“Starless Midnight”

BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art
South Shore Road
October 20, 2017–January 21, 2018

Karon Davis, Waiting Room, 2016, mixed media, dimensions variable.

In November 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. accepted an honorary doctorate from Newcastle University with a powerful improvised speech that railed against three “great and grave problems that pervade our world”: racism, poverty, and war. On the fiftieth anniversary of this speech, “Starless Midnight” confronts King’s hard-won insights with contemporary realities. Curated by Edgar Arceneaux and Laurence Sillars, the nine-artist show opens with the heartrending juxtaposition of Louis Cameron’s NOW!, 2016, a black wall branded with the one-word call to arms, against Karon Davis’s Waiting Room, 2016, a painstaking re-creation of a public clinic—the poor man’s purgatory—down to the shoddy wooden play set and a coffee-stained copy of Us Weekly.

For all its unflinching blows—from Charles Gaines’s musical manifestos to Cauleen Smith’s “maladjusted cinema”—the exhibition belongs to Barby Asante’s iron-veined, two-part film, The Queen and the Black-Eyed Squint, 2017. Drawing from Ama Ata Aidoo’s searing 1977 novel, Our Sister Killjoy, Asante restages the 1957 visit of the first Miss Ghana to England, just months after her country had wrangled its independence from the British Empire. As Miss Ghana, Asante is a picture of forbearance against the obsequious hospitality of her chaperone, Miss Britain, who proudly points out the monument to Earl Grey and cathedral frescos of Jesus and his snow-white saints, blissfully immune to the tactical omissions that make up her own heritage. Lest this history belong solely to the past, in the accompanying South Kensington segment (filmed just days before the exhibition opened) the beauty queens make their rounds in the shadow of Grenfell Tower—the public-housing complex that caught fire this past summer, killing seventy-one people—and the lingering logic of empire it carries in its darkness.

Kate Sutton