Written by Debra Hand
Something beautiful is happening here. Diverse cultural groups gather to honor black artists. As a black artist, I am grateful to those who took the time to come to witness you tell our stories in your own artistic voices.
Our stories as artists are as varied and multi-layered as the number of artists who created them. Their visual representation is as diverse as black musical expression, from blues to jazz to hip-hop. But there is one common theme that runs through each piece: the unrepentant assertion of the black man.
Black artists are drawn to the ever-present shadow of American history. It is inseparable from our consciousness of ourselves, and therefore inseparable from us. It is always present, even if we draw one straight line. We cannot “not know” it. Even when a black artist tries to avoid history as the subject of his work, it still lives on in the most ordinary of objects. The innocent sugar bowl depicted on the grandmother’s table immediately inherits the ghosts and history of the sugar plantations; the color blue echoes the history and horrors of the indigo trade.
There is nothing we can create that is not rooted in the larger American story and the story of our ancestors. Therefore, our art cannot help but witness and create artifacts of how we got through it; where we won, what we survived and what we gained, lost or confiscated along the way.
African-American art, like no other American art, was meant to serve the dual function of asserting our humanity before the eyes and minds of the nation, and our brushes carry the weight of that history even as we paint a rose petal. The rose petal becomes a tribute to the ancestors who paid a high and terrible price for the luxury of our creative practices. Even if our paintings are abstract without any obvious theme, they resonate with something – gratitude, or anxiety, or memory. The sacrifices and legacies of our ancestors live on in these historical shadows. They flow through our DNA and into our creative expressions.
All black art, whether visual art or music, serves as a healing medium for black culture – a place to emotionally pour yourself out, a place to affirm yourself, find refuge, remember, heal, resurrect. Our creativity has sustained us throughout history… since our chained forefathers set foot on American soil, it has sustained us. It has strengthened us through the civil rights marches, comforted us through terrible loss, united us in a common struggle, and renewed us for future struggles. This is how we live, pray, strengthen, receive communion. Indeed, this is how we survive.
That black artists—throughout American history—have seen no pause in their ability to wrest beauty from our existence, and that we’ve produced so many wondrous forms of art from music to dance to poetry, is a testament to the extraordinary nature of the people. It is worth reflecting on the fact that our art is still at the highest level of perfection. However, when you look at these amazing works, it is important not to compare black art to the standards of Western or European art: it makes no sense to do so. Black artists have come to know America from a very different perspective than any other cultural group, and we create from our own truth. We keep up with Western methods and practices, if anything we have a broader view of the entire landscape of America in mind. We know one who stays away from a polite glance. We know the full and unvarnished past and present of America.
When you look at these works, it is important to recognize that black art is not simply a part of Western art. This is not an attic find to fit comfortably into the canon of historical art. It is a multifaceted reflection of American history. Yes, where from the very beginning African Americans had to choose a culture from themselves and from the bits and pieces secretly clung to by our ancestors; the ways of the Motherland were surreptitiously dashed through the hyphen as the word “African” butted violently and destructively into the word “American.” Black culture is a collage made of bits and pieces salvaged by our ancestors from the transatlantic wreckage – hidden, preserved and transformed by sheer will into a way of survival. Through our art, black artists as a whole are still working to resurrect what has been lost and reclaim ourselves and our cultural group as we continue to beat culture out of ourselves and out of the permanent memory of DNA.
Black magic emerges from a broken root system that originates in the homeland, then is cut back, cross-pollinated and cultivated by the survivors. Art is how we persevered and got through this. In “American Poems” this theme can be traced in every work. A theme that says I am human, I am beautiful, my family is human, my cultural group is human. This is Black’s inescapable mantra. It is ripped from a story that belongs to every American.
James Marshall’s painting of the Kerry family is no less profound than Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son. Although the techniques of different centuries, origins, journeys and perspectives differ among themselves, Rembrandt and Marshall speak eloquently and authentically about the parables of human existence. Each of them mastered the language of their chosen speakers. Mark Bradford’s layered constructions, slash deconstructions, are no less a social commentary on the destructive forces of class warfare than Picasso’s Guernica. The late Terry Adkins, in his creative practice of both visual art and music, used these mediums in literal harmony, echoing the stimulating power of music in black culture. It was blues and jazz that first crossed American color lines and ushered African Americans into the mainstream as quietly and firmly as the Underground Railroad.
The hyphen in African American can literally be seen as a symbol representing the slave ship and centuries of stolen lives and culture. However, connecting our lives to our roots is not as simple as putting a hyphen between the words “African” and “American.” What has been lost “cannot be brought back”, yet our art has always been the closest thing we have had to a means of reclaiming ourselves. And while none of us can cancel or undo the hyphen between these words, we can all work together to cut the parallel dash so that the hyphen eventually becomes an equal sign.
Today’s meeting is part of this work. And as you look at this art created by black American artists, or by black artists who are American, I invite you to honor our ancestors in the process. They dreamed of a day when we can stand as a human race in honor of their humanity.
Indeed, something beautiful is happening here. We have united around the Black Arts in search of deeper dialogue and understanding. Together we seek the understanding we need to rebuild ourselves as a human race. This is the height of both humanity and civilization. I am honored to be a part of this important moment. Thank you for the invitation.
Debra Hand is an artist and writer. Her works are in the collections of the Smithsonian Anacastia Museum and the Dusable Museum.