Why we need space for Black artists not to fear offending white people

By Lauren Roshan

The Black community has a history of politicising our art. The Black Arts Movement of 1965 began as a Black American literary offspring of the the Civil Rights Movement, and, though short-lived, it made significant impact on the People.

Following this long-standing tradition, today’s Black music is also politically charged, especially during these contentious times. Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly (2015) sparked conversation about police brutality, systemic racism, colourism, and depression in the Black community. Solange’s A Seat at the Table (2016) is, from top to bottom, an album about Black womanhood. Her work touched Black women specifically in ways that non-Black listeners will never and can never understand or empathise with.

The future of arts and culture lies in a strong Black community, because art can save the life of a young Black person. I use myself as an example, because I know first hand how an ugly system can fail a child.

I grew up in London with the world’s best museums in my backyard. I never went. My friends and I weren’t exposed to visual art that spoke to us, and we therefore believed it “wasn’t our thing.” We channeled our energy elsewhere because we didn’t want nor need to see the Mona Lisa.

My outlook on visual art changed last semester when I went on a field trip to the Studio Museum in Harlem. I was struck by a collection of paintings by artist Jordan Casteel. In his series Tenses, he installed a series of large-scale portraits depicting various Black men in Harlem.

It was upon remembering this trip to Harlem that I realised that for those of us who are often impervious to visual art, it is the interpretations we see of and within ourselves that touch us. When we see friends, partners, families and children, we see the elements that reflect our cultures and communities, and it compels us to look even when we don’t always understand why.

Exposure to different mediums has the potential to change the course of a young Black person’s life, ultimately saving them from channeling their energy into things that harm them. Black artistic expression is necessary for saving our lives, yet many Black artists fear alienating or offending the white people we rely on for funding and support. That’s a problem, because Black audiences often become alienated in the process. Through safeguarding white funders, Black artists can inadvertently lead the Black audience to believe it “doesn’t like art.” No representation.

We need to represent ourselves. We need to build a robust network, for ourselves. The network I envision will have Black artists with unprocessed hair and baggy ‘fits putting up their work in Black-owned galleries because the Whitney and the TATE aren’t good enough.

A network that will have Black attorneys who choose to wear suits or not. A network with Black intellectuals who charge hefty speaking fees at Ivy League schools, but charge nothing to the students of Morehouse, Spelman, and the School of Oriental and African Studies.

The network will have Black mothers, single or not, with sick braiding skills and wicked intuition useful for the Black businessmen and women. The network will have Black fathers who hustle tradesmen better than the Ivy League or Oxbridge educated interns who sit on Wall St. and Canary Wharf.

The network will have Black athletes, Black computer scientists, Black engineers, Black hairdressers, Black cab drivers, Black writers, Black businessmen, and Black real estate tycoons. Whatever we need, we’ll have.

This is not a call for Black capitalism. This network will be accessible to Black people across the globe via in-person hubs and an online platform, and within it we’ll share our knowledge, skills, and resources in whatever social currency we choose. If a Black artist needs affordable or free studio space to work, the realtors will have their back. If a Black person needs legal aid from a first-class lawyer, we attorneys will have their back. Contribute your art when you’re done. Teach a free art class for Black children. If a Black single mother needs a nanny so she can work to support her children, but she can’t afford a nanny, we’ll have someone. We’ll give each other what we need, as and when we need it. We won’t need to rely on the white power structure anymore because we’ll have our own. We will work together as a global Black unit: Black U-Net.

There is no advancement if we don’t combat racist power structures. Worldwide racism is hundreds of years strong, and I know you can’t change an unwilling person’s mind nor force them to hear you out—but we don’t need permission from anybody. We have each other. Black skill, resource, and knowledge sharing is the future, and will continue to be the future for ages to come.

To many, a Black power structure strong enough to match white racist ones may seem too unrealistic. A Black power structure is futurism, and the requirement for such is realism in its most concentrated form. I don’t believe that futurism rests only in the future—it rests in the now.  What is a problem “now” and how can we solve it? That’s real, effective radicalism.

History is the future. If you want to make art influenced by a culture, go and learn about it extensively. Have a discussion with people of that culture. Are you representing their traditions accurately? Are they comfortable with you using this aspect of their culture for your art? If you don’t want to have these discussions and learn the history, strongly reconsider why you do what you do. Politics is the future. Your apolitical art is small in the face of terror. Awareness is the future. When you move into that cool studio space in Bed-Stuy, learn about the community you’re moving into and become a part of it. Ask the people what they want and need. Consciousness is the future.

Black U-Net is the future.

Lauren Roshan is a junior at Bennington College studying Africana Studies. She hails from London, UK, and is of Nigerian and English descent. This past winter break, Lauren received a Ford Foundation Fellowship grant to attend the Studio for the Future of Arts & Culture at Arizona State University.

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