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Blacking Out Art History

by Kelly Lloyd

blog intro

As we prepared for the Kerry James Marshall exhibition, we asked artists and art historians to alter a copy of Gardner’s Art Through the Ages according to what they thought was missing or left out of art history. One of the participants was Kelly Lloyd, who was named one of NEWCITY’S "Breakout Artists of 2015.” Here she describes her impetus and process of responding to the prompt.

on her project

My immediate reaction was to rewrite the book. After I realized that was impossible, I knew I would need to do a formal intervention. When I proposed the blackout, I was watching a television show that involved a lot of redaction. As I looked through the book, however, I realized that there were just so many pages that didn’t mention or depict Black people whatsoever that blacking out text was not enough, so I decided to start gluing together pages, and then entire chapters, to physicalize that lack.

My method for the project was to survey every page, and I had to be heavy handed in my review. All the problematic gestures I was making through the heavy-handed nature of my redactions became a physical manifestation of the problematic gestures of sorting through history and deciding what to include and what not to include.

Detail of altered Gardner’s Art Through the Ages book, 2016

Detail of altered Gardner’s Art Through the Ages book, 2016

on the black experience

While I was gluing the pages together I was watching a documentary about Misty Copeland, the first African American female principle dancer with the prestigious American Ballet Theatre, and the documentary tells the story of how several African American ballet dancers took Copeland under their wing so that she could psychologically cope with being a part of, in the words of cultural historian Brenda Dixon Gottschild, “one of the last bastions of white supremacy.” Ballet, the symphony, and the fine arts remain racist fields because they allow us to stick to a very formal structure, and when people question this there is always some kind of back-up criteria. We say, “well that's history, that's just the way it is,” to excuse the tremendous amounts of racism, sexism, and classism in these fields.

So, I'm watching this documentary and then going through this book with some hope that there will be more mention of people of African descent, but there's nothing. I'm turning page after page and seeing statements like “examples abound in Italy, Africa, and elsewhere,” and I keep thinking, “This is the way that I'm included in history, a vague, cover your ass reference” when there are so many chapters about Italy—like a fourth of the book is about Italy!

Detail of altered Gardner’s Art Through the Ages book, 2016

on inaccuracies in the text

But it's not just Africa that gets excluded. I lived in Madurai, India, for two years, so this example from India stood out to me: (reading from page 705 in the 13th edition of Gardner’s Art Through the Ages) “The tallest gopuras of the Great Temple at Madurai, dedicated to Shiva (under his local name, Sundareshvara, the Handsome one) and his consort Minakshi (the Fish-Eyed One), stand about 150 feet tall.”

Instagram post


on the inaccuracies, continued

Starting from the beginning:

“The tallest gopuras . . . ”

Gopura in Tamil is the singular of tower and gopurams is plural—so it's a misspelling.

“. . . of the Great Temple at Madurai . . . ”

No one calls it the Great Temple at Madurai, it’s called the Sri Meenakshi Temple or the Meenakshi Amman Temple.

“. . . dedicated to Shiva . . . and his consort Minakshi . . .”

It’s not dedicated to Shiva, it’s dedicated to his consort, Meenakshi, whose name they have misspelled. At the Sri Meenakshi Temple, Shiva (Parvati’s consort) is not very present because he is not the principal diety. There are some representations of him in bulls and lingas and his name is written in some places, but most of it is Sri Meenakshi.

Everything about this mention is wrong, right down to gopurams. If you’re going to use the Tamil word for tower then use the correct plural. If you’re going to name the Goddess, use the correct spelling. If you’re going to use the name of the temple, use the correct name. If you’re going to say whom it’s dedicated to, then know who because one reason the Sri Meenakshi Temple is incredibly important is because it is the largest temple in India dedicated to a woman. It really shows the writer’s priorities; it’s being mentioned cursorily. There’s no real knowledge of it.

on what was learned

It was just bad. And it’s funny how, at the start of this project, I knew the end result would be bad, but to actually look with hope for Africans or African Americans in an art textbook and just glue together page after page after page when I found no mention of them was disheartening. On the other hand, it made the blackout book an easier task than I thought.