Isaac Julien’s installation at the Barnes Foundation highlights the museum’s African sculptures even as it questions the ethics of their acquisition.
PHILADELPHIA — Dazzled by the iconic Cézanne, Matisse and Seurat paintings, most visitors to the Barnes Foundation overlook the African sculptures. Yet to Albert C. Barnes, who founded the collection, they were central. He started acquiring African sculpture in 1922, the year he set up the foundation, because it had inspired Picasso, Modigliani and many other artists in France he supported. “When the Foundation opens, Negro art will have a place among the great art manifestations of all times,” he wrote to his Parisian dealer in 1923.
Barnes thought an appreciation of African masterpieces would also advance the cause he fervently promoted alongside modern art: the advancement of African Americans in society. Testifying to his commitment, African sculpture was the subject of the first book published by the foundation, and the entrance of the original museum in Merion, a suburb of Philadelphia, featured tile and terra cotta designs modeled on African pieces in the collection.
But the patronage of Black art by a white millionaire is complicated, then as now. The acquisition of cultural artifacts from a society that is subjugated or impoverished raises ethical questions. And once African sculpture is taken out of the context in which it functioned, what role does it play? And whose interests does it serve?
In two adjacent galleries, he complemented the film with a sculpture show that features eight African art pieces moved from their usual perches upstairs at the Barnes, accompanied by three bronzes of African-American subjects by Richmond Barthé (1901-1989), a prominent artist of the Harlem Renaissance, and five contemporary works, by Matthew Angelo Harrison, of cutup African tourist-trade sculptures embalmed in polyurethane resin and encased in aluminum-framed vitrines.
The protagonist of Julien’s film is Alain Locke, an African American writer, critic and teacher who is credited as the intellectual father of the Harlem Renaissance. Through Barnes, Locke had his first significant exposure to masterpieces of African sculpture. Locke in turn gave Barnes access to Black writers and artists. Julien explores the real-life working relationship — both collaborative and antagonistic — between these strong-willed men. Each educated yet mistrusted the other. In a personal sense, their exchanges encapsulated the sensitivities and inequities that surround the adoption of Black African art by the prevailing white culture, and the struggle by Black Americans to claim and use that heritage as their own.
“I’m calling this the poetics of restitution, which is something I’m trying to explore in the work,” Julien said in a telephone interview from London. “The debates that we’re having today that seem contemporaneous were happening 50 years ago, if not before. I think that’s really interesting.”
In ways that won’t be apparent to most audiences, “Once Again …(Statues Never Die)” is a quasi-sequel to two films: “Statues Also Die,” a 1953 short by Chris Marker and Alain Resnais, which ruminates on the removal of African art to Western museums by imperialists who degraded the cultures and people they colonized; and Julien’s breakthrough movie, “Looking for Langston,” of 1989, which he calls a “meditation” on the ambiguously queer identity of the poet Langston Hughes. Locke, who was discreetly but unmistakably gay, romantically pursued the youthful Hughes. In “Once Again …(Statues Never Die),” Julien incorporates footage of Harlem gay balls that he staged for “Looking for Langston,” as well as a musical setting he used earlier of Hughes’s famous line, “What happens to a dream deferred?”
In “Once Again …(Statues Never Die),” Julien, a queer Black artist, looks with sensitive curiosity at Locke’s friendship, sporadically sexual, with the younger African American sculptor Barthé. The film incorporates bits of archival footage but relies primarily on staged scenes by actors playing Locke, Barthé and Barnes. The recreations are often very precise, as when, mirroring filmed documentation of Locke and Barthé, the actors replicate their original positions and expressions as they smilingly examine Barthé’s art.
One of Barthé’s major works, “Male Torso,” is a nude that diverges from the Greco-Roman ideal in search of an alternative Black prototype. It was, Jeffrey C. Stewart writes in his authoritative biography of Locke, “The New Negro,” “a sculpture that visualized a new Black masculinity” that was “leaner, slenderer, svelte” and “an icon of Black homosexual desire.” The naked model in the movie conforms uncannily to the sculpture. (Julien confirmed that he had done “body casting” to find him.)
But in a half-hour film, the question of what it was like for a Black gay man such as Locke to live in America in the first half of the 20th century meshes awkwardly with the issues that surround the displacement of African art into Western museums. “Once Again …(Statues Never Die)” intercuts re-enacted scenes of Locke with a fictional character that Julien describes as his “second protagonist,” a tall African female curator who first appears in a scene shot at the Pitt Rivers anthropological and archaeological museum at Oxford, where she testifies to the wounds suffered by civilizations stripped of their cultural treasures.
Toward the end of the film, historical photos of the 1897 British raiding expedition that destroyed Benin City in what is now Nigeria and brought a trove of bronze-and-brass masterpieces to the British Museum, are accompanied by excerpts from the diary of the expedition’s chief of staff. Julien also includes footage from “You Hide Me,” a 1970 documentary shot in the basement of the British Museum in 1970 by the Ghanaian filmmaker Nii Kwate Owoo, which follows a young Black man and woman as they unpack African artifacts stored in crates.
These scenes amplify Julien’s theme of the unquiet journey of African art into Western domains, whereas a re-enactment of Locke lovingly gazing upon Barthé as he sleeps feels like an outtake from “Waiting for Langston.”
In the interview, Julien chided Barnes for limiting his support of Black art to the work of African civilizations and not collecting the output of his own African American contemporaries. (Barnes did, however, purchase and display the paintings of Horace Pippin.)
“Someone like Barnes was not interested in Richmond Barthé’s sculptures, they are not in his collection, but they were of great interest to Alain Locke,” Julien said. “Why are people not familiar with Richmond Barthé’s works? He did not make many works, but he was an important African American artist. There’s a sense of the sensuousness of Richmond Barthé’s sculpture. The reason they are disavowed, could it be their resonating in the manner of something that was questionable?” Even today, Julien said, homoeroticism is a delicate subject for many African American art historians.
But Barnes ignored Barthé for other reasons. Barnes favored cutting-edge modernism; neither a folk artist nor a Cubist, Barthé was closer in style to Rodin than to Jacques Lipchitz, Alexander Archipenko and the other sculptors Barnes collected. But for Locke, the chief importance of African art was its power to invigorate the flowering of Black consciousness in the present. That important distinction can get lost in the torrent of ancillary material in Julien’s film.
Unlike the British raiders in Benin, Barnes did not burn a city to obtain his sculptures. Still, his admiring acquisition of African art that was pried from the society that nourished it continued a process that began with the shipments of the Benin Bronzes to the British Museum at the end of the 19th century. Raising these issues in an evocative film, Julien’s installation puts a spotlight on the Barnes’s estimable trove of African art — and on the long shadows that it casts.
Isaac Julien: Once Again … (Statues Never Die)
Through Sept. 4, Barnes Foundation, 2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, Pa.; 215.278.7000; barnesfoundation.org.
What Makes Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square (1915) Not Just Art, But Important Art
Who created the first work of abstract art has long been a fraught question indeed. Better, perhaps, to ask who first said of a work of art that a kid could have made it. A strong contender in that division is the Russian artist Véra Pestel, whom history remembers as having reacted to Kazimir Malevich‘s 1915 painting Black Square with the words “Anyone can do this! Even a child can do this!” Yes, writes novelist Tatyana Tolstaya a century later in the New Yorker, “any child could have performed this simple task, although perhaps children lack the patience to fill such a large section with the same color.” And in any case, time having taken its toll, Malevich’s square doesn’t look quite as black as it used to.
Nor was the square ever quite so square as we imagine it. “Its sides aren’t parallel or equal in length, and the shape isn’t quite centered on the canvas,” says the narrator of the animated TED-Ed lesson above. Instead, Malevich placed the form slightly off-kilter, giving it the appearance of movement, and the white surrounding it a living, vibrating quality.”
Fair enough, but is it art? If you’d asked Malevich himself, he might have said it surpassed art. In 1913, he “realized that even the most cutting-edge artists were still just painting objects from everyday life, but he was irresistibly drawn to what he called ‘the desert,’ where nothing is real except feeling.” Hence his invention of the style known as Suprematism, “a departure from the world of objects so extreme, it went beyond abstraction.”
Malevich made bold claims for Suprematism in general and Black Square in particular. “Up until now there were no attempts at painting as such, without any attribute of real life,” he wrote. “Painting was the aesthetic side of a thing, but never was original and an end in itself.” As Tolstaya puts it, he “once and for all drew an uncrossable line that demarcated the chasm between old art and new art, between a man and his shadow, between a rose and a casket, between life and death, between God and the Devil. In his own words, he reduced everything to the ‘zero of form.’” She calls this zero’s emergence in such a stark form “one of the most frightening events in art in all of its history of existence.” If so, here we have an argument for not letting young children see Black Square and enduring the consequent nightmares — even if they could have painted it themselves.
New Spider-Man Art Features Web Slinger in Various Activities
Being Spider-Man is about so much more than webbing up bad guys. Spider-Man is the neighborhood guy. He gives back to the community. He protects the community. There’s swinging, there’s fighting, there’s dangling, and sure, sometimes he has to traverse the multiverse and see all his alternative versions.
In a new print series from artist Oliver Barrett though, we focus on the simple stuff. Spider-Man just being Spider-Man. Seven prints, available individually or as a series, each showing Spider-Man at his ground-level best. The pieces are from a collaboration Barrett did with Restoration Games/Unmatched and are being released via Bottleneck Gallery and Acme Archives on October 3.
Each piece is a hand-numbered, 10 x 10 inch giclée in various edition sizes and they’ll be available individually (for $30 each) or as a set (for $200) on the Bottleneck Gallery site at noon ET October 3. Check out all the images in our slideshow.
Kelsey Grammer Curates an Exquisite Art Collection New ‘Frasier’ Reboot Posters
Dr. Frasier Crane has always been an admirer of the finer things in life, and artwork is no different, which is why it feels fitting that, in preparation for his return to our screens, television’s most renowned psychiatrist poses alongside striking pieces of art in new posters designed to promote the launch of Paramount+’s upcoming reboot series, Frasier. The series follows Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer) as he enters the next chapter of his life. Viewers will see him return to Boston which will come with its own set of challenges, relationships, and even dreams. Frasier has finally re-entered the building.
While the first of two newly-released posters show Grammer next to a striking collection of statues, the second poster emphasizes the start of the new chapter in his life. In addition to Grammer, the new series stars Jack Cutmore-Scott as Frasier’s son Freddy; Nicholas Lyndhurst as Frasier’s old college buddy turned university professor Alan; Toks Olagundoye as Olivia, Alan’s colleague and head of the university’s psychology department; Jess Salgueiro as Freddy’s roommate Eve; and Anders Keith as Frasier’s nephew David.
The new iteration of Frasier comes from writers Chris Harris (How I Met Your Mother) and Joe Cristalli (Life in Pieces), who executive produce with Grammer, Tom Russo and Jordan McMahon. The series is produced by CBS Studios, in association with Grammer’s Grammnet NH Productions. The first two episodes of the new series are directed by legendary director and television creator James Burrows, who is best known for his work as co-creator, executive producer, and director of the critically acclaimed series Cheers, as well as the original Frasier series, Will & Grace and Dear John. The series is distributed by Paramount Global Content Distribution outside of the Paramount+ markets.
The Legacy of Frasier Crane
The original series, which aired from 1993 to 2004, had an impressive 11-season run and earned numerous awards and honors. It was a major success at the Primetime Emmy Awards, winning an incredible 37 Emmys throughout its time on the air. This accomplishment set a historic record for the most Emmys ever won by a TV show at that point in time. The awards covered a wide range of categories, including recognition for Outstanding Comedy Series, Lead Actor (Grammer), Supporting Actor (David Hyde Pierce in the role of Niles Crane), and Supporting Actress (Bebe Neuwirth as Lilith Sternin), among others.
The upcoming series will premiere in the U.S. and Canada on Thursday, October 12, with two episodes, and on Friday, October 13, in all other international markets where Paramount+ is available. New episodes will then drop weekly on Thursdays, exclusively on Paramount+ in the U.S. and Canada, and on Fridays, internationally. In addition, the CBS Television Network will broadcast a special airing of the first two episodes back to back on Tuesday, October 17, beginning at 9:15 p.m. ET/PT. Until then, check out the new posters below:
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