Last year, in a profile for Vanity Fair, Ingrid Sischy, former editor of Interview wrote, “With a black American president in his second term, and an art world vibrant with the successes of a host of extraordinary black artists—the lonely battle that Basquiat and a few black artists before him waged against both blatant and covert racism seems all the more vivid.” But this seems a premature call. The current crowd of artists supported by major galleries, museums, and institutions still looks like a Swiss ski lift: not a lot of black faces.
Why are there still so few famous and successful black fine artists? A century ago, Picasso drew on African art to inspire him to break out of Cubism; but here we are, a hundred years later, and the art world’s still slow to recognize and celebrate the talents of black artists.
For the final installment in our month-long look at black artists, Playboy asked a panel of young black artists to reflect on today’s art world, their feelings about black community, their individual struggles, and whether or not black artists still face a lonely battle against racism, while they also fight for artistic recognition.
Alexandria Smith, painter/art educator, 34, Brooklyn.
Legacy Russell, artist/writer/curator, 28, London.
Ken Flewellyn, painter/gallerist, 30, Los Angeles.
How do you employ blackness as part of your artistic identity, without feeling that you’re selling blackness? How do keep it from being the sole lens others use to understand your work?
LR: In college, I applied for a Mellon Mays Fellowship and was told by the program coordinator that I just wasn’t “black enough” to be accepted into the program; my interest in gender and how it informs dialogues about race and class has always made my position in the worlds of art and academia a bit of a struggle. That I should, perhaps, shift the focus of my work to talk about race above all else—this has been something people have ignorantly suggested to me outright.
It’s also something I’ve felt pressured to do within the structure of the grant applications process, which often encourages artists of color to categorize their practice via their cultural background. In the art world, artists who have melanin in their skin are expected to somewhat “perform” to their blackness whereas discussions of “gender” and “feminism” are reserved for white, female contemporary artists—especially within the realm of net art and digital practice.
AS: I don’t feel that I am selling my blackness as a way of branding myself; my identity is composed of my experiences, my culture, my relationships with others and a host of other things. I also hesitate to use the word “branding” when it applies to art which is more than just creating for commerce but a way of life. As an artist that utilizes the brown body in my work, I believe that race and gender are projected onto the work and can sometimes be the sole point of focus for viewers. For me, the experiences that my work expose and illuminate, which I feel many people can relate to, is the primary focus.
KF: An artist can always be seen in their work. The work you create can only come from the prism in which you view the world. My work centralizes on the junction between seemingly diametrically opposed cultures, to better explore that sweet spot where they blend. For me, experiencing and researching different cultures made it easy to widen that lens.
The art world is hyper-competitive. Do you all feel kinship and a sense of community with other black artists? Or do you feel artificially forced to compete?
AS: Recently, the idealist in me has started to see a greater kinship amongst artists of all backgrounds, which I feel is a result of the multitudes of injustices against people of color and the LGBTQ community. The non-indictments in Florida, NYC, and Ferguson have resulted in artists coming together to instigate change, and have a more direct connection to society beyond the art world—using our creativity to do so. Since art is a solitary act for many, there’s a yearning and need for community that has risen to the surface in recent years. I believe wholeheartedly in community and the importance of supporting one another. Artists definitely feel artificially forced to compete while being a part of a savage institution that prides itself on power, greed and narcissism. We can subvert this by listening to our intuition, our hearts, and by remaining compassionate.
KF: It’s almost impossible to not feel kinship towards other artists, black or otherwise. This life is not easy. It’s long hours in pursuit of a dream, without guarantee of return. We all do this in hopes of getting the opportunity to work on the next project, and the next project, and so on. Having good art friends is paramount to forging a successful path in this arena. You’ll always compete with your contemporaries, but competition can be constructive; it’s the impetus of innovation. I’m a highly competitive person, and use it to motivate me.
LR: I do not compete with my family. The artists of color and women who are my allies in the art world are my family. W.E.B DuBois talked about “the veil"—how people of color can see on both sides of a racial divide. That provides unique insight, but this gift of sight can be burdensome. That duality continues to be a present reality for black artists in this bizarre niche called "the art world.”
In Hollywood, black stars like Denzel, are considered risky for international box office? Are galleries and museums reluctant to support black artists because they’re a risky investment? Or is it just old-fashioned racism?
KF: As an artist, and a gallerist, I can honestly say I’ve never run into this problem. An artist’s race has never come into play while working for galleries, or even as a painter. Compelling work speaks for itself and my collectors respond to that.
LR: I think the story of taste-making within the art world bears much resemblance to the Hans Christian Anderson story “The Emperor Has No Clothes”—wealthy people set the trends in the art world, wealthy people have the power. When wealthy people say that something matters, it suddenly matters; they don’t say this with words, they say this with their checkbooks at the gallery, at the auction block. Wealthy people in the art world have also historically been white; although, the Middle Eastern and Asian art markets are in an upswing. In the last ten or fifteen years, we’re seeing the scales tip, which has been exciting and brought up some interesting questions about power, influence, and taste-making within the market.
However, the tradition of white people acting as the taste-makers in the art world means that there is a disproportionate amount of support going to artists who reflect the identity of the primary buyer—white men. Everything else falls into a niche—every year there’s the breakout black artist, Asian artist, queer artist, who graduates to the “next level.” But the thing that stays constant is that the works of white men is expected to go up in value, while their black, Asian, and queer counterparts don’t always reap an equivalent financial benefit. It’s not only important to diversify the art market by bettering the structure for artists of varied class and cultural backgrounds, but also to diversify the population of collectors out there. We need to be nurturing a new generation of socially-conscious and culturally responsible collectors in the same way we need to nurture a new generation of artists.
What do you wish was in place to encourage more young black women and men to make a career of art?
AS: As an art educator for ten years, I’ve watched the rapid depletion of resources and a belief in the power of the arts in the school system. We need to increase mentoring programs to pair young people with professional artists, educate young people about diverse job opportunities in the arts while they are still in their formative years and as a society, begin to change our mentality by regarding the arts as a career and not simply a “hobby.”
LR: Schools need to quit filtering mass amounts of people who want to be artists through the academic learning complex, requiring them to take on huge amounts of debt, have them marinate for three or four years with the delusion of formal training in their craft but receive no business skills, and then, irresponsibly ejecting them out into the world with the fantasy that with a hope and a dream one can just “become” an artist magically. More and more the successful contemporary artist today is one who understands the larger industry and their role within it as business people. Artists need to adapt to the fact that business is a part of survival, and a language they have to wrestle with, and learn.
What young artist(s) do you want to shine a light on so others know about their work?
KF: One of my favorite young artists painting right now is a street artist—Nosego.
AS: Sam Vernon. She’s currently pursuing her MFA at Yale. In her recent exhibition, Sam transformed the gallery into an otherworldy, unnerving space through the use of red lights, a wall installation and a processional of transparent cubes. Her work is incredibly innovative and unlike anything that I’ve ever seen.
Lastly, after a year so tragically marred by systemic racism and violence it spawned a national conversation about race in America, how does politics inform your work? Is your work social commentary, or a personal statement?
KF: My work is made out of compulsion not as a soapbox to push an agenda. Regardless of whether anyone sees the work, I’ll continue to make it. My work has always been about exploring the possibility of worlds that don’t yet exist. I‘ve always thought of my work as an allegory speaking to culture holding strong in a decaying world. All sociopolitical commentary created by my work is incidental and a byproduct of subcultures that moved me.
AS: I create work in an intuitive manner in which the images come to mind first and I work backwards, analyzing and dissecting them once they are complete. The work I make emerges from a very personal place in which all of these fragments come together to create who I am.
LR: In his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin stresses the importance of the utilitarian nature of creative practice in times of crisis as a tool “for the formulation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art.“ We’re in crisis. Art needs to answer to that.
Answers have been edited and condensed from the original for clarity. This is the fourth and final piece in our Black History Month series on black artists. See last week’s interview with Kehinde Wiley.