It’s hard to talk about the tension between the idealist fantasies produced in the fine art world and the realities of marginalization that many queer, black, immigrant, female etc artists have come to ‘represent.’ I don’t like having my work mediated for white audiences. I don’t like having my curatorial efforts steered in a direction that conflicts with my views. I’m not interested in being an ambassador, and I’m certainly not interested in selling out. But it all feels unavoidable. This conflict is particularly difficult in a Western city like Denver - which has particularly low representation of black artists in contemporary art. I have no local black artist mentors to help me navigate these questions of race and privilege - nevermind the commodification and sale of our identities.
In fact, my two most influential mentors in this city have been white men – Adam Gildar (who owns this gallery) and Adam Lerner (director of the MCA) – who most often assent to the intersection of capitalism and wealth without objection. I’ve formed close personal bonds with both of them that are fulfilling at times: emotionally, intellectually and philosophically – and frustrating at others: politically, socially and morally. Rashawn Griffin’s painting of Gildar, my partner Kristin and I demonstrates the lighter side of these relationships - the playful, idealist interactions we make time for - while also stripping us of artifice, putting our bodies and relationship on display. My installation in Gildar’s apartment builds on this transparency, allowing me to subvert the privacy of identity that his professional and political privilege provide.
I am using this opportunity to take over Gildar’s decidedly white spaces to address the extreme discomfort I feel pursuing a career in a business that is mitigated by identity and power structures that ultimately enforce the binary of blackness and whiteness. The dream of transcending this polarization is particularly alluring to those of us who are multiracial, yet here we are tethered to both our blackness and whiteness. Patrice Washington’s ceramic contribution most directly addresses this concern by quoting a cinematic story of a tragic mulatta. Kahlil Zawadi contributes heavy concrete casts of both milk jugs and 40oz malt liquor bottles, arranged to demonstrate how white hegemony influenced the way he has structured his identity since childhood.
In structuring my own multiracial identity (and my work), I am always forced to analyze what I own and what I don’t own, what is for sale and what is not for sale. If the complex relationship between white guilt and black frustration has become a monetary exchange, is there a limit? How do we make art and make money without perpetuating an exchange that capitalizes on pain and class-consciousness as an acceptable norm? Can we engage in the commerce of identity while still staying true to our senses of cultural obligation and personal beliefs? If I continue to put the full emotional weight of these questions and experiences on my shoulders I will drown. I have to play the game and I have to do me. I can own my blackness, my queerness, and my femmeness, and you can buy it.
Artist Jayson Musson’s satirical persona Hennessy Youngman once gave advice to budding black artists in a 2010 episode of his Art Thoughtz video series. He told us to “be unpredictable and exotic to white people, appear to be in line with black intellectual fads and what have you, and exploit slavery in the production of art objects for bourgeoisie white consuming audiences.” The punchline still hits close to home seven years later. We want to produce work, we need the money to do it, and it’s hard to imagine alternatives to making that happen under persistent conditions dictated by wealth, race, class and gender. While I’m unsure of art’s ability or need to affect societal change, I do hope to use my own agency and privilege in a straightforward manner; to highlight the power and beauty of the intersection between blackness, queerness, and femininity; and to bite the hands that feed and still get fed.