John Edmonds: A Sidelong Glance @Brooklyn Museum

JTF (just the facts): A total of 24 black-and-white and color photographs, variously framed and hung against white walls in a divided gallery space on the fourth floor of the museum.

The exhibit includes:

  • 17 archival pigment prints, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020
  • 7 gelatin silver prints, 2019
  • 1 broadsheet, 2019, including excerpts from Susan Vogel, Baule: African Art, Western Eyes, 1997, and Alain Michel Boyer, Baule: Visions of Africa, 2008
  • 1 wood, cotton, canvas sculpture, Hemba artist, early 20th century

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: The free stuff given away in the context of museum exhibitions hardly ever merits mentioning. If there is anything at all on offer, it’s usually a poster, flyer, or card reproducing one of the works on view, likely stacked in a pile on a pedestal in the corner of gallery, and typically of an ungainly size that the visitor doesn’t know quite to do with now that they’ve rolled it up and taken it but still have a dozen more galleries to walk through.

But the free broadsheet available at John Edmonds’s show at the Brooklyn Museum is something different. Yes, it’s folded and sitting on a pedestal, and yes, it reproduces one of the photographs in the show, but inside, it includes more than 500 individual text snippets drawn from scholarly catalogs and histories of Baule art, selected and sequenced by Edmonds. If you can bear the strangeness of the public deviance, I encourage you to stand in the gallery, open it, and actually read as much of it as you can digest before turning to the photographs. Its statements provide a rich tapestry of background material on Baule art and culture, from how and why masks, sculptures, and other traditional objects were made, to how they were presented (or kept private), who they were for, what myths and beliefs they represent, how they were used in rituals, ceremonies, and performances, and countless other details about their purpose and use. For those not already deeply versed in African art, this one broadsheet will teach you much more about the complexity and nuance of Baule sculpture than you have ever known.

That Edmonds would compile such a dense compendium of information tells us something about the intellectual journey he has been on in the past several years. Like many African-Americans, he has wrestled with his relationship to African artifacts, trying to come to grips with their meaning, their history of colonization and appropriation, and how as an artist, he can re-establish his own connection to objects that have been taken out of their original context. His investigations started with masks and sculptures collected by friends, then led to purchases of objects for his own collection, and in this show, have bridged to include working with the holdings of a major museum. And at each stage, he has made photographs that grapple with the complicated legacy these sculptures carry.

As the first museum solo of a relatively young photographer, this show inevitably reprises some of the artist’s recent work, drawing a selection of images from his 2018 photobook Higher (reviewed here) and his 2019 gallery show at Company Gallery (reviewed here) as background. The edit here sharpens that buildup, and adds new works that amplify the mask-based themes Edmonds has been exploring of late. As a single artistic introduction, it feels tight and well-crafted, delivering its ideas with clarity and punch.

Physical interaction with masks and sculptures is where Edmonds began. In one image, groups of hands touch and hold a mother and child figure, the different shades of skin grasping, protecting, pulling, or cherishing, depending on how we read the movements. In another, a bare chested man wears a long-nosed mask like a bird’s beak, the double exposure multiplying his head into multiple facets of potential personality or spirit. And in a third, Edmonds riffs on Man Ray’s surreal “Noire et Blanche”, replacing the white woman’s face with that of a young black woman, her direct gaze engaging us in the active process of reclamation. In each case, Edmonds stages black bodies in dialogue with the objects, each one testing how connections can be re-established with the original artworks.

In his larger black and white photographs, Edmonds arranges an alternate set of visual conversations between people and objects. Groups of masks and sculptures (or in a few cases, a single resonant item) are placed on tables, with Black individuals seated nearby, often leaning to one side or the other. A shirtless bearded man looks over at the grouping, his gaze wary, intrigued, and perhaps covetous. Another man in a long leather jacket and a skullcap seems to see echoes of himself in a stylized mask. A third shirtless man wears a police hat and sits with an air of cross-armed authority, almost like a protective museum guard. And a woman kneels with her back to us, reversing the shapes of the figure to her right. In these works, Edmonds finds room for different kinds of engagements, each sitter discovering his or her own personal subtleties of authentic interaction, connection, and respect.

The small images in the show are color still lifes of various African sculptures and masks, many newly made depicting some of the works in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum. Unlike the stark black and white photographs made of masks by Walker Evans in the 1930s, Edmonds stages the objects on shimmery golden cloth, creating a reverent and celebratory atmosphere. This transforms the pictures from sterile, anthropological or ethnographic studies into warmer, more dramatic interpretations, the power, elegance, and inspiration of the sculptures coming through more strongly. Some of the depicted items were originally donated by Ralph Ellison, adding another arguably conflicted layer of selection, taste, and perceived value to the objects. But after seeing Edmonds’s still lifes and reading the information on the broadsheet, the one actual sculpture included in the show, by an early 20th century Hemba artist from what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, feels egregiously locked in its clear vitrine, an object typically only seen by ancestors and leaders now overtly and incongruously displayed in Brooklyn. It’s a smart inclusion though, as it shows us a real physical sculpture, but also reinforces the layers of diaspora complexity and power imbalance that Edmonds has been digging into.

Seen as one integrated artistic statement, Edmonds’s mask photographs have the makings of a new (or renewed) vision for Black portraiture, where African symbols are used to reimagine and further enrich contemporary personas. His compositions reaffirm identities and reinvigorate an understanding of Black cultural history, all within a 21st century American context, but they still feel resolutely personal, each new picture another searching step on his own road of self discovery. It’s a thoughtful and sophisticated body of work, deserving of its museum affirmation and well timed to a moment when a range of Black artistic perspectives are starting to receive wider attention.

Collector’s POV: John Edmonds is represented by Company Gallery in New York (here). Edmonds’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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