February 18, 2021 marked what would have been Toni Morrison’s 90th birthday. A timeless person and ancestor to many Black people who honor and revere her work, Morrison provided us with the gift of language, forcing us to look at the ugly and painful truth of Black life, specifically Black girlhood. As I reflect on all the ways her work has helped me survive—understand and radicalize myself—I became curious about what art institutions should learn from Morrison. Subsequently, I’ve noted some of these lessons to share.
I must emphasize again that her work centered on Black people. She once said, “The assumption is that the reader is a white person and that troubled me.” So many of the books she read were never talking to her, to us Black people. She made it her purpose and priority to speak to and among us. For her to do so, she had to eliminate the white gaze and often spoke on the importance of averting the master narrative which she defined as white male life. She was incredibly successful in doing so in her works. I think about how dominant that master narrative is in art and art institutions. My hope for Black artists is to not conform to that narrative—although I know that work may come with difficulties of its own. It troubles me to think that Black artists who participate in art museums and galleries do not always have the freedom to do so.
Can Black artists truly have the freedom to produce and be displayed in these institutions, their works having meaning without the white gaze in mind? Just because we want to let that gaze go, doesn’t mean it will go away. We notice this with the ways Black art is consumed. Black artists must constantly think about the context of their lives and how whiteness perceives us. Although that gaze can provide material and monetary benefit to Black artists, it is still antagonistic. In order to receive those benefits, Black artists are often pushed into dependency on systems that force them to create content that keeps a white audience in mind. Black people are inevitably reminded that we are not the primary audience.
“Toni worked to discredit the notion that the white male gaze must be omnipresent.”- Angela Davis.
A lesson that cannot be ignored is the danger and harm in institutions labeling and defining the work of Black art and Black artists. In an interview from Morrison’s documentary The Pieces I Am, the interviewer narcissistically comments that she must “be tired of being referred to as a Black author”. To this she responds, “I prefer it. I get tired of people asking the question.” This put me in a place, a position to think about the necessity of Black artists and Black art being recognized as such. We can’t separate Blackness from who we are and what we do. Contention around these labels comes from the limitations and definitions white people and art institutions place on Black artists. The expectations of what the work should look like, what needs to be produced, what museums define as Black art, worthy Black art, is stifling.
What does it look like for Black artists to be able to create outside of the white gaze while participating in these institutions? Without having to explain their works or make them amenable to dominant art narratives and what people expect them to make? Work that has “no codes, no little notes explaining things to white people, no little clues” (Toni Morrison)?
How beautiful would it be for Black artists to have the power to truly define themselves in art institutions? For those words and work to be truly valued?
What would it look for these institutions to value the work as it is? It’s crucial that we interrogate the ways we engage with and choose Black artists.
Who’s in the room curating statements for Black artists and their exhibitions? What is their engagement with Black work, Black artists, Black thought?
So often in these institutions, when there are not Black staff versed in this work, and only non-Black staff are present, there’s too much pondering around the meaning of the work. Work they are not meant to theorize about and place definitions on. When that happens, art institutions are once again reinforcing a white gaze, a white narrative on Black art. Suffocating Black creativity, not allowing it to truly flow. The stories in the art must be told correctly and precisely.
Art museums and institutions must scrutinize the ways they engage with Black art in order to avoid manipulating and controlling what the purpose of these works is. This allows a sense of agency, autonomy, and identity for Black artists.
Morrison pushes literary thinkers and scholars to examine the ways the master narrative and script upholds our society. Similarly, I’m pushing for us to interrogate and examine these narratives and scripts in art institutions and the power they exercise over Black artists.
“You are only defined by what your oppressor thinks of you but there’s a whole other world going on when they are not looking.”- Farah Jasmine Griffin
As we reflect on and honor the timeless legacy of Toni Morrison, one of the many quotes she’s left us remains true: “Definitions belong to the definer, not the defined.” My hope for Black artists participating in these art institutions is to feel okay taking up someplace, outside of the white gaze, that we could never think of, never imagine.
Image credit: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times