DISCOURSE: BLACK NARRATIVES

Published August 23, 2020
Philistines (1982), Jean Michel Basquiat
Philistines (1982), Jean Michel Basquiat

Something important that has stemmed from the recent Black Lives Matter protests is a practice which has now been labelled the ‘cancel culture’ or the ‘call out culture.’ Protestors and activists are name-calling big stakeholders in various industries for exploiting the black narratives, not amplifying minority voices, and for continually employing unfair methods that are embedded in racist perspectives.

Corporations are either rebranding some of their products or removing them entirely from shelves; institutions are changing the name of their schools; and statues that glorified slave traders and colonisers are being taken down. Enterprises around the world have begun to dissociate themselves from their problematic past. Unsurprisingly, the global art industry is also being held accountable, with an increasing number of recent realisations, confessions and allegations.

Portrait Of First Lady Michell Obama (2017), Amy Sherald
Portrait Of First Lady Michell Obama (2017), Amy Sherald

It is long overdue for the art world to look hard at its own racism, which it is already undergoing a slow reckoning with. The international art world is a predominantly white entity that has maintained a disquieting silence and has remained complicit in racist structures. After many galleries and museums recently parroted black people’s words in times of trauma, activists were quick to point out their longstanding systemic oppression, that benefits mostly the white and wealthy.

Over 85 percent of artists exhibited in 18 major museums in the US are white. Take other smaller museums into account, and the visibility of black artists in these spaces shockingly plummets to less than one percent. Less than three percent of museum acquisitions over the past decade have been of work by African American artists. Museums and galleries lack the racial diversity they so vehemently endorse. The administrative board and the senior staff mostly comprise white men, whereas the contract and low paid workers are statistically more likely to be people of colour. Many of these employees are now laid off, as the pandemic closed the galleries and museums across the US and drained multimillion-dollar budgets overnight.

And this is just the tip of a toxic iceberg. Black people have less social mobility than ever before, and black artists are no exception. Almost every elite profession, from arts and culture to media, finance, law and medicine, is dominated by white men. Artists of colour continually struggle to break the heavy and painful racial glass ceiling and yet, barring a few names, many of them fail to reach the same stardom and success as their privileged white counterparts.

Despite the systemic obstacles put up in their way, African-American artists continue to amplify their voice in the global art sphere

The monetary value of artworks by African-American artists, on average, is significantly lower than the values set for works by white artists. Furthermore, accusations have recently sprung up against some of the most renowned museums and galleries, for operating under the patronage and sponsorship of conservative, avaricious men who in the past have expressed racially prejudiced sentiments. These indictments have mostly been met with indifference or denial. Indeed, their statements of solidarity become hollow when they remain reluctant to address these systemic issues.

The famous Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has only recently changed the offensive and exoticising titles of more than 100 artworks that were overlooked as racist. It has replaced the use of the word ‘negro’ for Afro-Caribbean subjects and ‘Mohammedan’ for Middle Eastern subjects. Art history is abundant with orientalist/racist artworks that imagine, emphasise or exaggerate differences of Arab or black people and cultures; showcasing them as uncivilised, violent and backward.

Untitled (2009), Kerry James Marshall
Untitled (2009), Kerry James Marshall

During the anti-police brutality protests in Minneapolis, a multimillion-dollar sculpture by famous artist Brian Donnelly, commonly known as Kaws, was looted from a gallery in Los Angeles. And from the reactionary news that surfaced, it seemed fighting for Kaws was more important than fighting for black lives. The gallery, which represents artists such as Banksy and Takashi Murakami, posted a story on social media detailing the looting, and requesting for video footage so they could press charges. In doing so, they suggested that their sympathies for the theft of a black life at the hands of the police could be causally truncated by the looting of their property by a protester, meaning their support of anti-racism is conditional at best and self-centred at worst.

The oversized toy figurines by Kaws are, in many ways, illustrative of the contemporary art world’s excess of wealth and inflation of importance, all of which is based on an extensive lineage of white privilege and patronage.

In Bristol in the United Kingdom, a historic statue that aggrandised and lionised a slave trader was taken down and dumped in the river by protestors. A Caucasian artist Marc Quinn took on a secret mission to replace it with a statue of a black, female protestor whose images went viral after she stood atop the plinth during the protests. This subsequent statue was removed within 25 hours and faced moderate retaliation. Critics labelled his gesture as ‘performance activism’ and accused him of trying to make himself the centre of the conversation. Questions arose that, if his concerns were genuine and if he had the means and resources, why could he not have facilitated a young black artist to create something, instead of becoming the author and stealing the agency of black people to decide himself what replaces the previous occupant.

Compare his work to Kara Walker’s current installation at Tate Modern, London. Known best for her room-size tableaux of black cut-paper silhouettes that address issues of race, gender, sexuality and violence, Walker’s installation ‘Fons Americanus’ is a 13-metre-tall working fountain inspired by the Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace. Rather than celebrating the British Empire, she challenges the dominant history with grotesque and satirical imagery that explores the interconnected histories of Africa, America and Europe. She refers to the trans-atlantic slave trade and portrays the fates and tragedies of people from these continents. By inverting the usual function of such monuments, Walker not only questions how they emanate narratives of power, but also how we misremember history.

A Man Was Lynched Yesterday (2015), Dread Scott
A Man Was Lynched Yesterday (2015), Dread Scott

Barkley Hendricks was an American painter and photographer who became famous for revolutionising portraiture through his realist and post-modern oil paintings of empowered black Americans living in urban areas. His socially charged work has spanned drastically diverse cultural climates, from the civil rights movement of the 1960s, through the election of the United States’ first black president. He pairs art history with questions of personal identity and cultural heritage, while also confronting the institutional portrayal of the black subject. Steeped in pop culture and balanced with exquisite detail, the directness of his subjects’ gaze is almost piercing.

Hendricks is said to have been a strong inspiration behind Kehinde Wiley’s and Amy Sherald’s works. Both Wiley and Sherald were commissioned to create the presidential portraits of Barack Obama and Michelle Obama respectively. Their art employs ordinary people, who are so often invisible, and elevates them to recognise their grace and dignity. The larger-than-life figures disturb and interrupt tropes of portrait painting and awaken complex issues around race, that many would prefer remain mute.

Faith Ringgold is an African-American artist and author who became famous for the quilted narrations of her political consciousness, inspired by the Tibetan artform of richly brocaded fabric called Tankas. Her travels to Ghana and Nigeria continued to be her greatest influence. Her iconic series, ‘American People’ highlighted the civil rights movement from a female perspective and ‘American People # 20’ was one of her best known, and perhaps unsettling, pieces. The mural presents a knot of black and white bodies with their dazed eyes open wide in terror and their heads and matching apparel riddled with blood stains.

Kerry James Marshall’s work also explores the complex effects of the civil rights movement on the everyday life on African-Americans. Marshall incorporates obscure moments and objects, associated with contemporary and past black culture, and he often exaggerates the colour of the people in his work by painting them as black as the pigment will allow. He questions the notion of mastery, authorship and the erasure of black bodies in art history.

Perhaps the reason why many African-American artists prefer to venture into portraiture is because of the sheer lack of representation of black subjects in liberating positions of power. Throughout art history, black subjects have only been exhibited through the white lens, often as dangerous, subjugated or even dehumanised props.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, however, was a neo-expressionist American artist known for his raw, gestural style of painting, with graffiti-like images and scribbled text. Basquiat often used a crown motif to celebrate black people as majestic royalty or as saints. Taking inspiration from Aztec cultural history as well as from his Caribbean heritage, his work was rife with elusive symbols and primitive diagrams that alluded to race relations in America and the culture of the African diaspora.

Amidst the infrastructural obstacles, it is remarkable that these artists managed to change the colour of modern art history. However, it does not suffice. Financial and material shifts are required to rebuild not just a more inclusive art world but a less oppressive society. Until that happens, the art world will seem less progressive and more rapacious for relying on the labour and sacrifices of others, while continuing to reap the benefits of a problematic system.

Influential individuals in the art world, including writers and curators, have begun calling on institutions and commercial entities to take a stand. And yet, as hundreds of thousands gather on the streets in Europe and the US in a unified rally for equal rights and an end to racialised police brutality, many of the world’s largest museums in those countries — with their collections stocked with looted artefacts from Africa, Middle East, Asia and the indigenous Americas — have remained slow to comment on the issue.

Published in Dawn, EOS, August 23rd, 2020

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