Art on the Stoop: Sunset Screenings at Brooklyn Museum

Art on the Stoop: Sunset Screenings at Brooklyn Museum

At the suggestion of one of our Arts Ambassadors, we met for a free screening on a balmy Sunday afternoon in late September outside of the Brooklyn Museum, a building that looks like a spaceship carrying a stately Beaux-Arts edifice landed near Grand Army Plaza. We found our seats on the museum’s “front porch, ” extra-wide tiered seats on the side of the building. The screen was placed at the top of the stairs, requiring viewers to face upwards. A disorienting experience, but one that removed the distraction of the bustle of the street below. 

The sunset screenings are a presentation of video artworks by artists in the museum’s collection shown in an outdoor public space, currently one of the only kinds of spaces where we can interact with our community at large. The screenings felt like a reprieve (boy, do I miss theaters) but wouldn’t be considered escapist entertainment. We were reminded by Carrie Mae Weems’s RESIST COVID TAKE 6! to thank our frontline workers, demand the space your dignity deserves, that the pre-existing condition is poverty, etc. in bold text installations on the front of the seats as well as in video PSAs before and between each segment.

The piece that I have continued to think about the most since the viewing was the first in the Sunday evening lineup:

three kings weep…, 2018 by Ebony G. Patterson

A triptych of three Black men face the camera squarely with the upright posture of royalty. They start shirtless, and for 8 minutes and 34 seconds we watch them dress and shed tears. However, the video plays backwards and in slow motion. I found myself transfixed by the moments of anti-gravity: A tear rolling up an impassive face. A piece of fabric fluttering up into a hand. The uncanny movements of the men as they appear to put on brightly patterned layers of shirts, vests, jackets, jewelry reminiscent of chain mail, a lavender bandana which magically ties itself into a crown.

This dressing which is an undressing happens mostly without comment, punctuated only by a boy’s voice reading lines from “If We Must Die,” by Claude McKay, a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance. The poem was published in 1919 after the “Red Summer,” a period of intense racial terror by white supremacists met with Black resistance across the United States. The speaker entreats, “Oh, Kinsmen! We must meet the common foe; / Though far outnumbered, let us show us brave, / And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow!” 

The echo rings between centuries. In 1919, the third wave of the Spanish flu spread throughout the world as so-called race riots erupted in response to the brutal murder of Black people, and the federal government cited Socialist influence on the civil rights uprising to arouse fear and suspicion. In 2020… well, as Mark Twain said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”  

The rendering of time in …three kings weep… (and the ellipses in its title) invites us to contemplate the movement and direction of history, particularly in the context of Black history in America. Are we moving forward or backward? Is this moment a blip or an eon? What do we do with this sense of deja vu? It is a call to arms in the voice of a child (an innocent thrust into maturity too early or a premonition of a future generation?) which is a reminder that this has all happened before and has never stopped. These three kings dress to enter battle. At the same time, they shed their armor as they weep for their losses.

Ebony G. Patterson (Jamaican, born 1981). Still from …three kings weep…, 2018. Single-channel video (color, sound): 8 min., 34 sec. © Ebony G. Patterson. (Three-channel version: Brooklyn Museum; Gift of the Contemporary Art Committee and purchase gift of Carla Chammas and Judi Roaman, 2019.11)

Screenings of multiple programs on Wednesdays-Sundays through Nov 8.