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?


Beverly said...

Good Morning Vicki,

I read your blog and it raises questions for me about the image of African Americans on Duke's campus. I want a discussion with you. There is currently an exhibit at the Nasher Museum of Art by Barkley Hendricks. Some images I thoroughly enjoy, others simply hit me the wrong way -- not provocative enough to make me seek out the exhibit but I may go to assuage my doubts about whether I like this artist or not.

I grew up with Jim Crow crawling up my back – terrorized, and then had the promise of its demise held aloft with the civil rights movement. I believed in it, the whole thing. My life is different because of it. Since I returned to the South the contrast when I leave my door is apparent daily. I never forget not for a minute. Some of the promises have held true but too many remain insidiously veiled. And it is the veil that I keep trying to get through.

Back to my question. The paintings is this exhibit by Barkley Hendricks are from the 70s, my 20s. I know this time well. There is one image of a black man in yellow, which was chosen by the museum for a group calendar. I am put off. I can’t help but wonder if the artist might have chosen a different one to go in a calendar as a way to introduce the public to the exhibit, and left this one to be experienced in a different setting. I feel on one hand that I am censoring, which I will not do, and on the other I believe careful thought of the impact of this visual representation may not have been given. And I wonder if I am alone in this thought.

I plan to have a conversation with the curator. I am using this blog to discuss this with you because of the questions you raised:

“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.”

Is this how I will be known, how we will be known, is this image “out of context” misinterpreted and protected by a value that on one hand must be allowed?

There is something in your statement and questions captured my doubts:

“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 image makers. 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.”

So Vicki, I join your blog for this conversation. I want to lift this veil of doubt the makes it hard to see clearly what I believe is happening to African Americans. I believe the arts, in all forms can present a view of world we can’t face in our daily lives, and can help, heal, even hide. When it is experienced out of context, away from the community, how is it changed? How then do “I” appear? It is of the community in creation yet pushed into an alien world for viewing, hung on walls, lost in a sea of white.

I welcome your reply.


Miz Vicki said...

Well Bev,

First let me say how impressed I am that you are up so early thinking about our predicament! I guess it speaks to how perturbed our state of affairs leave us who work as arts warriors! You raise some very good points in your questioning the choice of image used to engage the public by the Nasher Museum. It is, however, important to know whether Barkley chose this image or the museum folks. I say this because I know how often we present a body of work and what gets selected for publication may not be what we would choose. But because we are not in control of how our images are utilized, we end up looking like we have little regard for our own community. I am very familiar with this body of work Barkley did in the 70s (he's a Philly boy, you know!) In its historical place, this work was very on point, examining the image of the black male in an era that was beginning to put forward a new stereotype, the black pimp a la SuperFly, Dolomite and Mack Daddy. Fast forward and what we see today mirrors that fascination with the deviant black male only this time its the thug gangsta rapper. Although many of the images created by Barkley were very straight forward revolutionary brothers, the pimp image is what was pounced on by the mainstream artworld. Once again, this phenomenon is not unlike the pickaninny imagery springing up in so many young black artists' work that we see today. Taken out of context, some of the pieces I've created could be offensive which underscores my whole argument about maintaining control of one's image.

There is such a fine line between what is offensive and what is provocative that the artist using stereotypes must understand the racially loaded subject matter employed and how easy it is to cross that line when the full historical implication of the image is not considered. I maintain that images created by others to denigrate black people remain just that, denigrating images no matter who uses them. Just as the interjection of the word niggah into the world's lexicon of descriptives for black people certainly hasn't diminished its sting (let an average white person call you that and see how you like it!), the use of a pickaninny, mammy or steppin fechit image does not ultimately make us feel we're getting back at whitey! Trust me, they have the last laugh.

So, you are right to have these feelings of ambivalence when you see certain images projected as "cutting edge" in the art world. I reject any notion that says we must accept these as such simply because some critic in the art world says so. I am a well trained, highly intelligent artist who never needed anyone to tell me what imagery resonated or was worthy of consideration. Perhaps when we stop looking outside ourselves for validation, we'll begin to build an artistic community based on our own sense of beauty and relevance.

Evelyn said...

Hi Vicki,

Being black on the planet causes many of us to go through a lot of introspection about the motivations of White people. Many Black people feel that Whites are doing something to us all the time. Many of them are, but I think the wrong doers are doing something to everybody regardless of race, such as the stuff that politicians do to get elected (Hillary and Bill current examples) or whatever they want want to attain next and there is no stopping them. You cannot stop child molesters, whores, drug abusers, alcoholics, murderers, warmongers or curators, art curators or historians from doing what they do. We must mind our business or continuously be diverted from our goals to tangle with our perceived enemies.

We must establish institutions to celebrate our culture and achievements as much as the others who exude the appearance of success, for instance Jewish people. They put institutions in place to receive their prodigy and perpetuate their ideas. We have not done that yet on the scale that gives us the appearance of success. It seems to me that we must do that and not care much about fitting into paradigms that are not supportive. We must continually put our energy into celebrating us then we can sit comfortably at a universal table.

I strive to do whatever work I want to do. Many Black and White people have criticized me and my artwork. Many Black people appear to be disrespectful. No American Indians, East Indians, Iraquees, Japanese, Hmong or Hawaiian, etc have criticized me to my face or in the media that I am aware of – only Black or White people.

I think we are engaged in politics of black and white in America and probably the world by design. We should not continue to let someone else design traps and drain our energy all the time with the “same ole same ole”.

As artists if the others choose what is most provocative to them, we must know it is because they are like us full of likes and dislikes that even we as Blacks in America we don't agree on. Many well known realists thing abstractionists are full of it. Because I do both whenever I want to, I understand the creativity behind both. I love the work of artists who do race themes. Almost all work with non - white faces, symbols or designs can be perceived as stereotypical if one wants to make that case – especially as a put down.

White people choose artist in many cases because they are black and want to frame them in that context and that is what they are interested in that day. It is their perspective of what is exciting at that moment. We must not keep dividing our base, being bothered about who Whites are choosing. For me their money invested in my art is my goal just as getting money from others races is good to me. I want to get money from everybody like the oil and energy companies, McDonald’s and Pizza places, etc.

I feel we must go for creating the visions that we want. I have tried to connect nationally with many African-American art history scholars, they are not interested at this time. I have to keep working and putting my ideas out there and maybe some day they will be noted, but maybe not.

In Milwaukee, I am working on publishing Permission to Paint, Please! as you well know. I am contracted with the UW-Press. The most recent development is that there was a shift in leadership. The new people in our last meeting wanted me to ask somebody else to publish my book because they no longer are interested in publishing the book – they want to get rid of it with the guy who signed the contract.

They have some reason, which they tie to money and how much it costs. Well, as Black people we know that White people can always get money - they have far more resources than we. But it is not their history that is at stake of going down the drain, it is the history of Black people at stake. Is it a segment of American history that I am going to fight for until I succeed in establishing our place? You bet I will do that.

I know that I must do that. They may not be as patriotic as I am or Ms. Obama to finally feel American. They may not be American enough to make American and world history inclusive, but I am. I believe in the idea that this is a place for me as well as them. They should believe because in their souls, they know that their forefathers brought us here and mated with my forefathers.

Historically, we must establish our own places to exhibit and someplace to write about our work. It must be for us - by us. We must work to that end. Then what they do will not impact our identity.

I work, sell art and exhibit. I have not gained a national reputation with black or white critics, but I would like to. I want the world to know my work and to want to support me. But I know I must continue to work more than care about all that national stuff. I also must continue to get money legally to pay bills and enjoy comfort such as food, shelter and clothing.

I often respond to people ideas about art. I know we are on the planet on personal journeys. We must stay on those journeys and when we have solutions, we can share if we so desire or if it is helpful.

What I don't want to do is be engaged in the divisive politics of defining what is good, right, bad or wrong in creativity. I accept that "what I like" may not be “good” or “bad” for or to somebody else. We are all on private roads that sometimes coalesce to make something great historically happen, which we must do for Black people which ultimately benefits the world.