In the niche space we call the ‘art world’, the discrediting or downplaying of black artists has not gone unnoticed as it has undocumented. That’s not to say critical discussion of African/African diaspora art has not been made; it is to suggest however that favourable and more accessible criticism is blessed upon the dominant sphere of white, European Art. For many black artists, including the likes of Kerry James Marshall, publicising the potential racist nature of art history opens up the narrative of what really goes on in the art world.
Britain’s art spaces have long contributed to homogenising artists and their creations. Outside of North African, Middle Eastern and Greek art, the appearance of black people in classic and high art is few and far between, but why? Through trade alone, we see how Africa became intertwined with European history. The 1779 painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle is key in marking the unique history of black British aristocrats. Although the correct creditor of the portrait is unknown, it did serve as the basis for Amma Asante’s British Period drama film, Belle (2013) – a semi-biographical account of Belle’s life.
Both the portrait and film adaptation by default look at Britain’s involvement with the Atlantic slave trade whilst re-examining the traditional role of class. Quite often, pictorial evidence of this overlap is heavily obscured by racist, domesticated, slave roles, overlooking the history of black royalty that networked important empires in Europe. This gap in art history has prompted a much needed increase in online groups such as Diasporic Roots and Medieval POC, who have taken it upon themselves to uncover depictions and illustrations of black artists and people respectively within the European scope of art- dating back as early as the 1100s.
It’s no wonder that with contemporary avenues growing more streamlined into ‘for profit’ spaces; young, underfunded and under sourced artists are having their creative expression compromised
Whether you question the legitimacy of their findings or not, there is a hole that needs to be filled in looking at how the influence of art pre 20th century has impacted on modern and contemporary forms. The very nature of a museum or a gallery today denotes demographical interest in expression; at best, creative manifestations that leave only small avenues for black artists looking to penetrate those spaces. One need only reference the late, great Jean-Michel Basquiat to look at how inaccessible his work became to the common man, once co-opted by the New York art world. Although it brought him great fame, the spirit behind his DIY, impulsive ethos was dulled by a price tag. It’s no wonder that with contemporary avenues growing more streamlined into ‘for profit’ spaces; young, underfunded and under sourced artists are having their creative expression compromised and are consequently looking outside of the four white wall box.
Cecile Emeke’s ‘Strolling’ series is a championing example of black British visionaries looking outwards for art. The young filmmaker, through crowd sourcing and sheer talent has given a platform for young black British and people of the diaspora to give weight to their own existence. Although available through YouTube, the work sits outside of the white owned gallery, and gives back to the audiences from which it sources its power.
Similarly, in 2014, Kara Walker built and erected a 35 tonne sugar sphinx in an old Brooklyn Domino Sugar Factory. The instillation was said to confront viewers with America’s involvement in the Caribbean sugar trade due in part to the statue’s material and location. Furthermore, in making the sphinx a woman, Walker opened up America’s fascination with the ‘mammy’ character as well as female labour; doubly, when you take Walker’s efforts to construct the piece. The sphinx made use of local space, but also tapped into a history that was largely unbeknownst to many.
Walker and Emeke’s work does and did not come without criticism, but on a more positive outlook, it resonates because it does not conform. They have separated themselves from the idea that art or creative methods are reserved for those that can financially appreciate it.
Walker opened up America’s fascination with the ‘mammy’ character as well as female labour
Despite the difference in format, both are unafraid to tackle the complex nature of being an artist of colour. Although they are not the first to do so – Frida Kahlo, Carrie Mae Weems, Bernice Bing and Charles Henry Alston have long contributed to that area of discussion – their work sets new boundaries not only for young artists, but for those running art spaces.
Although I’m sure these artists do not wish to be admired via tokenistic values, there is I believe, an intent to address how race can and does factor into their work. Their creative outlook stems beyond themselves to a wider network of people- which is why I find the enigma that is Kanye West so fascinating.
In the last few years, West has tried relentlessly to seek acceptance in the art world. From his music to his recent art exhibition in LA; his initial endeavours were supposedly to widen the gap for black entrepreneurs. Where West fell short in gaining full acceptance, was the fashion industry, for which he attributes his alleged personal debt to. What both upsets and surprises me is West’s audacity to claim to work and strive for black artists, yet put out a casting call for his upcoming Yeezy show for ‘multiracial women only’.
What I see in this casting all, among numerous others of its kind is a refusal to be brave. The caricature of the downtrodden black man, is much more palatable than a hardworking Latinx or Asian man succeed on their own accord. To return to film, look at the types of roles black nominees secure in the running for an academy award. There is a running narrative in fine art, music, film and fashion that seeks to unionise black identity, for non-black people. From this vantage, it is safer to support what you know sells, than trust the potential of something alternative.
In sticking to the status quo, West in effect demeans his own art, by not wanting to see himself reflected in it. Wherever his or any other artists of colour’s intentions lie, I truly believe that black and other artists of colour should not strive to be accepted by their white counterparts, but instead, use their race and talent to create spaces for their own work to thrive.
Featured Image © TIDAL