1. Darkwater Record (2003); 2. Off Minor (2004); 3. Nutjuitok (Polar Star) (2012)

Was Beethoven black? Anecdotes about the German composer’s “dark” skin, and an apocryphal genealogy from the 1940s that traced him to the Moors, have kept this myth buzzing into this century. And it has prompted the multimedia artist Terry Adkins, 59, a professor of fine arts at the University of Pennsylvania, to create a group of sound sculptures called Black Beethoven, now on exhibition through March 24 at Northwestern University’s Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art.

Inspired by Adkins’s “forward-looking visions” of American civil rights leaders, martyrs, and musicians, the show succeeds because it makes the viewer wonder, can you see—or hear—a person’s race through his or her art? For those willing to consider the intriguing possibility, the exhibition is worth the short trip to Northwestern’s art museum.

The cornerstone of the entire collection is Off Minor, a music box–like instrument that Adkins invented and normally uses in live concerts. But Off Minor will sit mute during the exhibition; visitors will have to imagine what kind of strangely beautiful sounds it may make—the way Beethoven had to use his imagination as he continued to write music while going deaf. This gap of sensual experience provokes the questions: How do we know the truth about Beethoven’s race unless someone tells us? Can we hear blackness in his works?

Adkins’s strategy mirrors Toni Morrison’s effort to label Bill Clinton as the first black president: It’s thoughtful fiction intended to challenge perception. “I believe in the power of creative imagination above all things,” says Adkins, who, for more than 30 years, has channeled past revolutionaries across politics, art, and music to create his abstract pieces (Jimi Hendrix, blues singer Bessie Smith, and the abolitionist John Brown are among his inspirations). He chooses historical characters “based on their unheralded relevance to today,” he says, “applying their vision to today’s ills and injustices.”

One example: Darkwater Record, named for W. E. B. Du Bois’s 1920 autobiography, is a collection of tape recorders—sans speakers—silently playing Du Bois’s 1960 speech based on his essay “Socialism and the American Negro.” A bust of Mao sits atop them, recalling the Chinese dictator’s co-opting of Du Bois’s socialism. (Mao declared Du Bois’s birthday a national holiday in China.)

As for Beethoven, Adkins says he is intrigued by both the composer’s deafness and the debate around his race, but he doesn’t intend to settle the question of Beethoven’s race. “I hope to generate a sense of seeking in the audience,” he says. “You can then fill in the gaps and participate in history in your own way.”

GO Terry Adkins: Recital runs through March 24 at Northwestern University’s Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art in Evanston. For info, blockmuseum.northwestern.edu.


Photography: (1) Terry Adkins, Darkwater Record (from Darkwater), 2003-08, porcelain, cassette tape recorders with “Socialism And The American Negro” speech by W. E. B. Du Bois. courtesy of artist; (2) courtesy of artist; (3) Installation View, Terry Adkins: Recital, The Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College, 2012