From Semele to Nefertiti: Juliana Huxtable’s Art News Consumer Report

Given that I am teaching two courses about ancient philosophy as a way of life it is somewhat understandable that I’m obsessed with the ‘Consumer Reports’ published on the Art News website. Each report tracks a day in the life of a contemporary artist, not necessarily focused on what they do or make, but on what they see and consume – online and in the world. Many of the reports include links to websites that you can follow, tracing the step of the artist who has been their before you. Of course I cannot do justice to the complexity of more than one of these reports at time, so to start with a passage from the report of 09/03/15 artist Juliana Huxtable.

Huxtable is writing the report while visiting Los Angeles. She spends the afternoon at MOCA, ostensibly for a performance as part of the Step and Repeat showcase, but also takes the time to comment on some of the art she encounters there (if you want to see the images and videos from the post, click the text below)

2:56 p.m.

Arrive at MOCA to check out Elaine Sturtevant exhibit and displayed works from the museum collection.

3:00 p.m.

Walk through the Sturtevant exhibit. Her writing is sharp and funny at times. Twice I laughed out loud. I note to look into her writing when I’m back in New York.

3:34 p.m.

I discover Elliot Hundley, am instantly obsessed–I have a lot of rollover data so I’m frantically looking up his other work.

3:37 p.m.

Some of Ana Mendieta’s Silueta Works in Mexico is on display–she’s one of my art idols and it’s the first time I’ve seen any of her work in person. I get a bit angry and sad thinking about her death. She operated at an intersection that I really relate to and it is sad to see her–and the rare position she carved for herself–gain momentum largely through the scandal surrounding her murder.

3:43 p.m.

I snap a photo of Betye Sarr’s Gris Gris Box.

Head out from MOCA, got a lot of feedback from the guard about my performance–most seemed to like it, I’m honored.

I was immediately drawn to Huxtable’s reference to and admiration of Elliott Hundley’s work and her video that gives a close up view (and slow zoom-out) of his piece The Lightning’s Bride which was part of his series based on Euripides’ Bacchae and depicts the death of the god Dionysus’ mother Semele when Zeus revels his true self to her as a lightning bolt (below is a detail). I blogged about his exhibition at the Wexner over 4 years ago, in Minus Plato‘s infancy, and I too remember my excitement at first seeing Hundley’s work and its radical engagement with an ancient text and myth.

But then, inspired by the last sentence of this section of the report and the mention of Huxtable’s performance, I went searching for some documentation. The only photograph I found was here.

Accompanying it was an incredible interview on the MOCA website between Huxtable and the artist Lorraine O’Grady. The conversation focuses on Huxtable’s excitement about the use of Ancient Egypt in O’Grady’s work. Here are a couple of extracts (click the text to see the original):

JH: I saw a piece of Miscegenated Family Album at the Brooklyn Museum. When I found your work, I was so excited and so happy—really fascinated by the idea that you were able to navigate the practice that you have. Initially, I was fascinated by the idea of taking a conceptual approach to Egyptology, how your work dealt with ideas of racial violence related to perceptions of Egypt, and the right of someone of the African diaspora to engage or identify with Egyptian history. On a larger level, I was excited by your floating between text and a sort of personal and documentary imagery….In terms of why you turned to images of Egypt, was that intended as a dismissal of or an alternative to prevailing models of cultural history? Perhaps even fashioning an idea of representation or history of representation that doesn’t rely on a Western history of visual culture?

LO: Well, I can still remember the day my third-grade teacher pulled down the map of Africa over the chalkboard for a geography lesson. She waved her long wooden pointer and said, “Children, this is Africa! All except this…which is Egypt and part of the Middle East.” Even then, I felt something was being taken from me. And that feeling stayed until two years after my sister died, and I went on a trip to Cairo. I found myself surrounded by people who looked like me. It was the first time in my life that had happened, you know? I always thought that [my sister] Devonia looked a bit like Nefertiti, but that was the moment I began to think about hybridity as a concept. I saw Egypt as a hybrid culture…

JH: I really like the idea of thinking of or appreciating Egypt as a hybrid culture because for a long time I had a hard time feeling like I could identify with or find pride in Egypt. It felt like it had to be about Afrocentrism, you know, totally loaded with derogatory ideas of revisionism and all of the attacks that were launched on this scholarship coming from a non-European and specifically diasporic angle. It was as if it was dangling in front of me and to go for it, to fully engage it, was something I refused myself as a masochistic gesture.

I am sure that anyone who was reading this post has decided to click on the above link and read the whole interview. Like me, you were probably drawn into this compelling conversation about ancient Egypt and its legacies. In many ways this is exactly what the Art News consumer reports want us to to do – follow the artist’s own consumption of the culture and world around them, and then follow them, via clicking on the links!

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