“No white walls.” It’s one of the first things Ja’nell Ajani calls out when asked about the installation choices for her first Texas show, ‘Jamel Shabazz: Peace to the Queen,’ currently on view at the George Washington Carver Museum in ‘Austin. The art exhibit — a poignant selection of photographs from Shabazz’s extensive catalog, featuring entirely black women — runs throughout the summer.
The walls are an initially subtle but significant visual indicator of one of the exhibition’s major themes, as envisioned by senior curator Ajani (a New York City transplant and doctoral candidate in American Studies at the University of Texas) and museum director Carre Adams: This is not your traditional art exhibit. They serve as the perfect backdrop – both literal and figurative – for what Ajani hopes will provide new context for the work of one of the most prolific, vital and underappreciated chroniclers of American life in the last half. -century.
This last point is underscored by the fact that after more than 40 years of crystallizing the spirit of his community through portraiture, “Peace to the Queen” is Shabazz’s first comprehensive retrospective.
Perception is always in play, particularly in Shabazz’s critical positioning in relation to the world of fine art. By the time editors of hip-hop magazines like Vibe, The Source, and Trace—in search of that elusive but highly marketable mix of authenticity and culture zeitgeist—began to notice in the late ’90s, Shabazz had already filmed in New York for the better part of two decades.
Shabazz returned to his native Brooklyn after touring the military in 1980. His photography began as a mission to mobilize and uplift those most vulnerable to state oppression and economic exploitation. It blossomed into an artistic practice brimming with a singular visual language. When powerHouse published Shabazz’s first book, “Back in the Days” in 2001, it became an instant classic among a burgeoning set of trendsetters and street aesthetic fashionistas, closely followed by “The Last Sunday” in June 2003 and “A Time Before Crack”. in 2005.
The commercial zeitgeist of a rapidly gentrifying New York in the early 2000s found rich inspiration in Shabazz’s deceptively measured annals of 1980s youth culture – from Brooklyn to Harlem in passing through the Bronx – and early hip-hop dress codes. The subsequent digital explosion of the style blog was no coincidence. And, while his work was well received in museums as far away as Addis Ababa and as close as the Studio Museum in Harlem, there was still a degree of institutional appreciation that eluded him, excluding him from the ranks. of key influences like James Van Der Zee, Leonard Freed and Gordon Parks.
It was at the Studio Museum of Harlem, where Ajani previously worked as program coordinator, that she and Shabazz were introduced by photographer and curator Dr. Deborah Willis. (Willis, a professor at Ajani’s alma mater university in New York, is also the mother of artist Hank Willis Thomas.) What followed was the eight-year genesis of “Peace to the Queen.” When Ajani was accepted into her program at UT, they decided the stage was set.
New to Austin, she planned to exhibit the show in one of the many art and photography spaces on the UT campus.
“When none of those options worked, I went to the Carver Museum,” says Ajani, “and Carré immediately understood the importance of Jamel’s work.”
He also understood Ajani’s intimate connection to the show’s conceptual center. “Peace to the Queen,” a greeting Shabazz has adopted over the years to address women in his circles, including the subjects of his work, underscores the show as a multi-dimensional love poem to black, brown women. and Indigenous Peoples of Color as pillars of culture and political resistance.
The exhibit is also a specific tribute to Ajani’s sister, whom she lost to violence a few years ago. Visitors to the exhibit can find her sister’s name, Karen, marked beneath a neon quote from journalist Tai Beauchamp that Ajani used as a dedication in her master’s thesis. It is rare in the art world for a curator to be so personally connected to the subject of an exhibition.
It is also rare for a performance by a guest artist to pay tribute to local practitioners and cultivators in the host city. At the entrance to the show: six commissioned wooden busts of local women who helped lay the foundations of the artistic community surrounding the Carver and the greater Austin area.
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The subversion of installation and exhibition conventions extends to every corner of the exhibition’s three-room space.
Back to the glaring absence of museum white. Replacing the sterility of traditional surfaces are towering, life-size plastered portraits; a description of the show painted on the wall and surrounded by hundreds of gold-plated knocker earrings; a purple wall covered in purple silk roses (both a nod to Ajani’s sister’s last name and the regal connotations of purple); another wall covered with fake vegetation; and a wall full of mirrors bearing a gold-framed portrait of Naomi Campbell holding court on a studio couch.
Throughout the three corridors, Shabazz’s ability to gain the trust of subjects, as well as his collaborative approach to portraiture, shines through. Critics have often subtly dismissed his posed subject work — much like other work by black artists historically relegated to folk status — as more familiar and less conceptually charged than his candid photos.
But Shabazz continues to reiterate the importance of the subject’s consent and participation in the image-making process. As he began to refine his approach to subjects on the streets of New York, Shabazz’s practiced inquiry became: “Can I document your heritage?”
The impeccable self-styling and fashion instinct of the women in his photos are key to this, inseparable from the show’s many themes. A wall of male-female couples conveys the notions of protection and care. A section of sex workers recalls the underground economy into which many of Shabazz’s friends and peers were embedded. A particularly striking black-and-white close-up of a young woman’s lower back – her hands in handcuffs, her fingers elegantly twisted into a gang-like shape, her jeans heavily adorned with markers – recalls the telltale and influential post-military days by Shabazz. as a correctional officer. Then there is the wall of children – young girls playing, in fierce resistance to society’s precocious and aggressive adultification of black and brown women.
The show’s power lies in its reluctance to narrow its scope, displaying the full gamut of what women can and demand to be. Just as Shabazz found a curatorial soul in Ajani, Ajani found an artistic home with the Carver Museum. She hopes Adams and his staff will be able to secure more of the funding and public support needed to continue the transformational work of the past few years – work of immense quality that belies the resources of the organization.
Next up for Ajani and Adams is a catalog of shows slated for release later this summer. Meanwhile, Shabazz has another retrospective (his second) at the Bronx Museum for their 50th year. Austinites have until mid-August to catch “Jamel Shabazz: Peace to the Queen,” and every moment is worth it.
If you are going to
“Jamel Shabazz: Peace to the Queen”
Where: George Washington Carver Museum, 1165 Angelina St.
When: Until August 15
Hours: 10am-6pm Monday-Wednesday, 10am-9pm Thursday, 10am-6pm Friday, 10am-4pm Saturday, closed Sunday