The Harmful Consequences of Postblack

Time flies. It has now been well over a decade since the Studio Museum opened its Freestyle exhibition, in 2001, ushering the term postblack. The term encompasses art that seeks to undermine the role of race within black art and yet also explore the black experience - an idea as intriguing as it is confusing.

In some respects, it feels like postblack has been around for a lot longer. It's now pretty much the only game in town for a new generation of black artists in the United States who wish to achieve any sort of visibility within a gallery system still not particularly minded to treat black artists as individual practitioners - each distinct in his or her own right. There is now a postblack authoritarianism that dictates what sort of black artists, and which practitioners in particular, get exposure. If an artist's work can be deemed postblack, this affords them greater chances of passage into the firmament of an art establishment torn between gestures of liberalism and pathologies of prejudice (not that those two patterns of behaviour are mutually exclusive, of course).

It might well be easier to dismiss - or indeed, embrace - postblack were it not for its fiendish entanglement with postrace (the theory that the United States has transcended racial inequity). Postblack might ultimately mean a thousand different things to a thousand different artists, curators, gallerists, and critics; postrace might similarly mean a thousand different things to people in different strands of public life. But these enigmatic terms, notwithstanding their structural deficiencies, now dominate in ways that speak loudly about this country's continued discomfort around matters of race.

There are a large number of white people in the art world who view certain types of work by black artists as being too strident, too accusatory, too finger-pointing. Postblack art is considered more playful, less hung about race, and viewed as a blessed relief by some gallerists. Time and again, we have seen the ways in which certain black artists win approval for not making an issue out of race, or the lightness of touch they apply to the perceived racial dimensions of their practice. Such sentiments of approval are coded references to good black artists and serve as lessons, or warnings, for those not yet regarded as good black artists, or, even worse, those regarded as bad black artists.

It was perhaps fitting that postblack should emerge out of a Studio Museum exhibition. The gallery is defined as a "black space." As the Studio Museum has demonstrated from its earliest exhibitions, this "black space" dynamic has given it distinct latitude in its approach to exhibition curating. From its championing of the work of non-figurative painters and sculptors, to its appraisals of art coming out of the era of the black arts movement, to its posing of the postblack proposition, the museum has done singular work in its mission of showcasing the work of African-American (and to a lesser extent) African Diaspora artists.

Problems tend to arise when other galleries start bandying around their own versions of postblack without treating the mass of black artists with respect. It is in this context that postblack assumes decidedly problematic and sorrowful consequences.

The full version of the above text was published in the International Review of African American Art, Vol. 24, No 3A, 2013