Black artists have beaten slavery like a dead horse.
The past looks often un-imaginary these days. I've had sentiments like these for a little while, especially after the flop that was my attempt to create the work I thought I was suppose to - Afro beats, paired with afro hair, and a little dose of ass. This was the work that failed me the most thus far. I remember spending the entire critique session assuming the audience knew it was parody, only having to move on due to time, just as I discovered they weren't in on the joke. I was left confused about many things on that day, but one thing was sure, I wouldn't be attempting any work like that anytime soon there after. I could easily see this audience as a microcosm of the business world of art, except in the art-osphere, white voices might accompany British or Italian accents.
Black artists have beaten slavery like a dead horse. Enhanced by nudity, trauma, or the lack/overt sense of ethics. These pieces often harbor attention. Attention that is then affirmed by the (mostly white) elitist circles of people who control the business world of art because, well, 1) they'd look shitty if they didn't and 2) while there might be plenty of shitty white artists, asian-american artists, turkish artists etc., there is something the art world has specifically with blackness. I don't know, call it white guilt? I'm also speaking here of the dead horse I have personally seen victimized time and time again, and that is black slavery in white America. And please, feel free to take this moment to reflect and mourn your own prospective dead horse my fellow artists of color. [*Do white people have a dead horse?]
As a black artist on the mic about this topic, I am sure the controversy is ever-present. As a migrant black artist, even more so. As a full-time optimist who thinks the art world needs more voices, I am treading some serious ground, but the black magic Gods have taken a hold of my type-pad and I just can't stop. The feeling of boredom I often get when hearing an artist speak about these works is simply because there is more. That's not an opinion, it's fact. There is more to blackness than slavery, there's more to slavery than blackness, and there is definitely more to being a black artist than talking about slavery as past.
This past spring, I had the privilege of briefly meeting and listening to stories from one of the most unapologetic black woman artist I've ever met, Cauleen Smith. I remember Cauleen Smith's talk at the Everson Museum for many reason, but one in particular, is for her critique of trauma. She spoke about a piece she did and explained just how unsatisfying it was when the work/project was actually done. It didn't feel liberating, moving, or thought-provoking, it probably felt sad, depressing, and a bit tired. The buried house she had been fixated on was ultimately, just a buried house. There was no work there to be done. At least, not by her.
When we bring up the question of 'why' in art, it can be tricky to navigate, but here, it's quite clear. When we re-enact history, there should be something to communicate why. Why is it relevant now? Why should it be re-imagined? Whether you're burying a house, or placing your nude black body in the middle of Wall St. and asking me to imagine this town 250 years ago when you would have been a slave, it's just not enough to take me to that place ('WHITE SHOES' by Nona Faustine). I can't imagine. I wasn't there. I've got no context for what it would have looked like then. Please, say more. No really, say more.
Smith talked about the importance of time and blackness as a site of enticing violence during her talk. In her latest work, 'Crow Requium,' we get a sense of that new imaginary. While these two pieces are doing entirely different things to me ('WHITE SHOES' & 'Crow Requiem'), one to me being clearly more successful than the other, they both seemed engineered to bring about a dialogue on blackness. That's enough to keep exploring. To keep investigating just how to talk about this beast in art. Kudos to both for taking on the challenge, but taking it on, is only the starting point. *UPDATE 07.08.15: The most crucial point. So thank you.
Artists have strange responsibilities if assumed. The work must always be served, wherever that work originated from, whatever thought, community, or feeling that led to the work, it must be served. There is also the burden of representation. With the constant awareness of having to bring "other" voices into the art-osphere, there's no doubt that when black artists decide to art, they might feel the pressure to talk rashly and unapologetically about blackness. While my goal is far from getting anyone to stop talking about blackness, rashly or unapologetically at that, it is important for artists to also realize the ways in which life communicates as art, and sometimes in the silence, inspiration can flow. As Martha Rosler says, art is about the everyday. So maybe you have a great idea to do something overtly provoking, well maybe it's the idea that came fifteen ideas later that's really where the art exists most compellingly. It can exist beyond a one-liner, and work to inform and complexity other ideas about social culture. Or maybe the one-liner is great, but you're consciously working as an artist to further compel, as you might also be aware of the ways in which failure is productive.
Art and slavery has collided in some beautiful and disturbing ways over the years, often failing many, including me. Yes, we should never forget the past, and there is always a sacred space for reflectivity in art, but also, how do we employ those elements to make work that can garner even more of a collective understanding or curiosity? It might start by reimagining. Reimagine the present as if it were the past, the past as if it were the future and truly creating a piece of time art.
Here's to the afro futurists, both before us and those to come.
Here's to the power of true representation.
*UPDATE 07.08.15: Here's to more.
*UPDATE 07.08.15: Here's to more.
Full talk by Cauleen Smith:
'Crow Requium' from UVP's SPECULATIONS: Science Fiction, Chronopolitics, & Social Change
*UPDATE 07.08.15: You know I just re-watched the piece I claimed to have "failed me" in the opening paragraph. It seems like I am only just now viewing it; Like I am seeing it for the first time. It feels suddenly relevant in a new way. As if there was something I was doing in that moment that superseded my comprehension at that time. This relationship between the present, past, and future is never truly honed, is it?