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The Impossible Dream: Memories and Impressions of Atlanta

Let me start by saying this: Go to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. You have to see the major retrospective of Vik Muniz and the exhibition of Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks showcasing the notebooks created by Jean-Michel Basquiat. I enjoyed them immensely and you will enjoy too, learning from each and gaining insight without being overwhelmed. While the Vik Muniz retrospective closes on August 21, 2016, Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks, is on view until May 29, 2016.

Now, when I first received an email invitation for the High Museum’s Directors Circle opening on February 24—for which I have no idea how I got to be invited—and especially when I read that Vik Muniz would be in attendance together with Dieter Buchhart, guest-curator of Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks, I considered going to Atlanta seriously. I mean, I lived in Atlanta for years, went to school there, and it has been twenty years since I have been there last. Is this the occasion to go there? I said, yes, I could take a half-day trip.

I kept thinking of all that was going on in the country; where everywhere I turned the news was about Beyoncé’s Formation video and the reaction to how during the Superbowl halftime show

her dancers were dressed in fantastic leather outfits with Black Panthers-style berets with their afros, and gave the Black Power salute by raising their fists, and that the video of Formation focused on racism and the Black Lives Matter movement. And how all of a sudden, America, just like in the SNL skid, realized that Beyoncé was black and how everybody was unbelievably vocal—i.e. racist, in their reaction to Beyoncé’s video. Let me tell you, Formation is a beautiful song, the video is phenomenal and Beyoncé is the real queen! I want Her to real the world!

Moreover, let me also tell you, that all who are upset at Beyoncé for criticizing the police, insisting that the police are there to protect them and that they are always fair, have no Black friends and have never been in a car driven by a black friend. Period.

They haven’t had the experience—not even once—of coming to the realization that a young Black man would be stopped without a reason, and not judged by the content of their character, even if he were driving the latest model of a Porsche Carrera, is handsome, educated, a law school student wearing a Rolex and a Polo shirt in Atlanta. They have not witnessed the hate the police can have upon noticing the white girl sitting in the passenger seat and lived the helplessness one can feel when you thought all along that the Authority that has been there to protect you, can in fact terrorize you.

After more than 25 years since Madonna’s contract with Pepsi was cancelled because of the objections of the Catholic church to her Like a Prayer video, where a Black saint brought back to life is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit because of the color of his skin, that this conversation is still taking place makes you wonder if it all is tilting the windmills or not.

I had also just read somewhere that the Miami police were going to boycott Beyoncé’s Formation concert. I don’t know how they could say this when quite simply all they should be saying is “We are with Beyoncé! We condemn all racist police and activities”. To me it makes no difference when the Vatican does nothing about the priests abusing children, when all they should say is, “We will never condone such behavior! These priests are not Catholics! Here are their names. They should be tried just like any person who abuses children!” I don’t see why any institution would ever tolerate such criminal acts.

So back to the decision to go to Atlanta: I decided that in all this climate it was the perfect time to go to Atlanta, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s city of birth and hometown where African-Americans make up of 54% of the population according to the 2010 census. I was also very happy that on a whim, my friend Sema—and neighbor in Miami in the winter—decided to join me. I was already excited to find out that my friend Ceylan—a professor of architecture whom I like to consult on urban planning and architecture—was there for a series of lectures she was giving in Atlanta.

Atlanta: Everything was somehow the same, yet so different too. I hardly recognized Buckhead, which now had a mall with luxury stores. We had to eat at Bilboquet. Nothing that gave the impression that you were in the South. I saw not one Black person there. We then went to the Emory campus, where I saw mostly Chinese students. I enjoyed reminiscing my college days walking around places I walked everyday, through the Quad to the Michael C. Carlos Museum which we visited briefly. Walking through the permanent exhibitions of the Greek and Roman and, Egyptian collections was a joy. I only wished the African section was not closed.

In the end we went to the opening at the High Museum. The High Museum of Art in Atlanta is the major museum in the city. It is within a complex called the Woodruff Center, which houses the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, The Alliance Theatre and the High Museum of Art. The High, was designed by Richard Meier who won the Pritzker prize for it, and went through another expansion with Renzo Piano’s design in 2005.

Well, the thing is I don’t like museums that are in luxury neighborhoods, removed from real people. I believe museums should be community centers, where everybody without exception can feel to be part of them, and be educated there. Lately we see the concept of the “new museum”s where they are part of a real estate revival where a museum is built and then real estate value around the area increases. And therefore, just as Michele Obama stated in the video released by the Smithsonian that not everybody could feel they belong there. As for this specific museum, even the name is the “High" Museum of Art. It doesn’t get more elitist than that! As I tried to see Black faces around the crowd and count them, my friend Ceylan, said that across the street luxury condos were being built where unit costs ran between $1 to $4 million.

So what education can we talk about here, I thought? When you can’t provide access to all and expose them to art of high caliber no matter what echelon of society they come from. And then, as I looked around both exhibitions I realized one thing: Through the retrospective exhibition of Vik Muniz, a Brazilian photography artist with a social consciousness who went to one of the biggest favelas in Rio, and created projects involving garbage collector residents, which are documented in the beautiful film Waste Land, this very same artist, who came to the US and later create a work modeled from the police booking photographs of George Stinney, Jr.—a 14 year-old African-American who was denied all his legal rights and was found guilty immediately and executed for the murders of two white girls in 1944 in South Carolina—composed "largely of snapshots of white American families celebrating occasions both grand and quotidian, in which Stinney was never able to take part".

George Stinney, Jr., from the Album series, 2015

And then the Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibition, a Brooklyn-born artist of Haitian and Puerto Rican descent (you can watch the films Basquiat and Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child for more information), and in his art dealt with, among others, issues of racism, heritage, poverty, segregation and here, on a wall had an excerpt from one of his note-books which says “I realized that I didn't see many paintings with black people in them".

Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks

And then it hits me, the museum is in fact educating. It is educating the High white. About the Black experience... Which evidently, from all that we see around us still happening, so desperately needs educating.

#HighMuseumofArt #Atlanta #JeanMichelBasquiat #Basquiat #VikMuniz #Beyonce #Formation #Superbowl

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