Dear Black Artists
“Don’t believe the hype.”
Dear black artists,
I write this letter on the occurrence of a review of a mural that my collective, Otabenga Jones & Associates, recently completed. The article disturbed me as it made some strange claims about 3rd ward, our larger project intent, and was generally misinformed about some of the very serious political and economic realities of this neighborhood and the community within. The article also contained directives about what black people need, and what we, as black artists, should be providing. I suspect the overall patronizing tone was due to our being a black collective. Initially, I was gonna take a point by point approach in an attempt to dismantle the misconceptions about what exactly we are doing, where exactly 3rd Ward is, and our relationship to the content of the project. But, then I peeped game. This article felt like a type of bait so I defer to smarter wiser elder.
“The function, the very serious function of racism, is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language, so you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly, so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Someone says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”
Toni “none of that bologna” Morrison
It occurred to me that instead of one more attempt to prove the value and meaning of our work to some vague authority that I have never met, I probably shouldn’t even engage with them. The reviewer wrote from a cursory relationship with the community addressed in the article, not the experiential relationship the members of Otabenga Jones & Associates have developed for a few decades now. For this reason it feels acquiescent to even correspond with the writer.
I am sharing this with you all now because I would like to suggest, as a strategy, this disengagement from race-related triggers where we become compelled to teach, interpret, and even console, often at our own expense. These possibly triggering moments are: questions at your artist talks, misinformed reviews of your exhibitions and, at times, in conversations with people you consider allies. Currently we are largely absent from local gallery rosters, our curatorial presence has dwindled, and our black arts institutions are severely underfunded. In light of this, as we continue to push for further participation within Houston’s art scene, participating in well-trodden conversations wherein we essentially justify our very presence seems distracting and redundant.
“I’m not real, I’m just like you. You don’t exist in this society. If you did your people wouldn’t be seeking equal rights. You’re not real, if you were you’d have some status among the nations of the world. So we are both myths. I do not come to you as a reality, I come to you as the myth.“
Herman “Sunny Ray” Blount
As with the other cardinal polemics in America, the question of race has been discussed and dissected ad nauseam and it is clearly not our problem. The literature on the subject abounds for those that seek to be informed. We should be concentrating our efforts towards more specific and tangible goals. As we watch new art institutions spring up, new wings open to our local museums, and a growing art economy that circulates all around us, we should be constructing inroads into this system to better sustain our work and our careers.
“But our humanity is our burden, our life; we need not battle for it; we need only to do what is infinitely more difficult – that is, accept it”