EyeMinded: Living and Writing Contemporary Art


A daughter of the poets Hettie Jones and Amiri Baraka, Kellie Jones grew up immersed in a world of artists, musicians, and writers in Manhattan’s East Village and absorbed in black nationalist ideas about art, politics, and social justice across the river in Newark. The activist vision of art and culture that she learned in those two communities, and especially from her family, has shaped her life and work as an art critic and curator. Featuring selections of her writings from the past twenty years, EyeMinded ...
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A daughter of the poets Hettie Jones and Amiri Baraka, Kellie Jones grew up immersed in a world of artists, musicians, and writers in Manhattan’s East Village and absorbed in black nationalist ideas about art, politics, and social justice across the river in Newark. The activist vision of art and culture that she learned in those two communities, and especially from her family, has shaped her life and work as an art critic and curator. Featuring selections of her writings from the past twenty years, EyeMinded reveals Jones’s role in bringing attention to the work of African American, African, Latin American, and women artists who have challenged established art practices. Interviews that she conducted with the painter Howardena Pindell, the installation and performance artist David Hammons, and the Cuban sculptor Kcho appear along with pieces on the photographers Dawoud Bey, Lorna Simpson, and Pat Ward Williams; the sculptor Martin Puryear; the assemblage artist Betye Saar; and the painters Jean-Michel Basquiat, Norman Lewis, and Al Loving. Reflecting Jones’s curatorial sensibility, this collection is structured as a dialogue between her writings and works by her parents, her sister Lisa Jones, and her husband Guthrie P. Ramsey Jr. EyeMinded offers a glimpse into the family conversation that has shaped and sustained Jones, insight into the development of her critical and curatorial vision, and a survey of some of the most important figures in contemporary art.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

EyeMinded is an impressive collection of essays by Kellie Jones, a much sought after scholar, prolific writer, and extraordinary curator whose works I have admired for many years. She began her career in the mid-1980s, uncovering and recovering African and African American artists by organizing exhibitions, writing essays, and lecturing on some of the then lesser-known artists. I believe that she was instrumental in introducing to a larger and contemporary public the works of black artists of the African diaspora, including some of the most noted artists working today.”—Deborah Willis, author of Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present

“Kellie Jones, supported by a remarkable family of artists and intellectuals, has provided a plethora of razor-sharp insights and creative testimonials to the greater arts and scholarly communities for years. As this important book makes amber clear, Professor Jones’ astute observations and in-depth analyses of African American art are invaluable resources to contemporary studies and, arguably, equivalent to the notable essays of art history’s earlier, admired critics and chroniclers.”—Richard J. Powell, author of Cutting a Figure: Fashioning Black Portraiture

“This extraordinary collection reveals Kellie Jones as a discerning architect of the multicultural art landscape of the last few decades. Informed by her keen eye and incisive intellect, Jones’s definitive takes on artists, including Lorna Simpson, Martin Puryear, and David Hammons, make this book a must-read for anyone interested in American art from the 1980s forward. And then, on top of Jones’s own shimmering intellectual accomplishment in these pages, EyeMinded is something else as well: a conversation between an American family of arts and letters as illustrious as the Lowells or the Jameses. This book will stand apart for that reason alone, for few American families have contributed so richly to the arts, letters, and sounds of their generations as the Joneses. Here comes Dr. Kellie Jones, ‘eye-minded,’ and she’s bringing her people with her.”—Elizabeth Alexander, Yale University

<I> Studio Magazine</I> - Lauren Haynes

EyeMinded is at the top of my summer reading list.”
International Review of African American Art - Michele Wallace

“Kellie Jones has had a fascinating life in art. This collection of essays offers vivid glimpses into the childhood and professional experience of this noted art historian and curator. . . . Everything Kellie Jones and her brilliant family have to say on art and life is both welcome and stimulating.”
New York Journal of Books - Liana Giorgi

“Kellie Jones’ superb book, EyeMinded, traces the relationship between the visual and the social in contemporary art and, by so doing, teaches us how to see. . . . The book is a must-read for art historians and museum curators, just as for those within the field of cultural studies who aspire to an interdisciplinary approach.”
Journal of American Studies - Eddie Chambers

EyeMinded is compelling testimony to the ways in which Kellie Jones was able to both contribute to, and comment on, the astonishing quantum shifts in art and curatorial practices that the 1980s and 1990s gave rise to. . . . [A] major contribution to aspects of art history that too often are relegated to the periphery within both the academy and contemporary art criticism. In this regard, we have much to thank Jones for, as this volume will be an indispensable aid to students, professors, and general audiences, many of whom might not have easy access to Jones’s writings, in their original form and assorted contexts.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822348733
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 5/30/2011
  • Pages: 528
  • Sales rank: 844,123
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Kellie Jones is Associate Professor in the Department of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University. She is the author of several books and exhibition catalogues, including Energy/Experimentation: Black Artists and Abstraction, 1964–1980; Basquiat; and (with Thelma Golden and Chrissie Iles) Lorna Simpson.

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Read an Excerpt



Duke University Press

Copyright © 2011 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4861-0

Chapter One



Is also obviously I minded, as ms. Kellie shows herself to be. What it is she wants to see but also what it is, who it is, she wants to be. For reasons many could speculate about she has given me a large clutch of writings mostly about women artists and performers, save for the Cuban artist Kcho, and David Hammons, an artist whose work I knew and respected back in the 1960s in new york, when the BAM (Black Arts movement) exploded. His work then was about what much of the most loudly registered work of Black artists of that period concerned, a newly focused outburst of intensity on the liberation of the Afro American people from national oppression, racism, as well as from the exploitation shared with most of the American people, though our work during those years was sharply Black nationalist. His work has now grown much more subtle.

But most of the art in this part of Kellie's book is in fact post– or un–Black nationalist in theme. Some of it has revolution only as an implied perspective given the normal aesthetic hence social order of the united States and its sister imperialist thralldoms.

Most of it is "conceptual art," which I have always thought of as related to newspaper puzzles and word games. Whose content consisted mostly of people trying to tell you how much smarter than you they are. Usually they ain't!

So I must confess to being daunted by what I, from jump, didn't claim to dig too much. Plus the mountain of this paper work that I actually did read, amidst mountains of other paper work to which I am still pledged to read, made this a task of iron will based, of course, on sibling insistence and some portion of curiosity.

First, according to my own ideological aesthetic, how and where would this work or these works she was presenting to me to comment on sit in my own measure and understanding? the contradictory discourses that shuffle back and forth hiding or obscuring each from the other are whether I was writing about Kellie's writing about the works or whether I was writing about the works themselves.

Reading any work of criticism or analysis, our concern must first be with how much of the work that is the focus of the critical work can actually be understood from what the author has said about it. Hence, there is no doubt that Kellie has achieved, in each case, a clarity about these artists and their work that I knew little of. A function of this fundamental clarity is the added clarity afforded a whole area of contemporary art, at least for me.

The question remained, remains, what is it that art does if it does not openly try to smash what aspects of bourgeois, racist society it confronts? From this is what was intriguingly opened wider for me in this reading. Specifically, What and Where are you in this hell created by slavery and capital (which includes colonialism and imperialism)? What has it done to you and how are you reacting or acting toward it? It is the specificity of that sensitivity and response that must be measured. In other words, as this Happy Shoe year passes, we cannot merely measure resistance to evil by the flying shoe! But if not by the Shoe itself, there must be a parable for and analogy to that paean of open rebellion against the Bush'it. Or so my deepest measure of the use of art, the functional utilitarian mode of revolutionary art.

But what of music, where the musicians are not openly chanting "throw that shoe, brother, sister, make sure it whacks him squarely on the knot!" Its effectiveness could be diluted if the piece is dull or uninspired. The words all but wasted as it were. And then music, the grandest of "abstractions," does not even need words to mean. That is why there are happy songs and sad songs, songs of repose and songs of excitement, songs of longing and songs of satisfaction. With no lyrics at all.

There are songs of signification as there are words of signification; Africans diasporically, likewise black Americans, have mastered this historic art in all its disciplines exquisitely. "everybody talking about heaven ain't going there," they sang in their masters' faces even while slaves. There must also be images of signification! So in these works that are discussed we must see the work discussed clearly, as well as what are its proportions and pretensions. And what exactly is it signifying?

What do these works aspire to do? Prof. Jones does her best to deliver some aspects of the artists' conception to us. It is called conceptual art, therefore we want to know, through the work itself, what is the concept we are being exposed to, but also as my old friend Morris Hines used to say, "and then, so what?"

Using my space limitations as an excuse I will only comment directly on the first two exhibitions Prof. Jones has written about, though after reading her commentary I am now at least aware of the evolving work of Lorna Simpson and the Cuban artist Kcho, in an interview done by Prof. Jones when he was in New York that I found very interesting, especially since Miami is in the hands of "Gusanos" (anti-Castro Cubans)!

In the piece "A.K.A. Saartjie: the Hottentot Venus in Context (Some recollections and a Dialogue)," the dialogue between black feminist artists—the proxy of feminism as an ideology representing whomever—and the world in which they are wrapped and the self which wraps that world inside them, Prof. Jones says, "Since the late 1980s, African American women artists in particular have begun to reclaim Saartjie Baartman as a heroine." this is interesting especially in light of the fact that Barack Obama's inaugural poet, Elizabeth Alexander, called her first book The Venus Hottentot. Her words seem to confirm what Prof. Jones had drawn from these South African women's take on the VH, a black South African woman taken to Europe where she thought she was "the family entrepreneur" only to find that she was displayed as some kind of freak. Her buttocks and labia until recently (2002) still on exhibit at the "muse / de l'Homme on a shelf / above Broca's brain." She goes further in the poem: "Since my own genitals are public / I have made other parts private."

Prof. Jones was rejected in her first attempt to put together an exhibit which would, in her words, "recuperate Saartjie: write her the most beautiful poems, make the most exquisite art in her name, tell her centuries later that we dug where she was coming from, let her know that we recognized her beauty and her pain, whisper that she had not died in vain," but she discovers that even in South Africa there is a resistance to this reclamation, that there are people who resist this sentiment or more properly are closer to the European colonial attitude toward this abused and exploited black woman who have that same attitude even toward themselves.

The second trip (Second Johannesburg Biennale) of this "colored looking" curator, the show "Life's Little necessities: Installations by Women in the 1990s" was allowed. The intercontinental dialogue with the participating artists about the VH which followed the show, which the curator includes in these writings, shows a more diverse reaction to the "tail" of the VH than the curator's initial perception from across the water. This would be one way to understand the diversity of perception of Anything which exists naturally among the Pan-African peoples. Words or Works. But the fundamental address was still to racial and gender oppression.

The entire smog of reception can be reduced to Commerce, where the folk wisdom about Negroes and the pig applies: that the only part of said beast they don't consume is its oink. This relates to the question of the oppressor white or male chauvinist that women, doubly oppressed by class and gender, and women of color who are triply oppressed, not just by class and gender but also by "race," can be completely consumed and that if we put the oink in a book it is consumed as well. though, usually, we are lucky (or un) if we are paid attention, never much coin.

What is important that Prof. Jones has done with her roundtable is flesh out (really) a depth of concerns by which the Imprisonment by money, by nationality ("race"), by class, and by gender makes us "consent" to be slaves. Though the installation presents various eyes on gender exploitation, its deeper vibe is to let us understand that the entire social system with its economic and political packaging is designed so our bodies, minds, and futures are inferior, actually by limitation and abuse or with the lies of racist description. The idea that Saartjie Baartman "consented" to become the VH is itself obscene distortion. As if black people across the world volunteered to be enslaved, or dragged across the world and made chattel, or colonized or live in a dangerous housing project in the Newarks of the world and be uneducated and unemployed.

The "Little necessities" exhibit moved these bold concerns into the area of "sexual agency" and the curator explains how these artists' work demonstrates sexuality as an exploited property of women whether the still obvious fact that whatever the corporation wants to advertise it will use a (white) woman. But even with other nationalities sexual exploitation is what is doing the selling. Jones complains that "a performer like Madonna receives kudos for her stunning self-representation, evocative creative fictions, and salacious ironies ... [but] women of color are rarely allowed as much aesthetic freedom in the realm of the erotic." But freedom is freedom, unfreedom is un. No matter the discussion.

Jones quotes women rappers whose aggressive decision "to speak their mind" she equates with artists in this show. The question remains by what means can these minds be filled with the world's real meanings and meanwhile how do we do something about the fact that as one of the artists, Tracey Rose, after telling us about receiving obscene phone calls regularly, says that there is a rape every eighty-four seconds. Too often, as artists, we are limited by our idea that we have no limitations.

The most important characteristic of these essays is that they can introduce you to a range of specific artists, but also monitor how a philosophical grounding can produce an aesthetic that is itself as radical in some ways as the ideas it is trying to project.

Newark, N.J. | December 31, 2008

Chapter Two


Preface to a twenty Volume suicide note

    For Kellie Jones, born 16 May 1959

    Lately, I've become accustomed to the way
    The ground opens up and envelopes me
    Each time I go out to walk the dog.
    Or the broad edged silly music the wind
    Makes when I run for a bus ...

    Things have come to that.

    And now, each night I count the stars,
    And each night I get the same number.
    And when they will not come to be counted,
    I count the holes they leave.

    Nobody sings anymore.

    And then last night, I tiptoed up
    To my daughter's room and heard her
    Talking to someone, and when I opened
    The door, there was no one there ...
    Only she on her knees, peeking into

    Her own clasped hands.

Chapter Three

A.K.A. Saartjie

The Hottentot Venus in Context (Some Recollections and a Dialogue) 1998/2004


A decade ago I put together a proposal for an exhibition on the image of the Hottentot Venus. Titled "Reclaiming Venus," the show was motivated by numerous African American women cultural practitioners who began to take up the theme in the late twentieth century. My first inspirations were visual artists, Renee Green, Tana Hargest, Lorna Simpson, Carla Williams, and Deborah Willis, and writers Elizabeth Alexander, Lisa Jones, and Suzan-Lori Parks. As one version of my prospectus read:

Reclaiming Venus

Curator—Kellie Jones

In the early nineteenth century, Saartjie Baartman, a Khoi-San woman of southern Africa, was displayed publicly throughout Europe as the "Hottentot Venus." Exhibited as a live anthropological specimen, European fascination with her buttocks and genitalia was the cause for such spectacle. Upon her death, Saartjie's labia were dissected and installed in the Musée de l'Homme where the famous "Hottentot Apron" remains to this day.

Since the late 1980s, African American women artists in particular have begun to reclaim Saartjie Baartman as a heroine. They have created work that considers her objectification in light of contemporary ideals of beauty and racial and gender stratifications. This show would explore such work but also more broadly examine issues of female agency, how women claim and control their bodies and sexuality in the 1990s.

In addition to art objects, video plays an important role in the show. In collaboration with scholar Fatimah Tobing Rony, I would like to create a video/film component that looks at misogyny and female objectification in the genre of music video, but also includes video makers who are not afraid to affirm and contemplate the power of the body—sensual, erotic or otherwise.

I am especially interested in addressing young women about feminist aspiration and action, concepts which seem to have been eclipsed in the last twenty years particularly in the realm of popular culture.

Over the years I was unsuccessful in finding a home for the show in the United States. When Okwui Enwezor invited me to contribute an exhibition to the Second Johannesburg Biennale in 1997, I just knew this was my chance to finally see "Reclaiming Venus" come to fruition. I was wrong. For one thing Okwui was dead set against the idea. I had not yet read his now classic essay "Reframing the Black Subject: Ideology and Fantasy in Contemporary South African Representation," in which he states:

The Hottentot Venus, whose supposedly horrendous-looking vagina is now preserved in formaldehyde in a museum in France, and the black man on the auction block, as objects of denigration, become props of ... ideological fantasy, the degenerative sketch from which whiteness stages its purity. These two historical scenes, in which the black body has been tendered as display, reproduce the abject as a sign of black identification.

Of course I was miffed to have the show rejected once again. But I rallied to produce the exhibition "Life's Little Necessities: Installations by Women in the 1990s." At the Johannesburg Biennale I was able to explore some of the same ideas of women's agency, power, and sexuality for which the Hottentot Venus was an emblematic figure. The context of the Biennale and South Africa also focused the show more centrally around concepts of the global, transnational, and postcolonial. Okwui's action had also saved me from stepping smack into the midst of a controversy in the post-apartheid milieu surrounding race, gender, authority, and nudity, and more specifically the seeming appropriation of the nude black female body by others. The responsibilities of artists, critics, and curators, notions of censorship, issues of historical trace in new images, and themes such as "representational violence" were debated over email, in the press, on panels, as well as in books and essays printed somewhat later.


Excerpted from EyeMinded by KELLIE JONES AMIRI BARAKA HETTI JONES LISA JONES GUTHRIE P. RAMSEY JR. Copyright © 2011 by Duke University Press . Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction "Art in the Family" 1

Part 1 On Diaspora

1 Eye Minded Amiri Baraka 37

2 Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note Amiri Baraka 43

3 A.K.A.Saartjie: The Hottentot Venus in Context (Some Recollections and a Dialogue) 1998/2004 43

4 Tracey Rose: Postapartheid Playground 69

5 (Un)Seen and Overheard: Pictures by Lorna Simpson 81

6 Life's Little Necessities: Installations by Women in the 1990S 125

7 Interview with Kcho 135

8 The Structure of Myth and the Potency of Magic 145

Part 2 In Visioning

9 Seeing Through Hettle jones 159

10 In the Eye of the Beholder Hettle Jones 163

11 To/From Los Angeles with Betye Saar 165

12 Crown Jewels 177

13 Dawoud Bey: Portraits in the Theater of Desire 187

14 Pat Ward Williams: Photography and Social/Personal History 207

15 Interview with Howardena Pindell 215

16 Eye-Minded: Martin Puryear 235

17 Large As Life: Contemporary Photography 241

18 Interview with David Hammons 247

Part 3 Making Multiculturalism

19 Excuse Me While I Kiss the Sky & Then Fly and Touch Down Lisa Jones 263

20 How I Invented Multiculturalism Lisa Jones 273

21 Lost in Translation: Jean-Michel in the (Re)Mix 277

22 In the Thick of It: David Hammons and Hair Culture in the 1970s 297

23 Domestic Prayer 305

24 Critical Curators Interview with Kellie Jones Poliester 309

25 Poets of a New Style of Speak: Cuban Artists of This Generation 317

26 In Their Own Image 329

27 Tim Rollins and K.O.S: What's Wrong with This Picture? 341

28 Blues to the Future 343

Part 4 Abstract Truths

29 Them There Eyes: On Connections and the Visual Guthrie P. Ramsey Jr. 349

30 Free Jazz and the Price of Black Musical Abstraction Guthrie P. Ramsey Jr. 353

31 To the Max: Energy and Experimentation 363

32 It's Not Enough to Say "Black is Beautiful": Abstraction at the Whitney 1969-1974 397

33 Black West: Thoughts on Art in Los Angeles 427

34 Brothers and Sisters 459

35 Bill T. Jones 469

36 Abstract Expressionism: The Missing Link 473

37 Norman Lewis: The Black Paintings 483

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