Thomas (T.) Jean Lax’s highlights of 2022

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Thomas (T.) Jean Lax’s highlights of 2022

Thomas (T.) Jean Lax is curator of media and performance at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, where they recently organized the exhibition “Just Above Midtown: Changing Spaces” with Lilia Rocio Taboada in collaboration with Linda Goode Bryant and Marielle Ingram.


Justin Vivian Bond and Anthony Roth Costanzo, Only an Octave Apart, 2021. Rehearsal view, St. Ann’s Warehouse, Brooklyn, NY, September 20, 2021. From left: Justin Vivian Bond and Anthony Roth Costanzo. Photo: Teddy Wolff.

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JUSTIN VIVIAN BOND AND ANTHONY ROTH COSTANZO, ONLY AN OCTAVE APART (ST. ANN’S WAREHOUSE, BROOKLYN, SEPTEMBER 21–OCTOBER 3, 2021)

With its open mouths and need for close contact, singing with others has been risky business over the past several years. Which is why the stakes could not have been higher when Bond, the cabaret icon, and Costanzo, the countertenor virtuoso, made an evening-length duet a year and a half into Covid. In bringing us together, these two divas not only shared the stage but also found shared pleasure in their unlikely musical arrangements.

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3RD FRESTAS—TRIENNIAL OF ARTS: “THE RIVER IS A SERPENT” (SESC SOROCABA, BRAZIL; CURATED BY BEATRIZ LEMOS, DIANE LIMA, AND THIAGO DE PAULA SOUZA WITH CAMILA FONTENELE)

Most readers likely know that in October 2022, Lula defeated his far-right opponent by a small margin. But you might not know that during Lula’s first tenure as president, from 2003 to 2010, he helped mobilize a university quota system that dramatically increased the number of Black and Indigenous people in higher education—including art schools. “The River Is a Serpent” tracked how these structural changes over the first decade of the millennium catalyzed a sea change within Brazilian contemporary art, radically shifting the demographics of who ends up calling themselves an artist and spawning a collectivist ethos that was on display in the exhibition’s lively choral hang.


Jota Mombaça, Pavimento #1, 2021, acrylic on asphalt. Installation view, Sesc Sorocaba, Brazil. From the 3rd Frestas—Triennial of Arts. Photo: Coletivo MinaVoz.

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ARTHUR JAFA, AGHDRA (GAVIN BROWN’S ENTERPRISE, NEW YORK)

When Greg Tate—writer, musician, genius—died on December 7, 2021, the exhibition of his friend Arthur Jafa became our wake. The gallery housed the artist’s sublime video, composed of computer-generated graphics resembling a primordial ocean’s waves or a postapocalyptic Turtle Island in pieces. It was a fitting place to gather, cry, or be quiet. Exhibitions have a funny way of both foretelling and obscuring their memorializing function. This last show (for now) at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise demonstrated how commercial galleries can be transformed to serve other needs.


Arthur Jafa, AGHDRA, 2021, 8K video, color and black-and-white, sound, 75 minutes. Installation view, Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, New York.

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“NO HUMANS INVOLVED” (HAMMER MUSEUM, LOS ANGELES; CURATED BY ERIN CHRISTOVALE WITH VANESSA ARIZMENDI)

“No humans involved” was a term used by the LAPD to describe Black folks and Latinos at the time of Rodney King’s beating. The phrase was reused by the path-making Sylvia Wynter to critique the centrality of the category “man.” Within the equipoise of this group exhibition, which brought together a refreshingly smallish number of participants, was an implicit argument about the value of offering artists time to respond to ongoing historical conditions. And in its ecosystem of materials, you could find all you needed to decenter the human, including rawhide and seashells, amber and kombucha mothers.


Las Nietas de Nonó, No More Tears, 2021. Performance view, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, December 12, 2021. From “No Humans Involved.”Photo: Gina Clyne.

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PROSPECT.5: “YESTERDAY WE SAID TOMORROW” (NEW ORLEANS, VARIOUS VENUES; CURATED BY NAIMA J. KEITH AND DIANA NAWI WITH GRACE DEVENEY AND LUCIA OLUBUNMI MOMOH)

Few biennials or triennials (not to mention cities) are as comfortable acknowledging the proximity of celebration and mourning as Prospect New Orleans. The works in this exhibition’s fifth iteration were no exception: EJ Hill’s sunken Ferris wheel; Sharon Hayes’s video installation of queer and trans folk singing karaoke and walking in the city; Malcom Peacock’s intimate performance about the climaxes and perils of running while Black. Delayed by Covid, delayed by Hurricane Ida, “Yesterday We Said Tomorrow” offered relief from the drags of time by accommodating the emotional ambivalence that follows catastrophe.


EJ Hill, Rises in the East, 2021, mixed media. Installation view, Joe W. Brown Park, New Orleans. From Prospect.5. Photo: Alex Marks.

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RASHAAD NEWSOME, ASSEMBLY (PARK AVENUE ARMORY, NEW YORK)

Being—the digital griot who narrates Assembly, 2022, and whose self-identity as “nonbinary” describes their gender as much as their species type—is perhaps the only artificial intelligence I’ve ever trusted. During the day, they led decolonization workshops, and at night they ushered you through a fun house of videos into a performance of legendary voguers.


View of “Rashaad Newsome: Assembly,” 2022, Park Avenue Armory, New York. Photo: Stephanie Berger.

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WHITNEY BIENNIAL: “QUIET AS IT’S KEPT” (WHITNEY MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART, NEW YORK; CURATED BY DAVID BRESLIN AND ADRIENNE EDWARDS)

An entire cosmology could be located within the brightly colored posters, TV monitors, and bookshelf borrowed from writer and artistic collaborator Steve Cannon’s apartment and salon for one of the Biennial’s most compelling installations. The object lesson for me was how a roundup of recently made art could point to histories that continue outside the walls of museums. Presentations of work by Ralph Lemon and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (survey exhibitions unto themselves) similarly invited you into the worlds these artists had created with others in places such as Mississippi or in the lengthy time of exile. Each grouping offered a new possibility to care for time-based art and its fugitive networks.


Tracie Dawn Williams, Love You Madly, 2016–22, video, color, sound, 12 minutes. From the Whitney Biennial 2022.

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MICHAEL R. JACKSON, A STRANGE LOOP (LYCEUM THEATRE, NEW YORK, APRIL 26, 2022–JANUARY 15, 2023)

“Inner White Girl,” “Inwood Daddy,” “AIDS Is God’s Punishment.” In the titles of these songs, you get a sense of the improbability of A Strange Loop coming to Broadway. Told from the perspective of Usher—an usher at The Lion King who is a young Black gay playwright trying to write a musical—Jackson’s metamusical comes (with love) for Chitlin’ Circuit morality plays and the whiteness of the Great White Way alike. The result extends Stephen Sondheim’s radical reinventions of the musical-theater form. Having devoted almost two decades to making the work, Jackson emphatically answers yes to the question Usher asks in his opening song: “Can I really write this?”


Michael R. Jackson, A Strange Loop, 2019. Performance view, Lyceum Theatre, New York, April 5, 2022. Photo: Marc J. Franklin.

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“AFRO-ATLANTIC HISTORIES” (NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART, WASHINGTON, DC; CURATED BY ADRIANO PEDROSA, AYRSON HERÁCLITO, HÉLIO MENEZES, LILIA MORITZ SCHWARCZ, AND TOMÁS TOLEDO)

As rare as it is for an exhibition to bring together works from across the Black Atlantic, it is more so for such an exhibition to travel from the Southern Atlantic to the US. (The two are not unrelated.) The collaboratively organized show’s most influential presentations underscored the importance of spiritual ceremony and everyday acts of refusal across the diaspora.

Co-organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Museu de Arte de São Paulo in collaboration with the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; US tour curated by Kanitra Fletcher of the NGA, where the team also included Molly Donovan and Steven Nelson.


View of “Afro-Atlantic Histories,” 2022, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Foreground: Flávio Cerqueira, Amnésia, 2015. Background, from left: Ben Enwonwu, Boy, ca. 1945; Zanele Muholi, Ntozakhe II, (Parktown), 2016. Photo: Robert Shelley.

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“LOOPHOLE OF RETREAT: VENICE” (59TH VENICE BIENNALE; ORGANIZED BY RASHIDA BUMBRAY WITH TINA CAMPT AND SAIDIYA HARTMAN)

After Simone Leigh transformed the US pavilion at the Venice Biennale by adding thatched raffia to the facade of its white Jeffersonian columns, and after she made the sculptures that both began and ended the main exhibition’s magisterial parcours, she set out to create a refuge, a space for Black women to assemble. And assemble they did. Over the three-plus days of this symposium, dozens of artists working across genres were offered carte blanche to share their ideas. Capping off the celebrations, Lorraine O’Grady proclaimed, “We are no longer afraid of being lonely. . . . This movement is unstoppable.”


Lorraine O’Grady speaking at Simone Leigh’s “Loophole of Retreat: Venice,” Fondazione Giorgio Cini, Venice, October 9, 2022. Photo: Claudia Rossini.

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