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....


Napoleon Jones-Henderson said...

My Dear Sister Vicki,
As usual you are there at the center of the storm. Yes the points you make are still unfortunately, on the agenda. I am sure you saw the NYTimes article some weeks ago in the arts section with the images of Fredrick Douglass and Elizabeth Cady Stanton January 13th.
The same old issue the same old consequences. Your point about “being labeled Black” is one the somehow folks think that if they don’t call themselves “Black” or look in the or any mirror, then it wouldn’t be so. Sorry you can’t run from yourself, because you will meet yourself every time.
I will be in touch later and keep on keeping on!!!!!!!
A Lunta Continua!!!!
Space is the Place!

Mom said...

Miz Vick - leave it to you to just remind us of the realities we face as women workers in the arts. Working in the sector has been a passion for me as you know - and girl - even on the DARK continent, our sisters have a hard time getting their props!

So -- yes we must go the extra mile in our own way to help advance creative women!

I love you for so many reasons, but for keeping our minds focused - I respect ya my dear friend!