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Black on Black

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

Smith ...I had a similar experience as Karen's when I won a Guggenheim Fellowship some time ago. When I brought the work in, nobody knew I was black. And when I put up the work, the first thing somebody said was, "Have you met Sam Gilliam?"... It was a strange feeling. From that point on, things have happened where it seemed to me it was more important for people to see who I was than the work itself. It happened another time, when a member of the board of directors of a Houston museum said, "My God, I didn't know you're black." He said it just like that.... Although the work is about my experience as a black person, it doesn't just cry all over the museum, "I'm black, I'm black, I'm black!"

Bert Samples One thing that I was thinking about in terms of the "Fresh Visions" show was the group photograph taken of all the artists -- it was almost like putting a target on everyone in that picture.... It's about black art, black artists. It's like the "other" category.

anders There are only certain things, certain images that are allowed through the gate that white folks are comfortable with. The closer to the experience of full humanity it is -- then, oh, my God, that doesn't make you alternative anymore. It doesn't make you "other" then. It makes you just like everybody else. It's speaking from your full humanity and reflecting full humanity.

Lawrence ...I was talking with someone in the Core Program about David Hammons -- he won the Prix de Rome, he got the MacArthur Fellowship -- and we were having a conversation that we don't know if it's guilt money or not.... We know his work has merit, but how do we know that's why he got the money?

This is changing the subject, but coming to Houston in 1990, after being in grad school in 1988 and '89 -- I had a unique experience in grad school as one of eight black MFA [Master's of Fine Arts] candidates in one school, that is like unprecedented in the country, I believe -- as I came out of school looking for something to do, I was invited to come here. Nothing else panned out. Michelle Barnes got word of me and said, I want you to come here. And so here I am. I'm here because of the Community Artists' Collective. There's a community here. "Fresh Visions" was possible.... Just that it happened, that it was possible in Houston. That's real different for this city as far as I can tell.

Kalil I'd like to see things open up even more. It grew by such small increments in the community for such a long time. How can we get the dialogue moving?... Talking about curators, critics or institutions might seem old hat, but such discussions have not been put to print. So you ruffle some feathers, but unless you challenge old assumptions, things won't change here.

Sanders That's what I live for. That's part of my existence -- when is this going to change? Lord have mercy. The question is to the institutions. That's where the question needs to be -- and the universities. All of them.... Whatever monuments of America are still in place and existing off of those antiquated, ridiculous notions of other people, people other than themselves.

Kalil I don't want to talk in terms of "flavor of the month," but how do you deal with the fickleness of the art world?

Lawrence How would you define being a black person -- whose definition? We have our own. And if white folks acknowledge it, well, it doesn't really matter to us. If we don't get shows in the MFA in the next two years, we're not going to stop making art. When there's acknowledgment, we're there to be acknowledged. And when there's no acknowledgment, we keep making art.

McGee I've been bitter towards white people before. I'm only 31, and I was bitter. But I discovered if I was going to live, I was going to have stuff done. So I keep telling Tierney about this world party. I've become affected by everything in the world that happens that I see. Because it's coming closer, so I'm going to be affected by somebody in every part of the world. When I came to that conclusion, I stopped worrying what people are going to think about the work once it's out of the studio. ...And as I listen to George, I understand that more....

I like to laugh, I like to talk, I like to drink, I like to cuss, I like all that stuff. But if you can get me out of the way and look at my work sometimes, that would be nice.... But too many times, people look at her [motions to Sanders] and her personality and can't get past this [touches her face] or the genitalia. So the thing that you make, which is probably really you, gets lost and thrown away.

Lawrence For us, maybe it's our age, or the preconceived notion that goes along with the definition that people have of what it is to be a black person, let alone to be a black artist. It's learning and getting information. The sources are available. It's not any big secret. It's just a matter of giving attention to the subject.

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