We shall overcome

by Arturo Galansino

American Art 1961–2001, Palazzo Strozzi’s exhibition for spring 2021, will be using over 100 major artworks from the Walker Art Center collection in Minneapolis to tell the story of forty years of US history stretching from Vietnam to 0911.
The exhibition is going to focus in a big way on diversity and on the struggle for civil rights – values that are at once foundational and yet a source of deep-rooted contradiction and conflict in the construction of the American cultural identity. In point of fact, the work of several of the artists in the exhibition is dramatically relevant to what is going on right now.

Kerry James Marshall, “BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY”, 1998.
Minneapolis, Walker Art Center

The tragic arrest that led to 46-year-old Afro-American man George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis on 25 May, an event abundantly recorded on video footage, has sparked a growing series of increasingly violent protests in most of America’s larger cities. The now viral images disseminated and shared by all US and international media clerly show how Floyd’s cries for help went unheeded as his neck was being crushed under the weight of a police officer’s knee until he could no longer breathe. This is the umpteenth instance of the abuse of power involving a black American on the part of the police, and what the United States is experiencing right now cannot help but remind us of events in Los Angeles in 1991 and 1992 following the dissemination of a video showing the police beating up another black American, Rodney King. The officers’ trial ended with a verdict of almost total acquittal that triggered a spate of protests, bloody clashes and violent looting throughout the city lasting over a month. These events and the many cases of racist violence perpetrated by the authorities that began to be recorded and shared by leading media in the early ‘nineties sparked a broad public debate in US society which was also reflected in the art world.

Gary Simmons, Us and Them, 1991
Minneapolis, Walker Art Center

Civic and social commitment thrust its way forcefully into the very heart of the artistic debate in the ‘nineties thanks to figures from such traditionally sidelined communities as the LGBTQs, Afro-Americans and Native Americans. In that context, black artists of the calibre of Glenn Ligon, Gary Simmons and Kara Walker began to build a reputation for themselves on the American art scene by displaying their ability to merge art history and topical relevance in a highly evocative style with a hugely strong impact. 

A large section of the American Art 1961–2001 exhibition will be highlighting these artists, whose work reveals an unprecedented expressive force spawned by the injustice and tension that are still so much a part of reality today. One of the leading exponents of this new course in American art is Kerry James Marshall, whose work is going to be very much in the limelight in the exhibition at Palazzo Strozzi. 

Kerry James Marshall, “WE SHALL OVERCOME”, 1998
Minneapolis, Walker Art Center

An Afro-American artist born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1955 and raised in Los Angeles, Marshall, whose art ranges from the abstract to the strip cartoon and from painting and installations to video art and photography, has proven since the ‘nineties to be one of the most important artists in recounting the story (and the present situation) of black identity in the United States. His work on display in Palazzo Strozzi will include, in particular, his famous prints of historic slogans coined by the civil rights movement in the ‘fifties and ‘sixties, some of them pacifist and identity-related, others militant and combative: ‘Black is Beautiful’, ‘Black Power’, ‘We Shall Overcome’, ‘By Any Means Necessary’ and ‘Burn Baby Burn’. The appropriation of phrases from a historical context such as the struggle against segregation becomes a tool in his hands for imparting topical relevance today to a battle that has never truly been won or even ended. Those words continue to echo today in their vibrant relevance to a lingering situation still unresolved.

Kerry James Marshall, “BLACK POWER”, 1998
Minneapolis, Walker Art Center

The tragic events of recent weeks testify to the deep undercurrents of tension still coursing through American society, and indeed through a large part of the Western world today. All of this gives cultural institutions the opportunity to use contemporary art to tell today’s story, to take up a position and to participate in the public debate. Palazzo Strozzi has a strong tradition of addressing the most topical and urgent issues of the day with its audiences, but it has rarely been clearer than in recent months that the role of an institution wishing to carry weight in its own time brings with it a duty to shoulder that responsibility.

Moving into phase two

by Arturo Galansino, Ludovica Sebregondi, Riccardo Lami and Matthias Favarato

Eighty-four days separate Sunday 8 March, Palazzo Strozzi’s first lockdown day, from Monday 1 June, the day the Tomás Saraceno. Aria exhibition reopens. “Phase Two” in the era of COVID-19 is beginning for Palazzo Strozzi too, as we reassess and rethink our IN TOUCH online project to bring it into line with this new development.

IN TOUCH was an immediate, spontaneous response with a strong sense of urgency at a time of total uncertainty as to what was going to happen in ensuing weeks. We were determined from the outset to react to this crisis with a clear goal, which was to stay in touch with our visitors – to protect our bond of proximity at a time of deep insecurity for all of us, as our normal bearings came under severe strain in this new and utterly unprecedented situation. The Tomás Saraceno’s exhibition offered us the perfect starting point; in fact it was almost prophetic in its reflection on the fragility of our world. Comparison with a spider’s web to illustrate the environment we live in, a concept that plays a major role in Saraceno’s art, is well suited to define the network of relations that have kept us united at this time – a network linked to the online world on which all our daily activities, including our thirst for culture and beauty, have had of necessity to pivot during lockdown.

The video message by Tomás Saraceno

Our choice for the IN TOUCH project was to merge our website and social channels by creating new and original content taking a fresh look at certain moments in Palazzo Strozzi’s history, rather than simply taking a stroll down memory lane, in an effort to discover new values in them in the light of our present circumstances. This led us to address such eminently topical issues as interconnection, isolation, the sense of nationhood and community, the family and inclusiveness. To address as broad an audience as possible we hosted different viewpoints, as you can see from the authors of the essays (from both within and outside the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi), with whom we were eager not to look backwards into the past but always forwards at the present and into the future. A crucial role was played by the video messages sent in by artists wishing to testify their closeness with Palazzo Strozzi in consideration of their strong bond with us and with Italy as a whole. Marina Abramović, Ai Weiwei, Jeff Koons and Tomás Saraceno all aired their support for us and their contributions proved hugely popular, with Marina’s message in particular attracting almost 1 million hits.

The video message by Marina Abramović

But there are other figures that can help us tell the story of this project too. On our IN TOUCH platform we published 24 essays read by almost 60,000 single users. On Facebook and Instagram we published over 100 posts, reaching over 1.5 million people and causing our online community to grow by 10% in a mere two months. In addition to which, the fact that our visitors spent longer than average on the pages of IN TOUCH is another extremely interesting development because it shows that people preferred to focus on exploring the content in depth rather than simply skimming over it; and this, despite the moment of frenzy everyone was experiencing in the consumption of online content. The top five most avidly read articles were We’re All in the Same Boat; The Shattered Embrace; Dining with Pontormo; Men, Apricots and Cows; and Heaven in a Room. Far from being a mere hit parade, however, this list perfectly mirrors the multi-faceted nature of our approach and the variety of our readers’ interests. A project that deserves a special mention here is the remote-educational project that we christened ART AT HOME for families with children and teens on their hands. The project was visited by almost 6,000 users, many of whom then sent us in the results of their various activities. And we also very much appreciated the affection and esteem displayed by those who have been following our initiatives for a long time, given that the newsletter was the tool most widely used for accessing IN TOUCH, thus highlighting our audience’s closeness even at a time of physical distancing.

A selection of articles of IN TOUCH from our website blog.

And now, as the exhibition gets set to reopen on 1 June, we are about to launch a new phase for IN TOUCH too, turning it into a fortnightly column. Like every cultural institution eager to talk about its own era, Palazzo Strozzi is committed to addressing the most relevant and topical issues of our time, so that every exhibition and activity we produce provides us with an opportunity to explore the world we live in an increasingly contemporary vein. Over the next few weeks we will be pursuing our IN TOUCH project by seeking inspiration in what Tomás Saraceno has called “visions of the future and of reality.” We will be discussing the exhibitions, activities and daily life of Palazzo Strozzi in an effort to keep open a space for parallel debate, a place for cross-contaminating and sharing different points of view.

AI WEIWEI: Stay home, stay together

Ai Weiwei sends a video message to Florence and Italy as a personal contribution to the new Palazzo Strozzi project IN TOUCH. A reflection on the Coronavirus emergency, with a clear statement: “Stay home, stay together“.

Hello. In this very difficult moment I wish you all well – as we all know Coronavirus is a challenge of this special time. Many people are suffering. There’s no border, no nationality or different class or religion can really escape from this almost very democratic virus. As we know there is no clear solution for something happened very unpredictable and also mysterious – with so much uncertainty that deeply affects our life, and many many people already lost their life.
And the same will continue for a while. This makes us understand that life is fragile and we can never really take this peaceful life for granted and we have to fight, we have to struggle. That requires solidarity, requires understanding, scientific research but more it requires our perspective on life itself.
Life is a struggle and life is full of surprise and I think this moment we need to be fully aware of the situation and to have some kind of positive attitude: stay home and stay together.
Thank you.

A dissident artist with a leading voice, Ai Weiwei represents one of the most influential personalities of our time. In 2016 he was the protagonist of  AI WEIWEI. LIBERO, a greatly successful exhibition that launched a new course dedicated to contemporary art at Palazzo Strozzi.