Black Artists and Collectors Are Facing Their Most Critical Decision in American Art History
by Debra Hand
After centuries of exclusion from the mainstream art world, we have finally made the VIP list. Here we are, Black artists and collectors, lined up at the velvet ropes with invitations in hand. All the marquees blinking “Welcome!” All the institutions from museums to international art fairs, to mega galleries, to auction houses — are here. All are smiling and extending handshakes. “Welcome to the room,” they say. “Welcome to the tables where the main feasts take place.” But, hold up. What’chall servin’ up in there? Because if the mainstream art-world has only invited us to the meal to tell us how to adapt our recipes to suit their taste buds, then Black art culture is about to get slurped-up whole. So, before we move any further down this receiving line, we need to put this thing into perspective. Now, according to the gold-sealed invitation, this feast is about the mainstream art-world trying to make-up for its past purposeful omission of the entire subject of Black art from the entire art-historical cannon of American art, except as a footnote.
Okay. That sounds pretty good. There’s a lot of making up to do, so let’s start there. Museums are opening their budgets to collect Black art in a big way. Their curators want to study it and talk about it in a big way. There is the promise of programming and exhibits and ticker-tape announcements; catalogs and bios bearing Black artists and their contributions to American art. This is all good news. It’s like Dr. Maya Angelou said, “When you know better, you do better.” So I celebrate this moment in which many mainstream museums are attempting to do better. But, Maya Angelou’s saying also applies to Black artists and collectors. We have also learned better, and now there are things to do with that knowledge.
This isn’t the first art-themed party we’ve been invited to. We’ve joined many feasts. They’ve been warmed-over for us throughout our history. Just ask Black singers and musicians whose recordings have bought yachts for other ethnic groups while those artists struggled to eat. You see, once inside those feasts where VIP treatment abounds, things happen fast. Accordingly, there are things Black artists and collectors should prepare for, especially if they want to remain in charge of the art images that reflect them, after the meal is over. Remember, it’s their party – a historical ongoing event planned centuries ago with no intention of you ever being invited. The menu has long been set.
But let’s see where this goes now that the doors have been flung open and we are being welcomed in on levels never before seen. Plus, all of this is happening under the glare of a world that has risen up against systemic injustice: a system which has had (as its cultural gatekeepers) museums and their past practices of exclusion. So, this is a brand new kind of moment in Black art. One that is critical. As we file into the room to participate in the great smorgasbord that is American art history, we should remember that we have arrived here with our own wealth of recipes and traditions. We should be going in there, not just to feast and learn, but rather, to feast and teach. Remember, the theme of this party, after all, is “Black Art.” This is supposed to be about our journey. And we need to stay on topic because, make no mistake, inside this room, we are about to negotiate the terms of the last art-form we own. It is the only one that has not yet been co-opted by outsiders and sold back to us — copied and repackaged under someone else’s definition of who we are.
Original visual art is the only area of Black culture where Black people still control the production and economy, by and large. We still get to decide what images represent us and how they do it. We have that power because we believed in us despite validation from the mainstream art world. Black art lovers and collectors interested in cultural dignity have always cultivated and fed Black artists. They have given Black visual artists an artistic freedom that rarely exists anywhere else in our creative endeavors: not in music, film, dance, or theater.
In all of the aforementioned industries, Black artists have created some of the world’s greatest masterpieces, but what makes it to the light of day is usually controlled by corporations headed by those who don’t look like us. In fact, they don’t even want us to look like us. They want us to look like their version of us. The film industry has been notorious for their packaging and branding of us as a cultural group incapable of operating on any level other than the lowest of humanity. Too many music careers are also being manufactured thusly. Black music creators who don’t comply with their record label’s version of “us” are shelved. Singers rarely are the ones who get to decide which songs get made by them, or distributed. Record labels decide who gets to say what and how, and whose projects will be promoted and pumped into the mainstream culture, or discarded. The labels declare who is worthy, or not.
This is the formula that is about to be applied to Black visual art: who you get to see and who you don’t; what kind of art gets crowned and pushed to the forefront. Will that art represent us well? Or will it only be sorted through and curated to depict us as film has?
Once beyond those velvet ropes, Black art could quickly become more about what museums want to see from us than what Black artists desire to create. It could easily become all about what only investors want… their versions of who we are, until finally Black visual art is contorted into something we no longer recognize as art, or us.
Basquiat left us a dire warning during his brief lifetime. While living in that world amongst the art-star makers, Basquiat left us the writing on the wall to ponder. Unfortunately, he didn’t survive the dance of exploitation. But his art did, and now new narratives of his life are constantly adjusted or manufactured for the benefit and commercial gain of others in the mainstream art-world. This was a practice that had begun in Basquiat’s lifetime. It became so prevalent and insulting to him that, across one of his pieces, he scribbled the words, “Not For Sale.” Presumably, these words symbolized Basquiat shouting to the world that he was not for sale and, by extension, neither was his soul nor culture. Ironically, that work is worth millions. Decades after his death, his highest selling auction piece broke records at $110 million. But what was the price to this Black artist during his lifetime — locked in constant battle to retain his own identity as the art world tried to rewrite and redefine him to his face?
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.
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.
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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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