Glenn Ligon Channels Mohammad Ali
THE DAILY PIC: The artist illustrates an Ali poem–in neon.
Glenn Ligon made this neon piece, called Give us a Poem (Palindrome #2), in 2007, and I saw it a little while back on the wall of the Studio Museum in Harlem, where it’s part of the permanent collection. The work is built around an incident that occurred at Harvard in 1975, when Muhammad Ali had just finished a speech and a student in the audience asked him to improvise a poem: “Me/We” was the pithy verse Ali offered. Even then, at the height of the Black Power movement, it was an intriguingly opaque statement that could have been read as a gesture of solidarity between the black boxer and his white audience, or as an underlining of their difference. In Ligon’s work, the two words become a visual palindrome, of sorts–symmetrical top and bottom–and alternate being lit (white) and unlit (black), which just increases the tension inherent in them. In 2014, in a museum in Harlem, it strikes me that the tension is between the artist and the audience he addresses–with the issue of race still there, but now wrapped up in larger issues of aesthetic communities and the class, and color, they imply. (Photo by Adam Reich, courtesy the Studio Museum in Harlem)
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