By Stacy Lynn Waddell
I remember when the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University arrived. Like most other institutions of its kind, it was announced by the usual pomp and circumstance. I’ve never cared much about that kind of thing. I tend to wait for what will wind up on the walls and in the permanent collection. But mostly, I watch for who will lead the contemporary charge.
When I read that Trevor Schoonmaker–a fellow Tar heel–was the contemporary curator on board, my heart rate quickened by a few beats. Although I didn’t know him from Adam-as we say in these parts-I knew about the Black President: The Art and Legacy of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti extravaganza-his landmark achievement from 2003 (among other efforts) that people still refer to with excitement.
Trevor is an artist’s curator and the guy that you want to beat the pavement with when looking at art is on the agenda. He’s razor sharp, loves art-especially artists and is indelibly funny-something that I just realized about him although I noticed this attribute a few years ago in New York.
There, I had the pleasure of hanging with Trevor (and Teka Selman) who was gracious enough-to introduce me around (my head is still spinning) and invite me to lunch with Dr. Ken. That’s how I was introduced to Dr. Kenneth Montague, the affable dental surgeon from Toronto and founder/creator of Wedge Curatorial Projects who has amassed one of the most important collections of photography that I’ve ever seen.
At the time, I didn’t know that Dr. Ken was a collector of that ilk. All is knew was that he was Canadian, a dandy-if you will-and a really cool guy. The four of us chatted about everything from sports to music to fashion, food and of course, art. By the time, we were well into the meal, I was so engaged that I didn’t even notice that I was eating sea urchin for the very first time.
I didn’t see Dr. Ken again until the Barkley Hendricks retrospective The Birth of the Cool, set sail around the country from the Nasher in 2008. He loaned work to the exhibition and made the trip out for the opening event. This time, I paid a little more attention to Dr.Ken and I haven’t stopped looking since.
The Nasher has unleashed so much contemporary swag onto all of us that I sometimes can barely catch my breath before I am hyperventilating over the next beat, but Becoming: Photographs from the Wedge Collection, Schoonmaker’s latest, quite honestly hits below the belt. This is the mother load…….OMG!
Critical. Passionate. Historical. Beautiful. Words that encapsulate a collection of images that balances the complexity of lived experience and one man’s genuine and focused quest to piece together an understanding of self through the beauty and challenge of visual culture.
The arc of the collection is steep. It winds in and around the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries as it unfolds vignettes of American, British, Canadian and African Diasporic culture and history. From vernacular photographs by unknown photographers (these are some of my favorite of the exhibition) to iconic images from James VanDerZee to images by some of the young turks of contemporary art, this collection reminds us of the one-two punch that images can produce.
Entering the exhibition, you are confronted by a portrait of Dr. Kenneth Montague taken by none other than Malick Sidibé. Canada-with a dash of Detroit-by way of the African Diaspora plants down H-A-R-D right here. This image appropriately announces an exhibition that highlights the issues of power in the construction of identity. Yep-in 2011, this battle continues to wage on. Fortunately, these images strike us again and again with just enough force to remind us not to forget what it means for some to dare to exist.
I am particularly excited to see that in the presence of historical images, the contemporary works come in second place. Don’t get me wrong-these are good images produced by the likes of William Cordova, Dawit Petros, Rashid Johnson, Mickalene Thomas and others. But, I’m a girl who loves to look back a ways, so going to the source will always win out.
Of all the stunners that Trevor has unveiled in his brief six years, this is my favorite. It touches so many nerves that I get that feeling when you gobble up something delicious and cold way-too-fast. Although my head is aching from all that Becoming elicits, I’m ready and waiting for more. Hit me again, Trevor!
Stacy Lynn Waddell is a local artist.
IMAGE: Photo of Dr. Kenneth Montague and Trevor Schoonmaker, courtesy of Stacy Lynn Waddell.