By Debra Hand:  “Black While Creating:  ‘To be or not to be …’” 

Art by Debra Hand

Being Black while creating is not a burden to be endured and suppressed, but rather, it is an asset to be mined for its power, beauty, and creativity.  I know several artists who once resisted the idea of being identified as black artists. Over time, most of them changed their minds. I did the same thing.  Back in the day, as I entered my career in the arts, I remember debating this subject with a friend. I defended my position saying, “I’m already black. I wake up black, I go to bed black, I interface with this whole entire planet as black.  I’m not about to be black for a living too.” I just wanted to be called an artist. In my mind, there was nothing wrong with wanting to have my work judged on its own merits without the baggage of stereotypes that were steadily imposed on Black artists.  I thought- why should it matter who created the art? It took a while to understand that indeed, for me, there was something very wrong with my line of thinking, especially in light of the ideals I was raised with. In time I matured, and in the process of refining my own definition of me, the answer to this question found its own level. 

When I first became an artist, I wanted to spare my art from prejudice by presenting it to the art world as simply “art.”  I wanted to spare it from being disqualified by the so-called mainstream art world, simply because I’d created it while black.  So for a while, on every form or application that preceded my actual black presence in the room, I never identified myself as an African-American artist.  However, here is what changed my position over time: as people began to collect my work, it wasn’t possible for me to experience a single moment of joy without being grateful to those who had actually created the opportunity for me to exist as an artist; the people known and unknown to me who had paved the path for me to pursue such a privileged journey.  How could I not make them front and center in these profound moments that were occurring in my life? I certainly didn’t want to exclude them, or the magnitude of their great sacrifices, from the spotlight. I remember the opening of my first big show. On a pedestal in the gallery, I placed framed photos of both my late grandmothers. They smiled lovingly at me throughout the night from their places front and center.  I felt their pride. Still there were others to be thanked. If I could have placed a photo in that gallery of every black person that had something to do with me being able to stand there as an artist, there would not have been space left for my paintings and sculptures. I have always realized that the price of our dreams have been high (and horrific) for those generations that came before us. Their sacrifices are part of everything that I am, and it is their legacy of creativity that flows through my very DNA.  The ancestors are already present in my art — whether I acknowledge them or not. The profound loss is mine when I fail to experience the proud echoes of their strength and the continuum of culture that lives through my work. So, not only did I learn to claim myself as an African-American artist, but I wear the title like a crown of honor. It has been earned for me by those who fought for me to have the opportunities of my choosing, and I am grateful to those ancestors for their resilience. They dreamed for us to have dreams, even as for centuries they were denied the right to pursue any such thing as a dream, or talent, or freedom.  As I stand in the fulfillment of my own dreams, they must be honored. They, too, must be allowed to stand, with me and through me. During that first big show, every time I passed my grandmothers’ photos, my eyes filled with “thank you.” And with every subsequent success, I still say it.       

Father and Son by Debra Hand

But just like me, all artists have the right to consider for themselves whether or not to identify as black artists, or simply as “artists.”  Back when I was entering the art world, it was obvious – especially in the museum world – that there was a stigma placed upon your artwork if you were black.  In this rarified space, great black artists were not included in conversations about great art. Nor were they represented on museum walls.  I saw that there was a penalty for being black. But another funny thing happened over time. This time it was happening, not to me — but to my art.  As I continued to create while black, all of the beautiful subliminal layers and nuances of my cultural experiences began to radiate from my subconscious mind and into my work.  Even abstract pieces began to take on a certain ethnic perspective. I soon realized that even if I draw a straight line, that line has something to do with my being black. That line is made longer, shorter, thicker, thinner, or heavier because of how I feel at any given moment in a society where I am perpetually in the throes of being black.  When I am strong, the line is swift and straighter. When I am anxious or discouraged, it wavers. Everything about who I am is there in that line. So removing the word “African-American” from my artistic practice would only serve to diminish a critical, underlying aspect of my own narrative. For me, I must proudly claim the title of “African-American” artist and I’m not interested in playing down that fact in any way.  It wouldn’t matter to me if I was asked to do so by the CEO of the biggest museum in the world. I’m just not interested in acquiring any relationship where someone would find comfort or relief in the omission of those two words from my narrative. I don’t need my work to be owned or represented by anyone who is not good with my being black.  

Fortunately for me, white collectors, along with black collectors, have happily acquired my work.  I would like to think that it resonates with them precisely because of the unique interpretation that my being black contributes to the subject matter that I explore.  Regardless of color, I appreciate each and every collector of my work. Through my art, they are honoring me and my cultural group, and that expands the humanity between us.  This is one of the highest purposes that art can serve, as far as I’m concerned. With all that being said, some artists still may not have made up their minds about how to handle artistic identity.  It’s a question that many artists will take years to unpack and answer. But one thing is for certain: as artists come into the game today, your paths will be different than previous generations. My journey was made easier by those like Dr. Margaret Burroughs, principal founder of the DuSable Museum, who declared that African-American art would have a place of honor in American institutions, even if she had to build them herself.  And she did. Today, Dr. Lonnie Bunch, the founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, has continued that same legacy and given us unparalleled global exposure. The path has also been made easier by artists like Danny Simmons and his family’s Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation. The Rush Galleries have for decades provided a springboard for artists. In fact, many prominent artists whose works are now showing up on museum walls have come through their organization.  Putting in work along this same continuum are artists like Kerry James Marshall, who made it his stated goal to get his art placed side-by-side with other masterpieces on mainstream museum walls. He made that a goal and he achieved it, not just for himself, but for those coming behind him. The question to you is: how will you be black while creating? Boldly? Quietly? Not at all? And how will that decision reflect itself in your work? Will you hide your blackness from your art? Only let it seep in partially? Or will you pronounce it loudly with confidence?   Whatever you decide, I can only hope that you will one day know the fulfillment of being wholly appreciated and accepted for who you are as an artist. And that eventually you will grant yourself the privilege of wearing the crown of your culture proudly.

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Paul Laurence Dunbar by Debra Hand

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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