Now Dig This!: Art and Black Los Angeles 1960–1980

“Now Dig This!” at MoMA PS1 is the works of prominent Black American artists in Los Angeles from the 60’s-80’s and shows how they felt about their past, present and the future to come.  Can you dig it?


Out of Money but Right on Time

I raced to see this exhibit, with only a few hours before i had to catch a plane to London.  It wasn’t until I stood before the admissions desk that I realized I had not brought a single penny to pay the ‘suggested donation’.  After dramatically explaining my stupidity to the agent I was allowed entrance.  .  I share this because I firmly believe there is more to an art viewing than just the art itself.  Like life, art is multifaceted and the voyage to and from can be rife with more meaning than just the ‘main event’.  With this near miss behind me I was ever more excited with the prospect of laying bare this collage of inspired black artwork


Made with Cotton, Sweat and Blood

The moment I stepped inside the gallery the words “Dark” “Deep” “Rich” and “Haunting” came to mind.  There is art and then there is ART.  The latter has a story, a mission, a message and a voice which makes it jump straight into the heart and soul of the viewer.  This exhibit showcased great American artists based in Los Angeles and melded their feelings about race, their mired history and the questionable future of an entire culture.  There was nothing ordinary or bland about the first piece “Cotton Hangup” by Melvin Edwards.  In fact it seemed the perfect work to get visitors ready for what was to come.  The journey from the entrance to the exit seemed symbolic in itself.  You come through a small entryway and are abruptly attacked with the sight of a crude black metallic beast…or perhaps it is a human, the features are so distorted with pain and restrained by a rectangle of metal rods, one cannot tell what this figure is exactly.  What is obvious is that it is something locked in, tortured and lost.  .It is amazing that such a soft natural fiber could make life so tough for so many thousands of people.  I could not bear to look at this hanging corpse for long, it reminded me of the way cotton picking weakened the body and crippled it; while the labor itself tore at the very soul.


Too Cold, Too Hot…Just Right!

Moving on I found the movement between rooms was fluid.  In each room there were a handful of striking works that caught the eye and entranced the spirit.  Some were subtle, like William Pajaud’s “Sea Rhythms” which was symphony of blues, grays and whites creating a stormy sea.  But if you passed too quickly and assumed too much, you would overlook the small puddles of red spattered within.  They were blood pools and reminded the astute viewer of the horrible slaughter and degradation of the Atlantic slave crossing.


Then there are more conspicuous pieces that grab your eyes making the rest of the room seem to blur away.  “Birmingham Totem” is a prime example, with its simple coloring yet brass depiction of a young naked boy shrouded above a pile of splintered wood.  He is protected from above by this blanket and yet his earthly coil is at the mercy of the physical after effects of the bombing massacre.  The artist, Charles White was inspired by true events the background story makes the art come alive all the more. 


And to balance things out, there are pieces that seem simple and yet hold lifetimes of meaning.  Alonzo Davis’s “Pan Africanism III” shows nothing more than what looks like cardboard box, painted in bold green, red and silver.  There are three simple black arrows pointing from the gold coast where most slaves left, and pointing upwards.  The material reminds me of a homeless shelter made of boxes and I can’t help but link this piece to the homelessness of “Black” Americans.  Being kidnapped from their homes and brought to a strange land to do the bidding of a cruel regime; was anything but easy.  But the return home, after being battered, bruised and physiologically disabled…that was even more farfetched.


Mirror, Mirror on the wall…

I can’t help but think there was at least one tear shed by some passionate art lover while making the pilgrimage through this outstanding exhibition.  I myself found a trickle of overwhelming self-awareness near the end, as I gazed on the mystical intricacies of Betye Saar’s “Black Girls Window”.  It was literally a delineation how a black girl sees the world and of course, how the world see her in turn.  It showcased love, intellect, astrology, history and her perpetual struggle to be accepted.  The lone picture of her white Irish grandmother hit home with me.  I too have Irish ancestry and like many other “black” Americans come from a richly mixed background and yet the world sees us only as “black”, only as the “other” never really fitting in to the grooves of an America we built nor an Africa we never knew.  Run to see this!  But just make sure you bring cash and are prepared to be haunted by at least one of these great works.  In my mind I can still see the black Girls Window and wonder, is it truly a window or more like a mirror into my soul…  


Article written by HaaJar “Hajee” Johnson