Curating is an art form, the Mississippi-born, Brooklyn-based photographer D’Angelo Lovell Williams reminds us with “We Wear the Mask,” a show of photographs he organized at Higher Pictures Generation. As if to demonstrate this, the exhibition’s news release is a nearly 14-minute video that opens with Williams, costumed in a dress made with an American flag pattern, reciting “We Wear the Mask,” by the African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906), and lounging and frolicking nude in a verdant summer landscape.
The video, which includes introductions by the 10 artists in the show, sets the tone for the exhibition. It acknowledges the hardships of Black Americans, but also their achievements, resilience and joy. Trent Bozeman’s photographs celebrate his ancestors, the Gullah people off the coast of South Carolina. Photographs by Nakeya Brown, like “Almost All the Way to Love” (2017), explore the politics of Black beauty by arranging still lifes with hair products, curlers, hair straighteners and album covers by Black female singers. Keisha Scarville creates portraits using her dead mother’s clothing. Her photographs also hark back to artfully staged African portraits from the 1950s and ’60s.
Other artists here document Bedford Stuyvesant and its cultural diversity, gang symbols, the marketing of sportswear, interactions between Black people and the police, and the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. If the poem “We Wear the Mask” searingly explored being Black after the Civil War and living a sort of dual existence (“Nay, let them only see us, while we wear the mask”), the exhibition similarly focuses on ideas of visibility and what it means to be a Black American today — and the video gives a face and voice to the artists. Along with the Kamoinge exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art — this show includes Russell Frederick, a member of that Black photography workshop — “We Wear the Mask” is one of the best photography exhibitions in the city right now, which is, of course, Black History Month.