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Dynamics of Difference: Is race always central to the work of an African American artist?

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When artist Adrian Piper visited The University of Texas at Austin in November, a ripple of excitement rolled through the campus and local art community. Piper, one of the world’s leading conceptual artists, drew a standing-room only crowd to her evening lecture, where she began by showcasing four of her works.

Annette Lawrence, Theory #2, 2001
Annette Lawrence
Theory #2, 2001
Collection of Blanton Museum of Art

Lawrence’s painting is one of many notable recent acquisitions aimed at diversifying the Blanton’s collection. Annette DiMeo Carlozzi, curator of American and contemporary art, says the strength of the collection is that it includes a multitude of voices: “African American artists’ work makes an important and necessary contribution to the American narrative.”

Her talk shifted quickly, however, to questions of race. Piper is a tremendously influential artist and an African American. In her presentation to the campus audience, those two identities became inseparable.

As an artist, Piper addresses race and gender in her work. Because she is an African American artist, and a particularly successful one, viewers expect her to create work that reflects and speaks to the issues of people of color.

“It was almost as if the person who was on the stage—Adrian—was some kind of authority figure who could provide all the answers to the dynamics of race and provide some healing advice about it,” says Michael Ray Charles, professor in the Department of Art and Art History and a co-organizer of Piper’s visit.

Dr. Cherise Smith, assistant professor and a co-organizer of the event, concurs.

“It’s a big responsibility that African American artists are endowed with a lot of times,” she says, “even if they don’t necessarily want it.”

Piper’s visit was the first in an ongoing series titled “Locating the ‘Universal’ in the ‘Specific’?: Lectures on Art of the Black Diaspora” that will bring noted artists and scholars to campus to discuss broad issues. Her discussion highlighted a key question: Is race always central to the work of an African American artist?

It’s the type of question that’s being asked more than ever before in the Department of Art and Art History, where a focus has been placed on creating a diverse and open community for artists and scholars. As more minority artists and scholars broaden the focus in the department, they also broaden the scope of what students learn.

John Yancey
John Yancey, chair of the Department of Art and Art History, in front of “Rhapsody,” the vivid and intricate mosaic mural he created on Austin’s East 11th Street. The public art work celebrates history and preserves the cultural heritage of the rapidly changing area.

“Creating a more diverse department starts to create a bridge where African American art goes from being a sort of special project to another area within academia that people are expected to learn about,” says John Yancey, who was recently appointed the first African American chairperson in the department’s history. “That’s the goal.”

Art and Art History includes scholars like Smith, whose focus is African American and African Diaspora art, and visual artists like Charles and Nigerian-born Christopher Adejumo. As a curriculum in African American art is offered to students, they learn the art of African Americans is shaped by the history of visual portrayals of people of color.

“African Americans have been dealing with negative imagery or negative characterizations of black people for at least 150 years,” Smith says.

Those images, including blackface caricatures on minstrel posters and stereotyped images like Sambo and Uncle Tom, have been used to reinforce ideas about African Americans in the popular imagination. African American scholars in the 1920s and ‘30s decided that if the visual can be the vehicle for spreading prejudice, it was time for African Americans to take hold of that imagery. Artists started incorporating stereotypical images into their work, as a way of reclaiming them, or deliberately creating positive images of African Americans.

“For black artists, sometimes it’s the main focus of their work,” Smith says, “and sometimes it’s just an undercurrent, but not the main thrust.”

Cherise Smith
Dr. Cherise Smith, assistant professor in the Department of Art and Art History, is a scholar in African American and African Diaspora art.

Even for artists who aren’t dealing so explicitly with race in their work, race becomes a lens through which the work is viewed. Yancey says that for the African American artist, this becomes both a burden and an opportunity.

“In African American circles, there have always been two camps,” he says. “There are those who want to attack the stereotypes and those who say, ‘No, it’s not our obligation to do this.’”

The artists walk a fine line, wanting to create expressive work that will also be judged for its inherent value and not just what it says about race.

“Artists try to draw from the strength of racial identity while avoiding falling into a box where you’re only judged within that identity,” Yancey says. “It’s a precarious deal.”

Charles, an internationally recognized painter, says his work has always dealt with stereotypes of blackness. His paintings often co-opt prevalent stereotypes, from mass media depictions of black youth to American advertising images like Aunt Jemima. The subjects have evolved through his interest in the dynamics of difference.

“I have never felt an obligation to deal with race in my work,” Charles says. “Creating depictions of blacks, whether they’re simple or complex images, has never felt like something I had to do. It’s always been a desire for me.”

His career has focused around images of African Americans, particularly images used to sell products, from toys to laundry detergent. Charles’s paintings recognize the history of race in the United States is economic and tied to an uneven distribution of resources.

Michael Ray Charles
Michael Ray Charles, professor and internationally recognized artist, is shown with one of his paintings. In his work, Charles says, he is interested in “dynamics of difference.”

Charles incorporates a copper penny, glued to the work, as a co-signature in each of his paintings. Abraham Lincoln stares out at the viewer from the face of the coin. Charles calls Lincoln “the great emancipator,” but leaves open the question of what African Americans were emancipated from. Slavery may have ended, but many inequalities remain.

The art field is one place where inequalities have been apparent. Charles believes the integration of scholars like Smith is critical to bringing the work of African Americans out of the margins and into the forefront, not only at universities but at galleries and museums as well.

“One of the things African American artists have lacked over the years was value in relationship to what was deemed relevant or necessary within the art world as a whole,” Charles says. “One of the things that creates that value is the scholarly voice in the classroom capable of expanding critical discourse on the subject.”

Before the early 1990s, it was hard to find scholars in African American art. Yancey says early in his career he taught African American art history, even though his expertise was as a working artist and not as a scholar.

“Within the field of art and art history, there were virtually no African American art historians,” he says. “It was excluded from the canon and the discussions, and the visual artists became the historians.”

Terry Adkins, Single Bound, 2000
Terry Adkins
Single Bound, 2000
Collection of Blanton Museum of Art

Adkins is a visual artist and musician who has created a variety of provocative works, including this sculpture made of metal and feathers. His art pays homage to personal heroes, including acknowledged and anonymous African Americans.

Smith is part of a new generation of scholars who are working in the field and helping to train the next generation of scholars. This represents critical progress for artists and students alike.

“The field is not new, but it’s still young,” she says. “There are many more of us teaching now than ever before, and hopefully more that will come up the ranks. People who came before us did groundbreaking foundational work, and now we’re asking new, broader questions.”

The more questions of race and identity are asked in the field of art, the more open the field is to artists and scholars of all kinds. This is a key idea behind “Locating the ‘Universal’ in the ‘Specific’?: Lectures on Art of the Black Diaspora.” The series is sponsored by the Center for African and African American Studies, the Department of Art and Art History, and the College of Fine Arts.

“This an initiative the entire College of Fine Arts is dedicated to,” says Dr. Douglas Dempster, interim dean of the college. “We want to break down barriers to attendance for minority students. We do this by advocating for arts education in public schools across the state and in expanding our programming with things like this lecture series.”

The series continues in February when it hosts its second visiting artist, Charles Gaines. A professor at the California Institute for the Arts, Gaines is a conceptual artist, like Piper. His work, which often combines photos and text, has been called “smart, cunning and lyrical.”

Gaines’s visit is sure to continue expanding the conversation about art, race and identity.

“Part of the goal of the lecture series is to create a body of information that allows people to understand what’s happening out there,” Yancey says, “what some of the accomplishments and trajectories are in terms of African American creative work and scholarship.”

Ultimately, opening up new areas of discussion and expanding scholarship in African American art expand the conversation about art overall. They broaden the experience of students and artists of all colors and backgrounds.

“I’m eager to get this department energized toward moving to real diversity, solid diversity, because I think it’s for all of our benefit,” says Yancey. “It enriches everything.”

BY Vivé Griffith

PHOTOS of professors Yancey and Charles: Marsha Miller

PHOTO of Dr. Smith: Christina Murrey

Radcliffe Bailey, By the River, 1997ON THE BANNER: Radcliffe Bailey
By the River, 1997
Collection of Blanton Museum of Art

Select thumbnail image at right to view
full version of Bailey’s By the River.

Artist Talk with Charles GainesTO LEARN MORE, attend “Artist Talk with Charles Gaines,” Tuesday, Feb. 6 at 5 p.m. in ART 1.120 on The University of Texas at Austin campus.

And, read more feature stories about the College of Fine Arts and its faculty:

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  Updated 12 February 2007
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