The following selection of essays and a recent public talk cover a range of people, issues, and time periods in art, visual culture, the academy and American life that compelled me to write and others to publish my writing, and/or provide a stage to publically speak my thoughts.
Sonya Clark: A Body of Knowledge
During the sixth month of the first year of this second decade of the twenty first century, the artist Sonya Clark traveled to Charlotte, North Carolina to work as a Knight Artist-in-Residence at McColl Center for Visual Art. Coincidentally, nearly one hundred years before Clark’s arrival, the transformative twentieth century Tar Heel artist Romare Howard Bearden was born in the Queen city. As Bearden did before her, Sonya Clark skillfully defies an assortment of conventions that anchor viewer expectations of contemporary visual art, and decisively invalidates the overworked art-versus-craft debate with each exploration she makes.
Signature elements of her approach are present in this group of work conceived at the Center; the use of visual and verbal puns, allusions to personal, historical, social and phenomena, the disruption of social myths, abstraction and description of material forms and the well-designed elevation, animation and thoughtful merger of commonplace objects with complex ideas. An essential element of her practice are her scholarly references to the sublime and extraordinary chapters of the human story through the social, historical, cultural, and aesthetic lives of African, Caribbean and African American people and their diverse and complex social patterns in the Diaspora. Additionally her work continues to explore the familiar issues of tactility, form and aesthetics in the matter of hair and the human head.
In this recent body of work, Sonya Clark continues to pursue an assortment of questions that represent the conceptual point of departure for her practice in fiber art for the last decade—while avoiding the dead-end of stylistic and formal redundancy. She defines fiber art as the “manipulation of a fiber towards an aesthetic or functional end.”(I) It is this definition of fiber art that provides the foundation for a set of questions Clark poses about a group of ordinary raw materials—hair, textiles and combs. How can hair become a textile? How can textiles become hair? How can a comb become a textile? These questions are organizing principals that have become a renewable resource of invention, reinvention and pleasure for the artist—with the viewer as primary beneficiary of her inquiries. The cyclical return to these questions and the problems Sonya Clark creates through them are obscured by the infinite variety of the works themselves.
The contextual inspiration for the works comes from the knowledge and wisdom she possesses through her identities as a woman, daughter, sister, aunt, wife, artist and professor of art as well as a citizen of Jamaican, Scottish, Trinidadian-American descent. Moreover, Sonya Clark has merged conventional tools and technologies commonly associated with her practice in fiber art to include contemporary image making tools such as digital video and photography.
In a number of the works conceived during her residency at the Center, Sonya Clark draws upon a dynamic constellation of intersecting local, national, social, political, and historical threads. The city of Charlotte will be the site where the National Convention of the Democratic Party will convene to re-nominate Barack Husain Obama, the first African American President of the United States, for a second term in August of 2012. Coincidentally, the year 2013 will mark the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s signing of The Emancipation Proclamation in Washington, D.C. (also the birthplace of the artist). While drawing upon these two milestones in the history of Charlotte and the United States, Sonya Clark deeply weaves the nuanced codes, concepts, and meanings of these events and other ideas well below the surface of their inventive qualities.
For example, in Mother’s Wisdom or Cotton Candy, the circular form of a white ball of human hair is photographed in a nest made of the artist’s hands. Not unlike the act of separating cotton bolls from its plant, this ball of hair is made from the white hair of the artist’s mother, meticulously separated from the darker strands of the collected hair. Mother’s Wisdom or Cotton Candy is a reference to both personal and social phenomena; the demands of managing the tension between the pre-adolescent outbursts of an aging parent at one extreme—and the anchor of their sagacious wisdom at the other. While white hair is viewed as the most undesirable sign of aging in our culture, the color white is a signifier for wisdom in the Yoruba cosmos—especially the white hair of an elder. The title of the work also references The Triangle Trade of human beings bought and sold between the continent of Africa, the Caribbean and the Americas which sent millions of Africans and their descendants into what historian Kenneth Stampp called “the peculiar institution” (II) of chattel slavery in the United States. Mother’s Wisdom or Cotton Candy also refers to sugar—the cash crop of the Caribbean—grown in rows that would reflexively morph into a hairstyle called “Cane Rows” by slave women in the Anglophone Caribbean and “Corn Rows” in the United States. Meaning in Mother’s Wisdom or Cotton Candy is made through Clark’s interest in the loop formed by the literal DNA of the artist’s mother contained in the hair pictured in her own hands—which refers to a hairstyle referring to a cash crop referencing the institution of slavery—which accounts for the presence of both mother and daughter in the United States.
Within this hybrid work, the national amnesia and denial about the contradictions between the practice of chattel slavery (which continued through the middle of the twentieth century) in a nation based on the principals of equality and freedom, is referenced through a minimal approach to technique, form and presentation. Similarly, Braille Emancipation creates a tension through a clever representation of one of the first legal documents in the United States referring to Black people as human beings—but through a language of touch whose form as a two dimensional digital photograph denies viewers the ability to touch what could be viewed as surrogate Black bodies in the form of hairballs.
The untouchable content of the work also references the artist’s personal experience with random white people who touch or attempt to touch her own hair without permission. This behavior has become an all too common experience for African American women with heat and chemically untreated hair—hair that is at-once regarded as ravishing and repulsive. The choice of Braille as the graphic motif for this work could be read as a reference to the blindness of the nation in the matter of what law professor Patricia Williams has termed “the alchemy of race and rights.”(III) At the same time, unlike the tense and contentious twenty first century relationship between the overwhelmingly disadvantaged dark-skinned descendants of nineteenth and twentieth century chattel slavery, and the overwhelmingly advantaged white-skinned benefactors of that unpaid labor in the United States—none of this tension or contention are apparent on the surface of Braille Emancipation. However, the subject of the first African American President and the white supremacist underpinnings of the United States that the Emancipation Proclamation allude to are commonly marginalized as subjective, angry or ‘political’ work produced at the expense of “art” in the view of many scholars, collectors and artists—especially when produced by an artist of African descent. But work of this nature is not political art—rather—it is social.
Consider if you will the ‘politics’ of the artist who uncritically seeks commodification and deification of their work through an exclusive, network of privatized power and appraisal managed by market and investor-driven interests. Conversely, to be social as an artist is to pursue a courageous, creative, colloquial and public engagement between the artist, the work and the viewer, but neither at the expense of technical, conceptual or formal rigor—nor professional achievement or economic prosperity.
In works like Afro Abe, Triangle Trade, CJ Walker, Penny Portrait, and Counting Change II, Sonya Clark employs a grand social agenda designed to draw the viewer beyond the tension that could possibly be triggered by the challenging issues that are at the origins of the work through their multiple entry points of craft, form and yes—beauty. The result is work attracting multiple audiences through an intelligent balancing act—merging a potentially repellant complexity with subversive simplicity.
What the work of Sonya Clark represents through this expression of her powers is a significant body of knowledge drawn from an exceptional academic foundation and an unlimited stream of grand parents, great and great-great grandparents and extended kin—some of who were crafts persons as chattel in the nineteenth century. Through her work we are obliged to recall that the assorted technologies her ancestors mastered were valued long before their humanity as Africans in the Americas and the Caribbean. It is the creative, technological and spiritual legacy of these millions of men and women who inspire Sonya Clark to embrace her identity as a craft artist—one authentically obsessed (IV) with bringing meaning to the “manipulation of a fiber towards an aesthetic or functional end. (V)”
Catalog essay commissioned by the McColl Center for Visual Art
for the exhibition Converge January 27 - March 24, 2012
I - Interview with Sonya Clark, September 21, 2011
II - Stammp, Kenneth, The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Anti-Bellum South
Vintage Publishing, December 17, 1989
III - Williams, Patricia J., The Alchemy of Race and Rights: Diary of A Law Professor
Harvard University Press, March 3, 1992
IV - “But the art or the experience of becoming a writer, I think, is not learning to
throw out your authentic obsession. It’s learning to recognize that your authentic obsession--which most of the time people don’t want you to write, about because it’s embarrassing in some way--that your authentic obsession is your real material.
Adam Gopnik from an interview with Charlie Rose on the death of J.D. Salinger.
February 1, 2010 referenced by the artist during my interview with her.
V - Interview with Sonya Clark, September 21, 2011
"The Inauguration: From the Fist Pump to the Bump:
Expanding the Rhetorical, Visual, and Conceptual Vocabulary of American Culture"
In musical composition and improvisation, interpolation occurs when a musical sentence is extended through the insertion of an additional phrase in the middle of a phrase. Both musically and rhetorically, interpolation was used in a number of ways during the Inauguration of President Barack Obama.
Diane Feinstein alluded to the 1963 March on Washington for Peace and Freedom and the speech
given by Martin Luther King during her opening remarks when she said;
“They will look back and remember that this was the moment when the dream that once echoed across history, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial finally reached the walls of the White House.”
Aretha Franklin, an American singer beyond market categories and descriptions artfully employed interpolation when she too sampled a section of Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech in her rendition of America.
“Let freedom ring. “Let it rin from the red hills of Georgia, let it ring.”
The original and unexpectedly jazz inflected composition by John Williams “Air & Simple Gifts” inserted the classic symphonic work of Aaron Copland in the middle of an open and yes—airy (very cold air) conversation between piano, violin, viola, and clarinet.
But the most controversial use of rhetorical interpolation occurred when the Rev. Joseph Lowery opened his benediction sampling James Weldon Johnson’s Lift Every Voice & Sing (the Negro National Anthem) and invoked lyrics from Big Bill Broonzy’s 1952 blues classic, Black, Brown, and White Blues to close it.
“ Lord in the memory of all the saints, who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day, when black will not be asked to get back; when brown can stick around; when yellow will be mellow; when the red man can get ahead man; and when white will embrace what is right.”
It was the Boston abolitionist and Unitarian minister Theodore Parker who wrote in 1853 that the arc
of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. In the conclusion of his benediction, Reverend Lowery’s reminds us that the path of that arc is often marked by injustice of the color-conscious kind. Lowery reminded us that most discrimination in America is about skin color—Black, Brown, Yellow, Red—and White. In the midst of the ultimate Kumbya moment that was the inauguration, Reverend Lowery reminded us that being ‘colored’ in America can be privilege for some and predicament for others.
While the election and Inauguration of Barack Obama represents a post-racial America the minds of some people, Reverend Lowery wants us to remember that in the moral universe that led to the election of Barack Obama on November 4, 2008, gun sales increased on November 5, and a number of white supremacist websites crashed in response. Death threats on the President-Elect increased. And two months later GM built and delivered a Presidential limousine that is unprecedented in amount of armor and security features to protect the first African American President—“Oh’ say can you see?”
The offense taken by many Americans over Lowery’s remarks reveals once again how segregated the vocabulary of American culture is. Lowery’s interpolation of Big Bill Broonzy’s lyrics represent one of the ways that the campaign, Inauguration, the administration, family and friends of Barack Obama has and will continue to expand and desegregate the visual, rhetorical, and conceptual vocabulary of American culture and discourse, from the fist pump to the bump—and all-ways in between.
At the Neighborhood Ball on Tuesday night, 14-year-old Victoria Lucas challenged Obama to do
"The Bump" with her. As the elated 9th grader told People Magazine the next day:
"He was just a very smooth, cool, laidback dancer. He was just like a normal person," assessed Lucas. "You would never think this dude earlier today was sworn in as our next president.” He’s just a good
all-American dancer. I hope I find a boy like that.”
Perhaps the most ironic moment of the transfer of power occurred out of public view. On January 23,
The Huffington Report—reported that Eric Draper, chief White House photographer for outgoing President Bush “received an unexpected farewell gesture from No.43 earlier this week.
“I made a photo of the president walking out, seeing Midland, Texas, for the first time as an ex-president. Midland wasn't the last stop. We went to an event in Waco, where we said our goodbyes
and he left for the ranch. Aboard the plane to Waco, he asked me what I was doing ... Then he said,
"Let's keep in touch.'' Instead of a handshake, he gave me a fist bump. That's how it ended.”
The men of my own stock,
Bitter bad they may be,
But, at least, they hear the things I hear,
And see the things I see;
And whatever I think of them and their likes
They think of the likes of me
From “The Stranger” by Rudyard Kipling
- Sandra Sobieraj Westfall and Stephen M. Silverman
“9th grader booty bumps with new Prez”
People Magazine January 21 2009
Remarks written for The Crits: Parsons Faculty on the Obama Inauguration
Presented by The Vera List Center for Art & Politics
The New School
Thursday, January 27, 2009
"And It’s Deep Too!"
In the work of Willie Little, the viewer, listener, and participant of his environments,
paintings, and assemblages, has been presented with a wide range of experiences,
observations, and insights from this skilled, spirit-driven artist, storyteller, editorialist,
and native son of the American south.
For the past ten years, nationally and internationally, Willie Little has combined his
formative experiences as the son of a grocery store owner and bootlegger from the
Pactolus Township, near Washington, NC, with his academic training in art to make work
that explores the humanity of the people he has lived with, and what he calls a
The work of Willie Little has also critiqued our national naiveté and ignorance concerning
the impact of slavery and the plantation system on American life and its people, the
Euro-Western ideal of physical beauty, and the continued lack of candor concerning the
systemic corporal and economic policies currently affecting African Americans—what
the late great American satirist Richard Pryor once called “Just us.” justice.
Much like Pryor, who’s beloved character Mudbone critiqued the absurdity of American
racism and the nihilism of Black self-hatred it produced, citizen Little in the role of artist,
a role that he has said “chose me,” has unapologetically taken on these complex, confusing
issues to not only provide a narrative account of extraordinary events among ordinary people,
but also assumes the voice of each character in the tales he tells through his extraordinary
But it was the cinematic version of Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple and its depiction
of rural Black life that would mirror his own life and inspire Willie Little to embrace his once
shame-producing country upbringing and shamelessly create work based on the richness
of that culture and its people and his detailed recollection of those people and times.
In his seminal and critically celebrated installation titled Juke Joint, Little literally staged
scenes from his rural past in meticulous detail, complete with diverse and complex
characters embellished by a sound environment. In the process, Willie Little also reactivates
aged, “distressed” and discarded objects of southern material culture that have literally come
to him through the grace of ancestral prop masters whenever he’s needed them for his
productions. Additionally, music and regionally-specific spoken words and patois play a
significant role in Little’s process of memory and autobiography.
In fact, I believe that somewhere in Little’s studio, there is an AM radio that regularly transports
him to the late 1960s to station WROQ in Williamston, North Carolina where disc jockey Little Willie
(no relation) and his SOUL Patrol" still plays the music of Motown, Percy Sledge, Betty Wright, Millie Jackson, Candi Staton and James Brown. On this ultimate oldies station, Little can still hear the commercials for Johnson’s Blow Out Hair Care Kit, Carolina Rice, Ambi Fade Cream, and local
Black-owned businesses like faith healers and advisors Madam Rose and Madame Lorraine,
Phillip Brothers Mortuary, and Greenville’s legendary Bump House Night, when Black consumer
dollars regularly passed through the hands of Black businesses like Little’s Grocery.
Through the content of these re-created environments, the stigmata and “curse” of black skin,
kinky hair, and being rural, hardworking, hard drinking, life-loving, earth-moving, planting,
harvesting people of African descent are invalidated. Through Little’s work “those people”
become affirmed, embraced and lifted from the profane to the sacred, and acknowledged
as essential members of a shared single humanity.
In In Mixed Company, Little’s approach is formally more minimal, yet more layered in concept,
craft, and critical concerns. In this work, the possibilities for meaning and the demands on the
viewer increase as Little draws upon the roots of minstrelsy, racial mythology, social Darwinism,
sound, music, theatre, satire, and his trademark humor. In Mixed Company is a deceptive nest of complexity and contradiction that reveal another side of the artist who’s aforementioned works
are much more theatrical.
However, the formal elements of this installation provide a background to the foreground that is the sound environment of the piece. In Mixed Company is rooted in the content of private conversations between people who remain imprisoned by 19th century notions of superior whiteness and inferior Blackness in the 21st century. As Little states, “The visitor has the opportunity to eavesdrop on
“privileged conversations” that may have transpired in the “front room,” dining room, between friends
and even on schoolyards.”
The true brilliance of In Mixed Company lies in its irony. As the many recent public statements made by celebrity figures over the last year reminds us, the social codes of civility, discretion, and shame that In Mixed Company seeks to recall and represent are woefully absent from too many public and private relations across lines of race.
From the minds and through the mouths of comedians, entertainers, radio commentators, and even a Nobel Prize winner, we have heard expressions, opinions, and analysis (at times using the most racially offensive word of the American English language), that would, in another time, be associated with people characterized as racial extremists. As if recovering from an out-of-body experience, these people in their public statements of apology often stress their love and respect for African American people and our contributions (like music), cite Black friends, and how in private they know better and do better and have no idea why they said such horrible things in public. Concurrently we have the phenomenon of young black men and women in the entertainment industry (and on the streets) gratuitously broadcasting the very same word with digitalized percussion and rhythm in the name of art, commerce, resistance, and—freedom.
It is this perfect storm of our complex and contradictory racial relations in public and private that makes In Mixed Company an important work, and reminds us that color-blind platitudes and color-conscious behavior stubbornly characterize the current American Dilemma that Gunner Myrdal wrote about in 1944. Through a sincere commitment to socially and aesthetically engaged art making, Willie Little continues his critique of America’s dilemma and his growth as an artist through an engaging wit and conceptual eloquence.
Essay commissioned in 2008 by The Levine Museum of The New South Charlotte, North Carolina
for the exhibition In Mixed Company by Willie Little
"The Contest of Privilege"
"I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was “meant” to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, assurances, tools, maps, guides, codebooks, passports, visas, clothes, compass, emergency gear, and blank checks".
“On the Invisibility of Privilege” by Peggy McIntosh
The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography is a seminal text for anyone considering serious contemporary writing on American photography. In his introduction, editor Richard Bolton includes a thoughtful note to his assessment of the collected essays:
"This collection is intended to be provocative rather than exhaustive, and issues and writers that have
not been represented will no doubt occur to the reader. There are, for example, no essays on the representation of race. This should be an important part of the argument developed here, but this
issue has yet to receive sufficient attention within photography’s critical community."
As Bolton’s critique in The Contest of Meaning and the decade of photographic criticism that followed indicate, the majority of photographic critics, scholars, curators, and artists frequently evades the subject of race and photography in ways that can only be described as negrophobic. To date, Picturing Us: African American Identity in Photography (1994), a collection of essays edited by Deborah Willis, is the single critical text on photography and race that approaches the subject with intelligence, depth, and theoretical diversity.
My experiences have shown that despite the essential role of race in the United States, the majority of artists, critics, historians, and professors of photography deny, ignore, or underestimate the reality and complexity of race in American life in general and in visual culture specifically. Too often, their positions on race have been based on philosophy and personal opinion, as opposed to serious research that includes scholarship produced by a broad range of African-American perspectives across lines of discipline. While photography is essentially interdisciplinary in practice, theory, and effect, the history of photography and art, queer theory, feminism, formalism, modernism, postmodernism, structuralism, literary criticism, post-structuralism, media studies, science, and technology remain the primary legitimated frameworks for contemporary photographic criticism and production within most cultures of photographic education.
In the decade following the publication of The Contest of Meaning in 1989, there was a surge of conservative public policy figures such as Dinesh D'Souza (The End of Racism, 1996) proclaiming the insignificance of race in American life at one extreme, and social scientists on the other such as Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray, authors of The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (1996), rekindling yet another period of pseudo-science claiming the essential intellectual inferiority of African Americans. In many ways, the tone and quality of American racial discourse during this time were flavored by these extreme theoretical and public policy positions, many of which were developed in the academy. In this essay, I attribute the scarcity of race in photographic criticism beyond The Contest of Meaning to the culture of photographic education specifically and to the academy in general.
In 1990, as a graduate student in photography, I was member of a captive audience to discussions and analysis of contemporary photography and photographic history that considered the work and ideas of artists, historians, and critics. Many of the artists we discussed were women, gay, transgendered, Latin American, Eastern and Western European, and Japanese. The dominant discussion, however, focused upon artists who were white, American, and male. Beyond a few names mentioned over the course of two years of graduate study, there was no serious consideration of how African-American artists, historians, cultural critics, or the average Black man, woman, or child regarded the photograph—or the politics of race and the photograph in general. I was often the only voice introducing the component of race to the discussion of photography in seminar discussions and studio critiques, often in the company of uninterested, if not hostile white colleagues. After repeatedly exposing this imbalance to my classmates and instructors, I was offered an unexpected and sobering challenge by two of my professors. I was charged to appreciate the fact that I had the opportunity and the responsibility to fill the intellectual void that I identified in the academy and in contemporary photographic discourse. This was, in their view, because my white colleagues could not and would not do it.
The average African-American graduate student in photography is not usually granted this response when confronting the unconscious intellectual racism of the academy. The usual response to the critique of racism by Black students in M.F.A. programs is usually more traumatizing. Commonly, these students are forced, through either outright attacks and/or abandonment by faculty and students, to forsake their critique and the scholarship and common sense that support it. In the face of such intimidation, many Black students, in order to survive the politics of a graduate program and graduate with a degree, become an imitation of their fellow students and professors in their work, speech, personal appearance, and aesthetic values. Why is it so difficult for photography’s predominantly white critical community to address the issue of race? The answer first requires a broader examination of American racial discourse.
Social anthropologist Ruth Frankenburg, author of White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness, contends that contemporary discourse concerning race on the part of white Americans and privileged minorities is dominated by “the language of color and power evasion,” a discourse based on color-blindness and the myth of meritocracy. Frankenburg identifies a critical part of the equation. The analysis of race in American society generally avoids the role that the absence of dark skin color plays in the structural advantages granted to the majority of white Americans or to many minorities privileged by lighter skin—whether they want those privileges or not.
With the notable exception of African-American athletes and entertainers, few identifiably “Black” Americans, regardless of their class position or economic advantage, attain the invisible status of honorary whiteness. These are the Black people who can not hail taxis, purchase luxury items or real estate, shop retail, drive their cars, or receive a college education without harassment. Whether unemployed and homeless or armed with advanced degrees and unlimited lines of credit, these sons and daughters of Ham are unable to “pass” and disguise the constructed curse of Blackness under the cover of class status, acceptable ethnicity, or income. As the shooting of African immigrant Amadou Diallo by members of the New York City Police and their subsequent acquittal by a jury trial illustrates, Black people remain the primary and most public targets of discrimination in this country. While the bias is not expressed violently, the culture industry is not immune to this.
The appearance of African Americans in photographs, produced and distributed for public consumption in this country and exported globally, has played a major role in fostering a false sense of knowledge of the African in America, and very often a sense of fear of them as well. Consequently, most Americans, regardless of their region, race, class, gender, or ethnicity, have sadly limited ideas of who African Americans are and what we can be. The daily parade of images presenting African Americans as alternately entertaining, athletic, criminal, sexual, sinful, or saintly has rarely been challenged in either the national or global imagination, least of all by professors, historians, and critics of photography in the academy. When Black artists, working out of African-American aesthetic traditions, experience, and philosophy, use photography to “picture us” and complicate Black identities in ways that challenge and disrupt so-called negative and positive stereotypes of Blackness, the work is often marginalized and critically regarded as exercises in “identity politics” without artistic merit. The racial bias of such appraisals is often expressed in oblique, genteel terms wrapped in the prosaic yet authoritative language of the art historian. In American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America, critic Robert Hughes presents readers with an example of this intellectual gatekeeping:
"Identity is one main channel of American cultural anxiety today. (The other is a sense of mediocrity, which “anti-elitist” postures will not alleviate.)… Identity says nothing about deep esthetic ordering; such ordering is conscious and existential, and identity is an accident. The multicultural society is certainly an end in itself, in terms of ethical tolerance for others. However, multiculti guarantees absolutely nothing about the merits—the quality, to use a much-disparaged word—of the writing, painting, music, and architecture made in it."
In another recent survey text, American Photography: A Century of Images, co-author and New York Times photography critic Vicki Goldberg, in discussing what she terms “the new ethnic (self-) representation,” writes a cautionary note to African-American and Latino photographers who choose to “limit” themselves to Black and Latino subjects. She writes,
“Minority photographers can find themselves in photographic ghettos when they are asked to specialize in photographing their own group whether that is their primary interest or not.”
The general assumption is that most contemporary white artists are never negotiating identity or race in their work, only art. At the same time, when Black Americans are the subjects of white artists, something else happens. Through a combination of oftentimes unqualified access to the gatekeepers of art, exhibitions, publishing, publicity media, and the imprimatur of white privilege, the work is anointed as culturally vital, and the artists and the work are often exclusively recognized by critics, collectors, and journalists as the preeminent visual interpreters of African-American culture. The critical attention given to the work of white photographers such as Brian Lanker (I Dream a World, 1989), Keith Carter (Mojo, 1992), Eugene Richards (Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue, 1994), and David Levinthal (Blackface, 1999) are prominent examples of this evaluative double standard. At the same time, because the body of whiteness functions as an invisible racial category representing humanity, white artists escape being professionally “ghettoized” for working “exclusively” with “white” subject matter.
In the privileged space of the academy, the evaluation of images across race and class, in the name of personal expression, corporate communication, and/or information, is generally devoid of complexity and a comprehension of racial signifiers and tropes when read by most white artists, historians, and critics of photography. Part of the problem is that most white Americans do not identify themselves or the United States as “raced” and frequently proclaim their colorblindness when looking at non-white people. American photographic criticism, with few exceptions, has been generally consistent in its blindness to the scholarship of African Americans, and others in African-American studies specifically, whose work fundamentally influences the evaluation of American society and more particularly images produced by and about African Americans.
Works by Black scholars such as legal scholar Patricia J. Williams, cultural critic, bell hooks, social historians Robin D.G. Kelley and Noliwe M. Rooks, and American art historians Richard J. Powell and Sharon F. Patton, have no less validity in affecting the way we read images than have, for example, gender studies and French literary criticism over the last ten years. The introduction of whiteness studies by Ruth Frankenburg, Andrew Hacker, and David Roediger, has also had little to no impact upon the way that race and whiteness in American photography are discussed by the majority of students, scholars, critics, and curators in American photography since The Contest of Meaning. The absence of this scholarship in most contemporary photographic discourse is evidence of what I describe as a contest of privilege within photographic education.
A compelling illustration of this contest occurred over the course of a campus interview I had as a finalist for a tenure-track position at a major American art school. At that point in my career, I had established myself on regional and national levels as an emerging artist, writer, and educator. My visual work attracted critical attention through solo and group exhibitions, publication of my work in exhibition catalogues and anthologies, as well as my first monograph. As a cultural critic, my published reviews and essays concentrated on photography, film, and video produced by and/or about African Americans. Most of my writing was an ongoing critique of the representation of race in American art and media. I presumed that my work had garnered the respect and positive attention of the search committee. I looked forward to meeting them, along with the students and members of the faculty and administration.
The evening before my presentation to students, faculty, and administrators, I was invited to have dinner with a few members of the search committee and a faculty member in the photography department. In this school, there were only two full-time African-American professors of art. I would eventually learn that the search was specifically directed at racially diversifying the faculty and was told by the search committee chair, “We really don’t need another faculty member in the department. We do need someone to shake the place up.” I was the first of the campus interviews and one of three finalists who amounted to a smorgasbord of “difference.” One candidate was Asian, another Native American, and I was the representative Black candidate. The dinner progressed through the normal cycle of exchanging information until one of the committee members suddenly shifted the flow of conversation by commenting, “I think that to be fair to Mr. Gaskins, as well as to the other candidates, we should
discuss the events of the past two weeks here. I, for one, would be interested in his response.”
The events she referred to involved a group of senior painting students who, without understanding the implications of their choice, selected an image of a Black “mammy” to announce a reception for their year-end exhibition. The committee member who raised the issue at dinner was an African-American woman. She also happened to be the lone full-time Black faculty member in the painting department, one of three African Americans teaching in the entire school. Subsequent to her bringing the racist implications of the announcement to the attention of the department chair, the department of student life withdrew its customary offering of wine and cheese, which led to the postponement of the opening reception pending an investigation. On the recommendation of this faculty member, the students were required to view a screening of Marlon Riggs’ Ethnic Notions (1990), a film on the relationship between racial stereotyping and visual images in America, followed by a discussion. The chairperson agreed, and the screening took place.
The students, agitated because of the decision to postpone the opening reception, felt that being made to watch the film amounted to declaring them racists. Without addressing the issues raised in the film, the students asserted that their First Amendment right to free expression was being violated. In their view, this was the issue, not racism. Thus, in subtle ways, the female Black professor was regarded as the problem in this situation. It was decided that a closing reception for the exhibition by the painting students would take place. Another flyer for the reception was made with the usual perfunctory information about time, date, place, and nature of the event. But this time, another racially charged statement was added as a trailer:
“Fried chicken and watermelon will be served. Racists don’t get to have their wine and cheese.”
I was then asked to respond to the story. Momentarily stunned by the details, I collected myself and began by telling them that I did not think that the students involved were necessarily a group of card-carrying racists. I felt that a major part of the problem was the fundamental contradiction of teaching students to become responsible makers of images without teaching them to be responsible viewers of images. There were no required courses in the photography department on photography and race. There were no required courses in African-American studies. “Given what you’ve just told me, the absence of a required course in race and representation in this school cannot continue,”
I said. This, I felt, was not only a requirement for addressing the problem that these students exposed, but a requirement for the liberal arts education of all students being trained in art and photography in this country regardless of their race. I also shared with the committee the opinion that the school needed to consult with experts in the areas of race and resistance to institutional change. No one would think of planning a technology initiative without consulting experts. If the institution were truly interested in solving the problem, it would have to acknowledge its lack of experience and skills and make the same commitment to seeking appropriate expertise. I offered names of people who had the tools and experience that the school needed.
The following day, I gave my talk. With the exception of the two Black search committee members and a few Latino students in the room, I was looking at the usual sea of white faces one finds in an art school. A question-and-answer period followed. It did not take long for the actions of the painting students to come up, and the students wanted to know my opinion. I explained the fundamental problem of being in a school where training in art did not include critical discussions of class, gender, and race through required classes in the humanities. I offered my credentials and experience in writing and teaching in this area and made it clear that I would want to teach a course exploring these issues and their impact on the production and viewing of images. Other questions ranged from art to my teaching. Then one of the Latino students unsettled the room by stating, “I believe that you could bring a lot to us if you came here. But I want you to address many of the students in this room who feel that hiring you would be a form of reverse discrimination.”
Apparently, I was not the only one in the school besides the committee and administration who knew that the search was nakedly a “diversity” hire and that the search and the candidates were a topic of discussion among the student body. I addressed the comment in a manner that expanded the question of affirmative action beyond the search and the school. “We live in a society that has no problem paying Black men millions of dollars per year to play basketball. At the same time, I don’t hear anyone privately or publicly complain that there are too many Black basketball players. At the same time, there are propositions, protests, and debates over paying a relative handful of qualified Black men and women fifty or sixty thousand dollars to be professors of art, history, or science. What’s wrong with this picture?” Continuing, I said, “I see a contradiction in this tension over Blacks in the academy which says to me that too many people in this country are more comfortable with Black people who entertain and more uncomfortable with Black people who enlighten and challenge minds. Much of this opposition is coming from colleges and universities where there is an overwhelming white majority proclaiming the declining significance of race. It’s the inconsistency of this contradiction that is the real issue in my view.”
When the question-and-answer period ended, more than a few students approached me. Most thanked me for my clarity, sincerity, and candor in answering their questions. One student, shaking my hand, told me that he looked forward to seeing me in the fall. I was not so certain.
In my meetings with the President and the Dean and in my interview with the search committee, I was consistent and insistent in my appeal to realize the need to challenge students and faculty through required coursework in the area of race and visual representation. During the final interview with the committee, the Dean of Faculty asked me an unusual question, “What do you fear most about coming to our school?” My fear, I answered, was that the school would only contain the problems exposed by the painting students as opposed to solving them. My other fear was that the administration would not be sensitive to the potential of separate and unequal experiences I would have with students faculty, and staff, and to the invisible load I would bear as a Black assistant professor hired under the stigma of a so-called “diversity” hire. There were adjunct faculty members in the department who more than likely would have a problem with a full-time, tenure-track position being offered to an exclusive pool of non-white applicants. During dinner that night, one of the two Black committee members asked me the most important question I heard that day, “Are you sure you want to come here?”
Three months later, I received a letter that one of the other finalists—someone I knew, in fact—was chosen for the position. Consistent with the politics of continuity that govern most diversity initiatives of this kind, “diversity” in this case meant difference in physical appearance, not in thinking. As I recall, the countenance, politics, and point-of-view of the chosen finalist clearly made that person the preferred junior member in the view of the faculty. I remember the person as someone who would not disrupt the social dynamics of the department or ever be charged with disturbing the peace through a discourse on race or a critique of whiteness. Given my experience of the school and its culture, I had to agree.
This story illustrates the contest of privilege taking place daily among the various cultures of photographic education, history, and criticism in America. I see a contest over, among other things, the unalienable right to censor and omit what many regard as an alien and unwelcome African-American presence. This contest may be invisible to most readers of this essay. It is, however, fortified by decades of equally invisible cultural and intellectual bias, too often disguised as knowledge, aesthetics, taste, professional opinion, academic freedom, and the standards of an unregulated industry called culture. At work here is a sophisticated brand of discrimination obscured by personal and elastic standards of quality that manage, by extension, an invisible quota system. This system, I would thus contend, privileges a small group of African-American artists at the highest levels of American art photography—and no more than that.
The biographical sketches at the end of The Contest of Meaning cite the professional affiliations of each contributor. Most are associated with art schools or university departments of art and art history. For the most part, these schools maintain their historical identities as exclusive, privileged, predominantly white, socially conservative, private and public institutions. From my vantage points as a past student and a present professor, I view the art school as a socially predetermined cocoon, segregated by race and class and particularly resistant to efforts to change its intellectual complexion. Through their coursework and faculty, the programs and departments of photography within most American colleges, universities, and schools of art maintain the neglect of race in American photographic criticism that Richard Bolton incisively identified in 1989. Since its entrance into the academy, photographic education has failed in its resistance to examine and critique, as a required component of the curriculum, what historian George M. Fredrickson has called the “Black image in the white mind.” In the matter of race and visual representation, it is important to understand that the white mind, in this instance, is not restricted to white people.
An examination of current course offerings from departments of photography in major American schools of art, such as the School of the Art Institute of Chicago; California Institute of the Arts; Rhode Island School of Design; Maryland Institute, College of Art; and Yale University, show no required courses in race and representation. For example, the Master of Fine Arts program at New York’s School of Visual Arts, considered one of the leading graduate programs in photography, has a required reading list for applicants. While the list covers a range of disciplines within and beyond photography, not one title listed is authored by an African American.
I can choose to ignore developments in minority writing and minority activist programs, or disparage them, or learn from them, but in any case, I can find ways to be more or less protected from negative consequences of any of these choices.
We are both spectators and producers in an age of photographs. Images are not innocent documents marked, as they have always been, consciously and unconsciously by racial codes. Consequently, teaching students in and out of photography to read the tropes and signifiers of race can, I believe, provide them with the agency to challenge the limited concepts of whiteness and blackness that reside in the global imagination and in everyday life. Ideally, this group of students will develop into the next generation of professors, curators, historians, and critics and consequently dismantle the racially biased enterprise of American photography.
This transformation will depend upon bold curricular initiatives that include required coursework in race and visual representation and the emergence of leaders within photographic education who have the courage to correct what Martin Luther King, Jr. described as a “moral astigmatism” managing their blindness to the structure of white privilege in general and the ways that privilege is exercised in contemporary American photography and photographic criticism.
Having described this, what will each of us do to lessen this imbalance of power and privilege? Will we choose to use any of our arbitrarily awarded power to try and reconstruct power systems?
The issue here is not simply expanding the job opportunities of Black artists or the book sales of African-American artists and scholars. The overwhelming majority of white students are negatively affected by race- and class-based homogeneity in the academy. In fact, my mandate as a professor came from the predominately white students I taught as a graduate student in photography at Ohio State University. These were young adults who came into my classrooms for two years from farm towns named Reynoldsburg, Gahanna, and Lima. For many of them, I was the first and perhaps the only Black professor they had at Ohio State. In pursuing a Master of Arts degree, I had no plans to teach beyond graduate school. It was those students who told me both indirectly and directly, “You are a teacher.”
It was those students who insisted that I consider staying in the academy as a professor. It was those students and their unexpected appeal to me to remain an artist in the academy who would change my mind, and consequently the path of my life.
While the culture of photography commits largely unconscious acts of white privilege that omit and censor a diverse and complex African-American presence, among others, there are also conscious expressions of that privilege by individuals who recognize their possession of it and seek to correct the imbalances such privilege creates. These are the individuals and institutions that perform abolitionist acts in the course of their professional, personal, and political lives. There are a number of people who have acted in such a manner with distinction, presenting alternative models for the production, evaluation, and advancement of contemporary photography, photographic education,
and education through photography within the American academy.
In 1972, a group of students and alumni of Syracuse University turned an abandoned campus space into a darkroom facility without departmental affiliation. The Community Darkrooms, as they were called, provided space to anyone in the university community and beyond for the purpose of printing black-and-white and color photographs, and slowly grew to include an exhibitions gallery. One year later,
Phil Block and Tom Bryan founded and incorporated Light Work. Seven years afterwards, Jeffrey Hoone assumed the position of director that he currently holds. One of Light Work’s central components is its collection of over 1700 images donated by artists who have participated in its residency program.
The curatorial vision of the collection has managed to avoid an exclusionary, elitist, market-driven connoisseurship. Hoone writes, “I kept this in mind when reviewing proposals for our Artist-In-Residence program, so the handwritten résumés listing cab driver as an occupation made a bigger impression than the neatly composed vitae of tenured professors. When an artist was doing something I didn’t understand, it offered up a better reason to check them out than to turn them away.”
Representing one of the most progressive centers of photography in the world, the goal of Hoone, his staff, and predecessors at Light Work has been to provide a space for producers and viewers to experience the ways that art can enrich their lives. Light Work has been most successful at the enterprise. This one program has provided countless numbers of artists—from the emerging to the eminent to the obscure—support, insight, challenges, affirmation, inspiration, and most of all a place for their vision.
In 1990, Cheryl Younger established the American Photography Institute’s National Graduate Seminar. For the past ten years, this unprecedented academic and social experiment has been supported by New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Each year, twenty graduate students in photography from different regions of the United States are invited to spend three weeks in intensive seminars driven by thematic topics presented by a diverse group of artists, scholars, curators, critics, and others in and out of the culture of American photography. The API Seminar is one of the most daring efforts in American photographic education, and each year, its participants are charged by Younger to accept responsibility for the future of photography and education in America.
In 1989, Catherine Tedford, began her tenure as Director of the Richard F. Brush Art Gallery at St. Lawrence University. In the curatorial mission that she implements with Collections Manager Carole Mathey, photographs at St Lawrence University have been identified not only as objects worthy of a serious collection, but as active teaching tools used in an interdisciplinary relationship with other instructors in a number of courses at their rural New York campus. Their efforts over the past decade will have an impact as lasting as this publication.
The photograph is the most democratic means of visual expression and representation in the world. Few academic and cultural institutions have been as committed as they to democratizing the production, evaluation, exhibition, and collection of contemporary photography, and for their uncommonly keen, conscious, and heterogeneous, spiritual, moral, and intellectual agendas. More importantly, they also offer academic cultures of photography challenging strategies for ending the contest of privilege within American photographic education, history, and criticism.
Selected writings by the author
Good and Bad Hair: Photographs by Bill Gaskins. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1997.
“Gaming at the Whitney,” New Art Examiner 22, no. 8 (April 1995): 28-31.
“Picturing Us: African-American Identity in Photography, ”New Art Examiner 23, no. 3 (November 1995): 49.
“Photography and the Myopia of Privilege,” Afterimage 22, no. 2 (September 1992): 15-16.
“Vertical Hold: Racial Politics and Network Television,” Afterimage 21, no. 6 (January 1995): 11-13.
“What’s Wrong with This Picture? Reviewing Basquiat,”New Art Examiner 24, no. 3 (October 1996):
Abramson, Jeffrey. “A Story the Jury Never Heard.” New York Times, 26 February 2000.
Fredrickson, George M. The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817-1914. Hanover, N.H.: Wesleyan University Press, 1971.
hooks, bell. Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston: South End Press, 1992.
Kelley, Robin D.G. Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class. New York: The Free Press, 1994.
Patton, Sharon F. African-American Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Powell, Richard J. Black Art and Culture in the 20th Century. London: Thames and Hudson, 1997.
Rooks, Noliwe M. Hair Raising: Beauty, Culture, and African American Women. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1996.
Williams, Patricia J. The Rooster’s Egg: On the Persistence of Prejudice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995.
Willis, Deborah. Picturing Us: African American Identity in Photography. New York: The New Press, 1994.
Peggy McIntosh,“On the Invisibility of Privilege,” Peacework (February 1991), 10.
RichardBolton, ed., The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography
(Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989), xvii.
Ruth Frankenburg, White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 15.
Robert Hughes, American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), 617, 618.
Vicki Goldberg and Robert Silberman, American Photography: A Century of Images (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1999), 210.
Jeffrey Hoone, “Many Hands: Light Work’s First 25 Years,” Contact Sheet (1997): 13.
Essay commissioned in 2000 by The Richard F. Brush Gallery of Art at St. Lawrence University for the publication Photographs at St Lawrence University