Time spent in New York last Thursday proved to be a necessary tool to rev up dying artistic fuel. It was nice to escape the MFA struggle for a whole day. Despite windiness and slight chill, journey started towards Jack Shainman to see Hank Willis Thomas’s “Unbranded: 1915-2015: A Century of White Women” taking up both 524 W. 24th Street and 520 W. 20th Street locations.
Thomas is someone I am familiar with. He showed a few pieces of another Unbranded series at the Art Academy of Cincinnati’s Convergys Gallery and gave a lecture on what exactly ‘unbranding’ stood for, how it came to be. Yet somehow, for reasons unknown, I lost track of keeping up with him and other contemporaries. I realize more than ever that if one does not keep track of the art world, especially the black art world, they fall behind. Art is a train that does not stop moving. It waits for no one.
But one does catch up.
Thankfully, force reinvigorated last fall when seeing “Question Bridge” at Fabric Workshop Museum, text gouache paintings at Studio Harlem, listening to his talk alongside Leslie Hewitt at Studio Harlem, and reading his award winning Aperture book. The book starts off on an emotionally guttural tragedy- loss of an innocent, promising black life and impact of that loss on those left mourning including the artist himself. That very intimate pain widens into an expressive emergence, instigating complex conversations about race, stereotypes, and black identity in advertising. Politics of creating a visual campaign that markets more oppressive chain shackling than anything else. They try to erase negative connotations of ugly, violent history, make it out to be sugary sweet like cake frosting, but it can never be glazed over. Never.
Weeks ago, I presented a short powerpoint on Thomas’s work. Someone asked, “did he get permission to use these images? I wonder how Reebok felt.” I just said, “that is not the point.”
Thomas is not setting out to hurt agencies. He is stripping these agencies of their intentions, stripping them of their power, getting down to the nitty gritty barest essentials of what they’re conveying, what they’re promoting.
And it ain’t all good.
Now also from Studio Harlem, I am reminded of some 3,300 Jet Magazine Black Beauty of the Month light skin, brown skin, dark skin, thin, thick, voluptuous ladies and how male gaze attraction shifts in Thomas’s current exhibit. A century of white women. 100 years. Waves spoken in such high volume context. For one, the perception of beauty today stays stuck on European ideal. The caliber, the epitome is a bullet that strikes everywhere on television, commercials, department store magazine covers, cosmetic spreads, film industry. How can minority compete? The ratio is vast, seemingly an impossible niche to break into. Mold is set on a specific ideal, a specific woman. A white woman. Cream of the crop, the angel, the pure beloved angel.
Thomas’s first image in 1915 centers on ebony skinned Cream of Wheat mascot smiling and appeasing to two white women.
I walked through set stage feeling some kind of way. An inner war to be frank. The gallery is clean and immaculate. Each white matted, white framed image without logo, hung moderate inches apart to give viewers minutes to compartmentalize fragmented thoughts. Allow breathing before moving forward to next stimulating visual narrative. I was made aware of both “my invisibility” and “my presence.” My presence was that stereotypical role, that role of propping the white woman, not staining her pedestal.
Emotions ran chaotic. First, the sense of empathy for white women being trapped in fountain of youthfulness, strict thinness, fine boned features, and dismemberment. The varied sexual references– frequent phallic metaphor popping up at least once or twice a decade. I sighed and internally huffed, “man! White women have it rough with men being at the helm of advertising. They purposely omit white women’s intelligence, their contributions to society. They’re more than just objects!”
That empathy soon transformed into scorn over the elitism, the standard and injustice. The erasure of minority, of the beauty in a minority. Circumstances of living in the now. White women are championed. They are championed above all. They are seen as trophies, as the highest honor. They are even allowed to say and do anything to hurt black people, black women/black transgender women– emotionally, psychologically, psychically. Anything. And they still receive excuses. They still receive a wave of compassion. I think about Paula Deen’s “n” word usage. Giuliana Rancic disrespecting Zendaya Coleman’s locs, but loving locs on white women. Cosmopolitan Magazine making black models symbolize “dead trends” while white women were “the best.” White women musicians making blackness their own, but not saying a thing about real life black injustice. I remember a white woman personally emailing one of the best black Twitter voices, saying she couldn’t help being born into privilege and shouldn’t be shamed or apologetic about it. There are a host of other comments, other wrongdoings white women reveal that are ignorant yet swept away under guise of forced apology. I also think about myself. I cannot help thinking about how impossible it is to ignore that I’m the sole black woman in my MFA program. Out of forty plus students of mostly white women. I feel the constant nagging insecurity of singling myself out. I cannot stop the shame growing at painting, drawing or photographing black women’s experience and being that person in a group critique showing that black women’s experience work. There is always dead silence. Until I crack a joke. The jokes make them comfortable. Talking about serious black women’s experiences they cannot relate to are not.
I love Kehinde Wiley. Always loved him. No one is teaching how to paint brown flesh here. The need is so desperate. It rages in my mind like a gnawing uncontrollable itch. One can make so many self portraits, but still yearn to study other kinds of brown flesh tones. One way is to investigate how others are. Wiley is one. It isn’t just entertainment celebrities that he paints, he finds strangers off the street and they sit for him. Maybe it’s time I do this too.
Naturally, suspended in the state of semantics, I began juxtaposing Thomas’s unveiling America’s brutal, manipulative obsession with white women to Wiley’s glorious room of celebrating black women. Wiley’s large scale, highly realistic painted goddesses are suspended in a sea of bright colored flowers and sophisticated curled vines. Seemingly birthed from these elaborate environments, robust ripened seeds emerge fresh from Eden gardens, already knowing their worth, their purpose. Special designed lace embroidered dresses flow and drape over suspended forms, curved, regal elegance. Desirable queens spoke wisdom, courage, worth, especially those confronting viewers with focused outer stare. I saw great majestic beauty so profound, so utterly moving that it was impossible to leave them. Each woman struck a vital cord.
I know the security guard wondered, “why is she still here? It’s been thirty minutes now.”
Well, why would I leave? I have never seen us painted on a huge grand scale. Not in one room. Not in such ornate frames. The spectacle was so grand and rich, I felt like a millionaire.
Call him over dramatic. Call him too showy. Call him kitschy even. I don’t care. I quite admire the propping of the black experience, of appropriating old history paintings by Jacques Louis-David and even Artemia Gentileschi into something that we all can understand and appreciate. Take notice. Applaud. I mean c’mon. He put Michael Jackson on a horse. The King of Pop! The King of Pop on a horse.