Making work about Race as a white artist.

I am pleased to tell you that my special piece ‘Laura of the High Desert’ is at the O’Hanlon Center for the Arts in Mill Valley, CA. The show is titled Women Artists Making their Mark.
 Last week there was a Zoom artists’ round table hosted by the art center and I met several of the artists virtually. You know how that can be, when you have lots of different people in little squares with varying degrees of bad lighting and ambient noise…parakeets, dogs, squeaky chairs; someone doesn’t know about the mute button. But anyway, it was as good as it could be and I was in great company. The Director --- led all of those attending through the entire exhibition, one piece at a time, and each of us were able to speak briefly about the intention of the artwork and to contextualize the content to our artistic practice. I’ll add a link to the show here so that you can peruse the catalog…nice selection of work. (link)
One artist who is in Mexico spoke about her piece with passion, it was a tribute to Elijah McClain who was murdered by the police in 2019 in Aurora Colorado. The piece depicted him in a group of young people of color and each of them was playing a violin (McClain was a self-taught musician) This artist who was speaking was also a person of color. Later in the round table she posted a question about wishing to discuss the idea of white female artists creating images of black people and what led them to do this kind of image depiction. If you look through the catalog you will see that there are several figurative pieces of people of color, mostly black but most of the female artists that were there that evening were white. The administrators and the two jurors and gallerists who selected the work were also white.
Not long after that another of the artists seconded the question the Mexican artist had posed and wanted to also discuss this, but none of the staff running the discussion seemed interested in taking the time to stop the program and open the discussion. Eventually I posted a comment that the point was an interesting one and that I felt a smaller forum would be a better place to go in depth about the subject. Perhaps that will happen. I am posing the question to you now, a tricky one, but still worth thinking about. Is there anything inappropriate about white artists depicting people that are not white? And if not, is there something to be said about sensitivity to the possible negative interpretations of such a work? Does the white artist have to depict black people in pain? (see the links below)
I feel that it would be beneficial for most of us with the gift of white privilege to study systemic racism, to stay abreast of current writing and thought about how insidious it is, and how it shows up in so much of what we take for granted about our lives.   
In my portfolio I have two portraits of Maya Angelou in the category of ‘significant women’ as well as several of Frida Kahlo and Virginia Woolf. On my drawing table is a working drawing of Greta Thunberg that I am preparing for the next one. My feeling is that I am honoring them and singing their praises. But I question that about myself.
Recent writings by Ta Nehisi Coates and Nikole Hannah-Jones have been so enlightening to read as well as listen to in interviews.  (link) And there’s many other great thinkers speaking up. We are in a struggle over the story we tell about America and as an artist, I want to tell a story that is adding to the arc of justice in even the smallest way.  
Go see the O'Hanlon show's catalog or drop into the O’Hanlon Center for all of you in California. Give me your thoughts with a comment. I think a dialogue here would be a start, or maybe an addition to thoughts you have had on this special topic.
All good wishes.  
Additional link for research:

2 comments

  • Hello Maureen, so good to have your comment. .. I think the links I offer may help soothe the rough edges on this issue. I am finding them helpful. I also remember working with you about the Native people’s images. That’s another tough one, I am resurrecting one of my Crow Indian dresses and hope to offer it with respect. Thanks.

    Ouida
  • this is such an important question, Ouida, and I don’t have the answer. But I am interested and passionate enough to pay attention and listen.

    Maureen Shaughnessy

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