the art of black pain

Bert Williams in Blackface by Samuel Lumiere, via Wikimedia Commons

Bert Williams in Blackface by Samuel Lumiere, via Wikimedia Commons

A few weeks ago, I was perusing Twitter and noticed some tweets about an art exhibition that featured work partly inspired by the protests in Ferguson, Missouri. I’ve been interested in artistic responses to social justice issues for quite some time so this art nerd and Missouri native was thrilled to see activist and We the Protesters leader Johnetta “Netta” Elzie live-streaming her trip to Gallery Guichard in Chicago, Illinois to see Ti-Rock Moore’s exhibition Confronting Truths: Wake Up!.

Unfortunately, that’s where my excitement ended. As Elzie asked the gallery co-owner, Andre Guichard, about the artist’s intent, fees, and permissions for using the likenesses of Michael Brown, Jr. and the Charleston 9, he was combative, defensive, patronizing, misogynistic, and rude. Guichard embodied every negative art gallery owner stereotype there is. As an art museum professional, I cringed. As a black woman, I wanted to have words with him for talking to a sister that way. It became very clear that this exhibit and its host gallery are a collective hot ass mess.

Don’t take my word for it. See for yourselves here and here. [edit: links removed as videos have since been taken down by owner.]

This farce is irresponsibility of the highest order. It’s irresponsible art making and irresponsible art dealing. It’s also racist, violent, and anti-black.

Ti-Rock Moore, a white woman in her 50s from New Orleans, admits the moniker under which she works has a “hip hop vibe” and is “deliberate“, a linguistic slight-of-hand that exploits age-old racial stereotypes and tropes. Moore stated her work examines the “very complicated systems that create advantages for white people and disadvantages for others”, yet a closer examination reveals it is routinely via the co-option of blackness and denigration of Black bodies.

Moore’s work in Confronting Truths consists of slave shackles, remixed Confederate flags, an overabundance of nooses, neon signs, slurs, and a black Statue of Liberty. Possession, a multi-media installation of silhouettes of black men imprisoned by bars made of real dollar bills particularly galling. Attempting to contextualize this piece in an interview last month, Moore explained, “young black men are commodities in this country today and they have been since the days of slavery.” However, when asked how she justified profiting from black bodies, Moore response was glib: “My art is expensive to make. I am very far in the hole, and it has gotten to the point that I must start making money to be able to make more art.”

And that she has. Moore’s been on a cultural appropriation tour since 2014, winning prizes that catapulted her to Art Basel Miami, exhibiting alongside well-known artists such as Hank Willis Thomas and Kadir Nelson, and landing her first solo show at Gallery Guichard where works are reportedly selling for thousands of dollars.

It’s an amazingly rapid trajectory for an emerging visual artist, one rarely afforded artists of the Black diaspora who depict their actual lived experiences. But this is standard issue art world racism. The system is behaving exactly as intended. As activist DeRay McKesson often says, “watch whiteness work.”

How does this happen, you might wonder? Well, it’s no secret that Black culture is profitable, particularly for those who aren’t Black. It’s routinely commoditized, the blackness scrubbed away and repackaged for white audiences. This cultural theft deems Beyoncé’s physicality shameful while Miley Cyrus is dubbed captain of the feminist twerk team. Black pain is even more lucrative. Mainstream media is fueled by “riot” porn, racist pandering, fear mongering, humanizing puff pieces about the murderers of Black people, and constant depictions of our deaths and brutalization.  We are continually trolled and traumatized for profit, rarely sharing in the proceeds unless we’re willing to participate in our dehumanization.

Confronting Truths perpetuates this anti-black narrative and demonstrates that whiteness need not be present for white supremacy to flourish. Systemic racism traps us all and is often so internalized we’re unaware of its effects. This is what allows Andre Guichard to defend the exhibition as “responsible” and “right in your face” and Frances Guichard to state that if Moore was trying to co-opt blackness, “she would [for example] try to be somebody that infiltrated into sex trafficking and [being] victimized but she didn’t do that.”

All this reaching and still missing the point.

The exhibition’s centerpiece, Angelitos Negros, features a life-size silicone sculpture of Michael Brown, Jr. on the ground after his murder, surrounded by the detritus of a death investigation, beneath a video of Eartha Kitt singing the song which shares the installation’s name. This work, more than any other, encapsulates everything that is offensive and reckless about this exhibition. While it isn’t for sale, it occupies a large swath of physical and emotional space in the gallery and is viewable from the street. It serves as a surrogate carnival barker, its spectacle and triggering imagery resulting in sales of Moore’s work, just another black body being consumed, repackaged, and repurposed for maximum profit.

When unfavorable reviews poured in, the Guichards waged a social media campaign effusively praising and exculpating Moore while she avoided direct discussion online, using her Black benefactors as human shields.  When Moore finally emerged from her cocoon of white privilege, it was to insist that any critique received from the black community was due to “misinformation” and falsely claim that Elzie’s “low quality video” only focused on the Michael Brown work.  Moore ascribed negative responses to the video’s dissemination, saying it “ignited this media sensation“, rather than the ill-conceived and poorly-executed work itself. But I suppose Moore’s video, captured before Elzie’s and shared with nary a trigger warning, tells a more high-quality and nuanced story.

In a tweet that has since been deleted from its feed, Gallery Guichard justified the Michael Brown work by posting a picture of Brown’s family visiting the exhibition, implying their full endorsement. What wasn’t mentioned was that Lesley McSpadden originally thought her son would be depicted in a photograph and requested the sculpture be covered up before her arrival, and that Michael Brown Sr. was unaware of the exhibition and finds it “disturbing” and “disgusting.” Moore said she regrets Michael Brown, Sr. wasn’t notified but apparently not enough to stop causing him pain.

Gallery Guichard purports to highlight art of the African diaspora, yet shamelessly centers whiteness in Confronting Truth. While I’m not convinced the exhibition isn’t purely for stunts and shows, any perceived good intention is flawed by implementation. Why not stage a group exhibition with Moore as a participant rather than the main event, jury a competition open to Black artists who struggle with visibility and financial solvency in the art world, or collaborate with galleries in the St. Louis Metro, Charleston, or Long Island on a traveling exhibition?

Confronting Truths doesn’t live up to its name. Devoid of honesty, integrity, and authenticity, it upholds and  emboldens white privilege instead of disrupting or dismantling it. Moore’s work is not avant-garde; it’s artistic blackface, wrapped in respectable, performative blackness, the embodiment of destructive allyship. If this is the kind of work that “starts discussions“, I’d rather everyone involved stay quiet.

 

 

 

 

 

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on view: help launch an interactive jacob lawrence microsite

Washington, D.C.’s The Phillips Collection has a treasure trove of material culture related to artist Jacob Lawrence and is asking for help making it accessible. The Phillips’ planned interactive microsite will feature rarities such as unseen interviews of the artist, biographical materials, and archival photos. The highlight: high-resolution images of Lawrence’s breathtaking sixty-panel “The Migration Series” which chronicles the first massive movement of over a million African-Americans from rural Southern states to urban locales in the Northeast, West, and Midwest between the two World Wars, known as the Great Migration. [Note: My family was part of the over five-million-strong Second Great Migration departing Mississippi and Tennessee for Missouri in the 1950s.]

art everywhere?

Visual arts fans are abuzz with the announcement of the Art Everywhere U.S. campaign. Designed as a “ public celebration of great American art”, five U.S. art museums have selected twenty works from their respective collections for the world to curate in what’s being billed as “the biggest art exhibition in history.”

Here’s how it works:

Go to the site, cast your votes (today’s the last day so hurry up!), and the top 50 vote-getters will be displayed this summer on billboards, subway posters, bus stops, etc. across the nation. Easy, right?

Except when it’s not so easy. As usual, I have concerns.

Pros:

  • Museum collaborations: anytime the “us vs. them” mentality is disproven in the museum industry it’s a win.
  • Showcasing United States art and artists: my nation’s history is in its infancy compared to some, but our collective creative output is impressive notwithstanding.
  • Participation: giving people a voice in what’s exhibited while simultaneously getting them excited about art is a good thing.

Cons:

  • It’s raining men: overwhelmingly male and white,  I was hoping to see a more diverse lineup of artists.
  • The world is flat: presenting only two-dimensional works leaves out a huge part of the U.S.’ artistic heritage.
  • Coded language: the essay  in the website’s about section describes the breadth of work presented, noting “gritty urban scenes” chronicling the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl and that “the genius and travails of African-Americans at that time are commemorated.” Mentioning depictions of a particular culture while featuring very few works created by that culture, and the fact that no other culture is called out in the entire essay, struck me as strange. 

Overall, I think the idea of Art Everywhere is a good one. After all, encountering art in unexpected places is an amazing experience. However, I’m not convinced that the selections accurately “reflect the story of our country”, and this is problematic in light of the goal to expose this work to the widest audience possible.

The concern about art and advertising being forced to share the same space expressed during the U.K. iteration of this program shouldn’t be ignored. Is the exhibition best seen whizzing by at high speeds or is it designed for viewing up close and personally? Does it matter? What happens to the context of the work if it’s placed above a particular ad? Is any thought given to the physical placement?

I hope that as the event moves forward, information is shared about the pre-vote selection process by the museum partners. It would be an excellent educational opportunity for those of us (like me) who are interested in what happens behind the scenes. That kind of transparency would make the experience truly participatory.