The Art of Representation

In September, actress and notable awkward black girl, Issa Rae, made headlines when she was asked who she was rooting for at the Emmys and responded that she was “rooting for everybody black.” It was a funny red carpet moment and, like many people, I watched the clip the next day, chuckled, and moved on. This is the sort of thing I heard growing up in a black household, and it didn’t strike me at the time as anything to dwell on. Since this time, decades of feelings around diversity and representation have come to a head for me, and as I sit down to write my thoughts, Issa Rae’s red carpet moment comes swimming into my mind. Maybe she stands out because we’re similar in age, so her comment strikes me differently than what one might here from older relatives as a child.

What I’ve come to realise as an adult is that this kind of support is bigger than rooting for people just because they look like you. I grew up in the age of Tiger Woods and the Williams sisters dominating in sports traditionally perceived to be white. I can still remember the comments by golfer, Fuzzy Zoeller, after Tiger won his first Masters Cup, referring to him as a “boy” and saying not to serve fried chicken at the Masters Champions Dinner. Historically, golf clubs wouldn’t allow black or jewish members, so it would be unusual in and before the 90s to encounter many black golfers. Tiger had clearly crossed over into a space that was not intended for black people, and what was “one giant leap” for black people clearly felt like a punch to the gut for Zoeller.

Image of the Tuskegee Airmen via History.com

My dad got interested in golf around this time and he loved to watch Tiger play. I think Tiger sent a signal to many that black people could belong in the sport, and that’s the invaluable power of representation. Speaking of my dad, he served for over two decades in the US Air Force. He loves planes and when I was young he had me watch The Tuskgegee Airmen movie. It’s phenomenal, and I recommend it and the Red Tails remake. They tell the story of the first black flying squadron who flew fighter jets escorting white bomber pilots in World War II. I don’t know that I would have learned of this group if it weren’t for my dad, and this is an incredible example of black men excelling in a very prestigious and important job. Stories like these can inspire young people to aspire to things outside of their immediate sphere of influence.

..there are seven black full art history professors in the United States.

My passion about diversity in the art sector specifically stems from personal experience. I’ve done a BA and MA in art history, and worked within the art/design sector for over eight years. It’s my goal to eventually pursue my PhD in art history and teach at university level. Working within the arts, there have been several moments where I’ve looked around the room and no one looked like me. I’ve even been made to feel an outcast a points for some combination of my race/class. I wondered if I wasn’t being observant enough to spot other black figures, or if maybe that was just my personal experience, so I started Googling. What I found was a 2015 interview with Professor Stephen Nelson of UCLA where he states that by his count, there are seven black full art history professors in the United States. Seven. It affirmed my feelings and also made me feel the weight of my hard slog towards becoming a professor. Another interesting (read: depressing) note was that he mentioned that five of the seven professors were men. If you look across any art history program, you’ll notice that the subject is largely female, so the lack of gender representation amongst professors is disappointing to say the least.

We don’t learn much about black artists. If you’re lucky, your high school might have discussed the Harlem Renaissance. In recent years, there has been more discussion about Basquiat, which I genuinely think is due in some part to Jay-Z mentioning the artist so many times over his last couple of albums. Initially, I didn’t appreciate why he was bringing Basquiat up like he’s fresh news because I took for granted that Basquiat was famous already. In reality, I don’t think that many people knew that there was a black artist working at his level, with respect from fellow artists like Andy Warhol. Just like we can play golf, or be a fighter pilot, we can be artists. How do I know? Because we’ve done it, and we’re doing it. Look at Sir David Adjaye, a talented Ghanaian architect working all across the world. It’s not that someone has to pave the way before the rest can follow; it’s that when you’re on a tough path, it helps to have the encouragement that what you want to achieve is possible.

I’ve asked myself why the art sector is this way, and the only conclusion I can reach is that we need more access to information. Art history is seen as a posh degree, and not many high schools offer the subject. This means that not as many students are able to cultivate an interest in the subject and not as many people are exposed to the variety of art/artists across history. With more exposure to the arts within underrepresented groups, I know that we’ll find that the interest is there— the Dance Theatre of Harlem is a beautiful example of this.

The moment I realised the impact of representation on my life most clearly was in 2008. It was the first year that I was old enough to vote for president and I’d been very invested in the debates. I distinctly remember being alone on an elevator, when an older black man got on after me. He turned to me and said, “are you going to vote for Obama?” I responded that I was and, satisfied with that answer, he departed in polite silence. I thought it was weird and funny at the time. Having grown up after the Civil Rights era, the magnitude of a black man as the Democratic candidate didn’t strike me in the same way as my black elders — I took for granted that it was possible. November 4th, when it was announced that Barack Obama won, I burst into tears alone in my apartment. It was an unexpected response of overwhelming victory and pride. My president looked like me. After everything, look what we achieved. Look what we could do.

I’m going to continue to root for diversity. I’m going to continue to root for representation. Within each of us is the potential to do and become anything, irrespective of our race, class, gender, sexuality, or creed. The more we have examples to reinforce this idea, the more we’ll see the landscape change across sectors. That’s the beauty of representation.

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