The Artist and Politics: an obligatory coupling?

For the foreseeable future, the topics covered here will be interviews or crowdsourced topics.  This week’s topic was sourced from friend, colleague, and Durham-based acupuncturist Tara Bianca Rado. The precise topic proposed by Tara is as follows:

One of my favorite art topics is the artist’s responsibility to politics and the question of naming, either self or by journalists. What’s your position on modifiers like woman artist, black artist, or just claiming simply “artist”?


In a presentation I gave on Wednesday to an undergraduate art history class, I said “the only artists that get to be known solely as artists are white artists.” By white, I mean Europeans and their American cousins who are of European descent. When you are some other race or ethnicity, your race or ethnicity, even if not acknowledged in writing or verbally, is always the qualifier. People of color do not possess the social benefit of escaping their race and ethnicity. Why? Well, when whiteness is treated as the norm, everything else is treated as the aberration.

Where gender is concerned, women are still underrepresented in museum exhibitions, gallery rosters, in the overall art market, and understudied in the art historical canon regardless of geographic location. The art world is not exempt from politics just because its focus is art. Even exclamations of “art is for everybody” quickly turn political when you look at demographic statistics of museum audiences, museum curators, art history degrees, and collectors.

Whether an artist chooses to actively engage with politics, I am of the opinion that inevitably it will find them. This is, however, different than any sense of obligation to deal with it head on. That sense of obligation is very personal and the handling of such depends on one’s lived experience.

Ai Wei Wei, for instance, has dedicated his art career to making visible specific societal issues that are near and dear to him. He is internationally known but even with all his acclaim he is regularly described in the western press as “Chinese artist”, rather than just an artist. It’s not that there is anything inaccurate about the naming, but I do wonder how it continues to perpetuate a hierarchy of access or perception. Moreover, he is known for tackling the harshest issues of our time - as evidenced in his latest film “Human Flow” (trailer above) a documentary film on the global refugee crisis - and suffering no art world foolishness. He is often portrayed as an enfant terrible and his stances have found him on the receiving end of censorship and attack.

In the case of Dana Schutz, a white woman artist based in Brooklyn, it is my speculation that when she painted Open Casket (2016), that exhibited at the 2017 Whitney Biennial she likely believed herself to be on the right side of history, politically correct, and sympathetic. She quickly learned that others differently. A group of Black artists issued an open letter with significant signatories condemning Schutz’s act as appropriation, and called for the Whitney Museum to remove it from the Biennial and destroy it. It was neither removed nor destroyed. One has to wonder that if it was a non-white artist who had created a work of equal sensitivity and offense to white communities, if the non-white artist and his or her work would have been handled as Dana Schutz was.

My personal opinion and lived experience

I am not an artist. I am a healer, independent scholar, essayist, and curator. I self-classify as Black. I prefer not to use African-American because my existence isn’t hyphenated and I don’t really care for political correctness; however, if others refer to me as such, I don’t make an issue because it is a factually accurate term. I continue to self-classify as Black for one extremely political reason: it connects me to a diverse population of people of African descent living throughout the world.

In my 39 years in the world, 5 years in the art world, and almost 2 years working as a healer, throwing off my blackness has never been a desire nor an option. Part of my access to specific kinds of opportunities has been because I am black and a woman. Part of the reason why I am believable, especially where contemporary African and African diasporic art and African and African-rooted spiritual systems are concerned, has everything to do with my black femaleness, despite me telling people to read the source material rather than just believe me.

As a Black curator, one is expected to write and curate blackness exclusively. White curators are expected - and allowed - to curate whatever they decide to curate, without judgment about their ability to do so. I happen to be a Black arts professional who consistently interfaces with artists and art historians from a diversity of nationalities and ethnic groups. If you survey my record of experience, you’ll see all the writings on black artists and related topics, but you will also see my writings on Native American and South Asian artists.

For me, I feel a sense of obligation to my identity and the values it holds for me but I am not enslaved by it. I don’t believe that politics of any kind have ever been separate from what I do. The difference between me and many, may be that I don’t try to act like politics don’t matter. That is likely because I have never had the privilege of feigning a non-political existence.

Negarra A. Kudumu

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