In 1969, revolutionary contralto Nina Simone released the iconic song, "To Be Young, Gifted, and Black," written as a tribute to the life of playwright Lorraine Hansberry, who notably wrote A Raisin in the Sun. Simone powerfully coos, “When you’re young, gifted, and black / Your soul’s intact,” and, “There are billion boys and girls, who are young gifted and black / And that’s a fact!,” as a way to encourage young black people to find strength in their identity. Nearly 50 years later, the conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas has curated a group exhibition at Goodman Gallery in South Africa—including Nina Chanel Abney, Derrick Adams,Sadie Barnette, Zoe Buckman, Bethany Collins, Omar Victor Diop, Titus Kaphar, Kiluanji Kia Henda, Yashua Klos, Gerald Machona, Toyin Odutola, Ebony Patterson, Adam Pendleton, Jody Paulson, Tabita Rezaire, Jacolby Satterwhite, and Shinique Smith—titled after Simone’s song as a way to explore an expansive post-civil rights era notion of blackness.
“I had a number of ideas I wanted the exhibition to be about,” says Thomas who has, for some time, wanted to curate an exhibition in South Africa as a way to promote transnational exchange in the visual arts. “In light of what has been going on in America with Black Lives Matter, and the general conversation about the value of black lives in our society, I felt like I needed to make a show around that,” explains Thomas. “I invited artists inspired by 'Young, Gifted and Black,' because I was inspired by the kind of determination in the song and the way in which she says, 'and that’s where it is at'—which makes me think of blackness as a site of celebration.”
In the show, a mix of multiracial young artists' works support Simone’s affirmations. Works including Toyin Ojih Odutola’s The Treatment series of black pen drawing of famous white men like President Herbert Hoover rendered black, Zoe Buckman’s feminist Every Curve series of lingerie embroidered with Biggie and Tupac lyrics, and Titus Kaphar’s George Washington’s Chef oil on canvas painting explore the historical and present impact of blackness on the shaping of identity and popular culture. “There are artists from nine different countries working in nine different mediums and they are not all what we would call black, but people who work with blackness as a locus in their work are people I wanted to highlight,” Thomas explains to the Creators Project.
To Be Young, Gifted and Black also features works that show the duality of blackness between the hopefulness of the Civil Rights Movement and the present frustrations of the Black Lives Matter movement. Bethany Collins’ Vital, 1968 is a textual work, a part of the exhibition that defines and offers an antonymous reading of the word 'vital' in an obfuscated fashion. The part of the definition that is visible reads “necessary or essential to life,” while the black text on another white paper reads “destroying life: fatally dead.” Vital, 1968 seems to suggest that there is a duality that even gifted blackness can’t escape given the reality of racism. Gerald Machona’s photograph Keep calm and untie the noose I, depicting a black man in a suit with a tie strung around his neck like a noose, continues the theme of abated freedom in the show.
For Thomas, each artist speaks to the intergenerational nature of the show and encapsulates the defiance and diversity of blackness alluded to in Simone’s song. “Blackness is so often described in a reductive way and as something so easily determined and defined,” says Thomas, whose video work Question Bridge, and photography series B®anded and Unbranded have long explored blackness. “I think of blackness as unquantifiable and ever expanding, and each of these artists have their own unique understanding and relationship to blackness and represent blackness in a variety of ways.”
To Be Young, Gifted, and Black continues through November 11, at Goodman Gallery. For more information, click here.