Black Is Not My Profession

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Yesterday, I read an article in the Brazilian online culture magazine Pagina B, featuring the São Paulo-based, Afro-Brazilian artist Moises Patrício where he shared his experience of being a black artist in Brazil. This excerpt, in particular, touched me profoundly.

Patrício is an artist and a black man. For him, the two things don’t need to always accompany each other, but they should never be forgotten. “Why is it that every time a black artist does a show or project, people call it black art? In a way, this ends up reducing everything to a singular question. No one says white art when the artist is white”, he questions. For him, art is art, but Patrício doesn’t shy away from the criticism of his own question, because many times white artists, older and more conservative, declare their opinions as if art in Brazil is in a decadent moment, in reference to Afro-Brazilian and art from the margins. “I’ve heard already, also from white artists, that ‘art has no color and therefore, there isn’t any reason to privilege certain artists because they are black’”, he shares. For him, this happens because a portion of the artistic class fears losing their privileges.
— Arte feita por negros. Você aceita? by Matheus Moreira for Pagina B / translated from original portuguese by Negarra A. Kudumu

Patrício's comments ring loud and true because while we presume the American corner of the art world to be more evolved, in reality, it is not. Art made by black makers (and other artists of color too, especially Native American and First Nations artists) is always and inextricably tied to their race. Whether the work is about identity or materiality, race is inescapable when you're not white in the art world.

Reading this article about Moises Patrício reminded me, almost immediately, of the phrase, and now hashtag, coined and promoted by the French-Senegalese actress Aïssa Maïga, #NoireNestPasMonMetier (Black Is Not My Profession), to combat racism experienced by black women in the French film industry. The hashtag drove the point home for me and the reality check has been a sharp one.

The hashtag is so poignant because it speaks to the reality of being a black person in the western world. Blackness is still synonymous with labor. The synonymic proximity of the two terms has always flowed into an equality of terminology: black equals labor.  Black (and blackness) as equal to labor - a task performed rarely for the benefit of the performer and always for the maintenance of a social system that has no regard for labor, though labor (black people and other people of color) are the backbone of the very system for which they toil.

Sounds a lot like slavery and colonization, n'est pas?

What Patricio and Maïga are demonstrating against and speaking out about are the social structures - in their case, the art world and the film industry - that demand that black artists be labor. Knowing that labor has a monetary value, any person equated with labor, loses their humanity instantaneously. When your humanity is invisible, then there is no need for human consideration.  Enter racism, sexism, and other violent -isms and -archies that are justified because they are not done to a human being but rather to a component that needs to act, and be acted upon, consistently for the system to continue functioning.

Patrício's observation of white Brazilian artists stating that art has no color is exemplary of the push back that occurs when black artists dare [re]assume their humanity. The position of white artists, stated in the above quote, lacks any basis in fact. When surveying the historical record, particularly in Europe and America, about museums, commercial galleries, prominent industry art journals and magazines, and auction house modern and contemporary sales records, the vast majority of the art featured in those places is, in large part, still made by individuals of European descent. 

Some will read Patrício and Maïga's words, and mine too, and think we are self-effacing, the kind of black people who are ashamed of our identity and history. Au contraire / Pelo contrario! Do enough digging and you'll find just the opposite. We are, in part, asking you to learn basic grammar: black is a noun, often a proper noun, technically an adjective, but never a verb. Labor is a verb and a noun. In either part of speech, it denotes, directly or indirectly, action. When humans, in this case black people, are equated with labor we are equated with an action, which means we are an object that can be measured, manipulated, controlled, priced, sold, and bought. Such an object has no dignity, no spirit, nothing that would merit human consideration or care.

Maïga and Patricio's comments can, and should be read, as a refusal to be defined as an action, a refusal to be fetishized, a denial that certain humans are objects, and a refusal to have their humanity siphoned off and discarded. Maïga and Patrício's observations also require that one be able to hold multiple ideas in one's brain simultaneously - non-binary thinking, I believe it is called. For example, humans are not their labor, humans come in a variety of races and ethnicities, some humans are black and they happen to engage in various kinds of labor that may be described as artist, actress, writer, curator, et al and etcetera.

I'm grateful for Patrício and Maïga, even if their words are only the beginning of conversations that aren't had often enough in the cultural milieu. My curiosity is rarely piqued by movements of any kind but #NoireNestPasMonMetier is notable for its inherent and implicit coupling of race and class (however unintentional it may have been) both of which are topics we like to eschew in the art world. But more on that later.

Negarra A. Kudumu

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