Are black Creatives obligated to make “black art?” What is black art? Has the definition of this been able to expand and evolve just as we have?
I find myself pondering these questions at various points in my life and art career. Lately it has been on my mind pretty heavily as I step back and evaluate the steps I’ve taken so far as an artist, and figure out my path moving forward. It seemed appropriate to share some of my thoughts here and invite readers to chime in. I’m always open to hear new perspectives and connect to achieve a deeper understanding on this topic. I definitely don’t label myself as being hashtag “woke” at all, but I’m going to try my best to express some of the things I think about when it comes to being a black Creative and producing “black art.” Hopefully it will make sense…
Back in my early 20s, when I first began to consider making art seriously and putting myself out into the world in such a way, I often thought about whether my blackness should play a part in my work. I don’t know if this is a common dilemma that most black Creatives face, because I haven’t had the chance to discuss this topic with many people outside of a few of my friends, but I distinctly recall struggling with it. I felt some sort of internal pressure or obligation to make “black art.” It seemed like all of the black artists that I knew about, famous or not, incorporated that part of their identity or history in their work. So I thought that if I didn’t make an intentional, intelligent statement on blackness, black history, or my identity as a black woman then there’d be a part of me that would feel like I would be doing a disservice in some way – a way that I didn’t truly understand or could explain at the time. All I knew was that I wanted to express myself and share it with the world, but I didn’t want to lean on my blackness in order for my work to be considered relevant. In my creative life, I was more attracted to expressing something about the human experience in general, not just any particular black experience. There seemed to be more than enough black artists in the world who were addressing that subject, and doing it extremely well. I didn’t think that I fit into that group at all, and I was ok with that for the most part. In my mind, I wanted to break that mold a little bit and just look at myself as an artist. An artist who happens to be black, not a black artist who makes black art. Perhaps it was naïve of me to think that it could or should be separate. I can’t deny that something felt “off” by being so deliberate about dividing that part from my work. There were definitely times when I felt some deep guilt for not wanting to use my work to tap into black identity as much as maybe I think is expected of me. Luckily, I’ve managed to make artwork that was still meaningful to me despite having an underdeveloped statement about my connection to the black experience.
In recent years, there has been an increased acknowledgement of different black identities and issues that exist in the world. It has permeated all of our accessible media, especially entertainment. Current front runners in this movement (people like Issa Rae, Solange Knowles and Donald Glover), have addressed many different topics and subtleties about the black experience in their own intelligent and engaging ways. It’s encouraging to see black Creatives rise up and be celebrated because on one hand it means that people want to share and hear our stories. The phrase “representation matters” is something that I’ve come to understand more intimately as I’ve matured over the years. It’s extremely validating to see that more of our images, words and sounds are considered art, and not just a vehicle to achieve “cool points,” by people across various races and social standings on such a large scale. Looking at things through that lens has allowed me to see why it’s important for me, as a black artist, to add my own points to the conversation. It was that realization that inspired me to start the Flyy and Kinky series that focuses on black natural hair. One thing that I enjoyed about starting to incorporate characters into my art that had highly textured hair or who were meant to be read as black, was that I never felt like I was jumping on a trend or that I was doing it in an empty attempt to attract a certain demographic. Though it was new for me to be intentional with that subject matter, it still felt personal, it felt significant and I was able to have a subject I enjoyed painting that contrasted the darker emotions that I usually tend to express. Considering the cultural or racial aspect of my identity when approaching some of my work now feels like less of an “obligation” and more like a natural part of expressing myself and providing a commentary on what I notice in society during my time in this world. Nowadays I think I have a better understanding of the scope of the uniqueness of being a black American, as well as the weight that comes with it, than I ever did before. I’m not yet sure if it’s because of the racially charged atrocities that have been brought to the attention of the world at large, or the fact that I now live in a town with a mostly non-black population (after spending the vast majority of my life in the huge, culturally diverse DC metropolitan area), but I find myself clinging to and trying to preserve my identity as a black American woman more than I ever have in my entire life. I also don’t feel any of the guilt I once felt because I no longer hold expectations of myself to fit into any one perception of blackness, or as a black Creative. I now see that by living my own life on my own terms, and making whatever art that I want to make, that is in itself a valid part of the narrative of being black. So freeing!
I know that I’ve only scratched the surface of this topic, and I may not have even written about it well, but as always I would love to know what you think! What have you noticed about the surge of black excellence in various creative fields? Who are some creative people of color that you’re following now? Do you think that we’re heading closer to an era where content and stories by people of color or other marginalized groups will be more universally accepted and enticing to the majority?