Among curators, critics and journalists, there is a preoccupation with the role of the art museum in the 21st century. Museums have long maintained positions of seeming neutrality to concentrate on connoissership and scholarship. Today, these non-profit institutions are coming to terms with an unprecented sensitivity to issues of Western Colonialism, racism, sexism and the relationships between money and power.
Contemporary artists have taken on the dilemma in droves but there is one artist who has been a leader in such inquiry: Fred Wilson. His enthralling exhibition, Afro Kismet, at Maccarone takes a deep dive into history without losing the subtlety and power of the compellingly visual including chandeliers, constellations of black glass tear drops and African sculpture. As he puts it, beauty in service of meaning.
The Bronx-born artist, now 64, has been challenging the messages implicitly coded into museum exhibitions since 1992, when he did Mining the Museum. The artist rearranged the collections of the Maryland Historical Society with a focus on how life was portrayed in pre-modern paintings and sculptures.
Wilson termed himself a research artist, one who selects the objects and images of past histories to illuminate the cultural construction of the present.
Winner of a MacArthur grant, Wilson discovered a less well- known aspect of history for the 2003 Venice Biennale. Using the voice and perspective of the fictional Shakespearean character Othello, Wilson researched the Renaissance history of Venice.
As a trading nation, it became home to Africans brought there willingly or not. He used the opportunity to explore their representation, as “blackamoors,” figures used in decorative arts, and the ways they were portrayed by renowned Italian artists.
For his installation, he commissioned opaque black glass chandeliers and mirrors from Murano glass factories. These spectacular pieces, usually white and pastel, reversed common preconceptions about luxury and beauty.
Wilson was able to expand on those ideas when invited to the Istanbul Biennial in 2017, when he excavated the relationships between the Ottoman Empire and Africa. He discovered that, unlike Venice, populations of Afro Turks continued to thrive in Turkey, especially in Izmir. All of this led up to Afro Kismet, a dynamic exploration of his ideas, which is now recreated at Maccarone.
Two enormous tiled walls stand at either end of the gallery, looking familiar and foreign. The Iznik tile patterns are traditionally on light backgrounds. Wilson created one with deep aubergine and the other with black. On one, the Arabic script in blue reads Black Is Beautiful. And indeed, it is, everywhere in this show. Black chandliers of Venetian and Ottoman design hang from the ceiling of the gallery while ornate black glass mirrors hang on the walls with Orientalist 19th century paintings borrowed for the occasion.
Blackamoor figures are bent under the weight of globes, one of which is painted black by the artist, another with black tassels representing tradewinds and the various ports used for slave trade. These blackamoors are items still available as curiosities, amusements and bizarre remnants of earlier thinking.
Riffing on the role of the Afro Turks, descendents of servants and slaves of the Ottoman empire who remained part of the Turkish culture, Wilson obliquely brings forth questions of destiny, identity and the complicated commerce among nations.
With Afro Kismet, Wilson tells the story of African figures from the past and their complex roles in the evolutions of history. It is a show that rewards deeper and different ways of thinking about the role of art institutions, art history and contemporary art. It couldn’t be more timely. It continues through June 1. maccarone.net .