Are African Americans Interested in Visual Art?

African Americans: Are We Interested in Visual Art II

by Michele Wallace

Special to NewBlackMan

Aside from my oldest niece Faith (who seems to really love all kinds of art and photography and is an avid photographer and museum goer herself ), and my sister whose interest has become great (although it was not always), I have become (I haven't been into the Faith Ringgold Society thing most of my life) the one who is most determined to absolutely bend the space around me to conform to my notions of what black beauty is and should be.

I have now put that craving for physical and visual beauty together with the opportunity to write about and study my Mom's work at close range. When I moved out of Manhattan (living in Ithaca for awhile), I had an enormous library of visual art and photography books, which I gave to her Any One Can Fly Foundation (whose mission is the education of adults and children concerning the Masters of African American Art who were born before 1925--or in other words the artists born before Faith). I use the resources of this collection along with the massive personal and professional archive Faith has of her career at her home.

I did not come into the world, nor did I become a person who thought these matters were essential until I guess in the last decade or two. Even then for a long time I thought I could get around the whole issue of the place of painting within the canon, and/or my Mom's painting. But the thing is about this is I felt I needed to seize the particular opportunity I had as her daughter. Whether you are aware of the precise issues of this or not, everybody doesn't have equal access to the images.

(Try the following experiment. Do an image search on google, whatever you particularly like, and try things you really crave versus pictures of celebrities you are hearing about all the time, and then filter for free copyright use, and also take note of the size of the jpg you've found. When you've gotten rid of everything that is copyright restricted, you're looking at the images you are free to download, reproduce, post, print out whatever without violating anybody's copyright. Then print some of them out. Notice the size of the jpg. For the most part you will find yourself with a series of postage stamp size images, okay for posting on your wall but you can't really see them. They are not of exhibition quality and that is deliberate. You will notice this happening more and more.))

I am the only person on the planet that I know who enjoys full and unlimited access to Faith Ringgold's extensive archive of family images and photographs, as well as images of all her thousands of works of art--sculpture, painting, dolls, soft sculpture, performances, costumes, paintings, drawings, sketches and so forth. And unlike a lot of artists, Faith's work is all photographed, catalogued, inventoried with computer images of various sizes prepared for use by her nimble full time assistant (Grace Matthews). And I don't expect it to go on forever. It is a strategic access, which I am attempting to use to promote interest in the history of the development (in the course of the 20th century) of African American art and artists in general. Especially among other African Americans but everybody else as well. Just as an experiment, to see whether it is actually possible to change the public perception of something simply by the power of persuasion and good will.

So none of what I am doing follows naturally from anything, including my membership in this family or the fact that Faith is my mother and has been my mother for all 58 years of my life.

Many people who are closely related to artists decide to become artists themselves. Indeed, most people who write or have written about African American artists were either artists themselves or wanted to be artists. Sometimes people spend an entire career writing about and promoting the work of others and then retire in order to finally pursue their own art. Such a career was that of the artist and prominent African American art historian David Driscoll. Some work a day job until they retire, and then become full time artists. Such was Romare Bearden's story. Some spent a lifetime making art and were always well known in the art world and yet never made any really substantial wealth from it because their works were small and quickly grabbed up by collectors on easy terms. Such would be the case with the great master Jacob Lawrence. And for every African American artist you can name from the canon, there's a story to go with it. A reason that their children don't know their name or their images are in the public domain, their works in public collections, those that survived. This all relates to the fact that even if African Americans love African American art, they've got a great many more pressing priorities. Priorities which invariably take precedence over their interest in African American art. In general, African American art is not expensive so it can't be that. As my Mom says, back in the 60s she couldn't give the American Collection away. Nobody wanted it. Of course, she's not giving it away today. But who is out there trying to give their work away? Hope it isn't somebody in your very own family.

Although I always loved art, can't recall not loving it, It never occured to me to become an artist. Even though mother always had us painting and drawing when we were little, I was only too willing to stop when it got time to get serious. I didn't want to be an artist. I was too busy writing and nobody else in my family was doing that. God only knows where it came from but there it was almost from as early as I can remember. My sister also writes a great deal, journals mostly.

Who knows why? But my father was a musicians, and both he and his father were brilliant and prolific readers and kept notebooks, although the relationship between Mom and Dad ended early and abruptly. None of their natural abilities ever came to much--maybe because of the racism black men faced then, or maybe they just didn't have the necessary ambition but this need to communicate about ideas seems to come by some fashion from the genetic combination of my mother's abilities in the visual arts and my father and grandfather's talent for music (classical and jazz) and for intellectual investigation (they were from Jamaica). Genetics combined with opportunity for a superb education provided by the financial support of my stepfather Burdette (half tuition at New Lincoln was still a lot of money for us!) as well as all the trips to the Cape and to Europe, which he also funded.

Other than that, my particular approach to the visual (which is strategic and theoretical) has emerged over years and years of the study of questions related to visual culture (photography, film, architecture, museums and so forth, intellectual stuff generally). As you get older you start to think about, how can I make a contribution in this messed up world? And quite naturally you look to make a contribution where there is a greater necessity because there are fewer people working on it.

This is what strikes me about the lack of awareness of the extended ramifications of visual culture among AFrican Americans, particularly as regards the visual arts, particularly painting. It's pretty bad when it comes to photography too. I've been teaching photography--particularly photographs in which black people are present as photographers or subjects at Cornell and at the CUNY colleges and its been a real eye opener. It is very difficult for people to question that which they have never questioned. And they don't question what they see for the most part, especially if has the least little patina of nostalgia, or slickness or officialdom or whatever. In my experience, black folk notice stereotypes, (images they feel are designed to demean them) and nothing else. Since stereotypes are the only thing that get a serious rise out us, I am afraid they are here for the duration.

I am just saying. I don't have the problem with stereotypes that some people claim to have with them. I think they are just part of the menu of visual options in representations of the human figure but when you can't even see anything else, then you are geared to a life full of negativity.

I am going to treat you all to yet another master work from the American People Series since I know you have never or have rarely seen them. I hope you enjoy. Look to my Faith Ringgold Society Group Page or to my Facebook or to my website for more links and images from African American art and photography, and a range of other things bearing up the culture.

Michele Wallace is a Professor of English at The City College and in the Ph.D. Program in English at The Graduate Center and the author of several books including the classic Black Macho and The Myth of The Superwoman and Invisibility Blues: From Popular Culture to Theory.

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