A Room of Our Own

At the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, quiet self-exploration turns to high art.

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blacklist

Something magical happens in conversation when only we are in the room. A guard is dropped, a look is exchanged. Even though we might be strangers, we laugh because we speak the same language. We pause to judge ourselves and the world on our own terms, from our own context and vantage point, with absolute candor.

Such are the moments captured during Black List Project: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders and Elvis Mitchell, an exhibit on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. (For those who missed the HBO documentary that aired last month, it is still on view through October 26.)

Most of the featured participants in the joint creation of photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders and Elvis Mitchell are celebrities who have been interviewed to the point of numbness, so drawing fresh blood is a sizeable achievement, showing why Elvis Mitchell is one of the most gifted interviewers of our time. Adept at circumventing public identities to get to the real people behind the personas of the successful, Mitchell is in peak form, making an impression even though he and his questions are edited out of the final product.

In the entrance to the exhibit, a video of black trailblazers is projected onto the gallery wall. What we are left with is the subject's voice alone discussing their blackness, defining their blackness and their accomplishments in whatever way they choose.

So what does it mean to be part of TheBlack List?

When comedian Chris Rock talks of the African-American experience, he talks of a game fixed against you, of concrete double standards and an arena that insists on excellence from blacks but tolerates the mediocrity of everyone else. Timothy Greenfield-Sanders cites as a metaphor, success for blacks can only come with a knockout punch because a fair decision from white judges is impossible. It's an interesting monologue, coming as it is from someone far more successful than the majority of white people paying the extra $9.95 a month to HBO so they can hear him say it.

Playwright Suzan Lori Parks talks not of outside forces but of internal needs. Speaking of the strong connection between the African-American community, its ancestors and its past, Parks comes to the definition, "We are a haunted people." She laughs when she says it, too, as if coming to the understanding that this burden is an equal bounty, a priceless one she's made a career of tapping into as an artist.

Former Guns N' Roses guitarist Slash describes his past racial cluelessness in such a way that it becomes clear that his obliviousness was not a rejection of blackness but a way of coping with the complexities of biracial identity. As a fellow mullato, Slash always struck me like that kind of biracial guy who runs the other way in a room full of white folks on sight of another black person, for fear of association. The truth is more complicated. It's jarring enough to hear the musician talk openly about race at all given his avoidance of the subject in the past, but it becomes even more startling as his dialogue reveals that guy from the band that produced lyrics like "Niggers, that's right/Get out of my way/Don't need to buy none of your gold chains today" is actually proud of his African American heritage and sees it as a central part of his own identity.

Seeing the documentary on HBO was uplifting enough, in a Black History Month special kind of way. But to see this work, currently in the Museum of Fine Art Houston, in the museum setting is humbling as well.

Individually the pictures are stark and simple, presenting the individuals themselves in their purest form. Color photos, minimalist lighting and simple backgrounds, large format, ink-jet printing. The portraits are printed slightly larger than life, not so big as to seem completely statuesque yet just big enough to imply to the eye that this is not a collection of mere mortals. Most subjects appear fairly somber, straight faced or with the slightest of grins. The only outright smile among them comes from Suzanne Lori-Parks, whose impish grin can't seem to contain itself amid the sobriety of the room. Anyone who has picked up a Vanity Fair in recent decades will recognize the work of commercial photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders.

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