I grew up with museums. My father was a part time museum guard at the Smithsonian in Washington DC while in medical school. As a little boy then and now I love museums.
I never thought that one day my paintings would be in several permanent African- American art museums across America. Not Africa, not Asia, not Europe, but African- American museums in the United States. Maybe I came to the wrong exposition or maybe I didn’t understand what the curator was trying to convey. I came to see a particular narrative. An eyewitness to history of sorts you might say. The truth is powerful, and art is a great venue into that window of truth. What does art mean when your looking down the road of life interpretations, like dropping a pebble in a pond it should create a ripple of sorts within the conscience realm. If I went to a Japanese art museum I want to see Japanese art, if I went to a Mexican art museum I want to see Mexican art, and still if I went to a Russian art museum I want to see Russian art or any other group. The first wave of a particular culture at its core roots level is its arts. When something is a fake with your peoples’ name attached to it, then what you got is a fake. But when your people have acknowledged who you are then you have arrived, before the international stage comes calling. As I went to the museum web sight I threw my arms up and said oh, now I see. We got an African-American museum in LA in name only. After the cutting of the ribbons and the pink elephants and grand standing. You can always find the weakest member of a group to represent you. And it being Los Angeles and all you can be anything you what to be so it’s in vogue to play along with the African- American theme. Who’s going to research the real deal. As a deep level resource in my own culture African-Americans have been under attack for some time in Los Angeles and you know that’s an art exhibit in itself.
Away from the United States I consider myself a global contemporary artist. As an artist I have a Japanese series, but I am not Japanese, I have a Mexican series, but I am not Mexican, I have a Russian series, but I am not Russian and so on. At home I am a deep State African-American artist meaning, generational, OK, if you know what I mean. I was an artist above things all with a long tattoo. In this case the African-American museum in Los Angeles by the USC campus was committed more to cross pollination than the spirit of the African-American experience with other people’s experiences. As I walked through the exhibit with a friend I was impressed at first with the first painting I saw. It was a painting done by Jacob Lawrence of TOUSSAINT LOUVERTURE. I was excited, he was my friend, I even talked to him about this painting that was hanging on the wall, was there anyone around for me to tell the story of my connection to the man.
There was more African art than African-American art, more Asian art than African- American art, and last but not least, more Latin-American art than African-American art, with the pretense of calling it an African-American art museum and a good story attached to the art. Pathetic.
What could be said by looking at this somebody trying to steal the thunder of another people’s heritage. This has been going on for sometimes, to erase to erase to erase. For the artist in the exhibit a nice addition to one’s resume. As an international acclaimed artist I can say something on the matter. They would not allow my work in an Asian, African or Latino museum respectively, there would not be the same sensitivity. I am talking about my immediate tribe that being the African-American, not African experience and to show case its arts and artist. In an ironic twist outside of the building by the Pan American airplane on display was a plaque honoring the opening of the museum. The images on the plaque were some of our Iconic African-Americans who are household names such as “Mayor of Los Angeles TOM BRADLY”, “Boxer ALI”, “ROSIE PARKS”, and others, only to be tagged by spray paint, with the plushness of the USC campus in the background. They could have cleaned the plaque off.
It was the summer of 1996 Skowhegan, and it was a star pack group of international artist that summer. I was one of some 60 artists chosen from around the world to be a part of the art programme there in the heart of the state of Maine. It was truly a privilege at the time. Six of these artists including myself were African-Americans. But I suppose I offended the liberal agenda of some people there. The priesthood views didn’t correspond to mine, being a case study of the way of seeing things, but somebody wanted me there. Each artist had two chances to defend their work in the red barn located on the property. I watched an African-American artist go before me the previous day. They grilled her and she left in tears from the red barn, I felt bad for her and went and talk to her. I told her come to my critique, they were just trying to get you out of the art game. A Japanese artist went before me as I recalled on that day, they were to critique my work. They praised her up and down left and right, she was their perfect little darling which inspired a long winded conversation about her culture and her paintings which depicted a Japanese approach to painting. My first critique a couple of artist roasted me pretty badly, I rather enjoyed it. They didn’t respect what I painted, fair enough, I didn’t like what they painted as artist, fair enough. First of all I was a painter before I met them. I never got an art degree and thus they considered me an outsider. REALLY! I like that, being called that, outsider. An old black gentleman was nodding his head at the back of the room.
It was hard to play the game due to the fact I was surrounded by all art students, kissing the residents artists butts at ever turn at Skowhegan. And to cap it off three of the African-American students came to my studio and said I was making it bad for them as artists at Skowhegan, amazing pretenders trying to get into the art scene. They fail to realize the programme choose them out of scores and scores of applications, from around the world and for one brief moment in their lives they could experience being an artist. As artist on the compound we would have open discussions on various topics related to art at the Skowhegan library. On one particular occasion some of the professional white artists who interacted with us came to the library. They gave their two cents directed to the African-American artists that they shouldn’t be influence by Jacob Lawrence, or that’s how it was interpreted by the group. An argument pursued. I just didn’t follow the pack, never come to Skowhegan searching out another artist I was my own individual, and thus I realized that was the old black gentleman in the back of the room. But in the defence of my fellow African-American artist who were there, they didn’t criticize there own high profile artists who were there that summer such as Anish Kapoor, Jessica Stockholder, Nan Goldman, Gary Hill and others, they were all white artists and heroes for many of the white artists there. I got along with the four artists mention by name above quite well, but the two high profile guest artists who came to the library to stir up mess, for what ever reason who knows.
I was one of a couple older artists compared to the rest of the artists at Skowhegan except for those visiting artists who were rock stars in the art world at the time. The head lady thought it was best to give me a little place of my own, that was one of the best things that happened. Things do work in strange ways. My place was right by Jacob Lawrence’s cabin in the middle of the woods. Later he would give me my second critique at the red barn. His critique was super positive and he called me a narrative painter and that sent shock waves through the red barn it made the other critique not that important. The critics were there to place doubts in your ability as an artist. There is no clear formula to the elevation to critical success thus I cherish the title outsider. We became friends after that critique in such a natural way, he knew I had been places before I had entered the Programme.
Even Jacob Lawrence was not boxed in with his art, for example, the 1983 Hiroshima series. Being an African-American he painted other things. As a friend we talked on several occasions on different topics. I saw parts of his tough side and what he had to deal with when it came to the art world. Jacob told me, that away from the politics and the fake academics he liked quiet moments with artists. We were both substance seekers. They take a quota on us even in art, he told me. You are lucky young man they are watching you, you can take it were you want to take it. What is shown to the public is one thing, what is not shown is another thing. It’s OK to refuse that art which truly impacts a particular people, but who pick and chooses. There’s a huge sensitivity when it comes to art. He told me he was lucky and had a “hello” moment when he knew he was an artist, not just a black artist but an artist. I asked him had he ever been to Paris he said no but always wanted to go. Then I said if I drew a rabbit in Paris it’s just a rabbit, but in the USA a black rabbit, Jacob laughed.
The last official day at Skowhegan, we had a lobster cook out on the compound rather a nice gesture of it being in the heart of Maine. Each artist had a lobster along with every one who participated that summer. When we had finished I walked past the open kitchen and there were at least some 10 lobsters in a pot untouched, I asked the cook what were they going to do with lobsters, he said we were going to throw them away we don’t really like lobsters. I asked for them, they said take them. One of the African- American artists saw me with the lobsters. I saw her from a distance telling the director of the programme about me talking the lobsters from the kitchen, it was rather funny seeing the director with her hand gesture get away from me with that trivial shit.
Then I invited Jacob Lawrence and his wife Gwendolyn Knight and a couple of other artists to join us in eating the lobsters with wine and candlelight. I asked him why did they move to Seattle Washington he told me it had a different type of lighting out there, he even invited me to visit him in Seattle. Never saw him after Skowhegan but we talked a lot by phone. He died in 2000. I spoke to his wife Gwendolyn Knight shortly after his death then she passed away in 2005, she was a great artist as well in her own right.
Now I’ve made a big deal out of the African-American Museum in Los Angeles. I have many narratives upon many narratives to pick and choose from, to the public which are hard core and generational African-American. The foundation to my complaint is do to the fact that living right there in LA are African-American artist life force, rather than cross pollinate and watering down what you say it is and what it’s not, because it might hurt somebodies feelings. We have been to generous with our culture. Being politically correct. Not having a museum in your people’s name says your people are insignificant. An Asian museum of art won’t allow me to have an exhibit in their museum. At least the graffiti artist feels free from a pick and choose environment and moves like a ninja through the various cities on the planet and is tagging everything in sight. An ironic twist the plaque that acknowledge the museum was tagged by some street artist. Who did it, why did they tag the plaque. What was it all about an art residency, art gallery, museum and was I free maybe the mother of all distractions to bare false witness to truth in the arts through institutions. In France I had a whole exhibit tagged by a spray paint artist. In some circles he was a thug, on the flip side a hero of the streets. I was super angry at the time. I was not a graffiti artist, didn’t have his sensitivity. The summation of that artists experience as graffiti artists were walls of the streets. Could it had been the same street artist that tagged the museum’s plaque. I felt his frustration in not getting to a certain level of recognition.
In the freshness of a new encounter there are hits and misses. You can cross pollinate with others and look down right silly. I had some big success as an artist while living in Mexico before I went to Skowhegan. I went by the name Ealy Mayo despite hitting a nerve in the Mexican art community and meeting some big name Mexican art folks, I was still an outsider. I painted Mexican themes but I could only defend the work at a first degree level. Like the two guys working the desk at the museum in LA trying to defend apples and oranges. If it’s art lets roll up our sleeves and talk art. Like that high school yearbook we knew who did what, get the yearbook out. If you weren’t in that yearbook you had a problem, if you lied and said you were part of that thunder and can’t connect the dots trying to slip into somebodies narrative that’s not your own.
Once upon a time we were connected as children of art, it was that particular innocence that connected us. We were unknown organic narratives in it together somehow imitating the world. Then we initiated and created as artist in the day. Some things just click when you meet people of the same likeness. You don’t change the world chasing somebody else’s story. Create your own story. Feel in the blank questions. We keep it alive. The technology was not what is was then as it is today, things and events can be erased you know.
Post Skowhegan I met giants in the inner circle of African-American artist along with other great artist. We were all still searching for something of truth. History is a funny thing sometimes you may ask yourself did it really happen, and the role of a museum creates a time frame of sorts. I wanted to suggest a couple of ideas to the young men at the desk for maybe a powerful exhibit for the museum and share a story or two about my old friend Jacob, sense the museum was displaying one of his works. There have been several African-American artists since the time I was at Skowhegan and I thought and well I paused and realized they were just gate keepers from that future of 1996. The museum was not ours only in name. They didn’t have the same sprit. Nice fellows on their smart phones and all. Sometimes you just get quiet and observe things, knowing it is not your place in time.
No electronic cloud to erase my narrative with the people and talented people in the art world I met along the way. I was on the danger species list, and I new it. Academics can make you or erase you, how do you get around the academic senses, when you go against it you may pay the consequences, they like to change things you know. The sensitivity of the artist is personal, maybe you can share a little bit of it here and there with good intent along with good composition and drink. In this case, my sensitivity was that of Jacob Lawrence.