Jenkins Johnson Gallery, Art Miami 2017 (Photo credit: Najee Dorsey)
Black creators are not just generating millions, it’s in the billions and trillions, once you include their creative content from the myriad of industries where they create; where they break the molds and change the game. But how many billions of dollars generated by Black music makers (for instance) have funneled down to those artists, their families, or their communities? Who owns the master recordings?
No offense to Clive Davis, but he has lived quite richly from Black music, yet he has never sang a single note. He, more than his artists, called the shots that defined generations of Black music. While these relationships brought some of the best Black talent to the forefront, the artists were never intended to be the main benefactors of their talent and work. Music companies quickly separated those artists from the rights to their masters, and set-up contracts to control future supply and content. This has happened throughout our creative history in America. We lose control of our art, and we lose control of the narratives that we want to reflect us. We manage to secure everyone else’s financial legacies, but our own.
Now, today, here we are, with the last remaining art-form we control, still in our hands. For that reason it has been able to evolve on its own terms, free of outside input. With the exception of Western-rooted art schools, our art has remained an in-house affair because mainstream museums wanted no part of Black art. And for the most part, the mainstream art-world wanted no part of Black art. It was completely unimportant to them.
Even as mainstream museums attempted to consider Black art. It was always them attempting to tell us what it is, even as they lacked the scholarship and experience to judge or critique it. They were just too uninformed to understand that comparing art created by a cultural group who has spent 400 years as kidnap victims might lead to different stories, genres, and processes than the genres and processes created by Western artists whose ancestors had done both the kidnapping and benefitting. They didn’t make room in their historical canon for Black artist, or for the differences between techniques evolved from painting with sable-haired brushes, and those evolved from painting through quilt strips or other methods. They didn’t understand that Black artists were never failing to keep up with them and their traditions, but rather, Black artists were creating from their own rightful historical perspectives using ingenious methods created by them for that purpose.
In effect, even if a Black artist creates in the identical style of Rembrandt, he cannot be separated from the consciousness of life that flows through him as he creates. As an artist, whatever a person has come through to become them, all of that gets processed in the process of creating art. Even if a Black artist chose to copy the style of Rembrandt, right down to the brush stroke, he did so as a Black man with a story to tell about why he chose to mimic the world through Rembrandt’s eyes, rather than his own. Likewise, Beethoven and Quincy Jones could never have seen life through a similar social lens. Still, both their artistries were influenced by the worlds before them and each created timeless masterpieces. The fact is, the expertise of one does not diminish or cancel the other’s legacy or history.
This is the part that mainstream museums got wrong. They’ve looked to Western and European art history to try to judge the cultures of everyone else… demonstrating in no uncertain terms that they deemed no other cultural group worthy to grace their pristine walls. Their experts assigned Western art to the top of the art pinnacle and suppressed the rest. Not because Black artists weren’t equally talented, but because they reserved no place for them to exists among their masters.
Nevertheless, it has been historically shown, in every area of creativity where Black people have functioned, they have not only quickly mastered the art-forms, but also, they have taken them to new, unimagined levels: music, dance, storytelling, poetry, whatever. We are a people that, given the same tools or given no tools at all, we create our way to new heights and possibilities. The fact that our visual artists have largely gone un-studied by museums has not kept their creativity from flourishing.
Despite mainstream art world rejection, Black artists kept right on creating and inventing new techniques. Black collectors kept right on curating their own stories through the masterpieces that reflected their complicated journeys.
Now that being Black in America is a mainstream topic, it’s no longer acceptable to be a clueless non-participant in the world outside of those hallowed museum walls. It’s even worse to be clueless within them since it is the charge of their leaders and staff to help tell the story of this nation. Across the board, museums are stepping up to ensure their collections and programs encompass Black art, or at least their versions of what Black art should reflect.
Beneath the welcome banners, Black artists and collectors have begun to file into the room in bigger numbers. But, it’s not just time to feast. It’s time for Black artists and collectors to advocate for the right to switch up the menu.
The Dream Series #5 by Jacob Lawrence. Collection (PAFA) The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. (Photo credit: Najee Dorsey)
You don’t need to be invited to the room and told what to consume and enjoy; and you don’t need your existing recipes to be stirred and folded into the existing recipes chosen by them, for them. You need to be heard and accepted on your own terms. In this moment you must decide not to give up control of your own story as reflected through visual art. This is the critical decision Black artists and collectors are facing.
We need museums and others in the mainstream art-world to know that examining Black art for the purpose of art history is not the same as re-contextualizing it so that it can be neatly fit into collections preassembled to reflect only their culture. This is a moment that is wholly about examining Black visual art, on its own merits. If Black collectors join more museum boards and invest in the rooms where art relationships are created and nurtured, that will help to insure a cultural narrative that reflects their truth.
Right now Black artists and collectors still own “the masters.” They can afford to enter the feast confident in their authorship and authority.
As for the mainstream art-world and its non-Black experts, here’s what I would ask of you as you invite Black artists and collectors into your spheres. Welcome these experts as your colleagues – and not as a psychiatrist might invite patients to the couch. They are not lost, or new to art as a cultural practice. They don’t need you to help them acclimate to your version of culture. They’ve brought their own. It is a creative culture that doesn’t need fixing, or editing, or updating, or adjusting. They are coming to you fully human with a culture that is just as valid as yours. Start the conversation by listening and learning.
Understand that Black art didn’t evolve out of Western rejection and exclusion. It evolved out of Black creativity, despite those forces. Black people were creating art before the historic kidnapping. Vestiges of the original culture has survived, evolved, and expanded — despite the fact that the hyphen between the words African and American literally represents a slave ship plus 400 stolen years, in every literal sense.
Black art has its own singular history. Sculptures stolen from Africa, those which inspired the likes of Picasso and Matisse, were used by our ancestors as tools for living. In many ways, the tradition survives. Art is how we live. It’s how we laugh, cry, grieve, celebrate, protest, galvanize, heal, and refresh ourselves for the struggle of being Black in America. Art is the connective tissue of our culture. Please understand that we have not failed to master your art subjects, or your techniques. We have simply excelled at our own.
We welcome your study and accept your invitation to the table but, from the standpoint of scholarship, the question — “What is Black art?” — is one for you to ask, not to answer. Even with your best intentions to right the wrongs of the past, still know that it would be illogical for the offspring of our ancestors’ kidnappers to be the ones to define how we should artistically reflect those experiences.
Black art is not the museum’s story to control or rewrite. It is only theirs to gather and record from the witnesses and griots — namely those Black artists and collectors who have captured and preserved it. This time, it is your turn to listen to our experts, rather than to inform.
Because, when it comes to Black art and culture, we are the masters here.
DEBRA HAND is a museum-collected sculptor, painter, and writer. She is the creator of the historic bronze statue of Paul Laurence Dunbar in Dunbar Park. Among the history makers who own her works are former President Barack Obama; Hillary Clinton; Harry Belafonte; Cicely Tyson; Smokey Robinson; Yo-Yo Ma; Spike Lee; Seal; Sinbad; and the renowned sculptor, Richard Hunt; the late Winnie Mandela, and the late Dr. Maya Angelou also owned her work. Debra Hand holds a Master of Science Degree from the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering at Northwestern University. She is a self-taught artist whose talent was discovered by the legendary Dr. Margaret Burroughs, principal founder of the DuSable Museum. It was Burroughs who arranged for Hand’s first public exhibit.
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