The black perspective is essential to the whole story of contemporary art, otherwise we get locked out of the conversation by the elitist white so-called “avant-garde” thinkers who are narrowly basing their assumptions of progression on the exclusionary theories of post-something- modernism, internet, nothing. Where are all the Black art critics? Do they exist? How does the Black perspective contribute to the contemporary art world? The fact that we have to even ask these important questions in 2014 shows us how much work there is left to do. A whole lot. Without Black art critics, whose function it is to theorise, contextualise and evaluate the artists work, (and to bring their own unique contexts to the conversation), how much of contemporary art practice is being erased within the canon of the long-established art institution?
With Black artists finding more ‘mainstream’ attention and success, i.e. Kara Walker, Carrie Mae Weems, Kehinde Wiley, Kerry James Marshall, Steve McQueen etc, more Black critics should be actively involved in the conversation surrounding their works, unless being a critically acclaimed Black artist means creating work to be seen and critiqued by a largely white audience. To be an art critic, it is equally important to be critical of pre-existing critical frameworks as it is to have an extensive knowledge of the social mechanisms that create ‘the art world’. It feels redundant to reduce the practice of art to a self-contained ‘world’ when it is painfully, glaringly obvious when we are routinely made to feel unwelcome in their cold, silent spaces. Mausoleums.
I discovered my first taste of black art criticism through bell hooks’ cutting analysis of Spike Lee’s 1986 debut film She’s Gotta Have It. She introduced me to the foundations of a Black feminist perspective and used it to critique a dominant visual culture. It soon became apparent to me that hooks’ presence in the discourse around Lee’s work was as important as what she had to say about it. “No aesthetic work transcends ideology”.
Although it wasn’t until I read Stuart Hall’s New Ethnicities at university where I began to connect the dots between social exclusion (based on race, class, gender and sexuality) and media representation in visual art. Hall’s radical presence in academia not only birthed Cultural Studies as well as Film Studies but influenced London’s emerging Black artist and intellectual circles, the Caribbean Artists Movement (1966-1972), the BLK Art Group founded in 1982 and was chair at the Institute of International Visual Art. Hall was the first Black British critic I had encountered, he was a key and influential figure in placing both his individual and collective experience as a Black scholar unpacking the trauma of colonialism with his work. His nuanced argument:
Films are not necessarily good because black people make them. They are not necessarily ‘right on’ by virtue of the fact that they deal with the black experience. Once you enter the politics of the end of the essential black subject you are plunged headlong into the maelstrom of a continuously contingent, un-guaranteed, political argument and debate: a critical politics, a politics of criticism.
For critics and artists alike, the concept of performance which is in part made up of the subjectivities of cultures, languages, ethnicities and experiences takes on a new meaning. Our collective historical selves, the gaps in generations of cultural memory and documentation become the foundation upon which Black artists, audiences and critics create social documents that are, in many ways, works of art. Documenting our own cultures, histories and politics is an act of resistance – refusing to be documented or critiqued within a meandering and tired framework predicated on white supremacist values of the black body and experience. For artist John Akomfrah, “The archival isn’t just a place of the past – a place for visits and revisits. For diasporic people, “it’s all we’ve fucking
It is up to us to preserve a rich and culturally specific history of art practice and criticism.The quality of lives lived on either side of the reality of anti-blackness is too great to sweep aside the necessity of Black art criticism. It is another form of cultural criticism, an application of academic research to a type of art practice that aims to explore cultural histories in a nuanced and respectfully contextualized way. Perhaps an increased critical presence on an international art scene means positive change for what it is to feel or be ‘represented’ in important discussions around a more inclusive and progressive museum culture and public space.
Kareem Reid is a filmmaker, curator, journalist and DJ living in South London. He graduated last year with a BA Film and Literature from Warwick University, and has since co-founded The Lonely Londoners, exhibited work in New York and remains forever interested in documenting Black cultural production, particularly the intersections between nightlife, fashion, and visual art.