Sunday, January 31, 2010

African-American artists have to walk a tricky line

I can’t remember the last time there were so many exhibitions around that appeared to make a nod to Black History Month.
The main ones are at the Columbia Museum of Art and the McKissick Museum at USC. Oftentimes, it’s the smaller art places that make a point of putting up an African-American show during February because a lot of the bigger places say don’t set aside just one month to shows works by and about African-Americans. And I’ve found that’s the case. The good places don’t stick artists in what I call the “February ghetto.”

“The Chemistry of Color” at the art museum and “Grass Roots: African Origins of An American Art,” an exhibition of Lowcountry and African baskets later this month  at the McKissick, just happened to land in this place during this particular month. It wasn’t completely accidentally, but it wasn’t all that planned out either.

Most black artists I’ve talked to during decades of writing about the arts don’t care much for what happens during February. Too often, they’ll get a call in November or December or maybe even January to see if they have some work available for Black History Month. 

They don’t hear from anyone the rest of the year. I’ve even known some artists who will not participate in Black History Month shows. They figure if they’re good enough to show in February they should be good enough to show in September.

I’m not as dead set against showing African-American artists during Black History Month as I once was when it seemed like that was about the only time they were shown. The playing field feels a bit more level; it’s not perfect but it is better. Most art institutions and galleries I deal with are pretty open-minded when it comes to race. (African-American artists may disagree with me on that.)

One thing that’s long been encouraging to me is how many African-American actors, dancers and artists we have (a little lean on the classical music front.) The representation doesn’t reflect exactly the 30 percent African-American population in the state or the nearly 50 percent in Columbia, although on it does on theater stages from time to time. I also find that more and more art events, including openings at the Columbia Museum and S.C. Philharmonic concerts, appear to have more and more African-Americans attending as well.

It’s been a good trend. We could and should do better on the showing and attending end, but it’s been going in the right direction.

The other problematic issue when thinking and talking and writing about African-American art is its very definition.

A couple of years ago a co-worker asked me about finding some African-American artists for some story he was working on. The conversation went something like this:

“What do you mean by African-American artists?” I asked him
“You know, people who do painting of black people and with African themes,” he said.
“That’s pretty insulting to all the black artists who don’t do that kind of art,” I told him.
(He happened to be black.)

My only definition of African-American art is that it was done by an African-American. Actually, I don’t like to think of it as that. I’d rather just say that it is art and that the artist happens to be African-American. (The South Carolina baskets in “Grass Roots” are made by African-Americans and their rich history is tied closely to race, but there’s nothing about them that tells you these were made by black artists.)

One of the artist in the “Chemistry of Color,” which is from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, said he doesn’t believe African-American art exists.
“I am part of the mainstream of artists,” Stanley Whitney is quoted as saying in the exhibition catalog.

Of course nothing is that simple. As the catalog points out many African-American artists have long been caught between two worlds. They were questioned when they didn’t express their “blackness” in their art. One teacher at the Pennsylvania Academy accused them of ignoring their culture’s “fine aesthetic heritage” making their work lack “personal integrity.

Then they were taken to task (sometimes by other artists) for “using their art as political tools, instead of vehicles of free expression,” artist Raymond Saunders says in the catalog. He calls these artists “a drag.”

I’d like to think that artists regardless of race could pursue whatever avenues of inquiry through whatever means they wanted – a “by any means necessary” for the art world. 

And most do. I see art that is a joyful expression of African roots and some that spits in the face of oppression and racism. There’s art by African-Americans that takes other African-Americans to task for doing self-destructive things. Others examine the both tragic and triumphant strains of African-American history.  Some black artists, like white artists have done for centuries, serve up rather stereotypical, picturesque and nostalgic images – which seem to have plenty of buyers.

Many black artists have found that no one wants to show their art unless it has some reference to race (usually a positive one.) Others won’t show it because it speaks to race. It's often hard for a black artist to just be an artist because regardless of the content of the art the color of the maker influences perceptions.
A lot of the art in in “Chemistry” is just art. Many viewers, regardless of race, will be surprised by what they see in this show. Their expectations may be dashed and in many cases, such as this, that’s a good thing.

"Fine as a Cobweb" by Sam Gilliam and "Spontaneous Accord" by Moe Brooker are part of "Chemistry of Color" coming to Columbia Museum of Art. The show opens Friday.


  1. Good article, Jeffrey. Thought provoking, and I think it could be a bit clarifying for some.

  2. This article was a refreshing read. Thanks!

  3. Good article, Jeffrey. It just goes to show that we can't lump people in a category because of race. All African-Americans don't think alike or read the same publications or make the same kind of art. Hopefully The Chemistry of Color will help dispell this myth. E. Woodoff


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