B. Robert Moore and Esteban Whiteside Collaboration Puts Capitalism & Gentrification on Blast!
"We Buy Houses, So You Move!" Photo Credit: Moore and Whiteside
When pundits discuss capitalism, what they usually leave out is that U.S. capitalism is undergirded by White supremacy. Shortly after the enslavement of Black people ended in 1865, Whites enacted "Jim Crow" laws to restrict Black people's housing options, earning opportunities and diminish the value of any property that they acquired.
When Black Americans overcame onerous obstacles and managed to succeed as capitalists, White terrorists wiped out their financial gains by murdering Black business owners and decimating affluent Black communities.
The Greenwood community in Tulsa, Oklahoma was known as "The Black Wall Street." White terrorists killed three hundred of the community's residents from May 31-June 1 in 1921. The White terrorists looted their homes then burned them to the ground.
On FiveThirtyEight.com, a website that produces data-driven analysis, Santul Nerker wrote:
"America’s racial wealth gap is well-documented, even if many continue to underestimate its existence. Black Americans’ net worth is, on average, less than 15 percent of white Americans’, the legacy of centuries of systemic anti-Black racism. Moreover, both political parties have failed time and again to address the inequities facing Black Americans."
In the thirty works that comprise the Amerikkkan Monopoly Game series, artists B. Robert Moore and Esteban Whiteside joined forces to provide a full throttled critique of U.S. capitalism, which, by necessity, addresses slavery, reparations and gentrification. The series title gives a nod to Ice Cube's 1990 rap album, AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted, where the United States of America and the Ku Klux Klan are conflated.
In their series, Moore and Whiteside employ the visual elements of the board game Monopoly about buying and selling real estate and utility companies. The artists comment on and revise the game's features to depict the various ways poor and working class people can easily fail in racialized capitalism as they move through the traps, usury fees and injustices. In an interview with BAIA, Moore said Monopoly is a metaphor for poor people who're "leveraging utilities for their survival." He added that capitalism creates a pipeline to prison. Moore's statement isn't hyperbole.
In real life, a low-income person could "Go To Jail" because she doesn't earn enough from her full-time job to pay her rent, buy groceries and pay her electricity or gas bill each month. Since maintaining utilities is a condition of many apartment leases, if those services get shut off, the tenant can be evicted. Financial desperation can then lead this woman to engage in money making ventures that could get her arrested. In 2014, Eric Garner was arrested for selling loose cigarettes on the street in Staten Island, New York. He died after an NYPD officer placed him in an illegal chokehold and he suffocated.
Moore's paintings and mixed media creations range from conventional figurative works to those that straddle abstraction. Thematically, he has tackled personal topics, such as a painting about his father who is a Kung Fu master as well as subject matter that affects the broader society like alcohol and cigarette companies targeting low-income Black communities.
Moore has also gained a large online following with his "Blackity Brown" series that he initially promoted to the alumni of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) on Instagram. The series features dark complexioned renditions of Peanuts, Flintstones and Jetsons cartoon characters. Moore's paintings highlight the importance of representation by reimagining iconic cartoon characters reflecting contemporary people of African descent.
In a short time, Moore, a self-taught artist from Des Moines, Iowa, has participated in several prestigious group exhibitions including Allouche Gallery’s Operation Blues and Band of Vices Masterpiece II. His journey is remarkable for an artist without an MFA or a powerhouse gallery behind him.
Photograph of Esteban Whiteside, Photo Credit: Artist
Whiteside, who is based in Washington, D.C., is rapidly gaining a reputation for using his paintings to deliver unvarnished commentary on current events. Whiteside, like Moore, is a self-taught artist. His paintings are an intersection between street art and politics.
Whiteside has covered a wide range of topics including: police brutality, climate change, the NFL, the 2021 Insurrection in the U.S. Capitol Building and the recent confirmation of Ketanji Brown Jackson to the U.S. Supreme Court. Whiteside's style is reminiscent of Bill Traylor's pared down paintings and drawings of repeated shapes, symbols and figures that the formerly enslaved sharecropper used to portray his life experiences and observations.
Moore and Whiteside developed their friendship on social media. Their mutual admiration led to their artistic collaboration. Individually, they both create works that are visually striking and politically astute. Moreover, they each provide simple yet powerful distillations of current affairs infused with their points of view. Their Amerikkkan Monopoly Game series is a seamless synergy of their talents.
The Amerikkkan Monopoly Game series has attracted several high profile collectors, including Howard University professor Nikole Hannah-Jones who bought one of the four variations of their "Community Reparations" painting.
In 2020, Hannah-Jones won a Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for authoring the New York Times Magazine's 1619 Projectthat states its intention is “to reframe the country's history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contribution of Black Americans at the very center of our national narrative." In March 2022, Hannah-Jones addressed the United Nations Assembly about the need for Western countries to pay reparations stating:
It is time for nations that engaged in and profited from the transatlantic slave trade to do what is right and what is just. It is time for them to make reparations to the descendants of chattel slavery in The Americas.
The four Community Reparations paintings are made with acrylic, aerosol, and oil pigment on canvas. In each variation, the central figure is a dark complexioned rendering of "Mr. Monopoly" the Monopoly game mascot. "Mr. Monopoly" was originally known as "Rich Uncle Pennybags," today a less politically correct moniker.
The stout, white mustachioed financier is wearing a top hat and a morning suit. He has one hand outstretched while the other hand rests on his walking stick. "Rich Uncle Pennybags" is a symbol of the monied class, the winners in capitalism. He's said to have been fashioned after financier J.P. Morgan, whose company financed some of the Gilded Age’s largest corporations. "Rich Uncle Pennybags" is positioned in the paintings under the words: Community Reparations.
"Rich Uncle Pennybags'' first appeared in the Monopoly game in 1936 on the Community Chest and Chance cards. Community Chests were local charitable organizations and forerunners of the United Way. Therefore, Community Chestcards are more likely than not to give the player money. In Community Reparations, Moore and Whiteside let the viewer decide whether "Rich Uncle Pennybags" is extending a helping hand or has his hand out to be paid.
The "R" in "reparations'' mimics the registered trademark symbol, ®, that provides notice that the words preceding it have been registered with the federal trademark office. Moore and Whiteside used it as a sly jab at capitalism's willingness to pimp anything, even slavery. The registration mark means that a private entity is planning to commercially exploit the phrase, "Community Reparations." Moore and Whiteside's work foreshadowed Walmart's attempt to make a profit by selling "Juneteenth" ice cream.
Collector Calvin L. Butts, Jr., who had previously acquired a painting from Moore's "Blackity Brown'' series, told BAIA that when he saw the Amerikkkan Monopoly Game series, "I wanted to buy the entire collection." Butts, a New Jersey based real estate investor and partner in a private equity firm began playing Monopoly at a very early age.
He says, "I always understood the value of not just buying land but also building homes and hotels and then renting them out." He adds, "My wife and I have vacation rental homes in areas that have struggled to maintain Black ownership like Martha's Vineyard, M.A. and Hilton Head, S.C." Butts said that buying these properties was their way to protect these Black enclaves and at the same time build generational wealth for their three children.
When Butts was asked what "community reparations" meant to him, he replied, "Would it be great if the government provided reparations, sure. Do I think we should sit around and wait and watch the clock for it? I think that's a huge mistake. I think we should push for it… But at the end of the day, we have some ways as a community where we can support each other and have a better chance of bridging the wealth gap by working together, educating each other and creating partnerships."
"Game of Gentrification" Photo Credit: Moore and Whiteside
The second part of the Amerikkkan Monopoly Game series called the Monopoly of Gentrification consists of 15 sketches and acrylic paintings. In these works, Moore and Whiteside brilliantly underscore the game that cities and real estate developers dispassionately play with people's lives; buying and selling homes, financially exploiting renters and homeowners; and disappearing entire Black communities. According to Moore, gentrification is a natural outgrowth of capitalism saying, "Gentrification is a game in real life and monopoly is a game in real life, they feed each other."
Over generations, gentrification has taken many forms including: Urban Renewal policies of the late 1960s that razed entire African-American communities; Eminent Domain whereby cities seized property owned by African-American for the "public good"; predatory landlords who exponentially raised rents to drive out poor and working class tenants; cities and towns nearly doubling annual property taxes, which causes homeowners who are unable to pay the astronomical increases to sell; and municipalities rescinding (or failing to implement) rent-control laws.
The artists felt compelled to address gentrification because they saw it as a pervasive problem affecting Black American communities across the country. In describing the scope of gentrification, Whiteside told BAIA, "It affects people in Iowa, it affects people in [Washington] D.C. and it affects people everywhere. Whiteside, a native of Asheville, N.C., says that the influx of White residents and entertainment venues has made his hometown unrecognizable to him. Whiteside now lives in Washington, D.C., a formerly majority Black American city that in the last 20 years has seen a marked decrease in its native born population.
“Monopoly is a game but gentrification is not." — B. Robert Moore
The duo's work, "We Buy Houses, So You Move!" is a straight, no chaser commentary on gentrification. It is a play on the "We Buy Homes For Cash" signs that spring up in communities as harbingers of the impending corporate land-grab. "Rich Uncle Pennybags," reappears and is situated over a rendering of a house. The positioning symbolizes that the wealthy developers and corporate investors, many reportedly buying 800 houses a month in selected communities to convert to rentals, exercise a monopoly over real estate that fuels higher housing costs and gentrification.
In the background of the work is text that names some of the numerous Black American communities where long-time residents were forced out. One is Seneca Village in New York City. In 1857, eminent domain was used to seize the land and evict African-American residents. The land was then sold to the Central Park Fund, a privately held company for $100 (approximately $3,400 in 2022) to develop Central Park as an urban sanctuary for affluent White Manhattanites. Other communities that they included that have been battling gentrification are: Harlem (New York, NY), Little Haiti and Overton (Miami, FL), Baldwin Heights (Los Angeles, CA) and Barry Farms in Anacostia/Southeast (Washington, DC)
While “We Buy Houses, So You Move!” provides a vivid overview of the national scope of gentrification, in contrast, the minimalist "30 Day Eviction Notice (Cabrini-Green)" focuses on one egregious instance. The stark painting shows a red house on its side after it's been kicked with a white boot. The painting symbolizes how the city of Chicago, Illinois gave the "boot" to low-income families in the Cabrini-Green public housing development.
The Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) built Cabrini-Green in stages from 1942 to 1962. The complex spanned 70 acres and at one point Cabrini-Green was home to 15,000 families. The public housing complex was also the home of the fictional Evans family from the 1970s CBS television sitcom, Good Times.
The public housing development was located not far from Chicago's wealthy Gold Coast neighborhood. It's important to note that the majority of public housing that was built in the U.S. was originally intended for White residents only. In the 1960s, however, many public housing complexes began changing their residency requirements, admitting low-income renters as well as Black and Brown residents.
Despite Cabrini-Green's proximity to the rich and famous, the city of Chicago had neglected it for years. Subsequently, the public housing development had become overrun with crime and complex apartments and facilities were allowed to fall into serious disrepair. Cabrini-Green was torn down in phases from 1995-2011 and its low-income residents were not factored into the redevelopment plans. The transformed neighborhood included new upmarket stores and contained 3,500 mixed-income apartments that were far too expensive for the Cabrini-Green residents to afford.
Gentrification is not confined to poor, blighted areas. Stable, middle class Black communities are also targeted.
An August 2021 New York Times article on gentrification stated that "30 percent of homes in Black American neighborhoods were sold to real estate investors as opposed to 12 percent in other zip codes." These communities are attractive to investors because they've been appraised below the current market value. The lower property values are a result of racialized capitalism rather than on the condition of the properties in these neighborhoods.
Ayesha Selden, a Los Angeles based real estate investor told BAIA, "We don’t even have to go back as far as American slavery to see how our communities were intentionally suppressed." She clarifies by saying, "Redlining, a discriminatory practice of outlining 'hazardous' Black and immigrant neighborhoods was outlawed only 10 years before I was born. The effects of redlining neighborhoods and them being denied [home and business] loans and services can still be seen today. Black Americans are owed for these generational economic disadvantages."
Selden is a collector who has acquired several works from Moore. She purchased one of the Community Reparationspaintings saying, "This work perfectly ties in two things that could close the massive wealth gap: reparations and housing. The game of monopoly is a perfect illustration on the importance of owning land."
One under-discussed aspect of gentrification is Black Americans who feel financially compelled to sell their properties.
Many Black homeowners quickly sell their homes to real estate investors to avoid foreclosures or the increased property taxes that they can't afford. Others, including relatives who inherited the property, often sell because they see the sale profits as a much needed financial windfall.
Unfortunately, these hurried sales mean that many Blacks play a "short money" game as opposed to receiving the "long money'' that's achieved over time in real estate. Had Black home sellers found a way to retain the property they would have had an appreciating asset. They could have rented out the house and received a monthly income; leveraged the increased equity to acquire other assets; or even sold the property a few years later for double or triple the current asking price.
Collector Calvin L. Butts, who has 15 years of real estate investing experience says, "I think that it's important for many communities to develop, grow and evolve but where we can I would like to see folks of color maintaining ownership and being responsible for it." He also added that technology has made it easier for people who have inherited property to hold it and manage it remotely.
What feels fresh about the Amerikkkan Monopoly Game series and the Monopoly of Gentrification works, in particular, is that Moore and Whiteside are talking directly to the public, instead of only to art world elites. The viewer doesn't need a cultural interpreter to parse out the meanings. The works in the series are sophisticated yet accessible.
Very often the art world celebrates cryptic works with vague political messages. Moore and Whiteside however were intentional that the messages in their series are apparent to anyone who views them. While neither artist is chasing mass appeal, they want the Amerikkkan Monopoly series to get people thinking and feeling about what they've depicted.
Moore says, "I definitely want them to feel some kind of way and I mean that whether they're Black or White." He continues saying, "I would really like to do merch [merchandise] with some of them too. Not from a commercial perspective but to get the work out in public and get a public reaction, which creates emotion. All art should do that."
Whiteside is unapologetic about being direct saying, "I want it to be broken down as simple as possible because what pushed me away from a lot of art was that I didn't understand it. I didn't understand what they were talking about…so I don't want to leave any room for interpretation. You like the piece or you hate the piece….it's pretty polarizing and that's how I want it to be."
Whiteside counts artists Jacob Lawrence and Emory Douglas as important artistic influences. He said that he resonated with Lawrence's "approachable" style which then drew him into the deeper meaning of his paintings. Douglas was the Revolutionary Artist for the Black Panther Political Party and his reduced-color line drawings and bold designs were critical to advancing the organization's message to the public.
Moore and Whiteside are also clear about wanting emerging Black collectors to be prioritized when it comes to placing their work. They both believe that there are still too many instances of galleries that represent Black artists passing over Black collectors to accommodate their favored White collectors.
Today, there are many visible Black American multimillionaires and unassuming Black "millionaires next door". Consequently some argue that capitalism is a great system that rewards the go-getter. Collector Ayesha Selden, who writes and lectures extensively on Black financial empowerment says that this perspective omits the considerable roadblocks that still exist saying, "I get this a lot but we must be mindful of not pointing at Black exceptions to the extent that we ignore the state of the Black collective..."
Moore and Whiteside, through their provocative Amerikkkan Monopoly series, are highlighting the present day impact of racialized capitalism; the need for more housing that average workers can afford and for policies to stem gentrification's erasure of Black communities. Moore and Whiteside are following in the tradition of prior African-American artists who have sounded the clarion call alerting organizers, educators, business people and everyday folks to start making moves, investing money and casting votes for change.
Yvonne Bynoe is the founder of the curated online platform @shelovesblackart which highlights visual art from the African diaspora to encourage more people of African descent to collect art. She is a cultural critic and author of several popular books on popular culture.
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