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God Made my Face: A Collective Portrait of James Baldwin
Jane Evelyn Atwood, James Baldwin with the bust of his head by American artist, Lawrence Wolhandler in his hotel room, rue des Grands Augustins, Paris, France (1975)© Jane Evelyn Atwood. Courtesy David Zwirner

Why we need to remember James Baldwin as the complex human he was

Writer and curator Hilton Als discusses his new exhibition and the importance of grounding Baldwin in his own – sometimes flawed – image

Hilton Als, Pulitzer prize-winner, critic, and curator of new exhibition God Made my Face: A Collective Portrait of James Baldwin, currently showing at New York’s David Zwirner, is very clear when we talk on the phone about his directive, that is, to embody Baldwin both fully and intimately. “Baldwin is someone that I’d been thinking about and writing about for a great deal”, says Als, “but what was missing for me in present-day discussions about him was his body as a queer man of colour and also someone who was very driven by aesthetics... I wanted to bring those elements back into a discussion (and) have a kind of communal celebration of his body, and his eye, and also his queerness.”

From Baldwin’s seminal debut novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), to this year’s film adaptation by director Barry Jenkins of his work If Beale Street Could Talk, we hardly need reminding that James Baldwin’s influence has never really left the modern day zeitgeist. In 2019, Baldwin feels more relatable than ever. As a gay, black writer, his works are giving a fresh voice to the marginalised.

It makes sense then that Als would curate an exhibition such as God Made My Face, where at the centre lies Baldwin's body. Be it his physical body, his spiritual embodiment, or his body of work, Als assures Baldwin can be felt in every facet of the exhibition without the taint of objectification or self-projection. “To have his body around his voice again is very important to me and in a way, the criteria of the show was whether or not we were being emotionally truthful to him and his work, as opposed to imposing an idea about him on the work and in the gallery.”

“The criteria of the show was whether or not we were being emotionally truthful to him and his work, as opposed to imposing an idea about him on the work and in the gallery” – Hilton Als

The exhibition features works from several artists such as Beauford Delaney and Kara Walker, who have been “willingly or not”, as Als states, “in conversation with James Baldwin”.

“(The exhibition) is just bringing (to light) things that are important, that were already there,” adds Als. In this way, the viewer is privy to Baldwin’s inner workings where they may not have been before, they are practically in conversation with him themselves. And what better way to get to know someone fully than to talk with them?

The benefit of a conversation lies in the revelations and the clarity that come during and after. Als uses the exhibition as an opportunity to show Baldwin in his multitude and magnitude, intrinsically marrying his blackness with his “sexuality and aestheticism – both of which informed his politics”. Baldwin’s sexuality is often removed from the discussion surrounding him, which Als laments is due in part to Baldwin being claimed as an “oracle”.

Baldwin became and continues to be a benchmark for black writers, more specifically, black male writers – something Baldwin himself may have actively sought, but an outcome Als speaks critically on. “He’s being reclaimed as the precedent for black men to write essays. That’s nice that they write essays, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are Baldwin and I think it’s a part of a racist, sexist, heteronormative aspect of American and British publishing… they glom on and take one person and try to approximate them to another.” The result is that Baldwin remains a lofty literary saint, deprived of his humanness and complexity.

It is worth noting, that Baldwin himself often separated his blackness and his sexuality, perhaps in a bid to gain power and fame by securing his masculinity. “He sort of has this weird, wonderful but strange relationship to maleness”, comments Als, “it’s the focus of so many of his books and essays.” A section of Revolutionary Hope: A Conversation Between James Baldwin and Audre Lorde printed in Essence in 1984 is featured in the exhibition, an addition that will likely shed light on Baldwin’s weaknesses as an artist. In the dialogue between the two queer, black writers, they end up having a disagreement about the black experience. Lorde wishes Baldwin would just acknowledge black women’s pain, while Baldwin doubles down on his conviction that black men have it much worse. “I really love (Audre Lorde) saying ‘okay, try to see it our way’,” Als says. “I think in some ways that’s what (Baldwin’s) novels suffer from – a lack of the female perspective that is authentic.”

“Often what gets lost in the fact, is that he’s an extremely talented person and we lose that” – Hilton Als

In his book White Girls, Als mentions James Baldwin amongst a handful of black artists that “wrote to be liked”, and while Baldwin remains a staple of modern literature, the need for public approval, primarily male approval, did affect Baldwin’s writing. When the question of if becoming a spokesperson of sorts came at a cost for Baldwin, Als isn’t so sure that’s true: “I don’t think it was a cost for him so much as he used it to a different end. He was very involved in the Civil Rights Movement and that required him to be a public figure, to speak out, which is almost the antithesis of writing. You need to be quiet and by yourself, and so there was what William Styron and his great friends call (a) ‘schizoid’ quality to this person who was out in the public but also a writer.” As Als goes on, however, the toll becomes clear: “I think that sometimes the public person won out over the writer... he started to lose that interiority that is essential to being a novelist.”

Als is no stranger to the complexities of Baldwin and is not afraid to showcase Baldwin in his “myriad self”. God Made My Face does not seek to just glorify Baldwin’s accomplishments, in fact, it is positioned in active resistance against the burden of genius and explanation that is often associated with black art and black artists. Als chooses Baldwin’s needs above all others, including himself, to give the writer space to speak for himself. “He’s not disembodied”, assures Als, “he’s very much there (in the exhibition) as a writer and as an artist.”

“I think that often what gets lost in the fact is that he’s an extremely talented person and we lose that – we lose his aestheticism in a lot of these conversations and I want him to have it back.”

God Made my Face: A Collective Portrait of James Baldwin runs at David Zwirner, New York, until 16 February 2019