works by Black artists in MoMA’s collection not so much to shine a light on them but to learn to see into them, looking at the dark without the light. Instead of calling for a national spotlight on Black achievement, this Take Five seeks an alternative: to see the loveliness in the darkness.2 For I cannot help but wonder if some aspect of the power and sacredness of the 1915 summer celebration in Chicago lies in the darkness of a moment prior to formal recognition, in its existence otherwise, in its unsanctioned space-taking and high regard for the disregarded. And, to quote poet and scholar Fred Moten, “Regarding this disregard, black art is criticism in the afternoon.”3

Betye Saar. Fragments. 1976

Crumbling edges, severed photographs, ripped and frayed corners permeate Betye Saar’s, aptly named Fragments. Yet what strikes me about these various points of disjuncture and visible neglect of the objects is how they do not distract my eye to the various bits of rupture, but instead, their disturbances sound a cohesive and singular note, one object rather than an assemblage of many. Saar made this work a year after the death of her great-aunt, Hattie Parson Keys, whose handwritten note appears at the bottom left-hand corner of the image, and reads, “Keep for Old Memoirs.” In thinking with Great-Aunt Keys’s note and the cut-up and intentionally misaligned Black family portrait, I read Saar’s work as a way of multigenerational storytelling, holding and delicately arranging the gaps, pains, falling outs, and losses not to fit together, but rather to form a framed whole.

Sandra Payne. Untitled from the series Most Definitely Not Profile Ladies. 1986

“Dedicated to: All the Women Who Are: Too Loud/Too Big/Too Immense/Too Cullud/Much Too Urban/Too Flashy/Too Black/Too Smart/To Uppity/Too/Too/Too.” This dedication was featured on the 1986 show flier for Sandra Payne’s exhibition at Just Above Midtown (JAM), featuring the entire series of these Most Definitely Not Profile Ladies works. Payne’s use of ink draws me to these figures who are referred to as “Venus,” a name which harkens to the violent history of the capture and dehumanization of Black women, who were put on display in exhibitions in Europe as “exotic” figures under the name “Hottentot Venus.” We see the strokes within the silhouette performing like the women to whom it’s dedicated; the ink, at times, is too much. Not to say that the strokes show a lack of control by Payne. It is quite the opposite, for when the ink saturates itself, blackens itself, the work fights the totalizing and anatomizing form of the silhouette. Payne’s whimsical strokes and the upturned and cheeky gesture of the figure fight in and against the violent, racialized idea of the Black Venus, liberating the work through its movement and flow in the darkness.

Kerry James Marshall. Untitled (Bride of Frankenstein). 2010

Darkness pervades Kerry James Marshall’s work as white flecks appear to emerge out of the blackness of the etching rather than with it. The work takes a viewer from a moment of uncanny encounter as you adjust your eyes to see into the dark; once your vision is adjusted, the work brings you to a space of precise and profound character development, as the bride meets your eye with a slightly tired yet stern and annoyed glare and the body language to match. Marshall depicts no shadowy, undefined monster emerging from the darkness, but rather the portrait of a full-figured nude woman with an afro whose outline in black produces something like a halo or shadow around her body. In thinking about the policing, stereotyping, and objectification of Black female bodies, Marshall’s work does something bold: he decides to depict her as mad and tired and as black as she can be, but she is cloaked in her Black glory standing in her own dark luminance.

Lyle Ashton Harris. Exfoliation. 1994

Although the unsettling illumination of the public bathroom lighting featured in Lyle Ashton Harris’s image would seem to deny the terms of darkness, it is through the disorienting composition of this work that I find myself, as a viewer, fumbling through the image as if I were in the dark. As the mirror mangles what is the front and back of the work and who is looking at whom, the reflection situates the viewer in proximity to the critically gazing white man in the photo’s background, yet the alignment is not entirely correct. Is he looking at me or with me? The large silhouette of the person on the right side of the image acts almost as visual disruption or a smudge in the frame—nearly a haunting—yet when connected with the person caught mid-speech dutifully applying some product, this shadow meets its owner. Harris’s image is a snapshot of his friend, the artist and performer M Lamar. Though Lamar’s queer and Black body in the image brings on an inquisitory glare from the man in the bathroom, Lamar’s twice-presented body’s attention is turned elsewhere. Queerness and blackness find their home in the obscuring nature of the photo as Lamar’s reflection meets his body; the other reflected figures remain free-floating signifiers without an owner.

Angèle Etoundi Essamba. Héritage 2 from the series Masks. 1999

In Héritage 2, from the series Masks, a black shadow between the mask and the model forms a whisper chamber between the two faces. The too-often overdetermined faces of the Black women and African mask imbue their own meanings on each other. The darkness here configures new relations produced in an exchange of proximity. Angèle Etoundi Essamba once said, “My work is about breaking down the stereotypes of the African woman being oppressed, weak, and dependent; and being passive. That was not the African woman that I knew. The African woman I know is strong with inner and outer strength that is impossible to define.” The upturned, pay-you-no-mind gaze of the woman on the left carries Essamba’s inclination toward presenting inner and outer strength beautifully. However, the impossibility Essamba spoke about slips into shadow, finding a substantial yet infinite home where the light cannot see.

  1. James, Ashley. Going Dark: The Contemporary Figure at the Edge of Visibility (New York: Guggenheim Museum Publications, 2023), 17.

  2. This notion of seeing “loveliness in the darkness” comes from author and photographer Teju Cole’s 2019 New York Times essay on the late photographer Roy DeCarava, in which Cole argued the power of DeCarava’s image was in “the loveliness of its dark areas.”

  3. Moten, Fred, All That Beauty (Seattle, WA: Letter Machine Editions, 2019), 20.