Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Rent a Negro

Kara Walker at La Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine, (the City of Architecture and Heritage)

Interior of La Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine

Damali Ayo on Bill O'Reilly

I was just in Miami visiting a friend of mine, Russ. We've been friends since like, the second week of college freshman year. Now he's a NYC police officer. I say this because the school we went to (Clark University) is a bastion of liberal thought, with a small student body and overlapping social groups; nevertheless there was a fair amount of self-segregation between the innermost circles of students (everybody partied together, but didn't necessarily study together).

At Clark, while there were organized discussions of race, class, and gender, there wasn't a whole lot of discussion outside of the classroom...though in a few memorable instances there were fights. Sometimes over racial issues, sometimes over a boyfriend or girlfriend where race and ego played factors.

So it startled me one day when we were out drinking, that he began to talk--in a very candid way--about the inherent societal advantages that I, as a white woman, had over him. It was an uncomfortable and heartbreaking conversation; I was forced to confront my own assumptions and biases, including my never-really-articulated ideas about what his life was like, coming from an upper-middle-class family and having a prep school education.

Since then, we've talked on and off about race and gender, how they've affected our lives, how our own ideas have changed. Then this weekend, he told me about a book he'd read "How to Rent a Negro" by the artist Damali Ayo. In short it talks about the cultural cache of having a black friend, and in fact, how to rent a negro.

The book is satire, but raises intriguing questions about the perceptions of race in America, and the expectations between races: i.e. a white woman making the assumption that is okay, appropriate even, to call a black woman she has just met, "sister," or "girl" when in fact, they are not even friends.

So it was a coincidence that while reading the blog, bronxbiannual.blogspot.com, I stumbled across a short recording of a conversation with Kara Walker about her work which was installed at La Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine museum in Paris.

Walker's work is projected onto a screen and slowly moves over the walls and architectural elements in the room, it's a simple use of technology, but very effective. Though unlike Ayo's work, it does not force the viewer to cast a light on his or her own (racist or not) ideologies. Her work, while jarring and graphic is also startlingly beautiful and because of that beauty, it is initially more palatable.

However, the success of both these artists does imply the question: Where are Jacksonville's black artists? I know that once a year, the Ritz Theatre mounts the show, "Through Our Eyes" --a group show designed to spotlight some of Jacksonville's African American talent, but really, save for one or two people, I can't think of any artists of color participating in the Jacksonville scene.

I wonder what that means.


Mark Creegan said...

There is the Jacksonville Consortium of African American Artists

But yes there are few African American artists anywhere, and as an art instructor who has taught at least 25 different courses (most with 16-18 students) over the last 2 years, I can count the number of black students on one hand.

How that can change is a challenge.

madeleine said...

Thanks Mark...I just wonder about the "why" of it, and what that says about all of us--myself very much included. And it wasn't really until that I was chatting with my freind that I was even able to articulate it.