When is a pool float radical?
When Derrick Adams paints black bodies onto them and they’re displayed in an American art museum.
They are radical because images of black leisure are scarce in the extreme in American pop culture. Typically, when Americans see black people, they are shown protesting, being arrested, or playing sports, further entrenching misguided stereotypes.
Challenge yourself to recall the last time you saw images of black people engaged in everyday leisure activities in art museums or distributed via mass media?
That’s why Derrick Adams’ Floater series of paintings, on view now at the Hudson River Museum, are radical: they demand visitors see black people in a fresh, ordinary, unconventional light.
Depicted–dare it be written–like white people?
Like the Kennedy’s sailing. Like the uncountable photos of white women sunbathing or white men golfing. Like Norman Rockwell paintings.
“I started thinking about depictions of the black body and alternative ideas of representation that were not dealing with trauma or oppression,” Adams told Forbes.com about the genesis of his Floaterseries.
Sparking his interest was a 1967 “Ebony” magazine story on Martin Luther King Jr. vacationing with his family in Jamaica. King was shown in a bathing suit, a stunning visual departure from King the political activist and speech-maker we’re all familiar with.
“Sometimes people feel that normal things are not as exciting as things that are more traumatic and provocative,” Adams said. “I think it’s really important for people to see these types of images because these images are in the world, but they’re not pushed to the front for us to see them as normal images, and I want to normalize the representation of these types of activities.”
Adams is quick to point out that he bears no resentment toward more traditionally political or activist artworks representing black people.
“It doesn’t take away from the impact of political (images), but it has another form of politics because it talks about who has the privilege to relax and who has the privilege to participate in these activities and that’s an ongoing conversation just with black citizens trying to go to parks and pools and the resistance they’ve been met with,” Adams said.
A black man accosted for participating in a leisure activity this spring made headlines when a white woman in New York’s Central Park called 9-1-1, falsely claiming she was being threatened by him while he was bird-watching there.
Any representation linking black people to water carries additional charges considering the Transatlantic Slave Trade, “colored” water fountains in the Jim Crow South and segregated pools and beaches of that same dark period in American history.
“People have come into the galleries and they have said, practically verbatim, ‘I finally feel seen,’” Hudson River Museum Director and CEO Masha Turchinsky told Forbes.com about Adam’s work on view there. “There's nothing more powerful to a director of a museum then to hear that from someone who came in and rather than feel alienated, they did the exact opposite, to walk in and say, ‘I feel seen,’ it is transformative for a person and for an institution–it’s everything we're working for.”
Becoming more welcoming to black audiences has been a goal for art museums nationwide in recent years, an objective accelerated by the swelling popularity of the Black Lives Matter movement during the summer of 2020 and a growing demand by many Americans to finally reckon with the nation’s racist history. Black guests have too often felt excluded from these spaces for a variety of reasons, primary among them being how few black faces appear on the walls, in the artwork.
To fully welcome black visitors, how important is it to show more art featuring black people?
“It’s essential–full stop,” Turchinsky said. “It's essential because in the history of museums and in the history of art collections, these images have simply not been displayed, or they haven't been part of museums’ permanent collections.”
That is finally changing. In a future which isn’t difficult to imagine and hopefully not far off, our nation’s greatest art museums will showcase the work of Adams and other contemporary black artists like Kerry James Marshall, Kara Walker, Nick Cave, Mickalene Thomas, Kehinde Wiley, Nari Ward, Julie Mehretu and a dozen others right alongside Georgia O’Keeffe, Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol.
In addition to his Floater series paintings, the Hudson River Museum also exhibits a full-room exhibition from Adams, We Come to Party and Plan.
Noting that black people couldn’t always assemble freely, Adams centers worship and other formal occasions such as weddings and holidays as the only times black people were allowed to congregate.
While congregating, they did more than enjoy food and fellowship.
“Leisure, or times of leisure, can also be met with strategic planning and social and political engagement,” Adams said. “I wanted to show the depiction of leisure and activities that deal with pleasure, but also an underlying presence of public gathering and how those things are a strong part of social engagement beyond the idea of idle time.
Adams surrounds visitors with individuals who may be discussing the events of the previous week, pitching a business idea, or debating politics.
“I feel energized and hopeful when I stand in that space,” Turchinsky said. “I feel the joy that the artist is conveying and I also get a sense of the complexity that he is conveying because no one is experiencing a party in the exact same way at the exact same moment; the portraits depict everyone from the DJ to someone smiling and laughing, to someone else looking serious, and that's a very real aspect of the nature of any good party, having multiple moments simultaneously.”
“Buoyant” is on view at the Hudson River Museum through August 23 before heading to the Museum of Fine Art, St. Petersburg, Florida. “Derrick Adams: We Came to Party and Plan” can be experienced through October 18.