Michael Corris on Nathaniel Donnett

Nathaniel Donnett’s “To Know a Veil” caught you unawares. Brimming with abstract images, structures, and sound, the exhibition revealed its real aesthetic and intellectual pleasures slowly and unexpectedly. If ever there were an exemplary illustration of aesthetic cognitivism—the concept that the material stuff of art both conveys and generates knowledge—this was surely it.

The show’s title was a pun on that phrase of exasperation, “to no avail,” while simultaneously referencing the metaphorical “veil” discussed in W. E. B. Du Bois’s book The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches (1903) and imbuing the historian and activist’s concept of “double consciousness” with more than a touch of pessimism. Donnett also draws on the ideas of Fred Moten, specifically his notion regarding enclosure, and Édouard Glissant. Yet it is the latter’s theory of opacity—an individual’s right to eschew transparency for the sake of others—that provides Donnett with a point of resistance against all-too-eager negations of cultural difference. Consequently, Donnett’s project was meaningful and rewarding to the extent that the viewer was willing to do more than simply swan through the gallery—in other words, the artist is not reluctant to demand more from his audience.

One such example in this presentation was the looming cube Veil (all works cited, 2022), a massive freestanding structure composed of backpack fragments, tambourine jingles, duct tape, and black-plastic trash bags, among other items. Another was From this point it remains, a tall, shallow, wall-like box containing a host of memorabilia referencing Du Bois, family life, and abhorrent racial stereotypes. The tableau was illuminated by black light and was visible only through a large crack on the outside of the work. Both sculptures are intended to be monuments to impenetrability, referring to the veil of racism and to the veiled consciousness—Du Bois’s double consciousness—that places African Americans in the position of seeing themselves through stereotypes created by others.

The metaphor of the veil did a lot of work here: It is a plane that obscures, a screen upon which an image is projected, and a defensive shield. The embodiment of these signifying twists and turns was stunningly rendered in a series of collages that translate various graphs of data describing the ongoing and egregious impact of racism on Black Americans. These charts deliver a very different sort of message than those Du Bois presented in 1900, at the Paris Exposition Universelle, in a display that was meant to foreground the progress attained by African Americans since Emancipation. Donnett’s visualizations offer nothing as explicit—they are furtive glances at a less encouraging reality, crafted from the zippers of kids’ backpacks. (The entire show was developed and fabricated during the artist’s residency at Gallery 51, and the exhibition’s central materials were gleaned from a backpack exchange conducted with local schoolchildren.) The title of each work (such as Shaky Foundation—Black and Latino or Hispanic homeowners have less housing equity in the U.S—graph chart) directly reveals the source of its data. This device ensured that the formal qualities of these deceptively “pretty” images—which uncannily called to mind Ad Reinhardt’s photocollages of the early 1940s—presented little mystery to the viewer willing to draw back the veil.

Improvisation permeated every aspect of the show. Donnett handles his materials in a way that explicitly references jazz maestro Ornette Coleman’s approach to making music. Enveloping the exhibition was a soundscape of remarkable inventiveness, incorporating conversations with schoolchildren about their sense of self, snippets of jazz, and the artist’s own electronic compositions. Indeed, all these elements mirrored the complexity and polysemy of the works on display, as well as the artist’s rich and extraordinary scholarship.

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