by Candice Nembhard

There are many ways in which the art world can be viewed as an exclusive realm to which only a select few are invited – and to a certain extent, I’d be inclined to agree with some of that sentiment. Behind the careful curation of white walls lies a system of complex unspoken rules that perimeter a selective and hierarchical structure. Be it curator, PR or private collector, everyone has their respective role in the art chain and, in part, this allows practice, consumption and interest in fine art to flourish.

In all its supposed splendor, this chain of command tends to financially benefit only a select group of people. Beyond these tight-knit spaces, the enjoyment of contemporary developments falls short in terms of mass appeal. This is due in part to how we translate these hidden systems but also in terms of how we discuss art, who gets to discuss it, and what we deem valuable.

My interest in this topic comes as a result of a recent talk I attended with none other than renowned painter Kerry James Marshall, who hails from Birmingham, Alabama. He sat down with former Tate Director Chris Dercon, in Villa Grisebach Gallery to discuss various topics pertaining to Marshall’s relationship with visual art, his use and depictions of black American figures as well as the consumer market around painting. Marshall, who is currently presenting his 35-year-career retrospective in the MOCA Los Angeles was one of the many highlights at Berlin’s recent Gallery Weekend and it saddens me to say that the curation and execution of this particular talk was ultimately disappointing.

In terms of location, timing and the discussed topics, it became apparent that little research was given when organising this event. Going from the overbooked attendance, there was also a lack of consideration about the popularity of the artist’s work. This is not to say that the conversation itself was underwhelming. On the contrary, I was floored by the grace and passion in which Marshall grounded his answers in response to some rather questionable assumptions and belittling opinions. Above all, I was fascinated by how Mr. Dercon favoured tenuous links between Marshall’s work and notable – if not token – black American leaders. Whereas it is important to to give credit where it’s due the legacies of James Baldwin, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr et al is not always a needed reference point, especially when the artist in question is primarily talking about the absence of black figures within art.

Furthermore, the Belgian curator went onto make claims regarding black artists and their relationship to economic growth. In response to Marshall’s position that lack of funding among black-oriented art spaces affects the ability to create and discuss contemporary black artists, Dercon vehemently asserted that black creatives possess the ability to successfully generate capital and interest within art spaces, citing Beyonce and Kanye West as examples.

The controversy and the scandal of the black body is much more appealing, if not commercially viable, than the sale of black happiness, black union and black freedom.

His response was ignorant to say the least, and also rather telling of how the public black image is represented in so-called high culture. The token black folk take the stage once more. It deeply saddens as well as infuriates me that we continue to discuss how best to diversify art spaces, yet continue to employ and support individuals who are so far removed from the work and experiences they profit from. It’s insulting and insensitive to have a non-black curator tell a black artist how a small number of people in a select community disprove a globally understood experience of poverty, isolation and internalised oppression. It’s pathetic and lazy to use black pain as the only logical means of critiquing and understanding art that derives from artists of colour. A part of me feels that if somehow the concept of black joy and black happiness overshadowed the need to recreate and reinterpret traumatic histories, the art world wouldn’t know what to do with itself. In some regard, the presence of black artists becomes a method of breaking a cycle.

Art, like anything else consumable, runs through trends. Increasingly there has been a growing tendency among non-black artists to treat black subjects as progressive, neo-liberal statements. Shock value based on black trauma and black spectacle is apparently ‘in’, as seen in examples such as Dana Schultz’s depiction of Emmett Till’s mutilated body in a casket and Andres Serrano’s ‘White Nigger’. The controversy and the scandal of the black body is much more appealing, if not commercially viable, than the sale of black happiness, black union and black freedom.

I was floored by the grace and passion in which Marshall grounded his answers in response to some rather questionable assumptions and belittling opinions.

When you take on such sensitive themes and experiences, you do so in the knowledge that the work you create is fully-loaded and lives beyond the gallery. These images point to a wider network of institutions that allow you as non-black people to comfortably create fictive versions of horrific incidents and be compensated for it, whilst others are harmed by the resulting violence aroused by these images. Why is it that non-black people can find something beautiful in black struggle yet rest comfortably as though they aren’t the catalysts?

For me, this is why Marshall’s work holds such value. It unapologetically shows the dynamic and diverse nature of black people, and I would even go so far as to say that his paintings humanise black people. The vibrant nature of his colour schemes point to the richness and the density of black people; his work is in the detail and the subtleties of black expression.

I applaud Marshall for handling these questions with sheer professionalism as well as the many other folks of colour in the room that understood the implications of Dercon’s subtext. We are more than just victims and far more than instruments of proposed diversity quotas. For the love of all that is good, if you wish to interview an artist that happens to be black, and you’re not black, give them the chance to speak without your insistence that you know more than they’ve ever lived.

Featured image credit: Kerry James Marshall,

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