The idea for BURNAWAY originated from a front-porch conversation about the need for more dialogue about local art. Please welcome Christopher Hutchinson, today’s guest writer of Our Front Porch.
I visited the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center during the National Black Arts Festival last year, and when I surveyed Melvin Edwards’s exhibit Inside & Out, I was stunned. Really!? Is this supposed to be the most contemporary African American artist working in the Atlanta art scene? While I enjoyed the exhibit, I was disappointed that the most contemporary discussion you could have about Edwards’s work would be based on a concept that is over 60 years old—formal analysis circa 1950.
But, depending on your perspective, Edwards’s exhibit may indeed be viewed as radically advanced in comparison to the antiquated African American art often found at Hammonds House Museum. The art typically presented at Hammonds House continues to romanticize concepts crystallized in the Harlem Renaissance, which happened over 80 years ago. Nostalgia is being perpetuated, and a living, evolving culture is marginalized, bottled up, and packaged for sale. We’ve grown up on Good Times, but why are there still African American artists whose highest aspiration is becoming “The Black Picasso of the Ghetto”—stuck attempting to figure out synthetic cubism. Aaron Douglas figured it out a long time ago.
Discussing a work strictly in formal academic terms—line, color, form, composition, value—carries with it a conscious universal language that ends up being the editing of culture. The postcolonial dialogue concerning African American art is outdated and diluted. This problem is global and is also one of the major contributing factors for the archaic state of the Atlanta art scene. When will African American art enter into an avant-garde dialogue in step with current times, instead of always working in retrospect?
So much of contemporary art today is connected to contemporary philosophy—philosophies that are often French and theories of art that are constantly evolving, but deriving most of their power from Marcel Duchamp. In order to have a truly contemporary African American art dialogue, we have to be just as fluent in modern and contemporary black/African American philosophy, such as the writings of James Baldwin, Frantz Fanon, Fred Moten, and Stuart Hall.
Are Atlanta’s institutions of learning equipped with the resources for teaching students how to deconstruct African American art through the lens of these philosophies? Through my own experience as a Jamaican/American artist and professor of art at Atlanta Metropolitan College, and after receiving my MFA from Savannah College of Art and Design, these problems and questions are present in my own practice as well as teaching. Omission and inclusion into the history depends on whether we have an adequate vocabulary for critically analyzing African American art.
Postcolonialism envisions a mental space where people affected by colonialism may return to an original context of their own history, in one’s own language. Put plainly, postcolonialism takes the aspects that are important to a culture, from that culture’s perspective, and uses them to build that culture up.
The dialogue has made a little progress in America. Thelma Golden and the Studio Museum of Harlem, for example, has engaged in the dialogue by introducing some the most famous black/African American artists of late, one of the most notable being Kehinde Wiley. Wiley uses a Western visual narrative to portray the spectacle of hip-hop, the spectacle of blackness, in a romantic light.
Using hip-hop, slavery, and art history to point out the omission of Africans and African Americans from history is not actually postcolonialism. It just points out a redundancy: colonialism exists. Can we truly say that Kehinde Wiley is using his own language, or is he using the exotic nature of hip-hop and specific links to art history as an “in” to the contemporary art scene? Using the language of academia has been a decisive choice for African American artists. The African American artist’s conflict is “how do I edit my work just enough for it to be accepted into whatever institution?”
The nostalgic packaging of African American culture is not just restricted to exhibits at the Hammonds House Museum. I found the same ideals fused into Radcliffe Bailey’s exhibit at the High Museum. To its credit, it was a truly successful exhibition that received a great deal of acclaim and press. And overall it was beneficial to the Atlanta art scene. Nonetheless, with the exception of a few pieces such as Windward Coast and Cerebral Caverns, the exhibit was once again nostalgia at its finest. Baseball fields, guitars, music, and references to Satchel Paige were all packaged into large-scale memorabilia, again marginalizing the African American experience.
Charlene Teters is one artist that has embraced postcolonialism. She reclaims her Native American culture from a colonial aesthetic and returns to the ritual practices of her native tribe. She does not attempt to fit into the mold of a Western aesthetic or narrative. Teters could care less about the formal elements. She does not use a Western narrative to engage the viewer. Her intent is to destroy the exotic nostalgia present in Native American culture. As a result of her work, many “Indian” mascots and imitations of Native American culture have been eradicated.
My questions for BURNAWAY’s Front Porch:
What can be done to move past nostalgic blackness?
Does Atlanta have the power and resources to be at the helm of the postcolonial dialogue?
What cultural lexicon or lexicons are present now in Atlanta? How can art relate and incorporate these languages?
Please feel free to participate in the open comments underneath this article, or share it elsewhere and discuss informally with your friends. Talking in person counts!
Our Front Porch is a series inviting guest contributors to share thoughts on local art for open discussion with you, our readers./em>