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Whats in a Name

by Antoine Williams

April 9,2010

Here I sit, in front of students not too much younger than me, in an uncomfortable plastic chair in endless supply at universities, the kind of chair with something some teacher or janitor scribbled on the back to claim ownership, like "Property of JCSU Art Dept." I constantly fidget throughout a question-and-answer session full of college kids interested in art. I believe this makes me look nervous, or it could just all be in my head.

I’m accompanied on the panel by members of my art collective God City. We love speaking with young people about art and life from time to time. It seems that we are somewhat of an oddity to these black and hispanic college students who look at our work – some with a sense of appreciation, others with an air of confusion. Young black people who paint and draw aren’t the norm, or at least we aren’t here in Charlotte. So we get the, "How did you make that?" and, "This piece makes me feel like..." questions and comments, which are always productive for striking up conversation with young people of color interested in what we do.

At this point it is completely understandable and expected to receive a question about being a "black artist." This question/comment comes up a lot when speaking to people who would like to know what, as a black artist, I do differently. Those questions aren’t bad – like I said earlier, they are expected. However, it can be frustrating when your skin color determines your worth to galleries and other institutions, or when being the "spiritual brotha" wagging his finger at America is in for the month.

The truth of the matter is I don’t consider myself a so-called "black artist." I’m an artist who is black. I know that it sounds like a matter of phrasing – I am not necessarily concerned with the name itself (I’m not one of those people that insists you call me an African-American rather than black), but more so the mentality behind the label and how it relates to how I approach my craft as a person of color.

Identity is a huge issue within the black community. We have been trying to define and redefine ourselves for hundreds of years; therefore it’s only natural as we break into fields to which we were once denied entry that we want to establish a strong presence. As liberating as this can be with respect to art from individuals such as Henry Tanner, Lois Mailou Jones, Jacob Lawrence, Gordon Parks, and Elizabeth Catlett, whose art was original, timeless, and well-executed, we must not get too comfortable with merely being counted present in the respected field. In a sense, those artists helped define our identity, or at the very least, started the conversation. However, I feel that it is possible to let their definitions limit our approach to art when the concern is more about being a black artist rather than a good artist. By all means, I am not ignoring their color; but those individuals were great artists who happened to be black.

When the emphasis is simply on the color of your skin rather than the color of your mind, just showing up is good enough. Pushing the envelope is no longer a priority because you’ve already accomplished your goal of "being black" with a paintbrush or camera. Having the mentality of being solely a "black artist" also doesn’t allow you to venture outside of yourself. I know artists of color whose art work isn’t taken as serious "black art" because instead of painting cotton fields and jazz musicians, they rather illustrate sci-fi and Goth culture. Without these new voices our conversation can become stale – and so the culture.

To me, being a black artist who comments on issues of race and class doesn’t alone make me a good artist or deserving of praise. Studying art history, practicing my craft, and finding my unique voice over time is what will one day make me a great artist who also happened to be a black man.

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