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Black on Black

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

McGee I think it's about coming clean, too. Jimmy Baldwin says it's white man's guilt. And until that guilt is erased, nobody can come clean. Also he said, white people have to come clean with a terrible, terrible history.... I'd say most white people have what you call a Superman costume. They use it when it's necessary. They hide behind this false liberal behavior. The institutions are guilty, so they have what are called outreach programs, which is foolish.

Susie Kalil In 1950, John Biggers couldn't go to the MFA to pick up an award. James Chillman abolished that restriction the next year, but that's essentially been Houston's attitude up until a short time ago.

Tierney Malone But that's America. African-Americans have always dealt with the reality of what one calls "mainstream." What's interesting about African-Americans is that we are the most adaptable people living in this country. We came here and basically had all of our tangible connections to the motherland taken away from us.... What happened after our communities were destroyed, we decided to go to another agenda -- and that agenda was, "Hey, let's try to assimilate, let's try to live, let's try to go to your schools." We've been trying since that point in time to keep in tune. But the larger community, the white community, has not. And now, in 1994, it's financially beneficial for institutions to have this agenda, a vehicle for the haves to validate themselves.

Kalil During an interview I did with Peter Marzio before the "Fresh Visions" show, he confirmed that he was trying to get more African-Americans involved on the museum boards and acquisition committees. How successful has that been?

Annette Lawrence The 5-A club [African-American Arts Advisory Association] is in full effect at the MFA. They've been meeting since the summer and pay money for purchasing work. The group decides which work they'll purchase for the MFA. Each meeting, an artist or two is invited to come and talk....

Leamon Green ...When I moved here from Philadelphia four years ago, I felt like I was coming into a completely different world. I like Houston because I think the art community is small. In Washington, I couldn't go into the National Gallery to one of its openings and converse with a collector or with one of the bigwigs running the museum. But here, you can do things like that.

Kalil Okay, so everybody is jumping on the bandwagon. You've got grants and outreach programs at the museums and more visibility through exhibitions.

McGee That's just quota and money.... I don't think they're really interested.... If these facts are put on paper, people will think we're angry. First of all, we're not angry. Before we get to all these big intellectual issues about painting or sculpture, we have to lay the facts on the table. And when black people lay the facts on the table about white people, everybody thinks we're angry or strident.

Sanders ...America is racist and Americans are not dealing with their racism. I was included in a show. There were two black women in this show out of five people. The critic came and reviewed the show [and she] talked about the content of the work of the white artists. And she did not even mention my name in her review. Now that's a very interesting thing, so I called her and asked her why. I wasn't angry. She thought I was angry, but I wasn't. She was honest, which I appreciated. She said, "To tell you the truth, I didn't know what to say."...

When work is produced from African-Americans, it comes from the very same place that the work of white artists comes from. It comes from a personal experience. And, my God, you're wrenching this stuff out and it's expensive and so passionate and important. It doesn't come from rage and slam, wham and, "Oh, I saw a brother over there in the street and he was dying." It comes from the joy of life as well. You understand what I'm saying? We bring these notions and these assumptions to the work. No, I'll say that white America brings them when it's a black artist.

Malone ...Can the critic, who has been taught and educated in this society, walk into an exhibition and come clean? Can they go into a space and put their agenda behind? I just want to read a small excerpt from the review you [Susie Kalil] did on the "Fresh Visions" show: "The works came off as visual slices, like soundbites of cultural disenfranchisement and the commodification of blackness," and then it goes on down, "after viewing the exhibition three times I didn't learn anything more about the African-American experience than what the mass media has already delivered."

Well, right then and there, it leads me to believe that when you walk into a space, you want to see some work like other works you've seen -- you named David Hammons, Sam Gilliam. You want to see that same type of expression. And it seems you ignored the individual perspective.... "Cultural disenfranchisement" -- the arrogance and assumption... The fear of coming off like you don't know, because you don't know. It leads you down a path which continues to compound the situation.

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