By Max Eternity
Omission is a powerful tool, especially for the visual identity of a nation with roots deeply steeped in crimes against humanity. Such that who is seen in coveted spaces tells as much about this nation as who remains unseen in elite places.
Hide the truth, so says the status quo, or else…
A power broker in the arts, Helen Molesworth, a married White lesbian who’s the former chief curator at LACMA, the most prestigious contemporary art museum in Los Angeles, brought structural racism to the attention of her superiors, and just lost her job.
Perhaps Molesworth did not get the memo:
Memo Subject: All Hail the Colonized Mind
Memo Text: White people including LBGTQ can represent all that is memorable, desirable and good, however Blacks inherently lack the ability to shape the wonderful visual identity of blue chip society. And as such, one must never doubt the arbiters of goodness – for they are the givers of all good things.
BusinessDictonary.com defines “visual identity” as: Visible elements of a brand, such as color, form, and shape, which encapsulate and convey the symbolic meanings that cannot be imparted through words alone. In a broader (corporate) sense, it may include elements such as architecture, color schemes, and dress code.
One can easily imagine how important visual identity is when selling retail products. Yet in the sense of the visual identity of a nation, of a people, how much does this really matter?
From a research team led by economist Nicholas Papageorge, a professor at John Hopkins, it was revealed last year in a report, entitled “With Just One Black Teacher, Black Students More Likely to Graduate,” that low-income African-American children “who have at least one black teacher in elementary school are significantly more likely to graduate high school and consider attending college.” The research also found that if a Black student is in at least one class being taught by an African-American “teacher in third through fifth grades [it reduces] a black student’s probability of dropping out of school by 29 percent,” and that for “very low-income black boys, the results are even greater – their chance of dropping out fell 39 percent.”
A similar study published by the American Education Research Association (AERA) says much of the same, and more. A 2016 report, entitled “Does Student Race Affect “Gifted” Assignment?,” found that Black and Brown students “are underrepresented in gifted programs relative to White students.” Using data collected on 10,000 students, the researchers documented “that even among students with high standardized test scores, Black students are less likely to be assigned to gifted services in both math and reading, a pattern that persists when controlling for other background factors, such as health and socioeconomic status, and characteristics of classrooms and schools. “
So it would seem that seeing really is believing – that by being in the presence of someone who is an idealized version of you, or who at the very least reminds you of you in a beneficial way, will inform and strengthen who you are for the rest of your life. And when mirroring happens in an institutional setting at an early age, that child’s chances of succeeding later in life are greatly improved.
This also applies to art and design for public consumption, and more broadly, to the gate keepers shaping the intellectual, artistic and built environments. For it is those controlling the museums, classrooms, libraries and cathedrals, who plant and protect the core of a society, including shielding from the public eye powerful truths about its origins and ongoing institutionally-entrenched prejudices.
“I started studying photography and discovered that the pictures in my history books didn’t match with the people I grew up with,” said photographer and scholar, Deborah Willis, shortly after her book Posing Beauty: African-American Images from the 1890’s to the Present was published. I interviewed the Guggenheim and MacArthur Fellow a few years ago, who told me among other things, that in so many ways in the everyday lives of African-Americans “beauty has been silenced,” also saying that for African-Americans her book offered “a way of [Blacks] representing themselves as human, as human beings, but also as people who have contributed to the world.”
About 2% of all architects are African-American and that percent holds true for Black male school teachers. As of 2014 only one African-American artist had been given a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, and in my first encounter with Whitney Battle-Baptiste, author of Black Feminist Archaeologist, she informed me that the United States only has a dozen Black female archeologists.
This can’t all be by accident? And can the redundant absence of Blacks informing beauty, creativity and intelligence in the visual world be the result of a few naughty White people pulling the strings to ensure that the missing Black male visual presence proves they are not good enough to teach kids, including White kids, and as a whole Blacks aren’t good enough to be regularly seen designing and building shared spaces for the urban fabric, directing and curating at the best museums, or creating museum-worthy art for bourgeois bluebloods and the masses alike?
We’re all familiar with non-discriminatory statements crafted by institutions. They typically go something like: This [organization] does not and shall not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion (creed), gender, gender expression, age, national origin (ancestry), disability, marital status, sexual orientation, or military status, in any of its activities or operations. We are an equal opportunity employer that takes affirmative action measures to ensure against discrimination.
Blah, blah, blah…
Sounds good, but rhetoric is no substitute for reality, especially in the face of real-time facts.
Last month an article at Medium that was also published at the Guardian (UK), urban geographer, writer and poet, Teju Adisa-Farrar, expressed her frustration about the hypocrisy of non-discriminatory policies in writing that don’t ring true in reality. In a commentary entitled “Why are white curators still running African art collections?” Asida-Farrar laments the invisibility of Black patrons in museums, while also questioning in an open letter to the Brooklyn Museum its decision to appoint non-African curators as the face-makers of its African Art Collection:
“The art world continues to claim an increase in diversity and inclusion, though in circumstances like this one we are reminded of how cultural norms and habits, no matter how antiquated, prevail. It is clear that you simply do not care because there is no way you can say you did not know. To the two new curators, I hope you are deeply assessing your positionality. You have undoubtedly agreed to perpetuate colonial behavior in Brooklyn as residents of color simultaneously undergo a different, but not wholly dissimilar, form of displacement and degradation in the form of gentrification. While we are already made invisible in museums and art spaces, gentrification is another process that further invisibilizes us and our experiences.
I’m not surprised that a museum in the United States, which has thrived despite the immense lack of impactful diversity and representative curation, would continue hiring practices that expose a disinterest in restructuring white-centric perspectives in African art and photography. But, I’m still mad and I’m still going to hold you accountable.”
“There are so many examples of expectations around authority on who produces cultural content” says Nina Simon, Executive Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History. Simon is also a researcher, writer and social critic, and I interviewed in 2010 for an article entitled “Is Your Museum too White?”
More recently, at her blogazine Museum 2.0, which she has operated since 2006, Simon wrote an article entitled “On White Privilege and Museums” in which she says that the “vast majority of American museums are institutions of white privilege” that offer abundant “histories of white male conquest.” And in the intellectual and visual world created by these museums, presented are “masterpieces by white male artists and innovations by white male scientists.”
It’s something Simone calls the “white privilege frame.” And she considers it a distortion that obscures “the extent to which museums can represent and reflect the diversity of humanity.” However, Simon is not another do-gooder liberal apologizing for being White. She owns her status and speaks through it to transform it and culture-at-large, saying “I am a white woman. I cannot change my race or gender. What I can do is acknowledge the privileged frame which I have been granted, and try with humility and openness to relentlessly challenge and expand it. I feel this is something that we have to do both personally and institutionally to make our organizations as relevant and essential as possible.”
Simon makes a powerful argument through transparent self-awareness, which gives her the ability to wield good advice all institutions could use toward deconstructing the colonized hive mind, and thereby enriching the moral and visual identity of the nation.