Tumblin’: Black Contemporary Art
I’m not going to say much for Black Contemporary Art, because I completely agree with the moderators’ point below that the last thing diasporic art needs is more pigeonholing and genre-fication (let alone by a quasi-intellectual white guy in Canada). BCA is, as it says, a safe place for “art about and by artists of the diaspora.” Kim, Coco, and Geraldine are brilliant, inviting, and incredibly talented people, and it was genuinely an honor to talk to them about a project in which they’re all deeply, personally invested. That, I think, is all the introduction they need.
How did each of you get involved in art, and how did you meet each other?
Kimberly Drew: I recently completed my studies at Smith College (where I met co-moderator Geraldine) with a BA in Art History and African American Studies, as well as a certificate in Museums Studies. I’ve always been around the arts. My parents put me into dance classes at a young age and museum trips were always on the docket during family gatherings. Our third moderator Coco was just a gift from the Tumblr gods!
Coco Lopez: I’m currently pursuing my MFA in Studio Art at Hunter College. I stumbled upon Black Contemporary Art on Tumblr and sent Kimberly an email when I saw that there was an opportunity to share content and become a moderator. As an artist with a penchant for writing and curating, BCA has been an awesome space to share the work of a wide range of artists that probably would not normally be shown together in a physical location.
Geraldine Richards: I switched majors to African American Studies late into my junior year at Smith College and though I was excited to focus in on a field of study important to me, I didn’t know what I would eventually do with my degree. Smith announced a museum studies concentration during my senior year, and though I was unable to meet all the certificate requirements I was able to take the first museum studies course offered. In the spring semester of my senior year I wanted to do a personal investigation of Black art. My advisor, Dr. Kevin Quashie, and I organized an independent study on Black contemporary art over the past 130 years. I always loved art. I’m originally from Newark, NJ and would jump at every opportunity to get to NYC to explore the museums on Museum Mile.
There seems to be a general leaning away from abstraction and toward directness/presence in a lot of BCA’s posts. Do you find this to be the case, and, if so, why? If not, are there any (incidental or otherwise) themes in BCA?
KD: Themes? We don’t really have themes… or I should say my posts do not have themes. The only thing that remains consistent on the site is the freedom of content that we post. BCA is more interested in sharing works that we think our followers should see.
CL: The only theme I stick to is “art about and by artists of the diaspora” as it says on the tumblog. It’s not just about posting art that I like, but art that I feel our followers would be able to relate to in some way. Each time I upload or reblog images to BCA I approach it in a new way. One day I might be interested in showing the work of emerging artists who recently graduated from MFA programs, and the next day I’ll add a few posts on artists that are not part of the diaspora but address an aspect of Black culture in their work. Part of BCA’s success comes from the simple act of sharing and in that process there has been an affinity towards both the figurative and the American image. In order to counter that (and to supplement the lack of conversation surrounding the history of Black artists operating within non-representational means, which push against the tropes of what is deemed as Black art) I always attempt to include works that fall within the realm of abstraction, conceptualism, and the Fluxus movement for example.
GR: I agree with my co-moderators—the only concern is the focus on art “about and by artists of the diaspora”. I approach posting art that I want to see, art that I did not grow up seeing but art that I always dreamed was out there. When I discovered Black art I never looked back. I’m fortunate to work with two others that want to present the artistic ability of members of the diaspora and that so many want to see it.
It seemed like the 1980s and ’90s were an era in which black art was demanded to explain itself by both academia and the mostly bourgeois art-consumer class. Do you feel that this has changed? And have changes in the gallery system/structure affected this?
KD: Nope, I think it’s the exact opposite in present day. Black art has been cornered by the themes through which it’s been readily accepted by the mainstream art world. If black art is not angry, engaging racial inequality or mirroring the works of classic black texts then it runs the risk of erasure.
CL: The capitalist definition of what Black art can be has not changed much in the post-racial post-black era. The recent New Museum Triennial of 2012, The Ungovernables, echoed the earlier Whitney Museum Biennial of 1993 in its commodification of race, sexuality, class, and gender. While the Biennial of 1993 was brimming with sociopolitical tension, by 2012 that type of explicit social commentary had already become a convention that is simultaneously shunned and celebrated. Artists have the ability to break through these conventions if they choose to, but they will have to make it through the art market first. Since the artwork that comes from the Black artist has proven to be profitable, the art market is what really dictates which type of difference will be promoted and for what reasons. Artists that work outside of what is profitable will have a harder time finding success.
GR: No, Black art still needs to “say something” to the art consumer class and academia. I see BCA as a vehicle for promoting art as art.
On the heels of the preceding question, what do you see as having changed in black art throughout the first decade of this century? And do you see any other patterns currently emerging?
KD: There has been a major push for establishing the multiplicity of blackness. A lot of black artists have moved more towards showing (and in some cases performing) their idea of blackness as it relates to the mainstream. I believe that there is more of a perforation of black art and the black aesthetic into everyday life. Black folk in our generation are more susceptible to the evils of being hyper-visible. As black artists have become more prevalent and respected I think there is some push to establish what it means to be an artist more-so than a black artist. I think that in moving forward many artists realize the limitations of performing blackness through their art and there is a struggle to remain authentic while not pigeon-holing themselves.
CL: A few artists who I have been looking at these days are Steffani Jemison, Adam Pendleton, Jennie C. Jones, and Clifford Owens. In different ways they each revisit a part of history and reassemble it. While Jemison physically presents texts either through reinterpretation or as a library source for people to spend time with, Adam Pendleton breaks them apart to expose their mistruths in his Black Dada project. Jones’ revision of the history between abstraction and modernism to jazz fills in a few holes that Art History would leave out. I loved what Clifford Owens did with his exhibition Anthology at MoMA PS1 in terms of where I would like to see performance art going. Rather than exploit himself, by asking for scores to be written by a multigenerational group of artists that are African American that he would then perform in front of an audience that is largely not part of the same group, Owens successfully exposed the audience’s vulnerabilities and desires. Another exhibition that I won’t forget is Animism at e-flux if only for Tom Holert’s The Labours of Shine, and Ken Jacobs’ Capitalism: Slavery. Although neither of the last two artists fall under the rubric of making what could be called Black art, their investigations of how capitalism as it relates to the Black identity are startling.
GR: Current and new Black artists are moving to explore various themes rather than just Black oppression, not that does not occur or have a place anymore in Black art. I see Black artists having being more concerned with presenting their own authenticity than a Black authenticity. I’m really interested in destabilizing representation and respectability in my own life and I am really excited to see contemporary artists destabilizing the tired trope of respectability.
The description of your blog refers to “the diaspora:” which aspects of the African diaspora do you feel have been particularly conducive to art? Or, put another way, how do you feel the near-globalized institutional racism/oppression directed at Africans throughout the last few hundred years has shaped what we now call black art?
KD: When thinking about establishing this blog I had no idea the potential that it had to make a difference in the tumblr universe. It started as a side pet project and in casually assembling the site writing “the diaspora” was a quick fix to a major problem of the true definition of black art. I don’t believe there is any aspect of the African diaspora that is particularly conducive to art production. I do believe that casting a wide net for the art produced by those who readily identify as a part of the African diaspora is a space for growth, empowerment and community building. Our model and definition are not exactly where we would like them to be, but we have definitely succeeded in creating an online community and space for artists to share their work.
CL: Institutional racism’s greatest hit to Black art went from exclusion to definition and trying to place it in a convenient box. In a 2003 letter from Adrian Piper’s Letters to the Editor series she negates the long list of identifiers that can be placed before her as an artist and philosopher. On the other hand in Arts Magazine in 1969 Frank Bowling stated that any Black artist who does not want to be identified as so would be trying to pass as something else. They are both right. The diaspora is huge and people are affected by history in different ways. By highlighting all work that comes out from different moments and places related to the African diaspora we can begin to see how various threads of thought are related and at times opposed with each other.
GR: I joined this project of Kim’s to remain aware and involved in Black art. It has greatly expanded my understanding of art, the diaspora, and Black art. In an effort to maintain community and inclusion there is no criteria within Black art and diasporic art that I adhere to.
As a platform, do you think Tumblr is a generally safe or inclusive space for racially-conscious art, or have you found it to be otherwise?
KD: Tumblr can be a very scary place. I have read about other Tumblr users who have received some very inflammatory commentary on their posts. We are very thankful to have only received positive feedback. During the early stages of the Trayvon Martin case we had an open call for art and a good number of talented artists provided submissions. As each work was posted we were able to see some conversations sprouting up on different pages. Creating a platform for racially conscious work is a risk, but I think that Tumblr is the perfect place for free expression and we’ve benefited from this.
CL: Tumblr has been a great place to share art that sometimes deals with race, but not everything we post does so in an explicit way. There is a large community of people around the world that are interested in having conversations that deal with race and Tumblr has been an easy tool to use in creating a dialogue based on Black identity from tumblogs that promote literature to those that analyze the media. However, Tumblr is an Internet website and with that comes a glowing amount of post-racial racism that usually hides itself in public.
GR: Tumblr has been a great platform to promote the artists and art that we are familiar with but also finding other tumblr users that have art and artists to share. The anonymity of the internet can bring out the worst regarding race relations but we have been fortunate.
In addition to providing a safe place for artists, does BCA have any particular goals or ideological motivations? And, more generally, do you have any long-term goals for the blog?
KD: I am personally staying away from distinctively pushing the content on our blog towards any ideological movements. We are open to any suggestions and if there were to be a request for black marxist works or anything of that nature we’d find it and share, but on our side we are keeping it simple. Our overlying goal is to share black art, open conversation, and foster community. If we pushed towards ideological motives I think it could be exclusionary and we aren’t about that. More generally, there has been some discussion of moving to twitter, adding some editorial posts and possibly interviewing some artists that we have shared. It’s been a great year for the blog and we’d like to pay forward all of our success by pushing the envelope.
CL: I think one of our main goals is to help build and support a community that supports artists of the African diaspora and other artists whose work touches upon that identity in some way. To support any one political ideology would mean that we’d have to exclude certain artworks or artists from the discourse we are forging and that would go against our pursuit to share knowledge. I can’t wait to see what lies ahead for us come into fruition.
GR: I see the goal of BCA is to present art by diasporic artists that do not have to meet any criteria. We are a space dedicated to building community not promoting exclusion. I am excited to see where BCA goes and I’m excited to be a part of this important work.
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