Gallery with black masks on the left wall, three framed pencil drawings on the right wall

The Black Index installation view. © 2021 University Art Gallery, UC Irvine. Photo by Paul Salveson

In the new exhibition from UC Irvine, The Black Index, six artists reclaim the act of self-representation. “The exhibition frames their art as a creative index, an alternative to the barrage of photographs of Black people who have been arrested, incarcerated, and who have died, often through violent means,” curator Bridget R. Cooks explained in a recent talk. “Each of the artists addresses the paradox of being Black in America: to be alive but to have little social value.”

If photography has historically been wielded as a tool of power—from the 19th-century colonial snapshot to contemporary surveillance footage—the artworks in this show reassert the humanity of the Black subject.

Among the works on display are Lava Thomas’s detailed pencil drawings of the Black women activists who led the Montgomery Bus Boycotts. Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle, in what she calls “un-portraits,” imagines the thousands of Black women who have been murdered or disappeared. Titus Kaphar etches portraits of incarcerated individuals, the faces overlaid with Reginald Betts’s poems created from legal documents.

We sat down with Cooks to talk about her new exhibition, what it meant to interview her late mentor David C. Driskell, and her mission to connect people through the arts.

Woman looks at the camera. Flowers and leaves behind her

Bridget Cooks. Photo courtesy Bridget Cooks

Anya Ventura: How did you become an art historian and curator?

Bridget Cooks: I was really seduced in college by art history. I loved the shocking stories such as Vincent van Gogh cutting off his ear. I thought, “Who are these people? What kind of stories are these?” And then realized I wasn’t learning anything about the history of Black artists. There were some contemporary Black artists that I knew from the art department, but I didn’t know anything about who had come before them.

The other related answer is that artists are just so incredible, and I love the opportunity to help share their work. Part of what I’m doing as a curator is being a facilitator. You find really talented people, you have your own ideas that jibe with theirs about how to understand the work, how to frame it conceptually, and present it to the world. One of the things that was really exciting about The Black Index was talking to the artists about the ideas around Black death, mourning, and survival—my personal struggles with what is now the normality of Black death, which is something I resist and fight against, but I’m surrounded by at the same time. That struggle is something that some of these artists were also struggling with. I think they felt a connection with my idea.

Gallery with framed artworks on the left and right and black masks on the center wall

The Black Index installation view. © 2021 University Art Gallery, UC Irvine. Photo by Paul Salveson

AV: The Black Index is dedicated to the memory of the late artist, scholar, and curator David Driskell, who you interviewed in 2019 as part of the African American Art History Initiative’s oral history project. Why did you choose to dedicate it to him? 

BC: David was someone who really encouraged me in my career as an art historian and as a professor. Our meeting helped me feel like I could have faith in my own direction and instincts. For every project, I could turn to him and ask a question. He knew everybody. Legendary Black creatives. I loved when he would talk about Langston Hughes coming over to read to “the girls,” so casually. His mentorship stemmed from his belief that art is a really powerful form of communication. It can change how people think and act. I, like him, am very interested in why people are so cruel to each other, and how we can trace different political ideologies through the arts. We can trace affections and antagonisms between people through the visual arts. He dedicated his life to doing good research, to storytelling, to making artwork accessible to people. And those are values that I hold for my own work.

The Black Index reflects those values. I want to create interpersonal connections. I enjoy engaging with theory, but it’s not a good way to connect with people who aren’t in that conversation, you know? My life’s work is to make the world a safer place for Black people. I’m not interested in tolerance, I’m interested in understanding and empathy toward structural change. Those are things that I try to do in my own work that are absolutely part of The Black Index, and the work that the artists are doing. That’s something that we have a model for from David Driskell.

AV: You not only interviewed David Driskell, but other important Black artists in their 70s, 80s, and 90s. What is it like to conduct these oral histories? 

BC: It’s very intense. It’s at least eight hours of someone telling you their life story. For some of them, it feels like facing their own mortality. It provides an opportunity to think about how they want to share their stories of failures and successes, breakthroughs and developments. I don’t speak much in the interviews because they aren’t conversations, but my thoughts and emotions are fully engaged. I remember one of the people we talked to said, “Well, you know more about me now than most of my good friends.” Each oral history is different, but all of the artists have been very generous. With the help of the Getty and the UC Berkeley Oral History Center, the artists are creating invaluable resources for researchers.

I think the oral histories mean different things to the different people that we interview. Some of them are excited to tell their story in the way that they want it to be told. That’s empowering. They are making contributions and not just to the field of art history. There’s also a degree of vulnerability involved in the process. Some of them realize that there are many ways to tell their story and making those decisions can be a difficult part of it.

One of the things that I’ve learned, and everyone will learn, is how intertwined and connected people are who you wouldn’t necessarily think even knew each other. It really helps to give a sense of community, a sense of who have been significant influences in their lives. You get to know that David, he plays the piano. Charles Gaines is a semi-pro tennis player, he’s also a jazz drummer.  People have all of these different talents. You learn about a whole person and see them beyond their gift of being a visual artist.

If you’re a researcher, and you’re looking at these artists’ careers, the artists speaking for themselves is just the best source.

AV: What are you working on now?

BC: I’m working on a project about Norman Rockwell’s Civil Rights paintings. It’s a look at white liberalism and Rockwell’s imagination of Black freedom. The paintings are really interesting. They’re mostly not as well-known as the works that you see on Rockwell calendars and commemorative plates. The book is not about Rockwell, but what integration looks like in the 1960s, as seen through a white liberal who remains even today as America’s most beloved illustrator.

Centering African American Art History Initiative’s ongoing oral history project, the series On Making History explores how Black artists remember, record, and re-write history. Explore more oral histories here.

Explore The Black Index here.