The Snite Museum of Art presents: ‘Chair of the Ministers of Defense’
Willoughby Thom | Wednesday, March 24, 2021
The Snite Museum of Art’s latest exhibition is breathtaking. The day the Snite announced they were hosting Kevin Beasley’s 2016 work, “Chair of the Ministers of Defense,” visiting was the first thing I did when I got back in February.
On the second floor of the Snite, in the Contemporary Art Gallery, sits the powerful and impressive “Chair of the Ministers of Defense.” If you have ever visited this gallery in the past, you would know it’s normally a very open gallery. The grey walls are typically lined with a vast array of modern and contemporary works, but Beasley’s work completely redefines the space.
Entering the gallery, the viewer is transported into a different world. The lights are dimmed, and spotlights illuminate the grand throne. It’s a highly immersive and intense experience; it’s a work that seems so foreign yet so familiar. When viewing the piece for the first time, you may feel unsettled by such a striking installation enveloped by dark painted walls and the natural stillness of the museum. But as you stand in the presence of Beasley’s work, you begin to be absorbed into the diverse array of colors, discovered by hidden everyday objects and the mysteriousness which it embraces.
If you look long and hard enough at the work, you might be able to point out the jeans, trousers, durags, t-shirts, hoodies, kaftans and house dresses molded by polyurethan resin; they are the empty head spaces and figurative representations surrounding the chair. These are all items associated with contemporary and urban culture. In the center, an empty rattan “peacock” chair sits, with a stained glass house window, clad by an iron bar, hanging above the elevated throne. Flanking both sides of the chair, Maasai and Zulu warrior shields are present, as if the ghost-like warriors are protecting the empty seat.
The “Chair of the Ministers of Defense” is an allusion to Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Baroque altarpiece in Saint Peter’s Basilica called “Cathedra Petri.” Here, Beasley is bringing our attention to Black liberation movements by placing an emphasis on the current and ongoing power imbalances Black Americans and marginalized peoples experience every day. Beasley is known to incorporate highly religious imagery in his works in order to exhibit a perceived “divine right of leader,” forcing the viewer to “consider the circumstances and conventions used by those in control and those who challenge their authority.”
Furthermore, Beasley draws upon Blair Stapp’s photograph of Huey Newton called “Huey Newton, Black Panther Minister of Defense” (1968), which is a reference to Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ portrait “Napoleon I on His Imperial Throne” (1806). He uses these images as ways to demonstrate stages of power and the various depictions of authority.
Kevin Beasley strategically intertwines history and modernity to create an installation which requires the viewer to “consider notions of power and how it is presented, held, challenged, exhausted or toppled.” Through this piece, the artist hopes to bring attention to social injustice and address the dignity of Black men and women in America.
The “Chair of the Ministers of Defense” by Kevin Beasley is an astonishing work of art with an immense amount of power to initiate change and fuel important conversations.