“Culture and Inclusion versus Inclusion and Dilution: Be Aware of the Difference” by Debra Hand
By Debra Hand
I am Black and I cook black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day.
Wait, let me clarify that before my daughters see this and look at each other like, “Why is your mama out here frontin’ like she cooks when we have to cook and send her black-eyed peas every year?”
So, wait…let me back on up right now and clarify before they get started on my double-oven (the one I just had to have back in the day, that still ain’t seen nary a roasting pan, nor cookie sheet).
Anyway, back to my point. I “eat” black-eyed peas every year on New Year’s Day.
Now, I eat them because I was taught this ritual by my cultural group. I am Black, and this is what Black folks do. We eat black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day. We do not do a Chinese dragon dance instead.
It’s simply not part of our traditions to do a dragon dance. Now, don’t get me wrong. The Chinese dragon dance is lovely, and, to a Chinese person, this activity is meaningful within the context of their upbringing and history. It should be, and that’s the point I want to make. Culture is the one thing that allows people to celebrate the unique differences in their traditions and ways of life. Culture allows all of us to celebrate the many ways we exist as social groups across the globe. By its very nature, culture is about the members of the particular group from which that culture evolved.
Art is a big part of any culture.
Therefore, it stands to reason that Black artists and collectors, more often than not, will create and collect themes that have some significance to their upbringing, existences, or personal stories. From a cultural standpoint, the subject matter often found in art by Black artists is culturally specific, or culturally meaningful. And these themes resonate with Black collectors, at the least. Even when those works are purchased by others outside of a culture, it is the exclusivity of that cultural group’s ways and traditions that is being admired and appreciated.
So being raised in a culture where my New Year’s traditions are different from someone else’s culture is fine. It doesn’t mean that I am attempting to exclude another cultural group, or they are attempting to exclude me. It just means that various cultures have and maintain the practices that are sacred to the people within those cultures. The rituals, the ceremonies, the rites of passages, the art—all of these things make up a cultural group and connect each succeeding generation to their histories, customs, and stories.
African Americans, unfortunately, have the distinction of having had their history and culture disrupted. As I’ve said, the hyphen in African-American can literally be seen as a symbol representing a slave ship and centuries of stolen lives and culture. However, linking our lives back to our roots is not as easy as jotting a dash between those two words. African Americans have lost something that is “un-recaptureable.” We have been forced to scrape together a culture from the bits and parts stealthily clung onto and passed along that dash mark, as the word African was slammed violently and disruptively against the word American.
We have culled culture from ourselves, and from the persistent memory of DNA. So Black culture is sacred, sacred.
It’s a collage made up of bits and pieces “snuck” from the wreckage of the transatlantic trade; made from the ways of us—hidden and saved, and cultivated—evolved, by pure will, into a way of survival and living. It is a culture chock-full with soul and beauty, and it emanates from every form of our artistry. It is something so special that I’m surprised it could be encapsulated in a single word. But it has been, and that word is “soul.” We have soul. Something which is greatly admired, yet the creators of this special alchemy have been continuously told that they are inferior.
Black people in America, for so long, have had to exist in the space of demanding their rights, and demanding change, and fighting for inclusion, that it might be easy to believe that all inclusion means advancement. While, on the one hand we should insist on inclusion in education, housing, employment, equal access to justice, etc., on the other hand, we should also be careful to guard and preserve culture, the very thing that connects us as a unique social group with a shared history that has resulted in certain customs and rituals, as well as a unique way of seeing and being.
Whatever art an artfair business wants to sell, I have no problem with that. Whatever culture they are from, I have no issue with them promoting it. Every group has a right to promote its own customs, artists, etc. Yes, I want the big international fairs to include more Black artists, but only because I want those artists to have access to a broader market of buyers. But if there were more major fairs held by African-American investors, or funded by venture capitalists, I’d be happier with that, especially if it meant that not just Black artists, but also Black gallerists and dealers would thrive as a result. It’s an ecosystem that enables Black artists to thrive on the highest levels, that has been largely missing. The non-inclusion of Black artists by others that are in the business of selling art is really just indicative of the fact that we are not creating platforms on the highest level for the artists in our cultural group.
When it comes to the mainstream artworld, where the actual lack of inclusion has hurt Black artists the most is on the level of museum inclusion: the level of authorship that decides for the rest of the world the level of importance our art and artistry has in the art historical cannon and in the larger art discourse.
Being excluded from this particular realm (and the conversations thereof) has left Black art shrouded in an artificial haze of inferiority that has hovered overhead from the beginning. However, that fog is clearing and the mainstream artworld is seeing some of the ingenuity Black artists have to offer. International and national collectors are getting regular peeps at all the beautiful and wondrous “soul” they have been missing.
But now, whereas I once walked through international art fairs wishing there were more Black artists represented, I see the increase in the presence of Black artists and a different fear stirs deep inside. There are more Black artists, but not more Black galleries. I’m not saying that Black artists should be only represented and sold by Black galleries, but what I am saying is Black art has always existed mainly via the equation of Black artists + Black galleries = Black collectors, an equation that has been a subset of Black culture.
Now that dynamic is changing. Where does that leave Black gallerists who can’t afford to invest in the international shows? (And that’s assuming they can even get selected to participate in those fairs at all.) When Black collectors complain to me that they no longer have access to the big-named Black artists, I hate to say it, but I must: More than likely, we had access to those artists first. They were right here at the local fairs and art shows, begging for our attention and going home empty-handed and holed-up in their one-room, live-work studios, praying for a sale.
If we wait for others to notice or declare what’s beautiful about our culture and invest in it, more and more Black artists will become out of reach.
And if we are the ones who are looking to pay the least for that artist’s work, then we are guaranteeing that the artist maintains a low price tag. If you get the artist down to $100 for a painting, the next person is not going to offer them $1,000 for the same level of work. If anything, they’ll offer them $75. When someone comes along and plucks them out of that vicious cycle because they see more value in that artist than we did, and wants to invest in their career by putting that artist on a platform where they can be appreciated by collectors who value them likewise, it becomes a very exclusive arrangement. That artist is now contracted to that gallery or dealer, and they can’t just double-back to the neighborhood and sell a piece or two below market price. So that’s that. That Black artist is gone from reach. You will find no telephone number for them that doesn’t lead to their dealer or art representative. If you want something from their hand now, you’ll have to settle for framing the stack of business cards they handed you over and over, back in the day.
Any collector who believes they never have to really invest in Black artists, but instead buys as low as possible and waits for that artist’s name to skyrocket, that’s probably not the way the story will go. Yes, there are some of those stories. But there are far more stories about the artist who got away—who, yesterday, you could walk right up to and negotiate a little payment plan with, but didn’t.
There’s a strategy to growing an artist’s name. Biennales, international art fairs, and museum collections, together or alone, usually factor into that strategy. Galleries with deep pockets or the willingness to borrow and invest money to showcase an artist on these mainstream platforms is usually part of that strategy. But always, someone willing to invest in and champion the artist is a part of the formula.
As more and more Black artists are pulled into mega gallery relationships, and included in international art fairs, the Black-artists-plus-Black-galleries-equals-Black-collectors-equation will continue to be affected.
So, when it comes to inclusion, be careful what you wish. While I want Black artists to be included on every level of the artworld, I also want to see Black culture sustained as something unique and not diluted by assimilation into the larger culture. I know that I always say the business of art and the business of maintaining culture are two different things, but the business of maintaining culture does require us to ensure Black artists can support themselves, as well as create with a commitment to authenticity and culture. Otherwise, we will lose them, and to buy their works, you won’t even make the waiting lists. I never thought I’d see the day where Black collectors would have to envy White collectors for the works by Black artists that the White collectors own and can boast about, but now we are in that day.
What I wish for are additional international art fairs celebrating the uniqueness of every culture—especially mine—because more Black investors saw the value of investing in Black artists on such a level. I also want to see more Black galleries and Black artists benefit from the commerce generated by Black culture.
On that note, much respect to Mikhaile Solomon, founder of the PRIZM Art fair, who understood early the need to create such a platform for artists from the African Diaspora.
As always, Thank YOU for reading. We always love hearing your comments in the section provided below.
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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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