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Looking for the Line

by Antoine Williams

January 10,2011

“Did you paint this?” asked the 100th person that day at a local festival where I had a booth set up to display my art work. I calmly replied “yes.” A favorite game of mine at these art events is to people watch, or more accurately, reaction watch. Occasionally that day, someone would meander over to my booth to view the work and ask a few questions. Most were excited, while other more conservative people seemed a bit more apprehensive as their eyes scanned the art looking to make sense of the imagery, all the while being very polite. After a while I noticed one gentleman took a step closer to inspect one piece in particular. After studying the painting of a stenciled revolver with the words “Know Peace” bursting out of the barrel and striking a black lady, he quickly lifted his head and asked hastily, “So you like shooting our women in the back huh?” He then abruptly walked off. Had I officially offended someone with my art? The guy was obviously upset at the imagery of perceived gun violence against a black woman painted by a black artist. So did I cross a line?

A few months later, a fellow artist and I were having a debate about making art and whether certain images were unacceptable for us as artists of color to create. His point was that as artists, we should never allow certain images that depict people of color in stereotypical or graphic ways in the public sphere. My stance, however, was that if we accept this ideal rather than considering controversial images in their appropriate contexts, it will lead to censorship, and censorship kills creativity. We continued back and forth on this issue for a good 15 or so minutes when in the midst of our verbal exchange he exclaimed, “But it’s your responsibility to the black community!”

So, do I have a responsibility as an artist to the black community, and if so, what would it be and why? To be fair to my colleague, for anyone who’s seen my artwork, I can understand why it may be perceived that I would subscribe to my artist friend’s belief – ten out of ten of my current pieces comment on social issues. However, as an artist it’s precarious for me to use the word responsibility when it comes to my art and Black America. Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m the first to ascend the soapbox at the site of tired and gratuitous stereotypes. Nevertheless, I don’t like censorship, but I do love context. I feel that within the appropriate framework I can tackle any subject matter with any imagery. For instance, the civil rights movement is sacred ground within black culture (and it should be) – those men and women were a part of the greatest generation when talking about equality. But even within the civil rights movement, the black community back then and still today struggles with sexism, homophobia, and more recently, racism against Hispanics. Should this not be addressed in an artistic manner because it may show us in a negative light despite the obvious hypocrisy?

So why don’t I feel artistically liable to the black community? Is it that responsibility seems like such a weighty and limiting word? I am well aware that in some circles within the black community we have our standards and practices that will bring a holy hell upon anyone who violates them. But when I stand in front of a blank canvas with all of its nothingness and possibility staring back at me, I’m not thinking about what the black community would approve of.  My self-assigned mission as an artist isn’t to coddle black people. If I had to have a responsibility when it comes to making art, it is to challenge my community by occasionally finding the line to cross. Every so often we need to be prodded out of our collective comfort zones. That’s when you get mad and start asking questions, then engaging in conversations, and that leads to action. Complacency doesn’t lead to change; it’s a refuge for injustice. Therefore, I figure the best thing I can do for my people is piss them off.

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