When walking into Grace Wales Bonner’s exhibition “Spirit Movers” at the Museum of Modern Art, one might have expected to see figurative works of art and was happily met with pieces of abstraction. Take, for instance, Terry Adkins’s “Last Trumpet” comprised of four large-scale trumpets to show the visual marriage of sound–this is an example of what was there. Instead, the sculpture Moustapha Dimé’s “Lady with a Long Neck,” which is one of the closest pieces to being a figurative work was emphasized. And this was just the beginning of the robust and buzzy exhibition.
Bonner took a year to curate this exhibition, looking through over 200,000 pieces of MoMA’s archive of art to put on display for the public. From countless meetings with co-curator Michelle Kuo, she created a beautiful arrangement of heavily research-based pieces and created an immersive curation of works. Kuo is the Marlene Hess curator of painting and sculpture at MoMA. Artists like composer Benjamin Patterson are highlighted–there are also sculptures by Betye Saar and Mathias Goeritz being displayed. Black artist David Hammons’s piece, “Afro Asian Eclipse (or Black China),” a piece formed with tufts of hair that the artist collected from barbershops reflects Bonner’s visual attention to sound—it’s inspired by the cutting of the hair and the moments of conversation at the barbershop.
The collection of works had many books on display, big and small, a nod to Bonner’s deep dedication to her research-based practice. It’s a direct reflection of her process in design and tailoring as well. Her ability to select pieces that reflect aspects of movement and sound in ways that aren’t as subtle is a beautiful way to convey Blackness and its meditations on dance and music. Composer Benjamin Patterson, has a piece in her curation titled “Overture (Version II), Overture (Version III), and Septet from ‘Lemons.’ c. 1961,” was a new way of “composing” music that people could follow along to. It was innovative for its time as Patterson was rejected from orchestras due to his race.
The designer has also released a book to accompany the exhibition entitled “Spirit Movers: Dream in the Rhythm” which heavily relies on photography to convey sound, movement, and what she associates with as a part of Black culture. “It’s such a special process, just being able to have access to the collection, and really see the breadth of the collection,” Bonner tells ESSENCE.com in a soft-spoken voice. She adds: “Just from the start, to engage with it, I realized it was so expensive, there’s a lot of photography I was really drawn to. I wanted to almost give it its own space and think about it in a complementary way to the exhibition.”
She expresses that the book is a way of exploring the themes of the exhibition specifically through photography and poetry. Bonner mentions here that she likes to be respectful of different mediums. “There are many different inputs, but you can also experience them directly in a different form,” she notes.
Throughout the book, you can expect writings from writers and poets like Langston Hughes, Nikki Giovanni, Greg Tate, Jean Toomer, and more. These selections accompanied by visual aspects of sound and its connection to movement make for an incredibly mesmerizing experience while reading. Bonner’s mind is a landscape of information and her release of it through this exhibition is not only an honor to witness but history in the making. She’s immortalizing distinct aspects of living as a Black person like small gestures, movements, and sounds in a way that many have never seen before.
Grace Wales Bonner and MoMA’s new exhibition “Spirit Movers” is on view from November 18 to April 7, 2024, at the Museum of Modern Art located at 11 W 53rd St, New York, NY 10019. “Spirit Movers: Dream in the Rhythm” is available for pre-order now on amazon.com.