Maria Lima lima at geneseo.edu
Sun Feb 19 09:13:40 EST 2017

Democrat and Chronicle
02/19/2017 - Page C06

BLACK HISTORY MONTH Is it art without urgency? Generational differences
evident in views about creativity and activism





There is no ambiguity in Emory Douglas’ raw, provocative images depicting
police as smelly, flabby pigs or a shadowy young boy raising the scales of
justice high above his head.

"Art for art’s sake" never entered the equation for the former minister of
culture for the Black Panther Party, who for the organization’s
publications crafted a searing indictment of inequality in a language that
even the most uneducated could understand.

Back then, art was part of a well-oiled community outreach machine, one
that lionized Panther le! aders to counteract their vilification by
mainstream media. Art was harnessed in the march toward recognition,
equality and self-realization.

A half-century later, contemporary black artists offer more nuanced,
intellectualized social commentary, says Douglas, now 73. The struggle
against systemic oppression perseveres, he says, but the sense of urgency
and fearlessness embodied in the protest environment of the 1960s and 1970s
has diminished. Among the reasons he cites: a lack of coordination in the
Black Lives Matter movement, coupled with the waning influence of
grass-roots protest publications.

Though stimulating, modern social justice art "has no real substance,"
argues Douglas, who lives and works in San Francisco. "After the protest is
over, it’s not there. It doesn’t exist."

Cultural historians view the Black Liv! es Matter movement of more than 60
organizations as one of the! most broadbased human rights coalitions formed
since the civil rights and Black Power movements. Yet artists tackling
themes of structural racism or rampant police brutality have difficulty
finding a market for their work, according to Faith Ringgold, an
African-American artist best known for her narrative quilt paintings.

Ringgold’s painting American People Series #20: Die, a bloody depiction of
a race riot inspired by Picasso’s Guernica , was acquired last year by New
York’s Museum of Modern Art, nearly 50 years after she created it in 1967.
"Artists today are freer to do what they please," says Ringgold, 86, who
lives in Englewood, New Jersey. "They don’t want the problem."

Young! er black artists respond that intergenerational themes of social
progress infuse their work, even if the presentation differs dramatically
from that of Douglas, Ringgold and other representatives of the Black Arts
Movement, which for a decade in the ’60s and ’70s sought to depict
revolution and black nationalism through visual and performance art. The
party newspaper The Black Panther, once boasting a circulation of several
hundred thousand, folded long ago, but Tumblr, Instagram and other social
media platforms offer images of racial pride and spiritual solace updated
in real time.

Sadie Barnette, a Los Angeles-based multimedia artist, sees history
repeating itself, further connecting her life and work to that of her
father, Rodney, who founded the Compton, Calif., chapter of the Black

"It’s my inheritance to tell this story," sa! ys Barnette, 32, who has four
exhibitions running across the country. "I find myself not sure of how we
exactly move forward. We absolutely must learn from the past."

Using her father’s 500-page FBI surveillance file, Barnette adorns enlarged
copies of black-and-white dossier entries with glitter, pink spray paint,
rhinestones and splotches of black resembling bullet holes, uniting the
personal with the political. Through this effort and others, she recognizes
similarities between the Black Panthers’ Ten Point Program of 1966 and the
demands of the Black Lives Matter movement today, including reparation for
past harms to African Americans.

"We have made progress, but there is a stark line between freedom and
equal-ity," says Brian Washington, an artist and attorney from Cincinnati
whose parents attended segregated schools. "Just because yo! u are free
does not mean you are equal."

It took 13 years for Washington to complete "The Continual Struggle," a
collection of 34 paintings in mixed charcoal documenting the historical
struggle against segregation. "The monochromatic is ageless and universal,"
says Washington, 36, symbolizing "a timeless struggle."

In one piece, humble Freedom Riders board a bus in the shadow of a Baptist
church under an ominous, swirling sky. In others, Washington paints utility
poles to represent crosses, underscoring the marchers’ sustained faith.

The celebrated collection is now touring at presidential libraries and
museums around the country; former president Bill Clinton wrote the forward
to the exhibition book. During a recent event at the Jimmy Carter
Presidential Library and Museum in Atlanta, Washington met the widow of
civil rig! hts activist Rev. Ralph Abernathy. Juanita Abernathy told
Washington it! was "the best rendition" she’d seen of the civil rights era,
the artist recalled.

Artists follow individual passions born from experience; rarely do they
speak as a collective whole, according to Fahamu Pecou, an African-American
artist based in Atlanta. Pecou, 41, challenges notions of black masculinity
in popular culture, marrying the seemingly contradictory worlds of hip hop
bravado and fine art. He sympathizes with Black Lives Matter’s objectives
but doesn’t see his art as necessarily aligned with the movement.

Pecou grew up measuring his accomplishments by the "tragedies" he avoided —
not dropping out of school, not going to jail or fathering a child by age
18. As a result, he focuses his art on empowering black men as agents of

Art laden with gruesome imagery that "fetishizes" violence is "as monstr!
ous as the forces you’re complaining about," he says.

Yet that contrarian voice should never be silenced, Pecou says. "As
traditional outlets for expression disappear, art becomes one of the last
bastions to express our grievances."

Ringgold’s vivid depiction of a race riot was purchased last year by the
Museum of Modern Art in New York.


Faith Ringgold, seen in her studio in 2008, says art that tackles social
injustice has a harder time finding a market today than in the past.

That has an impact on what artists do, she says. "They don’t want the



Brian Washington spent 13 years completing "The Continual Struggle," a
series of 34 charcoal paintings depicting the historical fight against
segregation. Black and white imagery "is ageless and universal," Washington
says, symbolizing "a timeless struggle."

notions of black masculinity. Above: Pecou’s Egan Dance 4.



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