This was the cover to my summer course reader for Global Perspectives in Contemporary Art. It’s a portrait of Sifiso Candace Leonardo, by the South African photographer/visual activist Zanele Muholi.
I make a point of having the first image that my students see each semester in all of my classes be by an amazing, but typically less-represented, artist: a person of color, female, trans, non-Western, queer, non-binary, and/or any of the intersections therein. This image is either the cover of a reader or the first image on my syllabus.
I do this because these artists are still too often an after-thought, not front and center. It’s not charity when I do this: it’s the 21st century, it’s common sense, it’s great art, and it’s still not happening enough. Some of the artists I choose are in fact well-known international art stars, like Yayoi Kusama: often, my students still don’t know who she is. (The lesser-known Muholi image was one that I loved anyway, but coming into the summer course just days after the Orlando Pulse shootings, it felt that much more important to center the beauty, strength and fierceness of queer voices of color.)
First images from other recent syllabi (artists Lava Thomas, MM Yu, Jaime Hernandez):
One significant exception to my “first image” policy was this piece by Robert Longo. It was an exception because it was this incredible drawing:
-and therefore a way to talk not only about great technical drawing skills, but about how to apply those skills to relevant contemporary issues.
What we think of as the art world still dismays me in its passive racism and sexism. It’s a world I love and have been part of for decades, but it still disappoints me when it’s not as tolerant and inclusive as it flatters itself that it is. What’s happening in recent news in America should not be mistaken for something that the arts are immune to. We do all right, but we need to do better.
Last Friday January 20th, I was scheduled to give a brief noon talk at SFMOMA. I had deliberately selected Inauguration Day for this conversation, but was compelled to cancel it in solidarity with the J20 Art Strike that day.
I had chosen to discuss Student, 1968, by Wayne Thiebaud:
It’s a piece that I genuinely love, but my selection was also a way to talk about some of the points I’m bringing up in this post. SFMOMA was gracious enough to publish my statement, which is more or less a skeleton version of the points I had intended to address. This statement was also on display in the gallery, next to Wayne’s painting.(Pic below, someone reading my statement in SFMOMA that day.)
Anyway, back to Global Perspectives, summer 2016. In my Day 1 lecture, showing images by a number of artists of African descent, I talked with my students about the irony and problematics of sharing these images without a single Black student being present, at a school with few Black students in general. (It’s not that one must be Black to appreciate this work, of course, but the richness in so much of it seems to bounce around the room without the resonance of familiarity, at times.)
As we stare down the barrel of this intensely turbulent moment in U.S. history, I want to gently and lovingly challenge many of my colleagues in art education to look at ways they could diversify the artists and themes that they teach to. Look hard at numbers: when you show male/White/western artists, what percent? How could you change it up a bit? Beyond personal identity, how often are you showing work that engages social and political issues, rather than just formalism in a vacuum? I also want to gently and lovingly challenge my friends and colleagues in arts institutions to look more authentically at issues of inclusion, and how to do the work of curating and organizing exhibitions and events that truly attract and connect with more diverse audiences. When you look around your galleries, who isn’t there?
Some of these challenges are easy things to do, some are harder. They’re by no means the only things to address, but they don’t hurt. And they’re definitely more immediate than the bigger challenges of structural racism, sexism and epidemic violence we’re confronting right now in this country. This week, when I’m feeling sadness and impatience for change, continuing the quiet, insistent work of change and inclusion feels more important than ever.