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?