In Reconstructions, Black Artists and Architects Move Beyond the Limitations of the Present

In a year where a constant state of emergency has become the dominant mode of living — manifested in the COVID-19 pandemic, police murders of Black and Brown people, and the climate disaster — it’s unsurprising that many are questioning the institutions that perpetuate these crises. If, then, the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America feels timely or immediate, it is only because Black architects, designers, artists, and intellectuals have been questioning the foundations on which the United States stands as far back as the late-19th century

Walter Hood, “Section Drawing – Folding Chair,” from Black Towers/Black Power (2020), plexiglass, 58 x 24 inches (image courtesy the artist and the Museum of Modern Art, New York)

Reconstructions sheds light on established politics of space and the possibilities of distinctly Black space through eleven commissioned architectural projects that collectively  represent ten US cities, from Syracuse to Miami. In the exhibition, organized by architect and historian Mabel O. Wilson and Sean Anderson, a curator of architecture and design at MoMA, with fellow curatorial staffer Arièle Dionne-Krosnick, each work is presented as an open-ended project that takes on the hyper-local brief while stressing a component shared by all the cities: the historical and continuous marginalization of Black communities. Undoubtedly, Reconstructions testifies to how space can be reconfigured around a more capacious understanding of Blackness. 

It is also worth asking why organize an exhibition that interrogates the rotten bedrock of American spatial politics at the Museum of Modern Art?  The exhibition’s vantage point — within a museum that is the paragon of modernist art in the US and possibly the world — begs a question: how far does Reconstructions go in taking on the relationship between space and politics in light of MoMA’s authoritative role in defining the canon of modern architecture? Are the possibilities of Black space that are presented confined to the physical structure of the exhibition or do they permeate into other galleries and places within MoMA?

Installation view of Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2021 (all images © 2021 The Museum of Modern Art; photo by Robert Gerhardt)

Spread across two galleries, Reconstructions offers visitors two different models for approaching the exhibition. At the South entrance, visitors are confronted with the Black Reconstruction Collective’s massive “Manifesting Textile” (2020). The work spells out the ethos and urgency of a radical reconstruction project and intentionally obscures the plaque bearing the architect Phillip Johnson’s name.  Paradoxically, the shrouding brings Johnson’s known but institutionally unacknowledged white supremacist beliefs to light for MoMA’s visitors. By employing the modernist medium of the manifesto, the collective connects their intervention to the narrow art historical lineage upheld by MoMA’s collection, all while exposing the institution’s less palatable legacy. 

Amanda Williams, “Spatial Diagrams” (2020), ink on paper, 26 x 12 inches (image courtesy the artist, the Museum of Modern Art, New York)

The other entrance to the exhibition — from a set of elevators — features a map that marks the cities represented in the exhibition, along with historic Free Black towns across the United States. At this entrance, the visitor is located not in MoMA, but in the layered, concealed spatial politics of the United States. Beginning with a map introduces Reconstructions as a challenge to accepted cartographies of the United States, and suggests to visitors that they will be able to use the map as a reference and navigational tool as they move through the exhibition. Walking into and through the galleries, however, reveals that how the speculative projects might exist in real space remains quite unsettled. 

Amanda Williams’s project “We Are Not Down There, We Are Over Here” (2020) is made up of disparate parts — collaged emergency blankets, prints, sculpture, and video — which add up to an escape route for Black people via historically Black towns like Kinloch, Missouri. Low-hanging prints illustrate the complex mathematical formulas that power such escapes. Upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that these formulas also represent the social and political calculus Black people must often employ when entering a public space. By having visitors walk the length of the wall, where they must crouch to see the prints, and then turn the corner to view the sculptural component dubbed “spaceboatshipvesselcapsule,” Williams’s project reenacts the harried preparation that might come from attempting an escape. 

Mario Gooden, “Refusal of Space” (2020), photograph, 40 x 30 inches (image courtesy the artist; photo by Kris Graves)

To the left of William’s project is Mario Gooden’s purposively unwieldy trolley, “Refusal of Space” (2020), in which photographs and videos of the Civil Rights Movement transform from documentary to forensic evidence for the unfinished business of carving out Black space in the democratic sphere. Gooden’s work is less of a message and more of a marker of how Blackness can and must forcefully assert itself in rarified spaces, like the hallowed galleries of MoMA.

Reconstructions is dense, and rightfully so. What connects the eleven projects beyond an appeal to speculative world-building — or the arrested and unfinished history of the Reconstruction era — is that they all present their architectural visions as fully possible in real space. As an exhibition, Reconstructions asks not for full comprehension or memorization, but puts forth the question of what it would take to move beyond presumptions that these architectural interventions  are too speculative or verging on the fantastical. What would happen if Black people had or were currently given the time, space, energy, and funding to build these possible futures? 

Installation view of Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2021 (© 2021 The Museum of Modern Art; photo by Robert Gerhardt)

Another alternative future is being pushed for outside of MoMA’s galleries by the StrikeMoMA Working Group, whose rallying cry imagines a “post-MoMA” future, a tenet that calls for the disassembly of the museum, property and wealth redistribution, and Indigenous land repatriation, among other demands. In its own way, StrikeMoMA also engages with questions of spatial politics and reconstruction. In both the strike outside MoMA and the projects in the galleries, the capacity for imagining new futures is limitless, with more to be gained from dreaming than pragmatic, incremental change. Though Oakland’s San Pablo Avenue may not be transformed into a Black, liberatory, mixed-use built environment — as imagined by Walter J. Hood — any time soon, just as MoMA is unlikely to ever dismantle itself, the immediacy of both the strike and Reconstructions present these possible futures not as provisional but rather as vital concerns worth pondering. 

Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America continues through May 31 at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53 Street, Midtown, Manhattan). The exhibition was curated by Sean Anderson and Mabel O. Wilson, with Arièle Dionne-Krosnick.

What would happen if Black people had or were currently given the time, space, energy, and funding to build alternative futures?Read MoreArt, Amanda Williams, architecture, Black Reconstruction Collective, MoMA, Museum of Modern Art, New York, ReviewsHyperallergicRead More

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