L'Officiel Art

Now What? Life Post-Protest: Amplifying Black Art

Traditional protesting and petitioning are at the heart of social change in our country. But what does it look like to uproot and change systemically exclusive industries like the art world?
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African American Children Peering into a Whites Only Playground in Mobile, Alabama, 1956 by Gordon Parks

So you’ve attended your first protest, you’ve posted your first Instagram image and used the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag – now what? In our 'Now What? Life Post Protest' series, L'Officiel seeks insight from Black voices in our community on how to ensure that our outrage over racial injustice translates into radical change in our country and our everyday lives.

In the last few months, civil unrest in our country has reached an all-time high. In a euphoric wave of unity, protesters have marched the streets to make their voices heard against police brutality. Many of us have gone to voting polls in our respective states to elect leaders that represent our views and many industries have began to take the first steps toward amplifying Black voices after years of marginalizing people of color. 

In the case of the latter, amplifying Black voices has not come without the unconfortable reality that these same voices have been systemically silenced by many of the same industries and companies now looking to pivot the course of their actions in the future. Additionally, the hardest truth is that Black-business owners, writers, and designers are not new to our country – they have just been ignored by mainstream media. One of the most historically exclusive industries not only in our country, but globally, being the fine art space. 

Reflecting on my own education in art history as an art student at the university level and my experiences from visiting the most celebrated musems in New York City, I noticed one major common thread: a lack of exposure to Black artists. After my formal education, I was not well-versed or even slightly knowledgeable on the richness of Black fine artists and art history until I intentionally searched for such information. Seeking more on the disparity of the celebration of Black artists compared to their white counterparts, I spoke to one of the co-founders of the new innovative art platform Crate, Clark Edmond. Along with co-founder Blaine Baxter Bilal, Edmond and Crate aim to empower and educate younger consumers to confidently become art collectors through not only consultation, but meaningful community conversations and events the company organizes. Through these events, the founders of Crate intentionally work to support BIPOC and emerging artists. 

In the third part of our Now What? series, Clark sat down with L'Officiel USA and discussed her experiences navigating the art industry as a Black creative. Keep scrolling for her favorite historical and contemporary Black artists, and for a few tips on how we all can support Black art and artists.

Ryan Norville: Can you tell us about how you were introduced into the art industry and how you knew it was something you had a passion for? 

Clark Edmond: I recognized that art was something I had a passion for later than most art professionals. The summer before starting at Penn Law, I interned at the Smithsonian Institution and one of my assignments was to research Alma Thomas’ archives as a part of a larger research project. Alma Thomas was an African-American abstract expressionist painter born in Columbus, GA, who attended and taught fine-arts at Howard University in Washington, DC. She was a part of the Washington Color School with artists like Sam Gilliam. Going through Ms. Thomas’ archives, I had the opportunity to read her journals, look through her sketchbooks, see her family photos and learn the details of how her life in Columbus inspired her work. It was incredibly empowering to learn about a Black woman whose life was so full of color and learn about the community of Black artists who mentored her.

After interning at the Smithsonian, I went straight into my first year at Penn Law, where I spent more of my time researching artists and perusing Artsy (that was basically the only art publication I was aware of back then) than I probably should have. So, I decided to take a leave for a year to pursue a Master’s in Art Business at Sotheby’s Institute of Art in London (SIA).

 

RN: From an outside perspective, the art industry seems extremely exclusive and also very intimidating to approach as a newcomer. Was this your experience when coming into the art space? Do you think it is a difficult space to enter?

CE: Since I entered a Master’s program at SIA, the majority of my classmates had extensive experience in the arts and my professors were all very renowned in the field. Most of the people I went to school with majored in Art History, had experience curating and had already started successful art projects. I’m grateful that my experience started in an academic environment, where discourse and ideas were an equalizer. I could openly ask questions about the terminology that I wasn’t familiar with without judgement. I was a fish out of water, but my classmates and professors made the art world much more accessible. 

That’s all to say that it is a difficult space to enter. It is very intimidating, especially as a newcomer. There are many thresholds, including knowledge and education, professional and familial connections, looking the part, and being able to socialize and “keep up” with your colleagues. It’s a shame, but money can often determine which circles you frequent and the opportunities that you can access. Also, every city has a different art community and culture that takes time to penetrate. 

 

RN: What is your experience with the art industry and diversity? Is there diversity (of all kinds) amongst artists, critics, dealers, and experts?

CE: I wouldn’t consider myself an insider in the industry, so I truly only can speak about my experience and widely known statistics. I was introduced to the art world in London, which is very different from New York where there are more Black people in the industry. At Sotheby’s, my class was quite diverse in terms of nationalities, but I was one of three Black people in my class and we were all American. The major galleries that we’d visit were predominantly white and exhibited white artists, but the major names were always around (e.g. Anish Kapoor, Hank Willis Thomas, Kerry James Marshall, Shirin Neshat, Mark Bradford). We took one trip to the October Gallery, a leading contemporary African art gallery, and I was like, “finally!”

There’s definitely diversity when it comes to artists, however, their representation in galleries, museums and general discourse is a different story. There is much less diversity amongst art critics, and even less amongst art dealers. This has all been brought to light before. However, as new voices are needed, the lack of representation is all the more evident.

1594315681620469 faith ringgold groovin high 1996
Groovin High, 1996 by Faith Ringgold

"NEW YORK: LaKela Brown, 2019 @lakelabrown @kapp_kapp @foxyproduction"

RN: What are the ramifications for a lack of diversity in the art space?

CE: The more obvious ramifications of lack of diversity in the arts are the responses to the marginalization of the realities of people of color that we’ve seen over the past couple of months. Sadly, even leaders in the arts who went to some of the best schools in the world are still unaware of or unwilling to meaningfully acknowledge the need for diversity in exhibitions and the decision making processes. Because of this, we’ve all missed out on valuable opportunities to educate ourselves as a society. 

At a more granular level, I believe that lack of representation of people of color in the arts, especially Black artists, has led to art needing to be political to educate white audiences, which ultimately disregards the complexities of Black people. I recently learned that Romare Bearden and Norman Lewis, two of the artists who founded the art collective SPIRAL, disagreed about the role and responsibility of Black artists. Bearden chose to depict Black lives and Black protests, while Lewis was dedicated to the less political aesthetic of abstract expressionism. When you aren’t aware of details like this, there’s the idea that all POC or Black artists have the same themes, the same message and are just happy to be in the room. That’s never been the case and is very problematic. 

 

RN: Right now in this movement, the world is finally looking to amplify Black voices, what would this tangibly look like to you in the art community?

CE: In my opinion, the first step will be to listen to Black people and Black communities, not only Black experts in the art world. Additionally, intersectionality must be the norm. Now is not the time to position any Black experience over another. In the emerging art world, the responses have been incredibly inclusive and positive. The photo art sales Reframing the Future and See In Black, are great examples of appreciation for all Black voices. 

Museums also have to be more accessible for Black people, especially Black children and genuinely welcoming them into a space that is legally theirs. And not just exhibiting work by Black artists, but explaining their work in context, by including the richness of their existence and influence. 

 

RN: In terms of actionable steps for social change, many efforts have been focused on traditional methods of protesting and petitioning. Why do you think art, specifically Black art, is so crucial to the world right now?

CE: We’re lucky that so many Black artists and creatives have put in the work for hundreds of years so that we can access their stories and emotions today. As we’re unearthing Black narratives, it’s critical that we familiarize ourselves with the complexities of the Black experience. I believe that art is one of the best ways to process the intense emotions that so many of us are feeling, and for non-Black people to empathize with our community. It’s a pathway to humanity, that you may not be able to access solely through more traditional methods of protesting.

Additionally, the conversations that come from dissecting an artwork are limitless. Crate recently hosted a virtual conversation where we started talking about iconic artworks and wound up discussing the dual realities depicted in America by comparing Gordon Parks to Slim Aarons and David Hockney to Ramiro Gomez. During discussions like these, everyone has something to bring to the table and every voice is necessary for further enlightenment. 

Regarding buying Black art, supporting Black artists also keeps the conversation going. The reality is that artists need capital to create. When you buy an artwork, especially first-hand or from an emerging art gallery, it’s literal fuel for this movement. We know that living freely as a Black person in America is a form of activism in and of itself. Black artists are living and literally putting themselves into their work to benefit all of us, and they need financial support. 

 

RN: For those who may not see the importance of art in social reform, has there been a time in history where art has brought about social change?

CE: I’m not an art historian, but off the top of my head I think about the Renaissance, Modernism, Post-War art, and other influential art movements. They all explored undiscovered parts of the human experience and provoked discussion. In terms of social change in a political sense, art has been an integral part of social discourse and evolution for centuries. There are so many instances that I can’t name them all, but I can point to a few that are meaningful to me. One example is the tradition of quilt making as a form of storytelling during and after slavery in the United States. Artists such as Faith Ringold and Rosie Lee Thompkins have continued using this medium. During the Civil Rights Era, Gordon Parks, arguably one of the most notable artists of the 20th century, did a photo essay called “The Restraints: Open and Hidden” for Life Magazine. It was the first time many Americans witnessed the realities of the Jim Crow South and were exposed to the tension between Black and white America.   

 

RN: Who are some historical Black artists, specifically fine artists, that you think the world needs to study in this moment of societal reeducation?

CE: I like the word “reeducation,” because it truly takes an unlearning. It starts with an understanding of the truth that Black artists have always been around, even if they haven’t been properly reflected in our history books and institutions. For every white, male abstract expressionist that we’ve been taught, there are not just women counterparts, there are Black women counterparts—existing simultaneously and in conversation with, but decidedly left out. This makes me think of Howardena Pindell, Beverly Buchanan and Faith Ringgold. I also think of the collectives that came to be due to a lack of resourcing and representation like the SPIRAL group, AfriCOBRA and Just Above Midtown Gallery (JAM). I encourage folks to dig a bit deeper and to think more critically about the art that’s put in front of them.

 

RN: Who are some young Black artists you are inspired by right now? 

CE: My team and I are always excited to learn about young Black artists and come across inspiring ones every day. But, the artists that I can’t stop thinking about are: 

Eric N. Mack—Mack’s work is familiar and brand new at once. With a closer look at all angles of the fluid shapes and lines, the viewer may recognize everyday experiences, pop culture references and essential elements of abstract painting. 

Shasta Bady—I saw Bady’s video installation, “As Above, So Below,” when it was exhibited with The Women’s Mobile Museum in Philadelphia in 2019. Using footage of commuters on SEPTA transit, she captures the interconnection between people and life above and below ground, and how public systems and infrastructure become essential to the personality of a city because of the citizens who use them. This work is now installed at a SEPTA station. It’s inspiring to see a young artist portray her city so eloquently and to achieve recognition from the city. 

TOURMALINE—Her collaborative video piece “Happy Birthday Marsha” imagines transgender rights activist and performer Marsha P. Johnson in the hours before the 1969 Stonewall Riots. It magically and ethereally brings us Johnson’s spirit and welcomes us to celebrate alongside her.

Lakela Brown—Brown casts symbols of popular Black culture, like door-knockers and gold grills, in plaster reliefs. She essentially removes their corporal utility and they transform into artifacts in a way that we can all remember how influential Black culture is to America. I’ve only seen her work online, but I heard OutKast’s “SpottieOttieDopaliscious” when I encountered it for the first time. She’s that good.   

Jacolby Satterwhite—Jacolby Satterwhite uses all of his being in his work. Using a mix of performance art, dance, 3D animation, sculpture, music, and video, he really puts it all on the table. “Moments of Silence” was recently exhibited online in Joeonna Bellorado-Samuels We Buy Gold exhibition, which was curated by Nina Chanel Abney. I watched it about a dozen times. I’m just now familiarizing myself with his work, but it’s transcendent and absolutely mesmerizing. 

1594316728660185 erin mack
Eric N. Mack, The Endless Seed of Mystery, 2018 Eric N. Mack The Endless Seed of Mystery, 2018 Acrylic, dye, ink and paper on moving blanket 195.6 x 224.8 cm (77 1/8 x 88 1/2 in.) Courtesy of Simon Lee Gallery Artwork: Eric N. Mack, Post, 2019 Eric N. Mack Post, 2019 Dye on paper 67.8 x 52.5 x 3.8 cm (26 3/4 x 20 5/8 x 1 1/2 in.) Courtesy of Simon Lee Gallery

RN: You recently launched an art collective platform @__crate. Could you tell us more about that initiative and what inspired you to co-found it?

CE: Crate is a new gallery experience for young collectors to realize their potential as art world participants. Through meaningful engagement and socially conscious advisory practices, we aim to create a space for our clients to cultivate confidence as collectors and to equitably support the truly diverse perspectives of emerging artists. Our goal is to sell emerging art particularly by Black and POC artists to young professionals.

Crate is an idea that I’d been playing around with for the past few years. A mutual friend introduced me to my co-founder, Blaine Baxter Bilal, who knew our goals were aligned. I hit pause after graduating from law school and traveled to Bali in an attempt to breathe life into the concept while studying for the New York Bar. Like everyone else, COVID altered my immediate plans and offered a literal fork in the road. I was staring at a lucrative offer in law and jumpstarting Crate. As always, the universe offered up the answer. While quarantined in the US, I started getting texts from my friends working from home and staring at empty walls. They were ready to purchase art and needed guidance. So, they reached out to an accessible friend who they trusted and with some knowledge of art investment, which is exactly the space Blaine and I identified for Crate to fill. 

 

RN: What would it look like for the art community as a whole to embrace and amplify the work of Black artists?

CE: There’s so much potential for the art community to galvanize and reframe discourse by embracing Black artists, and there are many steps we need to take to achieve this. I do think that public art institutions and museums need to find a way to balance the acquisition process so that museum trustees are not the gatekeepers to the Black art that the public can access. Art museums need to strive to exhibit works from a holistic worldview. We can no longer afford to suppress the diversity of Black artists by accepting the monolith that has been forced upon us. Like the nation, the art community needs to re-educate itself—and this won’t happen without a new curriculum.  

Right now, art institutions are responding to the public’s calls for representation by exhibiting the work of Black artists. However, in this moment, we need to be careful to avoid tokenism and being used as a front for corporate and institutional responsibility. I have heard about Black creatives and influencers being exploited by companies who pay them less than their white counterparts, or not paying them at all. We know definitively that these companies value us less. So, another step is to achieve economic equality. 

 

RN: How can consumers actively support Black art? Are there any resources you would recommend?

CE: The best ways for consumers to support Black artists (in no particular order) are to first, buy Black art. Even if you purchase a less expensive work, it has a huge impact.  Not only are you supporting Black artists, but you’re also actively welcoming conversations about the Black experience into your home. If you can’t afford to buy art, you can attend exhibitions featuring Black artists once museums reopen. Public art institutions closely track exhibition attendance and decide on future exhibitions based on these figures. Additionally, being exhibited at museums increases the market value of Black artists. If you can’t go to museums, you can follow Black artists on Instagram. The value of an artist’s work can even depend on the number of followers they have. Businesses and organizations are also more likely to want to collaborate with artists who have an extensive online presence. 

As for resources, some of my favorites are ArtNoir (@artnoirco), which is co-founded by Larry Ossei-Mensah. The Aperture Foundation provides a wealth of information about Black photography and supports many emerging Black photographers. I also love Jasmin Hernandez, who runs the Instagram account @gallerygurls. Her knowledge of art is so extensive and I’ve learned a lot from her platform. From an academic standpoint, The Vision & Justice Project, which was started by Harvard professor Sarah Elizabeth Lewis in collaboration with The Aperture Foundation, is the best resource for discussions on how visual representation and democracy coexist. You can even access a free extensive curriculum with excerpts by Henry Louis Gates Jr., Ava DuVernay and James Baldwin on the website. If your support for Black art manifests by learning more about Black artists, these are all great accounts and organizations to follow. 

I’d also recommend using Crate as a resource to buy art, especially for those who want to purchase art with a social lean and are interested in actively engaging with the arts. We’re planning some exciting virtual discussions in the coming weeks that will be both informative and enjoyable. 

 

RN: You recently wrote an article on Crate predicting how the year 2020 could possibly mark the next art movement. It was published before recent events leading to civil unrest in the areas of racial injustice. Do you have any new insights in light of the events in recent weeks?

CE: It’s wild that I wrote that article when we had no idea what was yet to come. I wrote it because I sensed palpable anxiety, both in art and in the greater Black community, that was only augmented by the pandemic. As you know, the pandemic has disproportionately affected Black and POC (specifically, Native American) communities. Historically, art movements have occurred during or following political and/or societal upheaval. Knowing this, I’m further convinced that the pandemic, followed by civil unrest in response to the visual proof of George Floyd’s murder, is evidence that we are in the midst of or heading towards the next art movement. 

As usual, artists are capturing this moment from every perspective. From community murals to mixed media works, I can only wonder when and how we’ll see this art exhibited in galleries and public spaces. At Crate, we look forward to facilitating conversations that will direct this generation of young collectors to invest in the emerging artists who will be leaders of this current art movement. 

 

RN: In what ways do you want to see Black artists highlighted in the ways that historically their white counterparts have been uplifted?

CE: That’s an interesting question. On one hand, I want Black artists to be highlighted like their white counterparts by having more retrospectives in public museums and achieving similar prices from galleries and auction sales. The art market is tricky in that with the civil unrest we’re experiencing, Black artists and their perspectives are much more valuable to white collectors and institutions—which is uncomfortable to say. Then there’s the question of who these collectors are and what Black artists they’ll support. Will a few artists saturate the market? Will other Black voices be marginalized? 

Additionally, Black artists also need to be weaved into the existing canon of art history in a way that accurately reflects their influence. With that, Black artists would need to be highlighted alongside their white counterparts. My response to this question will likely evolve over time as I see things unfold. 

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