Fred Wilson

Grey Area


Not on display

Fred Wilson born 1954
5 painted plaster busts on 5 painted wooden shelves
Displayed: 750 × 1160 × 340 mm
Purchased with assistance from the American Patrons of Tate, courtesy of Pamela Joyner and Reginald Van Lee 2011


Grey Area (Black Version) 1993 is a sculptural installation of five painted plaster busts of the head of the ancient Egyptian queen Nefertiti, chief consort of the Eighteenth Dynasty pharaoh Akhenaten. The casts are placed on individual shelves which are arranged in a horizontal line and evenly spaced. Each bust is painted a different colour, from white, through three shades of progressively darkening grey, to black. The plaster busts are duplicates of the renowned ancient Egyptian sculpture of Nefertiti discovered in 1912 at Amarna by the German Oriental Company, and transported to Berlin where it became part of the collection of the Egyptian Museum.

The Nefertiti bust has become the subject of controversy over national patrimony and disputed ownership between Germany and Egypt. It is also one of the most copied works of ancient art and an exemplar of idealised beauty. Grey Area (Black Version) was made for the Whitney Biennial in New York in 1993, which was a landmark and highly controversial exhibition in that it was the first such biennial in which white male artists were in the minority. The biennial, curated by Thelma Golden, John G. Hanhardt, Lisa Phillips and Elizabeth Sussman, examined some of the key issues around identity and politics in the United States at that time, including racism, the AIDS crisis, feminism and economic inequality. Grey Area (Black Version) also exists in another version, Grey Area (Brown Version) 1993, which is in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York.

Wilson’s work plays on the fact that Nefertiti (and, more broadly, ancient Egypt) has a highly significant symbolic value in African American culture, in which she is viewed as embodying a positive image of Blackness and Black empowerment. Moreover, ancient Egypt is frequently cited as a source of black pride and utopian imagery in a range of contexts, from the Harlem Renaissance to Afrofuturism. However, the association of Nefertiti with Blackness and the ongoing debate around the matter of her racial identity (and that of ancient Egyptians in general) is raised but not answered by Wilson’s installation; an historical irresolution which is also alluded to in the work’s title, Grey Area. The work suggests the oscillation of Nefertiti’s identity from white at one end of the scale to black at the other, and highlights the differing biases that form part of the writing of history.

Grey Area (Black Version) exemplifies Wilson’s practice of appropriating museum exhibits to explore ideas of racial identity and history, as well as the politics of museum culture, collections and display. He has become known for his site-specific interventions in museum collections and ‘faux’ museums, simultaneously employing and undermining curatorial practices to function as institutional critique. In this way, he examines both the politics of museum collections and wider issues of cultural representation. His work highlights how changes in context can radically change the meaning of certain objects.

Other than their colour, the busts of Grey Area (Black Version) are identical. Thus the work also responds to the seriality and progression that underpin many works of art by minimalist, conceptual and neo-geo artists. However, deployed in such a context, and with the addition of a political content largely lacking in these antecedents, such structural devices take on an entirely different significance. At the same time, the seriality of the objects also suggests consumerist ubiquity and the transformation of culturally significant artefacts from one context into commodities in another.

Wilson is one of a generation of American artists from the 1980s and 1990s who encapsulate a new direction in American art. For these artists, a critical politics, while less vehement than previous generations, is still a necessity. This generation includes a number of other African American artists who, as well as Wilson, have gone on to have influential careers, such as Kerry James Marshall, Coco Fusco, Lorna Simpson, Glenn Ligon, Renée Green, Ellen Gallagher and Gary Simmons.

Further reading
Lisa Corrin (ed.), Mining the Museum: An Installation by Fred Wilson, exhibition catalogue, The Contemporary, Baltimore 1992.
Fred Wilson: So Much Trouble in the World – Believe It or Not!, exhibition catalogue, Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover 2006.
Doro Globus (ed.), Fred Wilson: A Critical Reader, London 2011, reproduced p.427.

Tanya Barson
July 2011

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