Wednesday, October 26th, 2016

Towards a more fluid definition of Blackness

The changes have taught me how to best exploit that singular gift of study, to question what I see, then to question what I see after that, because the questions matter as much, perhaps more than the answers.
Ta-Nehisi Coates

I wanted out of my hometown of Baltimore, a city marked by racial unrest where, shortly after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, there was looting, violence, and death. Despite its role at the forefront of the civil rights movement, Baltimore was burdened by a long history of segregation and racial polarity that still exists today. I wanted to get away and move to a place where racial tension could melt away. I wanted to do something where race was not an issue. I moved north to New York City where I studied and became a painter and a professor, beginning a life fully immersed in the liberal arena of fine art.

Recently, however, I am not sure that the place I sought actually exists. As I look around the art world, what I now see is a kind of racial tribalization that seems to trade on kinship-based organizations and reciprocal exchange. A social-club culture where exclusive membership comes with privileges: fashionable dinners, parties, entrée to certain galleries and collectors, etc. All are welcome at all events, but you must be enrolled as a member to benefit. In short, I see an art-world racial divide. I question the reasons for this divided structure and wonder if the art world now needs to rethink how black artists are included and promoted, allowing for a broadening of the visual dialog on race.

The author, center row, third from left, with artists in Representing Rainbows, the exhibition she had selected at Gerald Peters Gallery, New York, in September 2016. Photo: Kristen Schiele
The author, center row, third from left, with artists in Representing Rainbows, the exhibition she had selected at Gerald Peters Gallery, New York, in September 2016. Photo: Kristen Schiele

Back in the 1990’s, some New York curators began a movement to change the direction of museums by creating large exhibitions around ideas of racial and sexual identity. They fought for the right of minority groups to be seen and heard. They transformed the museum culture of the 1960’s and 1970’s, effecting big changes in institutions that seriously needed to be changed. Their work provided an opportunity for artists of color to have exhibitions in museums and galleries and to be included in major collections. Even though power inequalities continued to exist for minority groups, some progress was made by this formation of a group identity. Here racial difference became a uniting force, instrumentalizing art for a larger social engagement.

Despite those curatorial efforts, today all is not equal, and a divide remains. But the original intent of those who initiated a self-generated identity can become restricting when imposed by others. And I have begun to wonder: Is it still necessary for black curators to primarily curate identity-based shows? Aren’t these shows only serving to highlight perceived cultural differences while firming up the separations between groups? Can identity only be affirmed by pooling together sameness in a themed exhibition?

Just as the aspirations of the civil rights movement were reflected in the attitudes of black art and the art institutions of its time, perhaps the political climate of today is pointing us in a different direction – one that begins to transcend identity, albeit with some difficulty. Take a look at the circuitous discussion around whether Barack Obama is black enough. There is endless talk about how others want to identify him and how he self-identifies. No choice he could make would go without criticism. No choice would be without exclusion or acceptance of aspects of black identity. Similar issues of identification surround Hillary Clinton with the question of how “female” falls in line(or not) with the idea of the “feminine”. You can’t trust her if her feminine wiles are present. She can’t protect us if her maternal side is visible. We can’t be politically seduced if she is not seductive. For both Obama and Clinton, their attempts at a fluid self-representation keep them more firmly identified as individuals than as “club members”, unable and/or unwilling to take advantage of any membership.

For me, racial fluidity began not by choice but with my birth, and my skin color – my very light skin color. It grew with the neighborhoods I lived in and the education I received. I was neither instructed in, nor possessed of, a strong cultural or ethnic identity. I believe in and have sought a world where identity is so malleable that it is essentially obsolete. My friends and many of my friends’ friends are broad and varied in race, geographic roots, sex, sexual identity and religion. We eat, dance, talk, laugh, cry, work and play together. We liberals and artists do not subscribe to essentialist thinking – except somehow when it comes to the art career. Rarely do I attend an art exhibition, lecture, dinner, or party that possesses the diversity of my life outside of the art arena. Instead, what I am seeing are professional camps: a black art world and a white one, each with its own team of curators, art historians and collectors. And I ask myself: why does this divide exist? If you have chosen, as I have, not to participate in highlighting racial differences, where do you position yourself?

My black artist friends describe their MFA programs as being largely white. Having graduated, they attribute their successes mostly to black art-professionals and, with a certain ironic glibness, to affirmative action. Recently, I heard one black MFA student question why another black student had not yet spoken to him about how to succeed in the art world. I suppose at the heart of this student’s question is an impulse toward solidarity in support of becoming a visible artist. The assumption that this exclusive conversation increases inclusion is incorrect; in fact it is simply the beginning of affirming inequalities by highlighting differences that later become systematically sustained. This is not a “post-racial” attitude, but simply the beginnings of drawing lines of difference.

The author's mother and grandfather, family photograph
The author’s mother and grandfather, family photograph

The commodification of race begins in graduate school, where questions of identity and personal subjectivity live. Here students work towards communicating an intelligible identity while fine-tuning a sense of personal differences. All of this work about the self is fine and good, but only if these self-representations can be directed to a collective public and not simply to a pre-selected, curated audience. When the work leaves the private space of art making and moves towards the public space of exhibiting, these visual self-expressions become mutated and manhandled for use in the promotional side of the business of art. The result is a complacency around the original intent to promote and honor diversity. Here, the foundation of identity politics shifts from political change to a tool of separation. The initial radical intent is emptied out: the art’s effect is diffused.

Many African-American artists feel the obligation to represent Blackness. My position as an abstract painter allows me to manifest my own sense of self – my black self – as an expression of self-determination and freedom, while avoiding an oppositional stance. I do not believe this position is “post-racial” since I am not sure that that is possible. Yet the current system of how to include black artists in the mainstream seems to be stuck in tropes from the past. I do not want to negate discussions of race and racism in art, but I do want to open the conversation by detaching Blackness from a narrow racial term, allowing it to be more pliable. This will not cause current and historical racial differences to cease to exist, but it will enable artists who are not foregrounding Blackness in their work to become equally important members of the conversation. By rupturing accepted racial boundaries, subtlety and aesthetics will play a social role in the expansion of that conversation.

The art world needs to renew its ideas of racial inclusion. It needs to activate art spaces for a fuller discussion of racial issues, with more investment in complex representations and less reliance on didactic displays of racialized, reified art. It needs to value art that is driven through inspiration, not calculation, while incorporating the politics of identity with the versatility of creativity. It needs a way to avoid the lethargy of categorization, while allowing more fluidity in the physical spaces of the profession. It needs an eradication of the racial professional divide, by expanding the visual presence of race and avoiding a branded, static depiction. By moving away from essentialist exhibitions, perhaps there is a renewed opportunity for a transformation in perceiving, acknowledging, and representing the inherent complexity of race.

Installation shot of the exhibition, Representing Rainbows, curated by Lisa Corinne Davis at Gerald Peters Gallery, New York, September 2016, showing a work by Shinique Smith. Photo: Michael Scoggins
Installation shot of the exhibition, Representing Rainbows, curated by Lisa Corinne Davis at Gerald Peters Gallery, New York, September 2016, showing a work by Shinique Smith. Photo: Michael Scoggins