Black on Black

A roundtable discussion with African-American artists about working in Houston

On August 28, 1963, more than 250,000 people gathered in Washington, D.C. to hear Dr. Martin Luther King present his dream of freedom, desegregation and economic opportunity for all people in the United States. At Blaffer Gallery, "I Remember: Images of the Civil Rights Movement, 1963-1993" commemorates the 30th anniversary of the March on Washington through an exhibition of works on diverse media by several generations of African-American artists. Over 100 paintings, sculptures and works on paper examine the social, cultural and political climate of the last half-century and its influence on the work of African-American artists.

For the Houston presentation -- co-organized by the Blaffer Gallery and the Community Artists' Collective in collaboration with UH's African-American Studies Program -- Houston artist Tierney Malone has added works by a number of area artists that demonstrate the continuing struggle for racial equality in our community. Represented artists include Annette Lawrence, Michael Ray Charles, George Smith, Leamon Green, Steven Jones, Fletcher Mackey, David McGee, Bert Samples and Israel McCloud.

But in Houston, at least, many African-American artists aren't dealing with those issues in the same ways as their predecessors. Accordingly, Tierney Malone contacted me with the idea of holding an informal roundtable discussion with a group of African-American artists, many of whom exhibited works in last year's "Fresh Visions/New Voices" at the MFA's Glassell School of Art and, more recently, in "Blacks and Whites Together: A Conversation for Racial Harmony," co-sponsored by Barnes Blackman Galleries and Midtown Arts Center.

Malone hoped that a roundtable would give artists the chance to respond to questions I posed in my reviews of those two shows, as well as the opportunity to comment on their personal experiences in challenging the conditions of racism. The roundtable, which was organized by Malone, took place at Blaffer Gallery on Saturday, January 29. The following transcript has been edited from a three-and-a-half-hour discussion among artists Tierney Malone, Leamon Green, Annette Lawrence, David McGee, Karen Sanders, George Smith, Bert Samples, Houston Press Arts Editor Ann Sieber and me. Also attending were the Blaffer Gallery's Ellen Efsic, coordinator of development and public relations, and Meredith Wilson, coordinator of education.

-- Susie Kalil

David McGee One has to zip themselves up and close themselves into some kind of interior space in order to ask themselves the question, "Who am I? Where do I fit in this picture? How much time should I put into this art world?" -- which really never existed in the first place. [It's just] some kind of trap that a few people got together to exclude a lot of other people. People just don't know. White people don't know. ...Nobody knows -- it's such a big picture now.... Therefore, I've chosen to do something that I know about.... I've chosen to deal with something very interesting, and that's myself....

The antagonisms on which this country was founded are not going to change. So I think people have to forget about all that stuff and think about how they're going to change themselves. When you come to grips with that, which might take a long time, you can deal with all this other stuff.

George Smith The things that have to be done, like David was saying, you've got to do them yourself. I've been learning that a long time.... I'm not very aggressive, but I am very independent and very careful with who I deal with. I've been burned a lot....

I was asked to show at CAM by Jim Harithas when I was in New York. But there was a flood at CAM and the whole thing was canceled. The fact that I'm here now -- I've been here 13 years and haven't been asked to show at CAM. It sucks. And I don't have to deal with it. I'm not the kind of person who'll approach them....

I'm doing something in Dallas, so things are happening and I'm working. But it's just that I don't want to hear about the '60s. This is the '90s, and it's just like the same questions coming out. I think the young people are dealing with that and they have to go through it just like I did. And if I can help, I'm here to help. But I don't want to sound like I'm crying "I can't get a show," I can't do this or that.

aren Sanders ...The consequence that inflicts itself most upon the art world is the refusal of people of non-color to accept the absolute fact that American culture does not exist without the input of black people, people of color. But there are people who have ordained themselves as the guardians of culture. Perhaps there is refusal to accept ignorance upon their part. White Caucasians, European individuals do not go into the communities of black people.

And so when you write about it and when you speak of it, you don't know what you're talking about. Because you really have not experienced it. To some extent it's absurd, and to some extent it's understandable. Unfortunately, the question is, how do African-Americans integrate themselves into the institutions, the false monuments of America.... The outreach programs, the outreach of anything into the black community is an exercise in frivolity. The real impact would be to integrate yourself into what's going on in this community.... For the MFA here in Houston to be placed in the Third Ward would have quite an impact. When there's something set up to generate art in the black community, black people are in attendance....

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