AMHERST — W.E.B. Du Bois looms large over the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The school’s 28-story library bears his name. More important, the library holds his papers. The collection is extensive and rich, as befits a career so extensive and rich.
Du Bois (pronounced doo boyz) looms large in African-American history. Born in 1868, he was a historian, sociologist, teacher, polemicist, activist, and, for lack of a better term, racial conscience. Du Bois helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, in 1909, and edited the NAACP’s magazine, The Crisis, for 23 years. The best known of his more than 30 books is “The Souls of Black Folk” (1903).
Du Bois died the day before the 1963 March on Washington. Observing the 50th anniversary of his death, the University Museum of Contemporary Art at UMass Amherst sought work from 10 artists that in some way relates to Du Bois’s legacy. That legacy being as diverse as it is, the show feels (appropriately) scattered. It includes photography, sculpture, video, etching, textiles, and even landscape design.
“Du Bois in Our Time,” you might say, is all over the map, which it should be. The
exhibition celebrates a man whose life was all over the map. Born and raised in Great Barrington, Du Bois was educated in Nashville, Cambridge, and Berlin, worked in Atlanta and New York, and died in Ghana. He was also an energetic traveler. The single most interesting thing in the show is documentary footage of a 1959 visit Du Bois paid to China. As he rubs elbows with Mao, it’s hard to say who is the more impressive figure.
Some of the art directly addresses Du Bois’s work. The paired busts in Radcliffe
Bailey’s sculpture “Double Consciousness” are meant to embody Du Bois’s namesake concept of how skin color required African-Americans to feel both American and other than American. Jefferson Pinder filmed a video interpreting part of a 1913 pageant about black history that Du Bois produced, “The Star of Ethiopia.” Brendan Fernandes, who also created a banner and flags for the show, completes, in a sense, Du Bois’s long-cherished project for an Encyclopedia Africana, creating a handmade book bearing that name.
Tim Rollins and K.O.S., collaborating with students from the Springfield Renaissance School, have taken pages from a book that Du Bois did complete, “Darkwater,” in 1920, and covered portions of them with black ink. As a presentation of the dynamic between expression and suppression, it’s powerful and striking. An even more powerful example is Ann Messner’s “Du Bois — The FBI Files.” The title is self-explanatory. The installation consists of a 22-foot-long table covered with copies of pages from Du Bois’s FBI dossier. They’re heavily redacted, with cut-outs and blacked-out words, adding to their sinister effect. At each end of the gallery are stacks of extracts from the files, printed up as 36-page tabloids.
Du Bois gave a speech in 1930 lamenting pollution in the Housatonic River, which flows through Great Barring-ton. Inspired by that speech, LaToya Ruby Frazier offers 10 photographs from her series “A Despoliation of Water: From the Housatonic to Monongahela River (1930-2013).” Frazier is a Pittsburgh native. The images, which have raw, crude beauty, show the effects of industry on the riverfront.
Several of the works relate to Du Bois indirectly, or not at all. Mickalene Thomas has two items in the show. Her video “Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman: A Portrait of My Mother” justifies its 23-minute length. Sandra Bush, Thomas’s mother, has done everything from sing in the choir to model on the catwalk to deal drugs. She has starpower. And Thomas’s 24-panel installation, “Hair Portraits,” is just what it says it is, and with rhinestones, no less. Thomas’s works clearly relate to contemporary African-American experience, and Mary Evans’s large-scale paper silhouettes just as clearly relate to the African diaspora (an enduring concern of Du Bois’s). Julie
Mehretu’s five etchings, a set titled “Algorithms, Apparitions, and Translations,” are like a highly distinctive cloud of lines. How they relate to Du Bois or his concerns, I cannot say.
The most unexpected, and charming, contribution comes from Carrie Mae Weems (awarded a MacArthur “genius grant” last month) and Weems with Walter Hood. Weems and Hood offer a design for a proposed Du Bois Memorial Garden for the UMass campus. That garden would have as its centerpiece William E. B. Du Bois Peonies. Weems, working with the American Peony Society and Hollingsworth Peony Farm, in Delaware, developed the variety and named it in Du Bois’s honor. There are two dozen very handsome Weems photographs relating to the garden and flower. Most of them are hung far too low for comfortable viewing. That said, they are worth risking back ache and knee pain for.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.