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In Conversation: Huey Copeland

Huey Copeland's wonderful work as a writer puts articulations of blackness in the Western visual field to the forefront. In an interiew with C-print while in Stockholm as the recent recipient of the Absolut Art Award in Art Writing, Copeland speaks about his current book projects, artists who have not yet had their due, and the way in which the sociopolitical climate in the US is impacting awareness of representation as well as what racial politics mean in the realm of image.

Huey Copeland in Venice. Credits: Johan Lindeskog, courtesy Absolut Art Award

C-P: Congratulations on being honoured with the Absolut Art Award for Art Writing. What does this distinction mean to you on a personal note?

H.C: It's an incredible honour. There are so few awards that recognize and suport art writing and it's wonderful to be singled out for one and to be in such great company with past winners like Mark Godfrey and Coco Fusco whose work and scholarship I admire tremendously. It's also a fantastic opportunity to push forward my current work in progress; a book of essays called Touched By the Mother, which I plan to do, hope to do and now can really realize it in the best possible format.

C-P: What would be an elevator pitch for Touched By the Mother?

H.C: It's a collection of essays, reviews, interviews from the last 15 years of my career. It will also in part consist of content not previously published which is very exciting. The materials in the book will stretch over 50 years of artistic production from 1966 to present day, focusing on work by and about males of African descent. The book aims to offer a multifaceted perspective of art of this period, involving the import of identity. On the one hand it's a survey of an array of artistic practices; painting, sculpture, photography, assemblage, installation, as well as a way of underlining the radical multiplicity of black men's artistic practices in the way in which that figure of identitarian formation is an incredibly rich one that gives you a complex, and I think, productive picture of contemporary art. Lastly, I'd say that many of the essays that I've written have a certain personal perspective in the way I locate myself in relationship to the work. I try to think about what it means in today's art world, in particular where the roles of critic, curator, friend, confidante often tend to blur, to operate in multiple realms and registers and have a critical perspective on each one of them.

C-P: Going back in time, will there have been a pivotal or defining moment growing up that set you on course for a path into art and namely writing about art?

H.C: I think there are several conditions. I was very lucky to go to a great middle-school where art and art history made part of the curriculum. It was a humanities-curriculum and everything was very much integrated, so when you were reading the Greek plays in English class, you would be learning about Greek history in History class and making Attic pottery in Art class. I think that made thinking of art very normalized for me as far as my outlook and perspective. I think I did have a pretty transformative experience taking my first Art History class at the university which was very eye-opening. I had always been interested in Physics as a subject up until then but Art History was a real contrast due to the immediacy with which you could engage in. I haven't really looked back since.

C-P: Among the things you've written about is the considerably poor representation of black women in contemporary art and within institutions. Who might be an artist you would take a moment to shine light on that who hasn't had their due and recongition yet?

H.C: It's a useful question this because it helps me putting Touch By the Mother in context. The other book project that I'm working on is called In the Arms of the Negress : A Brief History of Modern Artistic Practice. The aim of the book is to rescript the classic Paris to New York narrative of modern art by focusing on the way modern artists in the West insistently mobilized and have relied upon fictions of black femininity, moving to this figure of ultimate cultural alterity and the attempt to push against conventions of representation. I think of for instance Constantin Brancusi's Blond Negress and even Cindy Sherman's very early work where she is covering her body in black paint reminiscent of the female black figure. I'm also looking to counter-representation and the representation that black women make.

Going back to your question, one of the figures whom I've been looking into as part of the book's narrative and been compelled by is an early 20th Century African-American sculptor called Meta Vaux Warrick Fueller whose work I find truly fascinating. I feel like Fueller hasn't really had her due, or been incorporated into modernism or history of sculpture yet. This is a woman whose work was shown in Paris in the early 20th century, and whose work was "approved" by Rodin. She was known as "the sculptress of little horrors" and went on to incredible Pan-Africanist themed work. For me she is one of these many fascinating figures who is only now being reengaged and rethought, and who can possibly help us to rethink the canon.

Jacket photograph: Glenn Ligon, To Disembark, 1993, installation view. Ten Lithographs, nine wood crates with sound. Overall dimensions variable. (Courtesy of the artist.) Book and jacket design: Isaac Tobin.

C-P: Two prominent artists whom have appeared as illustrative figures in your writing are Kara Walker and Lorna Simpson. Lorna Simpson notably in your first book Bound to Appear - Art, Slavery and the Site of Blackness in Multicultural America. Run me through the core of the book.

H.C: It's a project that stems out of my dissertation and is an expansion on that and focuses on four artists; Renée Green, Glenn Ligon, Fred Wilson and Lorna Simpson whom you mentioned. Each chapter is a case study of installations that each of those artists did engaging with the history of slavery between 1991 and 1993. So there's a very focused temporal framework for the book but I think it ends up being quite expansive the way historical publications often are, in part because of the richness of the artists' work. What I ultimately argue in the book is that this is a generation of conceptual artists that represents slavery in a new way, in a way that hadn't been figured before in an artistic practice. What had been before were largely figurative iterations. All of these artists are instead giving us artifacts and objects that are meant to be surrogates for the black body in order to shine light on the various mechanisms of slavery. In these installations as I see it the artists very much underline how the effects of slavery continue into the present and make blackness this site of endless extraction of value.

C-P: Kara Walker being such a leading figure in art, what makes her particularly interesting in the light of representation of identity?

H.C: In Bound To Appear I speak a bit about Kara Walker's work and she comes on the scene in the fall of 1993, around the end of the period that marks the case studies of the book. In many ways her work is a continuation of a longer figurative representation of slavery that needs to be seen in the light of the four key artists in the book and the way they disrupted some of the conventions. I've also written about Walker's work in the context of In the Arms of the Negress project as the persona in her work is often styled as an emanicipated negress.

C-P: In the present sociopolitical climate of the US, with recent movements like Black Lives Matter and the upswing of the "alt-right", what impact might there be on representation of black contemporary art?

H.C: I think Black Lives Matter has really done a lot of work to bring these issues like police violence to the forefront and make them even more visible by shining light on them as structural problems. That also involves a certain spectacular production of black death as visual consumption, and I think in the art world, and in many of the controversies surrounding representation you see an increased awareness and a sensitivity towards this as people try to grapple with what racial politics mean today and in the realm of image.

C-P: On that very note, what was your sentiment on the controversy surrounding the Whitney Biennial earlier in the year and Dana Schutz's Open Casket artwork that was presented there?

H.C: No comment.

C-P: Lastly, 2017 was an interesting year with a number of major international events taking place close in time, such as the Venice Biennale, Documenta and Skulptur Projekte Münster. What will have been a few favourite art moments in the year that passed so far for you?

H.C: I very much enjoyed James Richards's and Steve Reinke's piece at the Venice Biennale. Steve is a friend and I thought that was wonderful to see something so complex relating to archiving of queer histories, recombined and remapped. Disturbing and stunning to me.

Credits: Johan Lindeskog, courtesy Absolut Art Award

Many thanks to Huey Copeland, Absolut Art Award and Anna Sandell at Part Projects.

A gala dinner in honour of Huey Copeland and Anne Imhof as the winners of the Absolut Art Award 2017 was held at At Six in Stockholm on September 23.

Portraits of Huey Copeland by Johan Lindeskog. Courtesy Absolut Art Award.

To learn more about Huey Copeland, visit:

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