At Hammonds House until July 15, Welcome to Atlanta: Charles H. Nelson, a Retrospective is less a comprehensive retrospective than a well-chosen survey and reintroduction, as curator Fahamu Pecou describes it. Charles Huntley Nelson’s range of vision and experimentation was so broad that the limited space available for this exhibition gives no more than a sample of the directions in which his art was headed at the time of his premature death from cancer in 2009.
Dr. Pecou has chosen to emphasize Nelson’s considerable gifts as a painter devoted to important aspects of African American culture and that culture’s debt to Africa itself, represented here mostly in works from the turn of the millennium. These paintings reward the viewer’s extended looking and contemplation; to take only one example, the 1996 work Nekyia bears a title using the Greek word for evocation of the ancestral spirits, while the painting itself contains the names and relationships of West African and African Diaspora orishas, thus evoking the seldom acknowledged parallels in Greco-Roman and African practice.
My own admiration for Nelson’s later (2000–2009) engagement with unacknowledged ethnic identifications in supposedly neutral technologies stems from my 2001 co-curation with the artist of Speed: Life in an Accelerated Culture, the catalog of which provides only a tiny glimpse of Nelson as an artist/curator who generously offered assistance of all sorts to other artists. Dr. Pecou experienced that side of him through his undergraduate interactions with Nelson, who as one of three faculty of color at the Atlanta College of Art offered particular support to African American students.
Nelson’s roles as curator and educator are also important to an understanding of the artist because they offer additional clues regarding interests that he had still only partially explored at the time of his death. But Dr. Pecou’s exhibition has included one of the most consequential finished products, Nelson’s 2006 Invisible Man, a masterful video overlay of Nelson’s work about identity and Ralph Ellison’s novel onto the classic film of H. G. Wells’ story of physical, rather than social, invisibility. Nelson had previously combined his technological interests with his analysis of personal identity in a 2001 series of grisaille paintings of himself and other individuals whose pictures appeared in a web search for “Charles Nelson.” In that bygone era of slow download speeds, the pixelated quality of the portraiture presciently raised the question of personal identity in the emerging age of digital reproduction.
The lightbox image of a fractal-edged Black Madonna and child bearing the text Welcome to Atlanta, one of several pieces for an imagined display in Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, is another pointed combination of social commentary and reflection on conditions of technological presentation and representation. A similarly apt, but differently targeted, commentary is well represented in the Hammonds House show by a selection of documentation and paintings from 2000–2001’s The Backdrop Project: Nelson installed, as night club photo backdrops, large-scale paintings of various subjects including the bullet-riddled car of Tupac Shakur. The photos of clubgoers posing in front of these atypical backdrops became part of what Nelson regarded as both an aesthetic project and social analysis.
Dr. Pecou comments trenchantly on these various projects and notes that “Nelson’s commentary on the tenuous racial dynamics of Atlanta and the nation, as well as his observations of a Black identity wrestling to define itself against an onslaught of visual mediums working to diminish or erase Blackness, make his work more important now than ever before.” It’s important, therefore, to reiterate that this exhibition is, as the curatorial essay puts it, no more than a “snapshot” encompassing a small percentage of Nelson’s art. We still need a comprehensive retrospective, in a venue with the space to provide it.