Is This Artist African American?

I’m back in the US for a bit, showing my art in some shows again here in the Midwest, which always makes for new challenging interactions and feedback from viewers of my work. I don’t mean challenging in that the interactions are difficult, but they challenge me to reconsider what my art means to different people in different contexts. This is good and necessary for me as an artist because I get used to creating the work in my usual Haitian context and the immediate feedback that I always get on my paintings are from the Haitians themselves. But once I remove the work from that context and exhibit it in a different place with different histories and relationships to race, religion, culture, and community, and each person that views the work has their own personal histories and relationships, the art can send a very different message.

I’m currently participating in a group show in Indianapolis and at the opening recently an African American man (who was wearing an African style dashiki) looked at my work and asked, “Is this artist African American?” I was not able to be present at that opening because I had a solo show going on at the same time, so I heard this second hand from a friend who was representing the group at the show. The friend said that the man asked the question with an implicit tone of suspicion and accusation and the friend responded as honestly and accurately as he could. Since I wasn’t there myself to engage in a dialogue with the man about my art, I’m engaging in the conversation here on my website, and I would love to hear what others think. It is not the first time that I’ve gotten such a reaction from a viewer incredulous about my choice of subject matter.

Beby's HistoryHow would I have responded if I were there that night? “Is this artist African American?” No. But neither are the people in the art African American. The subjects of the art are Haitians, not African American. Yes, their skin color may resemble that of African Americans, but African Americans are not the only black people in this world. That’s where we would have to start with the conversation. Before he could understand my relationship to the subjects of this art as a Caucasian American artist, he would have to re-orient his own relationship to them as an African American viewer. He would have to first acknowledge that his experience with blackness is defined by his identity as an African American and differs from how others around the world experience their own blackness in the context of their own distinct cultures.

So, if we could get beyond that and this viewer wanted to have a discussion about me painting black people but not being black myself, I would be happy for my art to create the space to have that discussion. Because as an African American, he would still share a history on a larger scale of slavery and colonialism and oppression and racism, with the Haitian subjects of the paintings, that I do not share with them as a white man. He would share a history with them of black bodies being exploited and abused by white men that would allow him to legitimately question my decision as a white artist to use black bodies as the subject matter for my paintings.

But here’s the thing that’s hard for some people to accept: my art’s not about race. The subjects of my art are black, not because I’m trying to make a political statement about their race, but because I live and create art in a place where everyone except myself is black and I choose to create art that involves the human figure, so all of my available models happen to be black. If I was living and working in a studio in certain neighborhoods of Detroit, or Atlanta, or St. Louis, or even right here in Haughville, Indianapolis, and I put up a sign at the local grocery store advertising for models to pose for my paintings, most of my models would still end up being black. The skin color of the people in my paintings has much more to do with logistics and my geography than it does some grand commentary on race. Some may argue that by choosing to paint people that are a different race than myself, I’m automatically making a racial commentary with the art, but I don’t think it needs to be that way.

In the United States, we tend to place expectations upon black artists to make “black art”. We expect them to make art that does make pointed statements about race and identity. And they most definitely should be the ones to make those statements. It’s why Kara Walker has gained fame by creating aggressively violent allegories of racism and the history of slavery. It’s why Kerry James Marshall paints subjects blacker than black to change the status of racial representation in the art world. This expands beyond just visual art but into literature, filmmaking, and all other artistic disciplines. A white body in a work of art is still free to symbolize any number of concepts from love to mortality to psychology to whatever, but a black body is always presumed to symbolize nothing more than it’s blackness and all of the history that comes with it. Because of this, when we see black subjects in a work of art, we also make assumptions about the artist who created the work and we begin to project intentions onto that artist, immediately limiting the scope of our interpretation of the art. I would like to think that black bodies in art can represent many more aspects of the human condition than just race. British-Ghanaian artist, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye has recently been an inspiration for me in this sense because people often try to project racial and political significance to her work but she is always clear to point out that that is not her intention. She does not even consider the race of her subjects when painting, painting them with the skin tones that she does is simply what feels the most natural and necessary to her.

My art too, is what feels the most natural to me. Not because of what I see when I look in the mirror, but because of what I see when I look around me. It is about community and how we each create communities for ourselves and relate to the worlds around us. This naturally involves race but it does not make race the central theme. My work also has to do with culture and ethnicity and the histories and spiritualities there within, so naturally, to address those concepts accurately, I do have to use models with skin tones that correspond with the cultural stories that I’m trying to tell. These stories are uniquely Haitian.

At that point my art becomes much more about the specific person portrayed in the work. The story told becomes their own, not mine. This is why I’m always very intentional to use the subject’s actual names in the titles of my work. This again, is different than the way that African American artists have to represent their own work. One of my current favorite artists, for example, Toyin Ojih Odutola, intentionally doesn’t name her subjects, even if they’re self portraits, because she wants the figures to remain anonymous enough that they can serve as symbols for any viewer to bring their own interpretations to. As a white artist I have to be more specific in titling my work to show the agency of my subjects in choosing to be portrayed in my art and make the art more about them than about me or about the viewer.

Gradient

Furthermore, this entire conversation ignores the fact that the Haitians that I paint, for the most part, wouldn’t even describe themselves as “black”. That racial description is the product of the binary understanding of race that we have in the US. That’s why an African American viewer in Indianapolis can look at a painting of mine and see himself reflected in some way, because even if the subject of the painting doesn’t necessarily have his same skin tone, all that the viewer sees is someone that is not white and begins to assign identities to that person based on his own. “People of color” may be a more appropriate general racial descriptor for my subjects, but even that term comes from a very US American cultural context. In Haiti they recognize the vast spectrum of shades and colors that their skin carries and allow an entire gradient of tones to identify as Haitian. I’ve written about this before, but also simply from a technical standpoint as a painter, this provides an entirely different exercise in the choosing of pigments, the process of which is an absolute pleasure for a painter.

As a white artist dealing with all of these issues each time I make a painting, I think that the trick lies in how to paint black bodies without stepping into the poisonous waters of exploitation, appropriation, or fetishization. I would never want to enter into Ti Rock Moore or Dana Schutz territory. Although the issues that those artists address are important to create dialogue about, the way that they represent black bodies and specifically violence against black bodies is problematic as white artists. I think that the best art does create conversations and sometimes even controversy while challenging assumptions. Most of the time I know that my art is much too safe and should be more bold in challenging society’s assumptions about the people portrayed in my work, but that is a constant evolution for myself as an artist to keep pushing the impact that my art can have.

We, as artists, can never dictate exactly the story that our viewers will extract from our art, all we can do is create images that speak with a certain voice and intent, and hope that they invoke a positive reaction from the viewer based on their own experience. But if we don’t get our art out there in front of audiences with diverse experiences of their own, then those dialogues can never be initiated. I guess the goal of art for myself, is always conversation, not comfort. So if my being white but painting people of color makes you uncomfortable, then let’s have a conversation about that.

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2 thoughts on “Is This Artist African American?

  1. Reblogged this on The Green Mango Blog and commented:

    This is a post that I wrote for my art blog but wanted to share it here as well thinking that it might be interesting to my Green Mango audience too. I am sincere when I say I hope to open conversations around these topics, so I welcome any feedback my readers might have on the subject.

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  2. Saying that skin color, or the ethnic label we give ourselves (Caucasian, Hispanic, African-american, Asian, etc.) ONLY allow us to bring commentary on our specific situation impossibly limits the humanness of us all. Our humanity should transcend those labels, allowing us to see beyond our specific labels to understand others and to comment constructively beyond our own likeness. To say that life is a one to one only situation is to ignore life itself.

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