Black Art & Performing Blackness

Clifford Owens “Obligatory Self-Portrait of a Crying Performance Artist,” 2013/2016
Archival inkjet print
5.25 x 5.25 image on
11 x 8.5-inch paper
Edition of 50 + 2 APs

I went to see Clifford Owens. I remember looking him up the night before the talk and thinking ” okay this is going to be weird.” I was correct. It felt more like a show than a talk. I entered the room very un-cool like with pen and paper ready to take notes. I was able to write down very little until he yelled at me and everyone else writing down each and every word he said. He asked us how we are listening when all we were doing was copying his words. He was right. If I were to mindlessly jot down notes, I probably wouldn’t have been able to really reflect on what he said: ” Be African American, Be very African American

What does it mean to be very African American? Owens did not offer any explanation, he simply went on with what he was saying. I don’t remember what prompted this statement but I looked it up and this statement was an instruction by William Pope.L, veteran performance artist, and was sent to Owens for his Anthology project. It was interesting that he said this to a room full of mostly white people. What could white students gain from this statement? Could they ” put on” Blackness? Could they perform Blackness? Would the white student disregard this statement thinking it wasn’t for them? Regardless of what Owens intended to mean, I instantly thought ” how do I become very African American, how can I be the most Black?”

5_PopeL_EatingWSJ_2000_72dpi_3000pixwide
William Pope.L performing “Eating the Wall Street Journal” (2000) at The Sculpture Center, New York, 2000. (image courtesy the artist, photo by Lydia Grey)

I’ve been thinking a lot about identity politics in art. When I am looking for new art by Black artists, I have had to make a conscious effort not to pay unequal attention to artists who’s subject matter circulates around being a Black person. Though of course there is nothing wrong with Black artists creating work where they center themselves, I feel that it is my responsibility to see artists as whole persons rather than mouthpieces for the movement. Still, I have to check myself when looking at art and have to ask  ” do I really like this piece or do I just like it because it is about Blackness?”

“Black art” is not a genre. Although representation in media is something that is and will continue to be of importance, it is necessary that we don’t look to Black artists to limit their potential in order to entertain us through performative acts of Blackness. For example, if there is an exhibit focused on Black artists and all we see is work telling similar narratives, what does this say about the diversity or uniqueness of Black creatives? Does the artist’s ability to wear Blackness reflect their merit as a Black person making art? Are they then a good and loyal Black artist?

From what I’ve heard from other Black artists, it’s very annoying to be expected to perform a certain level of Blackness. It seems that Black people are given the responsibility of promoting the race, and should be creating work that reflects the Black experience at all times. Also, non-Black people often look at Black artists and assume that their work is about some really deep Black thing. The issue with this is that although art centering Black topics may be beneficial, it can also impose a cap on the imaginations of these artists and reduces their work to simple genre pieces, regardless of the styles or concepts that they approach. It will forever be considered ” Black Art” and that’s a shame.

When do we look at work by white artists and attribute it to the artist’s being 25% Irish, 30% German, 15% Italian, and 30%  Dutch? We don’t right? White artists are given much more agency than artists of color. There is no qualifier to a White artist’s work, they are simply making art.

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