We know very well that art museums are some of the strongest cultural bastions of western colonization. Through very deliberate racist and sexist practices of acquisition, deaccession, exhibition, and art-historical analysis, museums have decisively produced the very state of exclusion that publicly engaged art historians and curators (including myself) are currently working hard to dismantle. What we do not speak honestly enough about are the very distinct ways in which racism and sexism are utilized to traumatize us and oftentimes undermine our work—the very work that our respective institutions claim they want—and often recruit us to do.
Recently, I participated in a Zoom call with tens of Black curators from around the world, with representatives from small institutions to some of the largest and most popular museums, as well as independent curators. It was absolutely amazing to see so many of my colleagues at one time! Here were people that I’ve admired for years, as well as tons of new acquaintances, all speaking so passionately about how we could work more efficiently to support each other and Black artists. My heart sank, however, after about an hour of discussing concerns about our institutions’ tone-deaf responses to this moment and our overall experiences in museums. It seemed like time stood still when I realized that no matter where in the world we work, what positions we hold in our institutions, or how diligently and effectively we do our jobs, many of us are experiencing similar traumas and complete mental exhaustion from navigating and contorting ourselves around abhorrent manifestations of white supremacy in museums and the art world at-large. Ironically, I had to leave the call early, as my institution began demanding mental and emotional acrobatics via emails pinging in the background
Importantly, in the 1960s, black male artists — largely operating under a new Black consciousness — tackled Aunt Jemima, largely by incorporating her image into a Black Power, Black nationalist discourse. Joe Overstreet’s rendering challenged the oppressive economic and social structure of America; Jeff Donaldson confronted police brutality and white supremacy in his piece. Murry DePillars brought the aesthetics of Black liberation into the discussion of Aunt Jemima, which by the late-1960s, ‘had been widely adopted as a symbol of pride and resistance to oppression by many African Americans who had not participated directly in political activities.’ While their work, coupled with protests and boycotts by black activists, ‘led Quaker Oats to drop the bandanna in 1968 and give Aunt Jemima a headband, in addition to slimming her down and making her look somewhat younger,’ her image remained immune to the realities of black women’s lives. This transition from bandanna to headband can also be read as a symbolic ode to the integration of black women into the workforce (as secretaries, typists, or receptionists). By focusing on the black female body but also hairstyle and dress, which ‘during the 1960s had become signifiers of pride and identity,’ black feminist art in the 1970s further reconfigured Aunt Jemima’s image, not singularly in terms of her role in a black nationalist discourse, but in terms of who she really is — a black woman. Working under the tenets of a Black Feminist movement, these artists challenged the patriarchy and sexism embedded in American society, but also within Black Nationalist organizations.
New York native Faith Ringgold was one of the first artists to, as Melody Graulich and Mara Witzling describe, ‘embed narratives in her quilts…. All the narrators of Ringgold’s quilts are African-American women who speak with authority in their own voices.’ In Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemima (1983), Ringgold took control of the Southern mammy stereotype by creating an alternative narrative for Aunt Jemima’s life, linking it to histories of African American migration, marriage, employment, and loss. Her quilt story ultimately turned a stereotype into a personal narrative. In a recent interview, when asked to reflect upon her iconic story quilt, Ringgold maintained that Aunt Jemima is our feminist issue:
To condemn her for being black, fat, having a big nose, that’s nothing that’s not something to condemn a person for. I’m going to re-write her life and I’m going to give her a career and a family, and talk about the important things in her life not the way that she looks.
Fleetwood’s investigation responds to two central questions: How has the colossal reach of the prison industrial complex shaped contemporary art institutions and art making? Secondly, how does visual art help to reveal the depths and devastation of our nation’s penal system? These are questions that concern the terms and conditions of freedom and bondage (or what Fleetwood calls “un/freedom”). These are also the questions she employs to reveal how mass incarceration has become interwoven with cultural production. In this way, Marking Time is itself an urgently political text whose author does not mask her investment in an abolitionist framework that might lead to a world without prisons. Truthfully, any assessment of the prison industrial complex in the United States is always urgent. Because Covid-19 poses a dire threat to and exposes the extreme vulnerabilities of incarcerated populations, Marking Time’s release is especially timely, as an awareness of the impacts of mass incarceration seeps deeper and more insistently into everyday language. Fleetwood reminds her readers that the stakes are high, not just for those who are incarcerated and their loved ones, but for all of us who also believe ourselves to struggle against the carceral state.
- There’s more and more talk about reparations for Black Americans, but how much? These podcasts (and one article) investigate that question in various ways:
- A good episode of BBC’s The Inquiry podcast tackles the question “Why do we care about statues?” and interviews experts about various case studies around the world. It’s a good listen:
The killing of African American George Floyd ignited anti-racist protests around the world — many centered on statues associated with colonialism and slavery. Why do these figures of bronze and stone generate such strong feelings? And what do they tell us about how countries deal with their past?
In Columbus, Ohio, longtime lesbian bar Slammers survived that city’s lockdown period on the prowess of its takeout pizza. It was supposed to reopen June 2, but during the uprisings in the city against police brutality, the bar was severely damaged. A former manager launched a GoFundMe to help fund repairs, with a note that “our windows and possessions can be replaced, while the lives of our slain brothers and sisters most certainly cannot.” Slammers reopened on Friday, June 12. Andrew Parnell, the general manager and “literally only guy who works behind the bar,” says that they’re taking every precaution and hoping patrons will take advantage of the patio. “We went the extra distance, spacing out tables, making sure it’s really simple and easy to keep that distance. The staff know it’s zero tolerance if someone doesn’t want to follow rules — they’re out, no questions, no explanations.” The bar is also boosting fundraisers for Columbus Freedom Fund on social media.
Last winter, at a black-tie gala — the kind of event where guests pay $100,000 for a table — I joined some of New York’s wealthiest philanthropists in an opulently decorated ballroom. I had the ominous sense that we were eating lobster on the Titanic.
That evening, a billionaire who made his money in private equity delivered a soliloquy to me about America’s dazzling economic growth and record low unemployment among African-Americans in particular. I reminded him that many of these jobs are low-wage and dead-end, and that the proliferation of these very jobs is one reason that inequality is growing worse. He simply looked past me, over my shoulder.
No chief executive, investor or rich person wakes up in the morning, looks in the mirror, and says, “Today, I want to go out and create more inequality in America.” And yet, all too often, that is exactly what happens.