Black Genius: Roy DeCarava at Anders Wahlstedt

by Terence Trouillot

Roy DeCarava: New York 19 at Anders Wahlstedt Fine Art

March 31 to May 14, 2016
40 E 63rd St #2 (between Park and Madison avenues)
New York, NY 917-868-9010


A lot has been said on the idea of “black genius” of late. In February, at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, Dr. Jordana Saggese, Kim Drew, Dr. David Clinton Wills and Juliana Huxtable were part a symposium titled “Basquiat and Contemporary Queer Art,” focusing on Jean-Michel Basquiat as a symbol of black genius. In March, critic Jason Parham, in a review of Kanye West’s Life of Pablo (2016) and Kendrick Lamar’s untitled unmastered (2016) for Fader, called “On the Occasion of Black Genius,” wrote at length about the concept.


So what is this concept of black genius? The term, I believe, was first brought to public attention with the book Black Genius: African American Solutions to African American Problems (2000) — featuring texts by Melvin Van Peebles, Spike Lee, bell hooks, and others. The book’s editor, Walter Mosley, describes “genius” in his introduction, as a “quality that crystallizes the hopes and talents and character of a people.” Therefore black genius is perhaps best described as the greatness of an individual that rewards the larger community of black people, contrasted against the American Dream — a system rooted in the presumed authority of middle-class, white, cisgender men. As a result, the term not only expresses black pride and excellence, but black power and solidarity.


If one were to look retrospectively, there is no doubt that one of the most influential artists to exemplify black genius would be Harlem-born photographer Roy DeCarava. A new exhibition of his work, titled “New York 19,” at Anders Wahlstedt Fine Art, is emblematic of this, featuring a series of nine silver gelatin photographs. The photographs were shown in a TV movie called Belafonte: New York 19, a musical special celebrating Postal Code 19, “the city’s midtown melting pot of diversity, culture and the arts,” broadcast on CBS in 1960. (All the photographs on view were made that same year, with the exception of Child Playing at Curb, Eighth Avenue, 1952.)


DeCarava, better known for his photographs of famous jazz musicians, spent most of his career documenting everyday life in Harlem. A graduate of Cooper Union, he disavowed painting as a white man’s medium and picked up the camera, being one of the first artists to spearhead photography as a legitimate art form and thereby making it his own. He was the first African-American photographer to receive a Guggenheim fellowship in 1952. DeCarava’s photographs have an overwhelming sense of beauty and depth. The impact is immediately visceral. When looking at his pictures I am struck at how washed out and flat they are­ (this is not a bad thing)—nothing is too garish or high-contrast, yet the range in tonality from gray to black is immeasurable.


The overarching theme of “New York 19” is loneliness. Four photographs bear the title Lonely Woman, each one capturing a female figure in isolation: a young black girl in a white dress sitting on a trash can and leaning her head over a metal gate, one arm bent over her back. In another, a black woman with sunglasses and a fur coat sits alone on the bus. A woman, her back facing us, dressed all in black with a black scarf around her head, walks wearily down the sidewalk, and a black woman dressed all in black, carrying her baby covered in white sheets down a desolate block full of scattered bricks and dust. The last one in particular is reminiscent of DeCarava’s well-known photograph Graduation (1952), which depicts a young black woman in a white gown, similarly walking alone through a dark, desolate block full of trash and rubble.


This feeling of loneliness is expressed not just in isolation, but also in contemplation — a loneliness that is more internal and shared. This is indicative of how DeCarava chooses to show his female subjects either in complete isolation or, in some cases, large groups. It is not hard to imagine that these women may be mourning the loss of a son or brother, or they are struggling to make ends meet as a single mother, tired of long days work. The feeling may also just be that of fatigue or existential angst, but all are situated within a black experience. And this is not to say that DeCarava’s photographs do not transcend race and class, but they do demand a certain attention to the specificity of the black figure. It is through this figure that DeCarava is able to provide an image that dutifully expresses the duality between oppression and resilience. The photographs’ dreamlike compositions and dramatic lighting, suggest a certain mood that not only showcases the vulnerability of these black figures, but also, the quiet and perhaps unnoticed perseverance and strength of black femininity.


In International, a young woman sits on the wing wall of a stoop in three-quarter pose. One can barely see the profile of her face, highlighted at the top of her cheekbone and brow. The back of her head, her short black curled hair, is the focus, at the center of the composition. She rests her left hand on her hip, while casually holding the end of a jump rope in her right hand, as a girl and boy prepare to jump into its swing — the person holding the other end of the rope is outside the frame, unseen. Two young men stand at the top near the doorway. One girl standing in the background, on the top step, stares blankly at the camera. Despite all this activity, the woman who is the image’s focus appears tired, ruminative, and alone among the people and presumed excitement.


The loneliness that DeCarava depicts in his photographs is one of sadness, but also of Otherness — an Otherness that transcends both gender and sex. The photographs are timeless and describe a universal loneliness that all black people can share in. James Baldwin, in his 1985 essay “Here be Dragons,” writes:


I hazard that the physically androgynous state must create an all-but-intolerable loneliness, since we all exist, after all, and crucially, in the eye of the beholder. We all react to and, to whatever extent, become what that eye sees. This judgment begins in the eyes of one’s parents (the crucial, the definitive, the all-but-everlasting judgment), and so we move, in the vast and claustrophobic gallery of Others, on up or down the line, to the eye of one’s enemy or one’s friend or one’s lover.


While Baldwin’s essay is centered on the idea of androgyny, the slippage of gender holds great importance in DeCarava’s work with regards to the this notion of “eye of the beholder.” As opposed to showing a reality of a loneliness felt by his subjects, he rather creates environments to express the feeling of what he sees. However, in the examples described above, each figure, in some manner, has their face concealed (even covered by scarves and sunglasses). Their faces on drawn back from the male gaze of DeCarava himself. This interplay is of great significance, for his interpretation of these figures is determined by what he can and cannot see, insofar as the figures themselves, and the viewer are drawn into the same set of circumstances. This tension reveals nothing but the pure emotions that are being “seen”: sadness, loneliness, resilience, and self-reflection.


Black genius is therefore, in terms of artistic pursuits, an ability to vacillate between the real and concrete to the unreal and abstract. In this sense, the peripatetic artist carefully uses profound imagery to move from ideas grounded in hope and truth to empower the black community. From this vantage, DeCarava is able to transform reality to describe a thought or a feeling that makes sense of the black experience. “Because it’s black and white, it’s removed from reality,” he told Terry Gross in a 1996 interview. It is DeCarava’s eye and mastery of light that uncovers his black genius — that makes his work enigmatic and timeless. In his ability to capture the beauty and darkness of everyday life, through harsh lighting and wonderful compositions, he provides truth — a transcendent truth of emotion and sheer feeling predicated on the black experience.