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“Back of the Neck,” from 1983.© Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat / Artestar

written by: Camila Navas

I wrote this to start a conversation; or rather a dialogue that needs to be had, no matter how uncomfortable. I am a Jewish Venezuelan American- I am also an Artist and Art Historian and have witnessed the unspoken dialogue between both black and non black artists in regards to the social injustices of our country. I am here to talk about the artists who poured their emotions into their compositions in efforts to provoke change. Although I have only included a few examples, all of these pieces have a story. The idea of ownership of certain topics and experiences of events is an essential component to the argument. These works were executed to translate and engrain those moments in history. Years later we are still having the same conversations about social injustices and these works still hold the same weight in the contemporary world of performative arts.

Given the current state of our country and our law enforcement that we trust and count on as citizens of the United States. An excerpt from the the United States Declaration of Independence is as follows: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” We are far too familiar with this declaration and too certain that it does not hold any truth. We have all heard it far too many times that any person is under equal protection of the laws and that any person is innocent until proven guilty. So why is the black community still suffering? The pain that they felt in the 17th century is the same aching pain that is being felt now across the homes of our fellow Americans. So how can we be an ally?

I am blessed to have the open communication and symbiotic relationship with the creator of Foolish Ambition, Bianka Gravillis. She made this platform to support all artists. Her goal is to open the doors to these uncomfortable conversations all the while creating a safe space for discussion and growth. I had the pleasure to share a conversation with artist manager and art enthusiast, Samuel Valerio about how allies think and act on social justice. As we share the same passion for the arts we were able to wrack our brains of examples where people respond to social injustices in our community. Through our conversation it had become evident that some of the best art comes from these traumatic events. The result is that it creates a dialogue to have a discussion that is necessary.

Kerry James Marshall’s portrait of a black policeman casts the spectacle of law enforcement very differently. This composition is heavily oriented in the theme of reflection. James Marshall reveals his controversial opinion that a little thought could go a long way. His interest in the relationships between black communities and local law enforcement goes back to the events of the Watts Riots of 1965 which is where Marshall grew up. Marshall only paints black figures as it is his distinctive aesthetic style. They engender a sense of intrinsic worth as the ability to love and remain indifferent- that some call self- respect.

Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY.

During that same year in 2015, Pyer Moss designer Kerby Jean- Raymond revealed his practice of cathartic creativity through Fashion in 2015 NYFW. His show was given the title of the most powerful show of the season by the Huffington Post. At the start of the show the audience was presented with a fifteen- minute video that included horrific cases of police brutality on black women and men. The video was reportedly a barrage to the senses. The images were accompanied with audio of interviews with those closely affected by these acts. His work featured edgy street wear style combining mixed mediums of fabric, paint and markers. On the clothes were written the words “love” and “Breath, Breath, Breath.” as well as the names of some of the victims. White and shiny surfaces of boots and jackets were splashed with red paint emulating blood.

Wilson, Julee. Pyer Moss Addresses Police Brutality in Powerful NYFW Show. HuffPost. September 11, 2015

Artist Logan Sylve also known as Lil Black Goat, rendered his capability to connect through the mediums of drawing and painting. His meticulously developed creative style can be spotted immediately and his works prove to move his audience respectively. Sylve aims to show his viewers images that they may not completely understand by still keeping them relatable. He says “I began exploring the more psychological concepts and abstract forms while incorporating cartoon characters I like.” (LilBlackGoat). In one of his most recent works he revealed a picture of a distorted policeman with broken fingers and an eyeball placed on his chest- presumably where policemen keep their video recorders. Again, his aesthetic is recognizable as his figures all engender a multidimensional character with a monstrous mouth and large human teeth.

Logan Sylve (Lil Black Goat) Quickly. May 26, 2020

Whitney Biennale Artist, Dana Shutz sparked controversy in 2016 in regards to her painting titled Open Casket. The subject of the painting is 14 year old Emmett Till who was lynched in Mississippi after being accused of flirting with a white woman in a grocery store. The scene depicted had been referenced from a photograph of Till’s bloodied and battered face originally published in the newspaper in 1955. Shutz so happens to be a white woman who wrote that she had painted this with the pain in her heart as a fellow mother. As a result of this piece being shown in such a prestigious museum, the painting and the artist received backlash. When discussing Shutz portrait of Emmett Till, Samuel Valerio vocalized that “Art is the human emotion that no one can govern. If Dana Shutz had made this piece today, it may have never made its way into the Whitney.” The intention of each artist is important but the result and how the message is received is just as grave. Many in the black art community were angered and saddened that a white person was able to profit from using the black experience of suffrage and collectively many called to have the painting taken down and disposed of.

Dana Shutz, Open Casket. 2016.

Another reference that came to mind is Janelle Monae’s rhythmic chant titled Hell You Talmbout. 2015 that recalls victims of social injustice like Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Sharonda Singleton. This song was never released but videos circulated of the artist performing it with her band at various shows. Monae gave her blessing to American British - artist David Byrne when he reached out to the singer asking if him and his team could include the song in his Broadway show American Utopia. Byrne voiced that “It simply asks us to remember and acknowledge these lives that have been lost, lives that were taken from us through injustice, though the song leaves that for the listener to put together. I love a drum line, so that aspect of the song sucked me in immediately as well. The song musically is a celebration and lyrically a eulogy. Beautiful.”

All of these artists have a goal to figure out where they fit into the broader conversation of diversity and how they can get their messages across and engender the change that so desperately needs to occur. Artists may have their intentions but it is ultimately up to the viewer to make their own truths about each work of art. The goal of this piece is to educate our young artists and open up the doors to an imperative dialogue while also being objective. My question to the audience is how do allies occupy this space without taking the spotlight away from those victims. If art was censored then there is no dialogue. What is the expected role of an ally that is- to take the complete backseat or have some level of engagement? What are the responsibilities as an ally in this performative art space and what does their participation look like? I believe art can be the vital entry way for our generation to create a peaceful dialogue.

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