Last month, I attended How We See Us: On the Refusal of Limitations on Black Creativity. This virtual event staged a conversation between Tiffanny Hammonds, the Tacoma-based muralist known for her colorful Face of Nations series as well as numerous public art projects, and Victoria Miles, Artist Award Manager at Tacoma Art Museum whose administrative work has uplifted and funded Black artists. Inherent in the title of the event were questions: What are the ways that Black artists are forced to navigate arts communities and institutions amidst white supremacy? How do the burdens of representation constrain Black artists? How might Black artists be best supported—by institutions—in making work and having audiences engage their works?
It is not lost on me that this conversation comes two years after the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, which sparked the so-called racial reckoning for white institutions. After these institutions made calls of “Black Lives Matter,” my questions are: What has changed? How are white art institutions valuing Black art and artists?
Rich, deep, and meaningful, the conversation provided a lens to sit with these questions and sparked three lessons shared here.
First lesson: honor the long genealogy of Black artists and administrators doing this work of refusal.
At the event, Miles mentioned David Driskell (1931 – 2020), Black American artist and art historian. Among his numerous contributions, Driscoll curated the exhibition Two Centuries of Black American Art in 1976 that, according to art critic Holland Cotter, “included some 200 works dating from the mid-18th to the mid-20th century, and advanced a history that few Americans, including art professionals, even knew existed.” The exhibition is also the subject of the recent HBO documentary, Black Art: In the Absence of Light. Miles quoted something Driskell said in that documentary: “Black art has a difficult task before it. It has to be made. It has to be owned, it has to be widely disseminated in order to have an audience.” Miles also referenced Thelma Golden’s curatorial work and her term “post-black” to signal a refusal of the containers put on Black artists.
“Black art has a difficult task before it. It has to be made. It has to be owned, it has to be widely disseminated in order to have an audience.”
-David Driscoll, Black American artist and historian
Miles’s references reminded me of the almost 100-year-old debate between W.E.B. DuBois, the foundational sociologist, historian NAACP co-founder, and arts administrator, who in 1926 gave a speech-turned-essay, “Criteria of Negro Art.” Du Bois wrote: “The white public today demands from its artists, literary and pictorial, racial pre-judgment which deliberately distorts Truth and Justice, as far as colored races are concerned, and it will pay for no other;” he argued that all Black art should be propaganda to confront anti-Black racism. In response, Black American writer Alain Locke wrote a 1928 essay. “My chief objection to propaganda, apart from its besetting sin of monotony and disproportion, is that it perpetuates the position of group inferiority even in crying out against it,” Locke penned. “Art in the best sense is rooted in self-expression and whether naïve or sophisticated is self-contained.” In Locke’s essay was a refusal to make Black artists do the double work of expression and anti-racism. But in both essays was the recognition of the tremendous burden put on Black artists due to white supremacy.
That leads to a second lesson: recognize burdens put on Black artists, and in turn center Black artists financially.
In response to Miles’s questions to Hammonds about the “burden that white America puts on Black artists”—including her citations to art historian Darby English on Black artists constantly repositioning their own identities to the demands of viewers and Vinson Cunningham in his 2015 New York Times article, “Can Black Art Ever Escape the Politics of Race?”—Hammonds spoke about the specific pressure to perform for white art institutions, especially during Black History Month, and how the convenience of using Blackness by institutions has felt heartbreaking.
She said: “Can I be a Black person who empathizes with things going on in the world without making art like this? It’s unfair because white institutions will ignore you all year long [except for] Black History Month. I want to express the way I see things as Tiffanny. My blackness will always be included in that but I don’t want people to see that first.”
Hammonds offered questions for art institutions: “How many times have I applied for something? How are you giving back to the community? How are you representing BIPOC artists? How are you trying to represent or connect with who I am?” She continued: “It’s out of touch. The reality is that they should hire more people who are in touch.” Hammonds particularly framed how funding could better support Black artists by “making it known that it is accessible, [with] larger funds, and follow-up and follow-through.” Similarly, Miles spoke of how funding should “make sense of how people consume [Black art]. These opportunities have to be more accessible, and they have to get out of their own way and let Black artists create.”
Third: turn to local community members—rather than just to national ideas of Blackness that are often circulated by white media—to understand and support Black art and Black interiority.
In the conversation was the idea from Kevin Quashie, author of The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture, on centering Black quietness and interiority. But how does this land locally? Across her talk, Hammonds honored Black family, artists, and community members who have supported her work. She spoke of her late big brother Andrew, Jr: “I wanted to do everything he did. He was a graffiti artist and you could feel the love in the way he could distort letters.” She spoke of Tacoma-ites Chris Jordan, who asked Hammonds to do a mural with him when she was 12, as well as Kenji Stoll, as huge influences. She spoke of her art teacher who took all the erasers off of pencils. She spoke of teacher-turned-colleague Jeremy Gregory, who exaggerated Black features because they were so beautiful. She spoke of the Hilltop neighborhood and the influences of community members who may not be big names who nevertheless support cultural expression: “I’m grateful for every single Hilltop resident. Known or not.”
Jasmine J. Mahmoud is a curator, arts advocate, and historian of art and performance. She is Assistant Professor of Theatre History and Performance Studies at the School of Washington with an affiliate appointment in Art History. Jasmine currently serves as a member of the collaborative committee for The Current, An Artist Award, an annual, unrestricted award providing financial and institutional support to a Black artist living in the Tacoma area. Learn more about The Current on the TAM website.