AMAZING RACE

The 1930s white industry offered more work to black performers, resulting primarily from the advent of sound. That sparked an interest in the talented black jazz musicians, singers and dancers who emerged from the well-known Cotton Club in Harlem. Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Hazel Scott and Lena Horne became household names during that time, performing in the same films as the era's white motion-picture stars, but always in race-segregated ensembles.

The race films of the '30s and '40s followed Hollywood's lead, offering black-cast versions of Hollywood genres: Westerns and gangster and detective movies. "Unfortunately," explains Roman, "the black-cowboy movies, for example, began to reflect a kind of internalization on the part of black filmmakers of the racist ideas in the white film world. When you see the black-cowboy movies, you see the good guy has a white cowboy hat, has lighter skin and rides a white horse--the bad guy has a black hat, dark skin and a black suit. It was the same with the detective stories."

By the end of the 1940s, the white Hollywood film industry had become too vast an animal to compete with, and the race-film era, which for half a century had given black actors and filmmakers the opportunity to express their lives and culture in a positive way, flickered to a close.

"The Presence of Absence" pays homage to these films. Montford and Roman close the show with a powerful image: a towering, German-edition poster advertising The Jazz Singer, featuring the blackfaced Al Jolson. The artists added their own commentary by filling Jolson's palms with a swastika symbol and the letters "KKK," as well as a snipe in the corner announcing, "Still Playing."

One of the most popular aspects of "The Presence of Absence" is the huge graffiti board, complete with chalk, that stands at the entrance and that Roman terms a way to "ease into the show." I loved watching people, old and young alike, become incensed when the chalk ran out, which happened on two out of the three visits I made to the show. Returning to the board from the front desk, chalk in hand, folks would scribble furiously and proceed into the show, seemingly satisfied. There is a tagger in all of us.

Though "The Presence of Absence" is on a microlevel about a lost chapter in film history, and on a macrolevel about racism, this installation is ultimately concerned with the intense need for humanity to rise above racial stereotypes. Racism is about ignorance of minds and spirits, and isn't cured by "heartwarming" and historically inaccurate pabulum like Steven Spielberg's version of Alice Walker's The Color Purple. It is transcended through intellectual and emotional engagement. Here, the artists have created an environment wherein the viewer is invited to think and feel and, possibly, understand something new.

This exhibition has produced one of the most fascinating and long-winded comment books I've seen in a while. Many positive comments could be described only as cathartic. The negative commentary is sadly engrossing, and proves without a doubt that Montford and Roman found their audience. "The Presence of Absence" is part of the "Lost in the Myth of America: Black Art and Culture" exhibit. "Nancy O'Connor: I Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray," Texas artist O'Connor's tribute to black cowboys, and "The Studio Museum in Harlem: Twenty-Five Years of African American Art" are also part of the exhibition.

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