New Generation of Artists Weaves Common Threads for Community Empowerment
Spiral Now – 55 Years in the Making; New Artists, Familiar Struggle at March on Washington Film Festival
by Ayanna Najuma
Thousands of people from around the country made a commitment to come to Washington, DC on August 28, 1963. Flights were overbooked, buses were backed up on highways and cars filled with young and old people were coming to make their voices heard – to address issues of equality and express hope. The voices were loud and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reminded whites and Blacks, as well as those from urban and rural communities of the importance of respect and how one should be judged by the content of their character not the color of their skin.
Several weeks prior to that memorable day in history called the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, a small group of African American artists with talent ranging from Abstract Expressionist to social protest painters got together to discuss how their creative voice could be utilized in the discussion around civil liberties. This group would later be called SPIRAL. It was a big question, one that no one knew the answer to. Additionally, there was dialogue regarding how their talent could aesthetically have an impact on society.
The dialogue went in many directions, some believing that the aesthetics of their work should speak for itself and for other artists in the group there was a conversation as to whether their identity and the substance of the work should have anything to do with the message of equity, equality, racism and a long list of concerns that are considered significant in the daily lives of African Americans.
Utilizing one’s achievement and excellence to share the African American experience would have allowed those in the group, Romare Bearden, Hale Woodruff, Charles Alston, Norman Lewis, James Yeargans, Merton Simpson and younger artists Felrath Hines, Richard Mayhew and William Pritchard, Emma Amos, Reginald Gammon and Al Hollingsworth and later Calvin Douglas, Perry Ferguson, William Majors and Earle Miller to present the richness of their talent – sculpture, painting, photography and an infinite variety of artistic expression. Still the question is front and center to be answered.
“What is the identity of the African American artist in society?” It was discussed as far back as the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s; the Harlem Art Guild of the 30’s and we are still asking the question today.
One would believe that the group was originally formed to help African American artists begin to look at “how they wanted to be seen in society”, not how society was going to define and interpret the nature of their talent, skill and cultural experience. The idea of a person from another race or culture defining one’s identity and their work is hard to imagine; however, in reality this has been going for a very long time.
Some of the group believed that “fitting into” the art world was the answer and they did not want their work to be defined by race. Then, there were members like Richard Gammon that thought that one must define their own place in society, create their own voice and actually determine what contributions African American visual artist could actually make to the civil rights movement.
The members of SPIRAL could not come to an agreement in answering the age-old question. Romare Bearden, Hale Woodruff, Norman Lewis and young artist like Reginald Gammon and Emma Amos all realized that in order to make their voices known an exhibition must be hosted. The artists were not familiar with each other’s work and the idea of providing each other counsel and guidance was questionable and not necessarily welcomed; however, an exhibition was hosted presenting different bodies of work to show the collective expression of support toward equality. The exhibition was a success, but at the end of the day, the question never got answered and the connection between the artists started to weaken.
Now, 55 years later, one would think we are in a different universe and African American Art would be seen from a different viewpoint or perspective. Basically, that is not the case. Today, the social justice issues are presented differently, but conceptually are the same. Structuralism and institutional racism, police brutality, racial profiling and the list go on and on.
The 1960’s equity issues were addressed under the umbrella of the civil rights movement. In today’s world, it is Black Lives Matter, #MeToo movement, not to mention the concerns of the LGBTQ community. The issues, concerns, and labels that speak to the Black experience including love and empowerment are expanding.
On July 12, Black Art in America will host SPIRAL NOW: 55 Years in the Making; New Artists, Familiar Struggle at the March on Washington Film Festival in Washington, DC, an exhibition presenting the extraordinary work of contemporary artists Najee Dorsey, Aziza Claudia Gibson-Hunter, Kevin Cole, Alfred Conteh, Shaunte Gates, Ronald Walton, Shawn Artis, Lavett Ballard, Jamaal Barber, Charly Palmer and Michael McCoy.
Today’s contemporary artists may have asked the same question of those artists in the 1960’s at some point in their career; however, trying to answer the question of who they are as a collective body, and in some regard how do they personally empower a society of people is still a question to be considered. For some, it is not a priority and for others it has become their life mission.
In society there are visionaries and others that implement and support their ideas. Then, there are groups of people that don’t have a clue as to what their purpose in life is. These are people that sit on the sideline still waiting to understand what their path may be.
After years as a professional artist, Najee Dorsey asked the question, what is my purpose in this thing called life? After meditation and prayer, he heard a voice and realized that he had been given a gift, not only of being able to translate the stories artistically of those that looked like him, but to enhance the value of those that were given that same gift of artistic expression.
The question became, “How do I add value to the lives of those that create, appreciate and support the talent of African American visual artist? The answer was almost immediate. AM I NOT MY BROTHER’S KEEPER?
In 2010, Black Art in America (BAIA) was born. There is now an opportunity to connect artists, empower art collectors to support the work of African American artists, create dialogue between art historians, museums and galleries and educate those interested in African American art and culture.
After eight years BAIA is connecting folks from around the world and creating opportunities for sharing the talent of African American artists. Things are moving faster than the speed of light. Dorsey lives by the belief that knowledge and exposure allows one to stand on their own feet and be their own person. He is empowered by the words of President Obama who said “You be the change you’re looking for”. Change is underway, artists are empowered and the world will benefit from the talent this week at SPIRAL 55.
Aziza Claudia Gibson-Hunter believes that SPIRAL artist helped to inspire today’s artist. Those artists were expressing political ideas through abstractions that provided a narrative that was unique in a variety of ways. Through the inspiration of SPIRAL artists, we have been able to learn much more about who we are.
We have been able to reach back and incorporate African aesthetics.
African American artists today may be posing a personal question “how do I see myself, how do others see me, and how do I want to be seen”. These questions should have nothing to do with how they define themselves and their value to the planet.
According to Kevin Cole, African American artists have come along way and who and what they believe in is a personal decision in spite of the issues in society.
Having a voice in the social justice world is important; however, the idea of politics has many surfaces, not by choice many times, but just by being Black, things get political.
Based upon their work, these 21st Century artists and futurist feel a need to attack the societal issues of social and political oppression by providing the viewer with the opportunity to embrace the pain of the past and at the same time be empowered to eliminate the inequities of society by utilizing and observing the African American experience to create a feeling of power. Cole has created work that reminds of us of the racial violence that created pain and indignation caused by societal ills and at the same time takes us into deep thought regarding the importance of visiting the ballot box in order to hold on to freedom.
We still ask the question, “What is the role as an African American artist and is there a need to call the work created Black Art?” There is no such thing as Black Art. Art is based upon the Black experience of the African American artist says Cole.
Charly Palmer presents work that shows the journey of empowerment through the African American life experience and the strength, pride and courage needed by African American icons to make change, as they remind the viewer of the determination required and what is necessary to move society to a point of equity and equality. His work does not always express positive stories along this walk because the journey has not always been a smooth one. Yes, there are many icons expressed in Palmer’s work; however, he would be remise if he did not address the issues of society, police brutality, fighting for voting rights, knocking down the Jim Crow laws, as well as the beginning of this journey called slavery.
It is apparent that Palmer wants the viewer of his work to understand all of the challenges that divide us as a society, as he would say the US and THEM. Understanding his place as an artist appears to be clear. Empower the people and they will empower others. Pretty clear explanation.
Gibson-Hunter believes that “Black art is an umbrella of a universe of work. The vision is very narrow. We understand ourselves as a global people, rather than the limited definition that African American people are given. Society is trying to put the work in a box, and there is no box big enough to hold us. The images that we are producing are much more varied and are expressed in a variety of ways. “
Gibson-Hunter is not interested in telling people what to think from the work she produces, but to encourage people to both think and feel.
Is it possible that an artist is inviting people to step outside their comfort zone, to see their experiences differently, as well as be empowered to see the powerful visual messages that may be dividing us as a people, a country, and a world?
Comfort zones are different when we think of struggling for life and limb or when we talk about military service. Telling the stories of those that are on the battlefield, at a rally or on the picket line is something that Michael McCoy tells in first person having been in the military. Placing the viewer in the shoes of someone confronted by despair and war experiences allow one to understand the pain and embrace the importance of freedom in every facet of life. All of the ills of society show up when one starts to artistically express despair, mentally, psychologically and physically.
Gibson- Hunter reminds us, it is possible to have a collective understanding through contemporary art that encourages us to heal.
Is IT important, the IT being the long lists of questions that don’t add value to the African American artist existence?
Why is it important to put a label on the work, on the talent, on the intellect and the skill?
Why is it important to ask who, how and why, as one looks up the words African American artist and African American art in the dictionary?
Will it add value to the work and determine their worth?
The best way to help the African American artist is to erase the thought that they need to be defined and stop asking the question. There is not a need to write a mission statement for a group of talented artists. They must understand their value and worth.
55 years and one is still wanting, looking to, and expecting validation. WHY and from WHOM?
Jamaal Barber poses the question “How do we move past oppression and being angry? Artistically, he looks at the word RACE and the type of system that has been created by America. The idea of healing the planet through understanding of color is his solution, black and white. He believes one cannot step out of oppression without understanding what Blackness is. It is a shared experience.
It is important to eliminate and remove the question from the minds of African American artists. Barber reminds us that being BLACK does not change when you are BLACK. Situations, times and dates may change, but history does not change. He reminds African Americans that that the identity and profile of African Americans do not change, Same Song, Different Day.
It is for this reason that acceptance and self-love is critical to the future of African American artist and the question should be discarded. Each of the artist in the SPIRAL 55 exhibition have different backgrounds and different talent, but all worthy. As my mother used to say, “You are just as good as, but not better than.”
Currently, African American artists have expanded the creative voice of equity to present the image of African American women in society. Emma Amos was the only female member of SPIRAL. Today there are hundreds of women expressing the struggles and successes of women of African descent. Lavett Ballard so eloquently presents the history and struggles of African American women; however, she also shows the strength that it has taken to move forward in society and how their voice is being used now.
In today’s society, how African American women feel about themselves and how their men view them conflict. The women are seen as Mother, child or sex object. There is no question about how Lavett Ballard tells the stories of all kinds of African American women, their joys and their struggles. She is an advocate for women’s empowerment.
She creates work that shows African American women as strong and their actions, their voice and the development of the spirit is portrayed as positive. It is clear that there is self-love among the African American women expressed in the work. Ballard shows the historical journey of the African American women from the Middle Passage to today.
It is apparent that by removing the cloud from over the heads of African American artists the sun will shine. The issue of business success and financial compensation will be par for the course in the future. Helping each other, understanding the dynamics of the art world is critical. Understanding and accepting the mind set that it is not about me. It truly is about the greatest good for the greatest number.
The future lies in the commitment to helping each other. If that happens the question that has been lingering around for 55 years will not exist. Take the time.
What you are entitled to is always going to be yours.
Ayanna Najuma has been a public relations branding guru for more than 25 years. Her work and interest in social justice issues began as one of the original sit-inners in Oklahoma City and she also attended the March on Washington. She currently writes for numerous newspapers and magazines on art and has curated art exhibitions. She speaks around the country on race and culture issues and also issues impacting women and minorities.
Black Art in America Presents:
In partnership with March On Washington Film Festival
Spiral Now – 55 Years in the Making;
New Artists, Familiar Struggle
July 12 – 14 • Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St NW, Washington, DC 20005 — more