The terms “Black Art” and “Black Aesthetics” take us back to the 1960s and 1970s, two decades that witnessed the most controversial and perhaps most important movement in the history of African American literature – the Black Arts Movement. From the poems of LeRoi Jones to the essays of Maya Angelou, this period gave literary gems which inspired the creation of magazines, journals, publishing houses, art institutions, as well as African American Studies programs in universities.
During this period, black artists were concerned with delivering politically engaged work in order to voice their experiences within a cruel, unequal system. “The real function of art is to make revolution,” activist Ron Karenga wrote, calling all artists to embed in their work messages of the Black revolution. It seems that Black artists have been assigned the mission of having to decide whether their work will be primarily political or aesthetic. It is, of course, possible to reconcile both, but the question remains unanswered: what is the role of black artist today? More clearly, what role does blackness, as a cultural construction, or, in the words of Hank Willis Thomas – mythology, play in the identity of artists and the way their art is produced, understood, and circulated?
We tend to always group Black artists and regard their work solely as a unity, instead of looking deeper into each artist and analysing their individual worth. This is a leftover of history: during the Black Arts Movement, it was preferred to engage in public collective performances, which drew more attention and strengthened the movement, instead of promoting individual performances. It was easier to obtain responses from society by presenting a larger group of individuals which adhered to the same ideas.
Contemporary artists Hank Willis Thomas and Kameelah Janan Rasheed are only two of the many who blend imagery and language in their art, to create works with impact. Willis Thomas uses elements immediately associated with marketing, twisted with criticism and dark irony. In the work Priceless, a list of commercial items and their prices are inserted over the image of a grieving group, evoking recent instances of police brutality against black Americans. Consumerist blindness to human suffering is aesthetically and critically addressed here, emphasising the impossibility of inertia from the art scene, in the face of horrible social events.
In a similar vein, Rasheed uses words to describe and question certain conditions, lived experiences, and attitudes ascribed to blackness. Rasheed explores the nuances of institutional limits on anger and suffering, as she invites to “tell our struggle with triumphant humour,” which was part of her series of digital prints How to Suffer Politely (and other Etiquette),” exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporic Art in Brooklyn.
Whiteness and blackness are first and foremost cultural constructs, and an attempt to define them can come dangerously close to a reductive form of essentialization. A genuine grasp of the complexity of race can only be achieved through a struggle to contextualise it, and a sustained effort to destabilise it. The role of artists in this is essential, as their experimentation with form, meaning, and medium enhances the capacity to disturb and reorder the very fabric of life.
Words: Astrid Scheuermann
Copy edited by Elena Stanciu