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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....

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.

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.

Ann Sieber ...When an institution does outreach, it sounds like that's a have, reaching out to the have-nots. And I hear people here saying why should we accept the traditional institution, the white power-structure definition of "we're the haves"? The question in my mind is about the black institutions, the black culture. Why don't they do outreach?...

Sanders We do outreach every day. Every day... This is outreach. Going to the MFA is outreach.... It's not in my community, so that's outreach, to remind America that there's no American culture without bringing in all the flavor and aroma of America. It's always intellectualized and there's always some baggage that's carried along. Who the heck knows why we have this baggage? And I guess I won't find that out until I meet Jesus.

McGee Things are really serious at the moment. And to keep walking on ice like this -- I don't see how we're going to do it. But art can heal. I've seen it heal. It's healed me. ...Every time I go to the galleries or museums I'm looking to be healed....

I had an interesting experience. You know that Spectrum theater on Augusta showing Schindler's List? I can tell you I was there before the lights went out and I was the only brother there. And that's a big theater.... I could tell there were a lot of Jewish people there. I can hear them talking amongst themselves. I have a phobia about sitting in the middle of the theater. But I sat in the middle. The lights went down, and the movie wore everybody out. This Jewish woman sitting next to me, when the lights went up, was grabbing my hand and squeezing it. Total stranger.

That went beyond political things, the tensions between Jews and blacks. I believe art can heal. Other folks think we're just being romantic and carrying on, but we're not.

Malone Thinking about this particular show at Blaffer -- in a very small way it shows the evolution of a segment of the African-American and the American market. Annette was talking about a definition of black art. The reason why that definition holds so strongly is that when the white institutions began to collect the work, it was figurative work. But our expressions change. Yet, those institutions are holding steadfast to those definitions they had ten, 20, 30, 40 years ago.... But we're not waiting for their definitions.

McGee With the "Fresh Visions" show, they treated the art special, like a big singing group, like the Commodores. You know what I'm saying? I went to some gallery. I walked through the door, but I was not David McGee before this year. I'm David McGee now and I thought the dudes didn't have the time. It's a fickle thing. So for vanity's sake, they try to corral us.

Malone Personalities are the mainstay of the art world. Nobody can look at art by Kostabi or Koons and not look at their personalities. If you want to achieve success on that playing field, it's something you have to deal with to a certain degree. That's why I like a piece David has in this show -- it's from a series called "Entertaining Negro." That's a matter-of-fact thing. Often, you've got to entertain somebody you don't necessarily want to deal with just to get where you want to go.

McGee ...When you meet these people, you have to keep entertaining them, knowing that they've treated you like this in the past. If I'm going to come clean and start over again, I don't have to do this. What is the sacrifice? My dealer tells me that this person doesn't like me, so my art won't sell? No. That's a bunch of crap and I refuse.... But now, I'll be called angry, black, bitter or homey. I don't do that anymore -- and that's the beginning of a solution.

We always have to think about solutions. Any fool can talk about the problems.... You don't need somebody on television telling you what pain feels like. The problem is so big, so profound, it's like Job trying to come to terms with God and God saying if I told you, you wouldn't understand it. It is bigger than us all. It is a big, big problem to make art. Like this boy told me, think of the foolish idea to take pigment and put it on canvas while someone is getting their brains blown out downstairs -- and why not?

To make art, it's a soul thing and as old as the ages. I've asked myself -- what am I doing here in this cold studio on Chenevert? There's no air. I ainÕt got no money, ain't got no job, my girlfriend's gone, the dog's dead. What am I doing? I'm keeping myself alive. Believe it or not, a lot of people get it. A lot of people see the reason why to get that degree. Everybody else is pulling triggers.

Samples ...The artist gives the work over to the dealer, the dealer gives the work over to the museum where it sits and sits and sits and gets lost in the shuffle.... The art is not in those buildings. The art is in the people right here. And people out there and things out there. Out in nature. After I started going to U of H and got involved with Lawndale, it was artists taking it upon themselves to be their own critics, because the writers weren't there. And I'm thinking about Bert Long, when he started his publication called Art Scene. He incorporated other artists to go to other studios they knew of because the institutions, like the CAM, weren't showing anyone locally. CAM was just showing so-called blue-chip art and it was a freak incident that James Surls curated the "Fire" show made up of regional artists. That same sort of thing carried over to Lawndale. And I can see the same thing developing again -- artists taking it upon themselves to get things going.

McGee [to Malone] Let me ask you a question. What do you think this roundtable is going to do?

Malone First of all, I hope it gives the artists the opportunity to speak, so that we can hear both different and similar ideas. And from there, maybe we could deal with some of these other things. We can address in our own separate ways some of these misconceptions. This is the opportunity to speak and move on.

Samples It's not just to have this in print, but to open up serious dialogue and conversation. This is our form of networking, other than going to people's exhibitions, a form of visual support. But there's not even a breath of this kind of discussion going on in that kind of atmosphere. And we have to be more inclusive of other people in our community -- not just painters and sculptors, but writers, curators, educators. They should all be in this room and hearing this. But if you're in this space and even if you did hear it, then you got a sense of something going on, the hope of something that you can make some changes. I hope this encourages other people to initiate the same sort of dialogue.

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