Wednesday, October 1, 2008


Well it's been a minute since my last post and much has transpired. The South Dallas Cultural Center is extremely active and the community is solidly in here! We completed our summer arts institute which always has me thinking about children and their innate sense of creativity. Since we typically work with South Dallas children exclusively, I can also say that the aftermath leaves me thinking about the impact of arts and cultural programming on children from low-income households.

Every year we host approximately 70 children and youth in our Summer Arts At the Center Program (SAAC). The children are not pre-selected, that is to say they are not "creamed" from the art stars in the community. Instead, we open our program to all children and it's first come, first served,making the playing field as even as possible. Over the years we do, however, tend to get families returning which makes for a wonderful opportunity for sustained learning. I am never disappointed in the outcome of the program no matter how hairy the start-up! In fact I almost always find myself in tears at the end when the children showcase their achievements for their parents and the community. The sight of them exploding with creativity, singing, reciting their poetry, acting, drumming and dancing is often overwhelming, particularly given how many of them have never done these things before. This is why I am so adamant about offering the highest quality program possible to our children. They deserve it and they make me proud every summer with their enthusiastic embrace of their culture. Since the methodology employed is quite intentional, the SAAC staff can see direct results of their efforts correlated with measurable outcomes. So its not just a feel good experience for us but a true measurably successful educational one.

So it is no surprise that I am livid when the first thing to go are the arts programs when public school systems are stretched for money. They are still seen as frills even after years of study indicate their direct impact on academic achievement and self-esteem. We know that children who have a daily diet of arts perform more successfully in their other subjects. They have a greater sense of discipline and understand the notion of team work more so than their peers who do not have the arts included in a meaningful way in the curriculum. Children from low income households, in my 28+ years of experience, tend to be even more creative and resourceful in their creativity than middle-class and upper class children. I suspect this has a lot to do with the fact that they have to be creative in order to survive their circumstances; they are always thinking of new ways to do things, ways that don't require purchasing expensive supplies or materials. They are the original recycled art makers! I taught a sculpture class this summer to 6-8 years old students. Sculpture is usually a difficult subject to teach to little kids primarily because all the focus in public schools (if there is any art at all, that is!) is on 2D work. Conceptualizing in 3D is a challenge for most children. Yet I witnessed some amazing works come out of the creative minds of my students, most of who were working with materials totally foreign to them. They watched me do a demonstration and then enthusiastically dove into their work, never worrying about whether it was "right" or not, a worry I usually encounter when I work with non-low income students. The assignment that involved recycled materials produced even better results. My observation is that the less traditional the material provided for artmaking, the more sophisticated the artistic outcome.

Which leads me to my primary reason for this blog: advocating for keeping the arts alive and well in our community, specifically in those areas of our community where they are woefully lacking. No matter what our school systems decide to do about arts education, we as thinking activist artists must keep it alive for our children! We must realize that the challenge ahead to keep African Americans moving in a positive direction goes far beyond just achieving a better economic status. We must be ever vigilant about making artistic & cultural literacy a priority for our children since we know that this sures up their intellectual foundation and thereby gives them a leg up in our society. It is no secret that the best private schools for the wealthy always include the arts and cultural study of European societies as an essential ingredient in their educational curriculum. They understand that the arts provide one of the best ways to document the history of a people which is why training ones young in the cultural & artistic traditions of your society ensures its perpetuity. What we know of ancient civilizations we know largely from the arts left behind upon their demise. It is why the first thing to be attacked when an aggressor is conquering a country is the cultural community. Wipe out art and artists and you wipe out the spiritual glue of any society. It is why the culture of the African was attacked, trivialized and destroyed when The Transatlantic Slave Trade was instituted. The enslavers knew that a people secure in their culture and allowed to express themselves creatively can never be spiritually or intellectually enslaved.

So let us not be fooled by the argument that the arts are a "frill" and can be sacrificed in hard times. The arts for our children are often their savior, particularly in a system that is designed for their failure. Let's make sure that we keep art in the lives of African American children at whatever personal cost to us as a community because I know that a child grounded in his or her culture, a child who has the wherewithal to create on a consistent and high quality basis, is a child who grows up to be an asset to the community, not a predator on that community. Invest in the creative and cultural education of Black children and you invest in the productive future of the African American community.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

African Americans and Abstraction: Thinking of Puryear

Recently I had the pleasure of seeing the Martin Puryear restropective and hear him speak about this awesome collection of sculptures. The Modern Museum of Fort Worth has the good fortune to own a Puryear and so it was appropriate that it would host the Puryear retrospective. As one of the premiere contemporary art museums in the Southwest, MMFW created a beautiful and sensitive installation of the works, with gallery after gallery devoted to the
incomparable sculptures crafted so elegantly by Puryear.

Having taught his work for many years in my Art History and Art Appreciation classes, I was astonished at the power imbued in them when viewed as an entire body. It reinforced my original belief that sculpture should never be taught using books! Sure, one can argue that no art should, but sculpture in particular really suffers an identity crisis when viewed in two-dimension. The sheer scale of Puryear's work leaves one breathless not to mention the subtle textural surfaces most possess. I found myself spending an inordinate amount of time engrossed in these textures trying to determine how each was created. In a word, the work is exquisite!

So needless to say I was thrilled at the prospect of hearing the artist discuss his process and inspiration and was not disappointed by his offerings. Puryear is crystal clear in his delivery on his work ethic, aesthetic concerns, and creative process. He explained his switch from realism to abstraction in a way that even a novice art viewer could understand and appreciate, particularly given how so many artists are wont to engage in artspeak, rather than straight talk. As I looked around the room at the eager listeners, I was struck by how few African Americans were in the audience. I was a little downhearted by this typical situation and was reminded of an acquaintance who recently declared with assuredness that anyone could do abstract art and how he thought it was all hype and required no talent. I tried, in vain, to explain the difference between a successful abstract work and one that didn't succeed but I realized halfway through my discourse that he was never going to get it because he had no foundation from which to discuss the topic. I started thinking about how ironic it is that a people who's entire art aesthetic was derived from the originators of abstraction i.e. Africans, are so removed from it today. I thought about how Europeans appropriated that aesthetic, created numerous art movements based on it and ultimately made African Americans believe it had no meaning for us. I looked at the beauty and subtly of Martin Puryear's sublime forms and listened to him speak about the metaphorical meanings each piece embodied and couldn't help but feel distressed that we as a people have lost the ability to read any imagery except that which is realistic. We devalue all that does not speak to us on the most literal or decorative level, reducing any abstracted imagery or forms to meaningless hype.

Like so many areas of culture, we need to reclaim that which we originated and study our art history starting with its root aesthetic, African artforms. Although Martin Puryear openly
acknowledges the influence of many different cultures on his work, he spoke quite directly about the way in which African art, architecture, and life, during his tenure in West Africa spurred his
need to explore abstraction after years of working in a realist manner. Puryear, like so many European artists, began to push his creativity beyond his prior limits, looking at the essence of forms, eliminating the superfluous and only retaining the most essential elements. Like his ancestral forefathers, Puryear embraced the natural materials he used with respect, allowing them to help determine the final product he creates. He also began to visually talk about life in more subtle ways, kind of like talking in parables rather than just blurting things out. In essence, Puryear became a visual poet rather than a visual non-fiction writer, giving us the edited and reductive conversation about what is rather than filling our eyes with too many words! I think that is why his work has always moved me so completely. I cannot ever remember thinking when I looked at a Puryear piece "boy, I wish he'd left that element off" or "why did he use that material for this piece?". Everything I've seen that he created seems just right and never overstated or overworked; which underscores why it pains me that more African Americans in
Dallas/Fort Worth are not enjoying this magnificent exhibition. I guess we have a ways to go when it comes to enjoying visual art. Or maybe I am just being overly pessimistic because this is the medium I work in. If I'm real honest about it, I guess I have to acknowledge that classical jazz musicians have the same complaint, as do authors like Toni Morrison and Ishmael Reed! Be that as it may, I encourage anyone that has the opportunity to see Martin Puryear's exhibition,
even if it requires traveling to do so.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

On Black Women Artists

Well I just opened a wonderful exhibition entitled Sistahs on the Horizon: African Diaspora WOmen Emerging Artists that features the work of five remarkable Black women and I have to say the experience had me, once again, a little disturbed. Not because of the work, mind you, but because in 2008 it's still necessary to draw attention to the fact that Black women are out here producing marvelous work but still not getting the exhibition opportunities offered to men. As someone who has curated over 50 exhibitions, I know that the claim "we just can't seem to find the women" is a bunch of bullshit! I have never had a problem finding great art made by women in the 30+ years I've been curating. What I have had problems finding are enough curators that are willing to include women at the same ratio to men in their exhibitions. This reality keeps me crazy because you wonder when this situation is going to change. I mean how many "all women shows" have to happen before it's clear that there are enough women out there to include in all the group shows organized and there certainly are enough Black women to help diversify them by gender and race!

A while back, maybe 20 years ago, I was invited to speak on a panel as a part of the Women's Caucus for Art national conference. I found myself, as I often am, the only Black women in the room so I was highly amused when the moderator asked me if I thought progress had been made by Black women in the visual arts arena. I laughed and suggested she simply look around the room and answer her own question. I then proceeded to give the audience a lesson in why white women's version of feminism never resonated with me or most other Black women I knew since we always seemed to find ourselves outside looking in once "their access" into the mainstream art world was gained. Like their suffragette foremothers, these WCA members were no better at being inclusive than their male counterparts.

Unfortunately, not much has changed. we're still finding that only one or two Black women are accepted into the inner circle and usually these women are not the ones who have strong ties to the African American community. It seems that the only way you can gain acceptance is to engage in image making that does not create any difficulty for the white art elite to understand or at least be able to articulate some critical discourse around. Try using a vocabulary they are not familiar with and see how far you get! Equally annoying is the fact that so many of us are willing to push away from our community in order to distance ourselves from the "label" Black Artist, as if there is something wrong with being one. We fall for the okey doke because our ultimate gaol is acceptance into the mainstream art world, not that there's anything wrong with getting there. The problem I have is that the path there it never one we create but one that is paved for us as long as we can play the game.

Of course there's nothing wrong with making it in the mainstream since that's where the money is. And I have nothing but love for the ones that get there on their own terms because that's what we all want to do. But how many excellent Black women artists are ever even tapped to break into that world. We look at the major institutions like the Whitney or MOMA or Chicago Art Institute or the Philadelphia Museum and we can usually count on maybe 2 hands the number of Black women in their permanent collections. And how many of them are exhibited as opposed to in the vault somewhere? We still need books like Lisa Farrington's Creating Their Own Image: The History of African American Women Artists to remind us that we still have along way to go since most of the women in the book are far from household names in most art schools, unlike the Linda Beglises, Louise Nevelsons, Helen Frankenthalers, Judy Chicagos, Nancy Graves, or Cindy Shermans.

I thank God my parents had the presence of mind to show me the work of Augusta Savage and Elizabeth Catlett when I was a little girl and a self-proclaimed sculptor because I wonder, given the dearth of Black women role-models available to me, would I ever have made the decision to pursue sculpture in art school? Actually I wonder if I would ever had thought I should go to art school at all! For the young sisters attending arts schools or art programs across the country, I only hope they seek out the many Black women producing art today and not be afraid of seeing them as their role models. They should know that those of us who've been in this world for a few decades may have something to offer them; if nothing else, moral support! I am wounded by those that feel the need to keep us at arms length for fear of being labeled since in a racist society, that is almost inevitable. Just look at the current race for the presidency if you don't believe this. No matter how Obama tries to stay off the race superhighway, the media and Clinton camp keep forcing him back on and I am sure eventually the race factor will trump all other discussions of suitability. It's just the American Way... But I digress. My only point in this rant is that our work is hard enough without layering it with the added pressure of racism/sexism (we've always been victims of both!). So I guess I will continue to bend over backwards to include sisters in all the exhibitions I curate, recommend them to all other curators who ask me for artists, and keep writing about us because the need is still there. I hope I live to see the day when it isn't but for now....

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

ART & RACEnotes

After a lot of thought and back and forth, I finally decided to create this blog. As an artist working in the visual arts, I can't help but notice the way in which image has shaped the concept of race in this country. Because of this reality, I am moved to comment on some of the issues surrounding race and the art world. I am constantly observing ways in which Black artists are marginalized, both by the mainstream art world and by our own so-called Black Arts world.

Image is a powerful tool, always has been and probably will always continue to be. From the first image of Africans created by Europeans designed to introduce this "exotic" being to curiosity seekers, control of the image was critical. In pre-electronic media days, image was often introduced through art. Artists were one of the first recorders of the African image. Initially the image was fairly respectable, albeit a European interpretation of significant aspects of the subject. But as Europe moved from explorer to conqueror, that image by necessity had to be modified to support the justification for invasion and ultimately the subjugation of a people. It is this modification that intrigues me as this is what contemporary image making succeeds in doing best, creating images that modify one's understanding of race and racial politics.

When I look at the art produced by African people that is most frequently heralded as exceptional by the mainstream (translation: white male) art world, it usually engages racial stereotypes created by the white imagemakers. Whether those stereotypes are used in a denigrating manner or not is not really at issue. They simply need to be present for the image to have an air of "sophistication" and "political edginess". That they speak only to the mainstream makes them all the more acceptable since anything that doesn't is automatically seen as irrelevant or "outside" the mainstream. What I find even more intriguing is how difficult it is for those of us who have been in the art world for some time now, to understand this dynamic. Why is it that we continue to make art that we feel has some relevance to our community and yet want it to be accepted by the mainstream? Why do we fail to understand that art, like every other facet of life cannot be separated from racial realities. As long as the work you produce is grounded in an African aesthetic, even if that aesthetic is used to express universal topics, you will be codified as doing "ethnic art" not simply art. Of course this is not simply a fact of the visual art world. One can see this same trend in film, music, dance, and literature. My son is an aspiring filmmaker and he and I talk all the time about our image on screen, or perhaps I should say we talk about the absence of our true image on screen. I stopped going to commercial movies long ago because I just got tired of never seeing my story on the big screen. I wearied of only seeing shallow versions of my people depicted in thinly developed scripts that left me wanting every time I left the theater. Because I am a visual artist, I know how important it is to present a well formed, three dimensional image in order to get your point across. So I limit my viewing to independent black films, made far away from Hollywood, usually by filmmakers who are more artist than filmmaker. I seek out only those Hollywood films that have some substance or a story that hasn't been told before like the Great Debaters, being careful not to look to hard at them because if I do, I'll find fault and possibly become jaded enough not to try again.

Ultimately I worry that our image has become so convoluted that even we no longer know who our true selves are. Once upon a time artists used to be the keepers of truth in a community, the agents of change, the mirrors to the ugly as well as the beauty of a community. I fear that day is gone as more and more Black artists seek to fit into the mainstream art world, compromising our image for a little recognition and a lot of financial success. I wonder is it too late to talk about taking back our image? Is it too late because we no longer know what that true image is? There's a reason why the visual arts remain the last true bastion of racism in this society. After all, it's through the arts that we know most ancient civilizations. More than any other art discipline, the visual arts of those long ago societies give us an understanding of life and culture as experienced by their citizens. What will we leave the world to understand our place in it? The images created to satisfy a need to belong to an alien culture or those that tell the truth of who we were, are and hope to be?