Can a Tulsa Art Show Help to Remake the Sometimes Heartless Heartland?

A nuanced exhibition grapples with Oklahoma’s—and America’s—past and present. Is it enough?
Adrian Aguilera and Betelhem Makonnen, ‘untitled (a flag for John Lewis or a green screen placeholder for an America that is yet to be),’ 2020. Courtesy of the artists

As Franz Kafka was writing Amerika, his only attempt at a novel, he became determined to have the main character Karl end up in Oklahoma. Since Kafka had never actually visited the country, his inspiration for Karl’s fate was drawn upon a photo in an early 20th-century book about the United States written by Hungarian travel writer Arthur Holitscher. That photo? An image of a lynched Black man in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It tragically and accurately depicted the sometimes heartless heartland of America. Whatever intentions he had in choosing Oklahoma, Kafka, in his own delirious way, pointed toward the unnerving idea of a future built upon a tattered past.

I moved to Tulsa from New York City in the early days of 2020, a few months before a pandemic spread across the globe with brutal velocity. Despite its abrupt dominance I was able to get acquainted with the city’s art scene pretty quickly. There are some really interesting people and collectives working here, like Aslut Zine, a cultural sex-positive arts and letters celebration of Tulsa, or Jimmy Friday, a collage artist who produces obsessive montages of local and national Black history, and who is woefully under-recognized, just to name two. But a significant portion of the scene consists of cheap painting (think buffalos, or unsophisticated portraiture), inconsequential photorealism, welded garden sculptures, and a coterie of creative types brought into a highly funded fellowship marred by retaliatory stewardship and inconsistent standards of quality. As a result of living in a place that has far more history without them than with them, Tulsa’s artists have grappled with an aesthetic identity crisis. It was the last state to be settled in the United States, positioning Oklahoma as the signature and seal on that thoroughly corrupt rendering of the American Dream: Manifest Destiny.

This idea of making America, or more precisely of remaking America, is a prominent theme in the exhibition From the Limitations of Now, on view through September 5 at the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa. Carefully curated by Sara O’Keeffe, the show borrows its title from a 1975 speech that Ralph Ellison delivered at the public library of his hometown Oklahoma City. He proposed that people needed to be freed from the limitations of today if they’re ever going to reach tomorrow, a neat way of saying “this situation sucks, let’s do something about it.” The show spans the entire museum, a near-first for the institution, with several key works commissioned specifically for the occasion.

Of the more excellent works in the show is a newly commissioned iteration of a monumental green American flag hanging in the rotunda, visible as soon as one enters the museum. untitled (a flag for John Lewis or a green screen placeholder for an America that is yet to be, 2020) is a collaboration by Adrian Aguilera and Betelhem Makonnen. Subtitled for the late Georgian Congressman and civil rights activist, the work points to ways of worldmaking. It’s instantly recognizable, but should provide a different green-screen experience for each viewer. Operating as a heimat for the future, it is a preview of the exhibition’s balanced optimism without the more common obnoxious positivity.

Lonnie Holley, ‘Weighed Down by the Hose’ (2008). Courtesy of the artist

Looking forward can be a challenge for a small institution like Philbrook. The museum building is modeled after renaissance-era Italian villas (surprisingly not uncommon in this prairie state), flanked by palatial gardens populated with a few resident cats. Named after its previous owner—oil baron Waite Phillips—its very existence is the endorsement of a particular legacy, one that has historically served as a refuge for the wealthier residents of Tulsa, which is certainly not unique to this museum or any other in the country. Their collection has recently and refreshingly trended toward contemporary art. But the condition of shaping the present/future in the image of the past might be the shrewdest way to understand a place like Tulsa.

Indeed, one of the more salient qualities of Tulsa is its preservationist attitude. Like the old signs that populate Oklahoman Ed Ruscha’s early paintings, there is a form of “American heritage” present here, clung to like a talisman to ward off the wicked. Such an ironic idea, given Tulsa’s past, raises more than a few red flags. After all, the city was founded as the destination for several prominent indigenous populations once Congress passed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, which forced them along the infamous Trail of Tears. When the “Five Civilized Tribes” in general, and the Muscogee (Creek) Nation in particular, settled in Tallasi (Creek for “old town”), it was intended as a proxy for the homes they had been violently removed from. 

But it wasn’t long before non-Native settlers came in search of oil and prosperity, displacing much of the existing community once again. When you factor in Tulsa’s other most infamous moment—the Greenwood massacre of 1921, in which up to 300 Black Tulsans (many of whom were business owners in the part of town popularly known as Black Wall Street) were killed and thousands left homeless—then you have a bleak painting of this historical picture. All of this is to say that the heritage of Tulsa is very recent, very unsavory, and very much not what one thinks of when they think of an inheritance worth defending. Why invest in the conservation of something so recent, so punctuated by some of America’s most repulsive instances of domestic terrorism?

Installation view of ‘From the Limitations of Now.’ Courtesy of Philbrook Museum of Art

Lonnie Holley, a musician and visual artist behind several key works featured in From the Limitations of Now, has been thinking about exactly these kinds of stories for much of the past sixty years. A prolific autodidact, one of his more prominent ways of working uses rubbish from the past to make three-dimensional collages, not unlike Betye Saar or Joseph Cornell, at times on a much larger scale. His work Weighed Down by the Hose (2008), which is situated in the “kitchen” area of the old villa, is a rocking chair with an old quilt on the seat. The whole thing is tangled with an old fire hose, the sort of which was often used against civil rights activists. The quilt sitting quietly on the chair, literally weighed down by the hose, is a gentle nod to familial bonds and mutual support in times of need.

A strong do-it-yourself ethic permeates much of the exhibition. Being a flyover state has some hard disadvantages: less attention from the coasts, and for that reason less investment in local art labor. So if you want something done, you often have to take matters into your own hands. That DIY spirit is on full display in the most compelling portion of the exhibition: a public space featuring a library devoted to reading materials relating to the show (primarily selected by the booksellers at the Black-owned Fulton Street Books in North Tulsa), a lapel button make-and-trade station, a local notices bulletin board, Faith Ringgold’s profound interactive mapping of horrific murders in The United States of Attica (1972/2021), a wall mural by local collective Black Moon, and several other contributions. The space is a generative community center focusing on education strategies, such as connecting middle-schoolers to local artists, amid an environment that can often feel inhospitable. Ellison’s speech at the Oklahoma City Library essentially speculated about these kinds of counterfactual futures with an eye on increased access to information.

Whoever they are, the arbiters of culture in Oklahoma are a little like Walter Benjamin’s angel of history, with their back to the future as they watch trash from the past building up at their feet. They can call this accumulation “progress,” but they would be mistaken. A place’s identity can’t just be old gasoline signs and racism. I understand why Kafka thought Tulsa was an exotic place to end his novel. I don’t know many people who have spent a meaningful amount of time in Oklahoma who weren’t born in Oklahoma. Like Kafka’s hero, I moved here sight unseen. And I like it here—even when I don’t like it here. I don’t have any designs on a future here, but I’m invested in its future regardless. I hope to see more exhibitions like From the Limitations of Now. An effort toward the contemporary moment is, strictly speaking, a push away from preservation of the past moment. Hopefully art institutions in Tornado Alley can emerge on the national stage as places that merit attention for exciting emergent practices rather than their tragic pasts. It brings to mind the titular character of Ellison’s Invisible Man who, upon reemerging from his underground shelter, passionately declares, “There’s a stench in the air, which, from this distance underground might be the smell either of death or of spring—I hope of spring.” Tulsa’s pivot might contain the stench of death, but it just might be a new season.

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