By Christina Rouvalis - Winter 2018
The 57th edition of the Carnegie International is front and center, thanks to two show-stopping works on the exterior of Carnegie Museums’ historic Oakland building.
Tavares Strachan knows how to light up the sky. In his native Nassau, Bahamas, he once launched glass rockets blown from local beach sand into the stratosphere using sugarcane as fuel. As fragments fell and crashed into the surf, he captured the event on film and collected the relics for display.
So when he stands inside Carnegie Museums’ Founder’s Room on a crisp October night, the crowd knows a performance by the artist, whose work tackles science, sociology, history, and technology, will be anything but boring.
“We’re going to have a good time,” Strachan tells them, his arms slicing through the air like a superhero, as he leads the group outside and along Forbes Avenue to the front of Carnegie Music Hall. Flanked by the darkened statues of Shakespeare and Bach, he begins.
“We are here tonight to honor the invisible,” Strachan proclaims. “May this solemnity that we now endeavor together be the alchemy that turns these invisibles visible.”
Then, right on cue, 54 names light up in neon on the fascia ribboning the building’s exterior, the glow causing the crowd to oooh and ahhh as they applaud.
Qiu. Henson. Tharpe. Chaminade.
Curious passersby looking up at the Day-Glo surnames will no doubt wonder—who are these people?
For Strachan, that’s exactly the point—these artists, scientists, explorers, and other innovators nearly slipped through the cracks of history, but now he’s put their names in lights for the 57th edition of the Carnegie International
When Andrew Carnegie gave the massive sandstone building to the city of Pittsburgh in 1895, the names of Aristotle, Darwin, Leonardo, Mozart, and other accomplished men of literature, science, art, and music were etched into the fascia.
As the story goes and historic records confirm, Carnegie wasn’t happy that his favorite populist poet and fellow Scotsman Robert Burns didn’t make the cut; a building committee, not Carnegie, had the final say. “Some names have no business to be on the list,” Carnegie wrote in a letter in 1894. “Imagine Dickens in and Burns out.” That’s exactly what happened. So, in 1914, Carnegie and friends dedicated a statue to Burns outside of nearby Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, where it still stands today.
“Neon colors are like candy to me. It’s absurd. It’s playful. We are living in very serious times. In the process, we have lost our ability to play. When you are too serious, that’s kind of boring.”
– Tavares Strachan
Strachan came to town to shake up the list by adding a new set of names in neon script—among them, Matthew Alexander Henson, a black Arctic explorer who was among the first to reach the North Pole; Qiu Jin, a feminist poet and revolutionary who became known as “China’s Joan of Arc”; Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a queer black woman from Arkansas who was the godmother of rock ’n’ roll and the first gospel-singing sensation; and Cécile Chaminade, a prolific and much celebrated French composer and pianist. All told, the names of 54 cultural heroes have taken their rightful places next to the 110 permanent inhabitants of the building’s exterior. (The building’s first expansion, completed in 1907, allowed for 10 additional names.)
Strachan is not alone in transforming the shell of the building. In a major new commission, El Anatsui, a Ghanaian-born artist who lives in Nigeria, draped the 30-by-160-foot façade of Carnegie Museum of Art’s Scaife wing in a majestic and ever-changing sculpture fashioned from discarded liquor bottle tops and aluminum printing plates.
By remaking how we see the building’s exterior, says Ingrid Schaffner, curator of the Carnegie International, “anyone who passes by the museum is in the space of the Carnegie International. More than that, the works of Strachan and Anatsui are already working on our memory. After the exhibition closes, we will look up and see the ghosts of these magnificent works of art.”
Who is forgotten, and why?
Following the illumination of the names, Strachan reveals an unconventional history lesson using humor, theatrics, and a cast of performers. Timothy “Speed” Levitch, an exuberant actor and poet, leads the procession around the historic Oakland complex before introducing the stars of the performance—a group of children sporting white bomber jackets, each custom-made by Strachan and his mother.