“Tina Knowles-Lawson:  Art Activist Extraordinaire Moves the Culture Forward!”  

By Debra Hand

To be cool anywhere in the world, you have to come through Black culture to do it.  In both music and dance, Black culture is the dominant youth culture across the globe.  So when it comes to Visual Art, why would we ever rely on outside cultural institutions to help set the bar for what we create and collect?  

With the current rush of traditional museums seeking Black art, it’s a good time to examine what we can do on a collective basis to move our culture forward in the direction of our choosing; rather than have it moved along by the financial interests of others while we are merely swept along by default.  This tends to happen to us in every area of art. We create it, we make it popular, it becomes an industry, and pretty soon we are on the outside looking in. Think Jazz, Rap, and Blues where non-Blacks are currently the largest financial stakeholders across the board. The subject-matter of our visual art still largely belongs to us, and it’s a perfect moment in time for African-Americans to think about a new renaissance.   We haven’t had an extensive one since the Harlem Renaissance where Black artists, writers, poets, actors, and dancers collectively declared a new direction for culture.   

In order for something like this to happen again, we need visionaries like Tina Knowles-Lawson to keep lighting the way.  Lawson understands what cultural pride is and how to use it to effect change. She is a collector who was in the game long before many others became conscious about investing in our own images, and she used those images to help reinforce the esteems of her own children while growing up.  Now she’s using them to reach back into the community and strengthen the youth of this generation. Tina Knowles-Lawson is an extraordinary art activist whose work commands respect, and her annual Wearable Arts Gala presents a model that the culture can learn much from: namely that, our talent is enough.   

Presently, even with our own museums and art institutions in place, we continue to seek validation from the gatekeepers of traditional Western art values; we seek to be accepted into their historical art discourse and into their definition of what great art is, or what it should be.  We do this, even as we know we’ve been handed-down spectacular creative verve by previous generations…talents handed to us by those who on a daily basis stretched creativity to its maximum possibilities, in order to survive. We have no doubt that African-American artists are worthy, and that they should never have to take a back seat on the bus — in deference to any other cultural group when it comes to creativity.  Yet, Black artists have for too long been shown those backseats by so-called mainstream museums and art institutions. 

Fortunately there are now enough African-American collectors, enough Black Wealth, and enough everyday working people with disposable income to easily support our cultural aesthetic and the artists who create it.  Still, we seem to seek out the validation of outside cultural institutions. There are many layers to the reason why, starting with the artists themselves.  

As many Black artists come into the game, they long to receive those art credentials that say their work can stand alongside the ”best” of them.  This is human nature. Our artists have long been treated as “less than” by mainstream museums and that need to prove ourselves is an ever-present shadow, waiting in watch for their acknowledgement of at least “equal to.”  We tend to believe that those all-illusive credentials are finally granted by them to us when they accept our work into their museum exhibits, International Biennials, or when our work is presented at secondary-market auctions.  What artist doesn’t want to see collectors battling it out to pay millions for their work? In the art world, price tags can double as credentials, unfortunately. Likewise, African-American collectors enjoy knowing that the artists they collect are among the best of them, so all of the above serve as credentials that increase the artist’s marketability and expands their name recognition.  This leads to the most important question: in the eyes of mainstream museums, what defines the so-called best of them in American art? This answer is simple. The traditional requisites for who could qualify for the “best of them” club was decided hundreds of years ago by Western scholars, curators, and art institutions that legally counted African-Americans as a race that was not fully human.  As their art was evolving and the subject of their history was being transcribed in those cigar smoke filled rooms, we were invisible amongst them, beyond the servants refilling their coffee cups. The fact is, Western Art History is purposely the narrative of White artists. It was never intended to include Black people. But, over the course of time and events, African-American art has been slowly added to public museum collections; in some cases it’s because institutions are legitimately taking steps to become more diverse in their collections, and in some cases it’s because lack of diversity at certain public museums can now cause them to lose public funding.  Additionally, African-American art is now in high demand and it offers museums a new way to engage the public and keep new patrons coming through the doors.   

Nevertheless, none of this translates into mainstream museums suddenly having a sufficient understanding of the African-American art narrative.  And the appointment of a Black curator here and there in a nation-wide conglomerate of institutions that have no significant scholarship in Black Art — does not an expert make.  African-Americans are the only real experts on the subject of Black art and culture. We understand the shorthand of it…the symbolism in it, because we have collectively shared the kinds of experiences that inspire it.  We should be weighing in on these important discussions. If not, the requisites for what constitutes great Black art will be issued to us by those institutions, instead of the other way around. One thing is for certain, mainstream museums are noticing the collecting trends of prominent collectors.  And they will take some clues from that as to what we think is important to reflect in our art. If you’re a collector, your money speaks for you, even if you never choose to form the first syllable on this subject.  

If you’re on a museum board, or if you’re a curator, then you‘re in a position to help translate our artistic ideals for those outside of the culture who can’t interpret it on a visceral level, at least not as they might when assessing their own particular history in American art.  I make that distinction because there are two separate art histories in play in those boardrooms, not one. African-American Art History has its own unique origin which began in Africa and continued in America after Africans were stolen and brought here. So, it’s simply not correct to think of African-American Art History as merely a subset of American history.  Rather, the two histories run parallel to each other, with only one of them beginning in America.    

American art history began with the inception of American history.  Our art history did not, but instead it began in Africa, endured beneath the oppression of slavery and Jim Crow, evolved through the Civil Rights Movement, etc., and arrived at the present day as one entity in its own right.  African-American art should be respected by American museums as more than just an expanded footnote in American Art History. Its successful execution should not be measured against what Westerners have chosen to create to reflect their experiences in America.  Logically, there should be significant differences between American Art and African-American art regarding subject-matter, symbolism, approaches, materials and techniques. We were, and still are, inhabiting two very separate realities.    

Every cultural group has a story to tell, and in our desire to be recognized and accepted by so-called  major art institutions, I hope we don’t allow our beauty and truth to be edited away by their approval process.  I hope our collectors will stand firmly together in the knowledge that “our” art is not less than – but rather, it is other than.  And we should respect and celebrate that, just as every other culture celebrates it art and creativity with no requisites to conform to another’s.  

Lucky for all of us, there have always been conscious African-American collectors who are self-validated?  They have been proudly devoted to purchasing and preserving the narratives and perspectives of the culture that raised and nurtured them.  Thanks to them, Black artists don’t starve, but what other things can we do to assure that we build an art world commensurate with those we’ve been taught to look to for validation?  How do we self-sufficiently move the culture forward in this way?  

Culture shifting is hard work; only real visionaries need apply, apparently… since it doesn’t happen all that often with any cultural group.  On the African-American Arts’ scene, one of those visionaries is Tina Knowles-Lawson. To those who may not know this side of her, it seems out of nowhere that she has flipped out her credentials and smacked them down for the world to see. She is making major moves with her WACO (Where Art Can Occur) organization and the WACO Theater Center.  

In my last article “Expected to Fetch: Art World Explained,” I spoke about artists like Basquiat, Najee Dorsey, and Jesse Greene.  But since today’s focus is a woman, let me not forget to shout -out the man behind and beside the woman, actor Richard Lawson, who is WACO’s co-founder.  We see you too!  

As for Tina Knowles-Lawson, the world might know her daughter, Beyonce, as Queen B, but Tina Knowles-Lawson is definitely “Queen A.  “A” as in Art Activist Extraordinaire. She has been doing some heavy lifting through WACO and is gaining a momentum that could possibly shift Black Art culture as we know it.  

Just like Tina Knowles-Lawson, I’m sure we can all name things that we need as a cultural group, but who among us can coordinate us?… unify us?… galvanize us to take action on a single cause?”  Vision is the precursor for all change, and a woman with “real” vision can change the world. Think Rosa Parks. She knew that the Civil Rights Movement needed an incident that would empower Black lawyers to legally challenge the widespread system of injustice.  And she knew she had all the pristine qualities of character to become the face of that trial. Being tired from a day’s work, she could have easily gone home to her safe, cozy bed — a much easier option than risking her life and going to jail.  Instead she went to jail and her arrest brought Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to town: the man with the gift of riveting, inspirational speech that could unify and galvanize Black people for action, and that’s exactly what he did. Rosa Park’s vision helped change history.  

To move any aspect of our culture forward, we need visionaries:  those among us who can look at situations and understand how all of the seemingly unrelated bits and fragments might be formed into something greater to serve the common good.  In the art world, Tina Knowles-Lawson has, likewise, seen that moment when the fragments of possibility could be fashioned into a much larger moment of cultural pride in the arts, and perhaps a larger movement of art collecting among African-Americans.  

Tina Knowles-Lawson’s  vision emerged from her own deeply rooted cultural pride, and from a tradition of creativity passed along to her by her mother, Agnes Dereon.   This creative penchant was then passed along to Tina’s daughters who were always taught an appreciation for culture through art. Tina had always kept them enrolled in neighborhood arts’ programs, and surrounded them with African-American art in their home while growing up.  All these moments led to bigger ones: her daughters finding and developing cultural pride, along with refining their talents and eventually becoming globally successful. Somewhere in all of that, the vision emerges for Tina Knowles that she could create that same place of art and refuge for local youth; and while doing so, she could leverage her own star power as an artist/designer, plus the world-wide celebrity of her daughters, husband, and son-in-law – to bring unprecedented attention to African-American artistry and its artists.  She saw the vision of using art – not only as an activity to keep community youth busy, but as a tool to instill self-esteem, cultural pride, goal setting, sense of purpose, determination, and self-empowerment – all while uncovering, exploring, and developing talents in them that might remain hidden within, if not for such a place as WACO. And, just for the record, Tina Knowles-Lawson is a serious collector of African-American art and speaks with an easy expertise on the likes of luminaries such as Elizabeth Catlett, Henry Ossawa Tanner, and John Biggers.       

With her knowledge and appreciation of African-American art, Tina Knowles-Lawson and her annual Wearable Art Gala (to benefit WACO) may have just set into motion something that we have not quite seen in the Black Arts’ movement before.  I’m not talking about just Black celebrities buying art. This isn’t new. It’s the particular bits and fragments of possibility that Tina Knowles-Lawson has assembled — at this particular moment in Black art culture — that is so perfectly primed to flourish into something much greater.  Through the Wearable Art Gala, her organization is providing the platform, place and logistics for unprecedented cultural unity. It is the kind of gathering that a present day renaissance could easily arise from — the kind of place where African-American art at its best, and its collectors, are on full and shiny display for the world to see and be awed by.  As the late Dempsey Travis would say in referring to the need for art institutions and other cultural hotspots in our community, “We need “places” where we can be somebody.”  And the 2019 Wearable Art Gala was definitely a place to be somebody.  It was a whole new sight for the Art World, akin to a parallel universe where deep-pocketed African-Americans went toe-to-toe in bidding wars for art by Black Artists; not with the goal of snatching up the work for a steal, but with the goal of elevating it to the highest levels in the consciousness of the rest of the world.  Prices for the artists’ works were pushed into new, record breaking-stratospheres by excited bidders as they were filmed by the network cameras of the most powerful African-American women in media, Oprah Winfrey. Meanwhile, jutting forcefully into the air, the bidding paddle of a 7-year-old child with determined cultural pride in her eyes, little miss Blue Ivy Carter, already learning the ropes of collecting…and adding to her previous acquisitions of Black art that will probably one day pay her children’s, children’s, children’s college tuition…or establish their trust funds.  Imagine the African-American children that are being inspired by this kind of sight to take greater pride in their culture. Imagine the future collectors that this kind of photo will create.     

Yes, Tina Knowles-Lawson had a vision for a momentous new way to shine a light on the Beauty of Black culture.  She created “a place to be somebody” where those somebodies were able to show the world –through their money — that they are proud to acquire and preserve the creativity of their culture, regardless of the traditional sidelining of Black art by museums.  These collectors are saying, loud and clear, that they are not waiting on mainstream museum trends to tell them the value of who they are, and what their culture should be. And neither were the non-Black collectors who bid, all looking proud to bear witness to the beauty of our culture.  On top of it all, everyone looked so cool doing it, all polished up and decked out in African inspired garb, underscoring this year’s theme of the Lion King. Although, to me, it looked very much like a gala you might attend in Wakanda; beautiful Black folk surrounded by splendid Black art…all on full, unapologetic display for the world to see.  

Speaking of Wakanda, we’ve always known that the talented among us were capable of pulling off such a feat in the film world, if given a chance…just as we have created bars of excellence in every other form of art where access for us has existed.  It’s everyone else who has too long underestimated who we are. But, Tina Knowles-Lawson and her Wearable Art Gala illustrated so beautifully one critical aspect of moving the culture forward: namely that we have everything we need to uplift ourselves and we don’t have to come through any other culture to push our art to the top pinnacles where it deserves to be.  We are the ones that can do it, but only with a collective declaration of our value, just as was done through the Harlem Renaissance.  

I predict that Tina Knowles-Lawson will continue to light the path forward, along with other collectors such as Patricia Andrews-Keenan,  founder of Pigment International who is also changing the landscape for artists. Keenan looked at current trends in the art market and saw a way to cater directly to collectors by bringing them personalized curated experiences.  Her organization is made up of African-American curators along with a collective of top artists that travel around the country presenting gallery-style exhibits that lasts anywhere from one day to several, then they’re off to another city.  This allows greater exposure for the artists, as well as more personalized interactions between artists and potential collectors. Collectors can spend time learning about African-American art and speaking directly to the artists without the chaos of travelling art fairs.  It’s more like a travelling art salon that includes works by an elite group of artists in conjunction with artist’s talks, collector’s talks, and other arts’ education components. In fact, the work of one of the artists in the Pigment International collective was sold in the Wearable Art Auction.  As visionaries like Tina Knowles-Lawson and Patricia Andrews-Keenan create new ways to showcase our artists, the culture will be shifted forward and our art will be elevated — in the eyes of the world — to the same incredible heights as every other art-form we’ve affected. Hopefully, in the near future, this will translate into being able to walk into mainstream museums and see the African-American art history narrative fully presented in its own rightful context from Africa to America, and not just as a sidebar to Western Art History as if it is something that exists in contrast to it, or in violation of its basics, requisites, and styles.         

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