Mickalene Thomas & Kennedy Yanko: When Being Seen is Not Enough

Lise Ragbir, The Boston Globe, April 24, 2022

 

We’re bingeing our way through the pandemic absorbing TV and movies, and the messages found within, like never before. It’s clear that screens provide an opportunity to access underrepresented narratives — like never before.

 

Through these circumstances, I beam when I spy the work of Black artists, and artwork featuring Black people, in TV board rooms and fancy homes. Seeing a painting made by Jean-Michel Basquiat hanging in a lavish office in “Billions” is a reminder of how far the representation of Black artists has come. But when, in front of this high-priced work by a Black artist, two White characters agree that “buying is a surrogate for power,” I also consider how far we have not.

 

When historically underrepresented people see themselves in spaces we haven’t been, we might be inclined to think: Done. Mission complete. Box checked. But the essence of who we are can never be contained by a box.

 

For many, art is a commodity reserved for the most privileged, a perception that has plagued arts institutions for years, as audiences have remained exclusive. The intersection of money, art, and power is real. Yet any of us who’ve been moved by a piece of music, or gasped at a painting, or had the urge to run their fingers over a sculpture knows the real power of art is in its ability to trigger debate, push agendas, and reshape how we think about the world.

 

So, while TV and film use the work of Black artists to help push an art-is-power agenda, there’s still plenty of room to showcase the power of Black creative expression, to move viewers beyond passive, decorative, elements, toward the change we seek. Surface portrayals do nothing to advance these stories, or undo the forever sung phrase, “We are not a monolith.”

 

Don’t let the artwork be flattened

 

Art is more than something wealthy people like. Art has the ability to make us ask questions, trigger difficult conversations, hold a mirror to and prompt us to look deeply at ourselves. And although it might be rendered on a flat surface, the voices and emotions poured into the work are not to be flattened. This becomes especially important when featuring the labor of those whose voices and emotions have been historically unseen and unheard.

 

The late bell hooks asked, “Who have we allowed, other than the Black preacher, to have an emotional voice?” before going on to say to say hip-hop, in its inception, allowed for a radical, emotional voice before it became the imperialist-white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchal hip-hop. Have we reached this point with art?

 

Perhaps not. But we need to see how art is an expression — of love, exploration, rage — not only an ornament for the wealthy.

 

In episode four of HBO Max’s “Sex in The City” reboot, “And Just Like That,” Charlotte (Kristin Davis) is invited into the home of Lisa Todd Wexley (Nicole Ari Parker,) a Black woman she desperately wants to befriend. Surrounded by art, Lisa’s mother-in-law shares her disapproval of the art collection, and Charlotte comes to her new friend’s defense. She name-drops some of the most prominent (and my favorite) Black artists as glimpses of their work flash across our screens.

 

She then praises Derrick Adams by equating him with Beethoven, validating a Black artist’s work from within a bastion of white creativity. And finally, she anoints Lisa.

 

“With the keen eye of Lisa, the family is in very good [financial] hands.”

 

Everyone around the table is impressed. As it were, these artists stood-in as sidekicks with no voice. But what might we have gained if Charlotte engaged Lisa’s mother-in-law in a back and forth about how Deborah Robert’s depiction of children prompts conversations about vulnerability, about being seen, about innocence? Or if Lisa explained that Mickalene Thomas’ work pushes ideas of Black femininity, and power, and gaze? Or if Charlotte and the mother-in-law examined Adams’ work together, instead of mentioning Beethoven, a White composer. An examination of Adams’ work might have provided viewers the opportunity to engage with a work of art, beyond passive decoration.

 

A more well-rounded embrace of Black creativity might be Ava Duvernay’s centering of Black artists on OWN’s “Queen Sugar.” During season one in 2016, the show features New Orleans visual artist Brandan “BMike” Odums at his 35,000 square foot #StudioBe. Amid Odum’s paintings of modern-day martyrs like Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Eric Garner and Oscar Grant, the character known as Micah learned about the Black Lives Matter movement.

 

Let screen access be a gateway access

 

Even before the coronavirus pandemic shuttered doors, people of color have been less inclined than their White counterparts to visit art spaces. This is for a range of reasons, with racism at the top of the list. While the spread of deadly disease, racism, and barriers to entry (transportation, time, money) continue to keep certain people away, consider how screens can create access. If screen-based media is being consumed like never before, providing unprecedented access to the narratives and expressions of those who have historically been underrepresented, screen access provides an opportunity to interact with what not all of us get to see in a gallery space.

 

Now, a screen can’t replace a gallery-setting, but it stands to build curiosity, prompt questions, and elicit a search for answers. To that end, let the work exist on the walls without the characters walking over it through long shots of the work. Allow viewers to form their own opinions, discern their own lessons.

 

“The role of a Black artist is the same as a Black teacher or lawyer, to challenge,” says Stevie (Yootha Wong-Loi-Sing,) the love-interest of rising Black artist Isiah (Kofi Siriboe), in the film “Really Love.” If we’re to believe this, then the artwork needs to be folded into a continuous conversation, not strategically placed to send a subliminal message. If screens can allow us to consume narratives, they should also provide an opportunity for us to digest the expressions.

 

Pro tip: Saying you’re woke doesn’t mean you are

 

Talking about owning the work of Black artists isn’t enough. Hanging photos of Black people, and work by Black artists, on walls isn’t enough. Whether it is photographs of Stacey Abrams or Nelson Mandela passively hanging over desks in “Billions,” or Charlotte highlighting her awareness of Black artists in “And Just Like That,” declaring wokeness only goes so far.

 

Yet characters, and plots, can get ahead of diluted change by claiming the gaps in their efforts. Instead of passing off store-bought social consciousness, what would happen if the characters in these productions, the ones seeking art or power, acknowledge that trends have led them to the work of Black artists? Imagine what might happen if, instead of focusing on the representation of Black bodies, equal space were given to Black abstract artists like Shara Mays, Alteronce Gumby, or Kennedy Yanko?

 

Over centuries, in hallowed halls, art has served as a metaphor for power. But as Yusef Davis (Michael Ealy) declared in “Love Really,” “Black people create shit out of nothing every day. If that ain’t art, I don’t know what is.” And if this is the case, the increased depiction of Black artists stands to shift the way we consume, think about, and appreciate art as we push toward an antiracist future.

 

“But what happens when these trends are over?” artist Deborah Roberts asked me in a recent phone call. " Will we still be seen?”

 

While these are excellent questions with no clear answers, unprecedented onscreen attention given to Black artists is a step in the right direction. But as Ealy’s character says,

 

“You can’t be just better — you have to be a unicorn.”

 

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