What is The Black Index?
The Black Index exhibition presents visual strategies that contest the overwhelming number of photographs of Black people as victims of violent crimes that are circulated with such regularity that they no longer refer to the persons they depict. Instead, the photos mark Black death as a normal, monotonous, unremarkable non-event. Supported by a Humanities for All Program grant, The Black Index artists ––Dennis Delgado, Alicia Henry, Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle, Titus Kaphar, Whitfield Lovell, and Lava Thomas –– create new synapses, perceptive inroads into conceiving Black death as loss to be mourned and remembered. Their art argues for the recognition of lives that existed in the full complexity of form and spirit. The Black Index will debut at UC Irvine in January 2021, before traveling to the Palo Alto Art Center, Black Studies Galleries at the UT, Austin, and Hunter College in New York. A robust series of related public programs during the California installations consists of artist talks, a summer camp and workshops for East Palo Alto youth, and lifelong learning programming for adults.
To learn more about the Black Index Project, we interviewed Project Director Bridget R. Cooks, an Associate Professor in UC Irvine’s Department of African American Studies and Department of Art History. Cooks’ research focuses on African American art and culture, Black visual culture, museum criticism, film, feminist theory, and post-colonial theory.
Please tell us a little about how this project came about – what inspired you to initiate it, and what has contributed to shaping it?
In 2018 I gave a talk at Hunter College about three artists called “The Black Index.” In it, I discussed the work of Whitfield Lovell, Titus Kaphar, and Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle. After the presentation, Sarah Watson, Chief Curator at the Hunter Art Galleries, approached me about making the essay an exhibition. I was delighted and added three more artists to the roster: Dennis Delgado, Lava Thomas, and Alicia Henry. Sarah and I have been working on The Black Index exhibition project for the past two years.
What is the meaning of the title — The Black Index?
The Black Index is an alternative visual index to images that define Black people solely in terms of violence. Every day we find images of Black people on social media who have been arrested, attacked, murdered. These images and the events they depict have become so frequent in America that they are normalized. The Black Index artists are showing other kinds of representations of Blackness that show mourning and loss along with Black value and joy.
What do you want visitors to take away from the exhibit and public programs? What changes do you hope this project will produce in your audience(s)?
I would like visitors to experience a community of images created out of love for Black people. The works in the exhibition were made by people who care about the survival of Black people. They have created a sense of wonder and possibilities about Black life. Their creative perspectives are not represented widely enough in popular American culture. Their work is an antidote to the culture of anti-Blackness that is rampant today.
Why do the humanities matter, particularly in the current moment we are in?
Good communication between people of different experiences lacks in 2021. As we work toward structural change to make the nation a safe place for Black people, the humanities are a place where people can share their stories and hopes for the future. The artists are creating ways for Black viewers to find validation of their self-worth and for other viewers to understand the paradox of being Black in America today: to be alive but have little social value.
About the Project Director: Bridget R. Cooks holds a Ph.D. from the Visual and Cultural Studies Program at the University of Rochester and has received several awards, grants, and fellowships for her work, including the prestigious James A. Porter & David C. Driskell Book Award in African American Art History for her book Exhibiting Blackness: African Americans and the American Art Museum (University of Massachusetts: 2011) and the Henry Luce Dissertation Fellowship in American Art. Some of her other publications can be found in Afterall, Afterimage, American Studies, Aperture, and American Quarterly. Her next book is titled Norman Rockwell: The Civil Rights Paintings. Cooks has also curated several exhibitions, including The Art of Richard Mayhew at the Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco (2009-2010); Grafton Tyler Brown: Exploring California (2018) at the Pasadena Museum of California Art; and Ernie Barnes: A Retrospective (2019) at the California African American Museum (CAAM). Prior to her appointment at UCI, she taught in the Department of Art and Art History and the Program of Ethnic Studies at Santa Clara University. She also served as a museum educator for the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.