An unchecked bully moved in on my granddaughter last week, while she was in line at a local museum waiting her turn for a particular activity. With a shove, he pushed her out of the way saying, "Move over Twinkie". For those who do not understand the term it means that she is yellow on the outside and white on the inside - referring to her adopted parentage. It is a companion to other phrases like "Oreo" sometimes now used for dark skinned children who have white parents or in some cases in parts of the community as disparaging against a person of color believed to behave more in sympathy with a "white agenda" than with one which might represent the needs or values of the black community. My granddaughter is two years old and from China, and was quite stunned. So was I. Not that the child pushed her and used this particular racial slur, but because my daughter had difficulty getting an adult staff member to intervene and use this teachable moment for the bully that the behavior was inappropriate and also because she could not find the adult anywhere near that was in charge of the child. Since there was obviously no serious injury, the staff person felt it was better to just say nothing. Some might see this as over sensitivity, but those of us who know and have witnessed the kind of bullying that continues to rise in our culture and the growing tensions of hate groups have reason to be concerned. It is not simply about the history we have survived from the violence of the Civil Rights movements of the sixties, but that many of the acts of violence have never been called to justice and we make continual excuses for letting these issues go unchecked. In a recent meeting at an local historic African American Church, I listened as some older black adults raised concerns that perhaps some young African Americans did not really identify with how difficult and how recent their struggle for Civil Rights had been and that perhaps new personal privileges were taken as normative and freely given when they were not.
Annelies Dykgraaf is an artist who continues to inspire me because she produces work that reflects a vision that I believe in and because she lives a life that makes a difference in our community. She is truly an artist that does not see color; at least not in the way that most of us do. She was born in the Nigerian revolution to American missionary parents, her mother worked throughout her career in a particular language within a specific tribal group. Her father worked as together they gave their lives to a people making a difference in a community different from the one that they grew up in.
Annelies is one of the founders of the Art Center Cooperative here in Jacksonville; I remember an early organizational meeting in a home in Arlington where ideas were shared from different generations and different races for getting started on building something new that would be a cooperative effort where artists could gather and express new ideas. Annelies is this month's featured artist at one of the two galleries the Art Center currently runs. The exhibition is called "Touch;" the focus is on the importance of touch across the racial divide that in itself will produce a community cohesion that brings new and exciting opportunities for all those who share the space.
At one point in my life, I had the opportunity to show work for two different artists in several galleries around the country. One of those artists was Annelies, the other was Michele Lee an African American artist, whose work I also enjoy. I consider both of these artists friends. Again, as a white male, I get somewhat different reactions from various business men; I can "pass" and most often the assumption is that I will relate to their concepts because "we are just alike". I'm sure this most likely happens in all of our communities because it's difficult to see beyond color for some of us and nearly impossible to value persons who are different. Both of these artists have very unique styles. Annelies was exposed to African village carvers early in life and also to scenes, smells, touch, sight, and vista's that were rural Nigeria. Michele, on the other hand, was raised mostly in urban American cities; with parents who exposed her to different vistas. Neither childhood is necessarily better, they are just different experiences. Artists find their greatest moments in painting, writing, or creating on subjects and mediums that they know best. Annelies will tell you that I have long praised her print making work that is not only unusual, but speaks in a language that we can connect to, even while it is definitely different from what most of us easily understand. Some of that work tells stories of the myths of a tribal culture in a far away part of the world. One such as the orphan boy is beautiful and can speak to us, though we don't know the tribe of this boy, because we know the emotions he must feel when he is left orphaned. Michele on the other hand, does completely different work, beautiful of itself, contemporary and sophisticated.
Often it was an interesting experience for me to see how the gallery owners reacted to the two artist's works. Michele's work was frequently identified as "white" and Annelies' work as "obviously black." That did not mean that in some cases one always sold better. For instance, on some occasions, a gallery owner would tell me that they had clients that were interested in collecting African American art. But when I showed photographs of the two artists they often said, you mean this one is with this work and this one is with the other. When I said; "No the white woman is the one born in Nigeria to American parents, and you see that reflected in the work, and the black woman is the one who paints in this contemporary style," they would sometimes simply say, "Oh". Unfortunately, sometimes a gallery would want a particular work, but because it was NOT easily categorized as a match to the painter; they would not risk the investment. We really prefer simple and sometimes it's easier for some to think in racial stereotypes. Unfortunately for those people they will miss the real experience of being touched by a unity that expresses a new and vibrant community, one that will continue to grow in spite of bullies or simple elitists, old and new, who find the confining boxes of stereotype comforting and secure.
Annelies Dykgraaf has works on display at the Adams Street Studio of the Art Center and also a studio in the Hogan Street Gallery.