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Brown Bag Lecture series. . .

“African American Artists: Exploitation and Protest”

Presented by Alyssa Liles-Amponsah, first-year MA student in AAADS
March 21, 2007

While in art school, Alyssa Liles-Amponsah was especially frustrated by two things: African American artists were encouraged to model their work after that of Kara Walker; and race and racism in art were never directly discussed. At that time, she assumed those two conditions were peculiar to her school. Now, with more experience, she believes it to be common, if not universal, throughout the art world—a world dominated and controlled by a white establishment.

In her brown bag talk, Liles-Amponsah discussed the works of three contemporary black artists—Jean Michel Basquiat, Kara Walker, and Ayanah Moor—whose work is acclaimed by the establishment and yet whose work shows varying degrees of exploitation and protest.

As Liles-Amponsah pointed out, the two big distinctions in the world of art are ‘art for art’s sake’ and ‘art for life’s sake.’ The former is a tenet of Western art, while the latter, more functional expression, distinguishes African art. African American art seems to fall between the two, conforming to ‘normal’ standards for art, but also belonging to the tradition of community prevalent with people of African descent.

Jean Michel Basquiat might be said to have taken over where the Black Arts Movement and Elizabeth Catlett left off in the history of African American art. Basquiat was a protégé of Andy Warhol and became the ‘poster boy’ for black art during the 1980s. However, many African Americans and black artists considered him instead the ‘model for cultural sacrifice’ because of his assimilation into the establishment. He seemed to participate in his own exploitation, which profited him greatly and, of course, supported his extreme drug use. As his work deteriorated into mostly unfinished canvasses, it still sold for thousands of dollars.

Yet, Basquiat almost certainly was living out his own protest against the establishment and his exploitation through his life choice to live on the streets and to leave his works unfinished—not only unfinished, but also often covered with graffiti that articulated protests about colonialism and exploitation. He was aware of both his own exploitation and of his commercial advantage, but his visual representation of images shows his inner conflict. In fact, some of his more abstract work seems to reflect his own turmoil rather than being conscious representations and protests.

Basquiat, like many African American artists, said he was not political and did not want to be politicized. He was though, and it seemed to hurt his art and perhaps contributed to his early death from a heroin overdose. Another artist, Kara Walker, also claims not to be political and avoids being politicized in the way Basquiat was by keeping her commentary about her work to a minimum.

Nevertheless, Walker exploded on the art scene in the 1990s to become the current African American darling of the establishment, sometimes misunderstood and sometimes lauded because of what may be an accurate understanding of her controversial images. While young black artists are told to emulate her, they rebel against that dictum, sensing problematical contradictions in Walker’s stereotypical images of slaves.

Walker’s silhouettes, usually in huge wall-size installations with snippets pulled out and exhibited alone, are crass and grotesque images of slaves and other plantation denizens, whose characteristics are exaggerated and sexualized. The artist once revealed that she had ‘always wondered what it was like to be a slave’ and appears to be working out that question through her art, even referring to herself at times as ‘the Negress Walker.’ Therein lies the controversy. For Walker is, indisputably, a highly skilled artist; it is her content and her articulated vision that confounds and fascinates.

To cite one recurring type of image in her work: When Walker shows the sexual exploitation of black slave woman by white master, she makes the woman seductive rather than oppressed. She alleviates ‘white blame’ in such images because the slave is ‘asking for it.’ The question must then be asked whether Walker’s art makes her representation of African American history retrogressive because it places the blame on blacks for much of what happened to them.

Liles-Amponsah thinks that Walker might be offering some deeper protest in her work, but said that it remains difficult to pinpoint. Walker herself remains mute, explaining little and keeping audiences confused. Nor does the art world explore such issues, allowing race to be the ‘elephant in the room,’ always present and never acknowledged.

But younger, newer artists are further removed, in time and upbringing, from the black history that pervades Basquiat and Walker’s work. For example, Ayanah Moor brings an old-school hip-hop influence into the art world with a range of multimedia works, which she says is about ‘our culture,’ and she wants it out there. Says Moor: ‘Use every exhibition opportunity as an opportunity for them to exploit you.’ The establishment’s desire to exploit the artist is the artist’s chance to exploit the establishment and, more important, to be seen as more than ‘race.’

In one piece, Moor represents George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice as thugs and superimposes the acronym ‘Never Ignorant; Getting Goals Accomplished’ over them. She is neither reticent nor conflicted in her protest.

Interestingly, Moor, like Liles-Amponsah, has spoken of how she too was pushed toward the Kara Walker mold when in art school and how she had to grow toward her own mode of expression. Today, Moor is an assistant professor of art at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

Liles-Amponsah said that younger artists are less sensitized to traditional racial issues than previous generations of black artists. The struggle isn’t so strong now. Those who choose to make art about race too often do it without proper research. They didn’t live it as their forebears did, and so it lacks sincerity. The overwhelming feeling, reinforced by the art world, is that if you’re black you should make art about race. But, said Liles-Amponsah, that method does not often make for powerful art.