Letter to Guggenheim – Taiwo Adeleye

Image credit: Photography by George Platt Lynes
Features: Frederick Ashton, Maxwell Baird, Floyd Miller, and Billie Smith.

On the morning I visited the Guggenheim Museum, I was so excited. My eyes lit up with joy as I gathered more information about the museum. It was in my voice and in the way my sound bounced around as I spoke with ease to fellow students on the class trip for our non-verbal communication course. I learned a great deal about human movement and was eager to apply my knowledge as a Laban/Bartenieff Institute of Movement Studies student. I was looking forward to analyzing and describing communications in statues, photography, and other objects. Then I became puzzled, with questions lingering on my mind as I stood in front of the magnificent cylindrical building that was the Guggenheim Museum.

What did this building hold for me? How would I analyze the content of the museum with the tools that I had been taught in class?

We moved from room to room, from level to level, and we encountered works from different times in history and different worlds. However, one picture stopped me in my tracks. It rooted me in the same spot. The picture was in the Black & White section of the museum. In the picture, there were three naked Black men laid on the floor. A White man was kneeling with his hands on two of the Black men’s shoulders while the third Black man looked into his eyes. I looked at the title of the picture: “Frederick Ashton with Dancers.” The picture was taken in 1934 by George Platt Lynes. This detail about the picture was summed up in four words but did not say enough. Several questions were running through my head. 

Who were the Black men? Why were they nameless while the White man had a name? Why were they naked and the White man, dressed? Why was the picture curated? What was the curator’s motive? And why was this picture still in any museum now, in 2019?

I took it as a challenge to find the answers to these questions in my head. There was only one way to find out, and I made that picture the subject of my research for my coursework. After using LMA to analyze thephotograph’s  non-verbal communication, I titled my project “Inequality, Supremacy, and Racism.” My brief was three-fold. First, to understand the intention of the photographer, the canvas, and the curator. Second, to compare the content of the photograph in the context of the time the photograph was taken (1934) and the present day (2019). Third, to review the relevance of the picture to both times. My hope was that, through my findings, I would understand why the picture has not only shocked me but kept me rooted to the ground where I stood. In this essay, I write my findings.

In 2019, the Guggenheim Museum celebrated its 60th anniversary. In the spirit of celebration, the museum invited six artists to carefully examine its collections, hoping that gems could spotted anew or even gaps that needed to be plugged. Among the selected artists was Carrie Mae Weems, an African American artist renowned in her own right. The picture in question was part of her curation named “What Could Have Been.” While speaking on her curation, Weems established the urgency of Guggenheim—and many other museums—to rethink its collection in a more representative way. 

“What would it mean if you have a more dynamic representation in the museum collection? And so I thought about Black and White as a framing device, as an organizing principle for the project.”

Weems was clear in her objective, yet it did not deter me from my focus. I engaged the photograph in ascertainment. I had more questions than answers in my mind. The title “What Could Have Been” was a rhetorical question with no basis of answers. I wish to know why Weems selected that particular picture. I sent her emails requesting more contextual information on the subject but did not receive a response. As a Black man staring at a picture curated by a Black woman eighty-five years after the picture was taken, I was puzzled that it should be part of a series meant to spot gaps in museum collections.

I wondered whether this picture further endorsed the existing imbalance in our world? What did it mean to have that 1934 picture standing in front of us again in 2019?

Using Laban Movement Analysis in everyday language, my research findings show that the positioning of the “master” to the dancers expresses his superiority to them. First, consider how he is positioned—kneeling above the three dancers—as he maintains the high position. Consider also his connection with them. His hands are placed slightly on the necks of the two dancers closest to him, in a way that seems to depict control. Second, consider the dancers’ positions to him: one of the dancers has his back arched, the other has his shoulder moving away. They are positioned as though they are retreating from the master. The master’s gaze is angled down on the dancers, although it does not seem to connect directly with the third man on the floor who is staring back at him. Third, when you consider his dressing, the master is fully clothed in a suit and tie while the dancers are completely naked. There is a sense of discomfort, of being naked in the presence of someone who is clothed, of being exposed and defenseless. Yet, there stood the master towering above them. In short, this image communicates racism, supremacy, and inequality through movement.

Why now? Moreso, why 2019?

Indeed Lynes’ work was unique in how he manipulated taking photographs in the dark and shadows, which could be a reason for its curation. It was something to behold from the perspective of the 1934 era, especially given the homoerotic subtext of its subject and composition.

The modern-day culture of sexual awareness and his work’s quality could be the excuse for displaying his art today, but I doubt it. Even if it is, the photograph still screams racism.

I have attempted to recreate this exact image with three White naked men and a clothed Black man. No one was ready to volunteer due to the nature of the scene in the photograph.

The namelessness of these men is important to my analysis. I set out to find these Black men’s names, and I discovered their identity online in Seth Eisen’s Pinterest collection. Their names were Maxwell Baird, Floyd Miller, and Billie Smith. They were Dancers in “Four Saints in Three Acts.”

This particular work has been in collections at museums and exhibitions such as the Philadelphia Art Museum, PARISLA, & Hyperallergic’s Independent Arts. In each of these, the Black dancers were creditedtheir names mentioned.

However, the Guggenheim Museum chose to keep them nameless, as have other online auctioneers who also prefer to call them “cast.” The more information I found, the more questions I had.

What could the namelessness of these Black dancers mean in 2020 America? The namelessness of the three Black men and the naming of the White man could be a reflection of present-day America. Black people are “in the picture”—they live in the country, yet are stripped naked without dignity, without names, and without relevance. Meanwhile, White people also exist in the same country, yet they are clothed with their dignity in place. The picture shows the systemic nature of racism in America today.

As a Black immigrant dancer in America, I would not like to be portrayed like these men—nameless, naked, and irrelevant in a picture set aside for historical relevance. It is not enough to engage in the analysis of the photograph for my research purposes. My findings are set to end up as just another presentation, or on a dusty library shelf. I am poised to do more. For this reason, I am writing this article.

I have thought to remake the 1934 photograph in 2020. This time, a Black man stands clothed, and seated beneath him are three uncomfortable, nude White bodies. Perhaps such a remake could trigger a conscious thought that would encourage the museum—and a world that allows racism to be constantly perpetuated—to take another look at itself in the mirror and make amends. Perhaps it would force us all to answer this question: Are there ways in which we can demand change without also perpetuating that which we seek to correct?

I challenge the Guggenheim Museum to use my analysis and consider my opinion to provide proper contextual knowledge of the picture. This can be achieved by implementing the following actions: First, display the names of the Black dancers in the picture and this analysis beside it. Second, display the picture along with a remake or another version where everyone is clothed, or everyone is unclothed and connected and sharing the same space to create a balance. By doing this, they will have done justice and preserved the memory of the men in the picture while depicting an America that I, as an African Immigrant dancer, would want to see in the museum—today and in the years to come.

This post is a reader submission by:

Taiwo Adeleye www.taiwoadeleye.com

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