Postcolonial Thoughts

Our Front Porch: Would Atlanta Ben­e­fit from a Post­colo­nial Dialogue?

Writ­ten By Christo­pher Hutchin­son on Jan­u­ary 24, 2012 in Our Front Porch for Burnaway.org

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Art credit: Kehinde Wiley (Amer­i­can, born 1977), from the series, The World Stage: Brazil, oil on can­vas, col­lec­tion of the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, 2010.8. Image cour­tesy the High Museum of Art.

What is Kehinde Wiley really saying?

The idea for BURNAWAY orig­i­nated from a front-porch con­ver­sa­tion about the need for more dia­logue about local art. Please wel­come Christo­pher Hutchin­son, today’s guest writer of Our Front Porch.

I vis­ited the Atlanta Con­tem­po­rary Art Cen­ter dur­ing the National Black Arts Fes­ti­val last year, and when I sur­veyed Melvin Edwards’s exhibit Inside & Out, I was stunned. Really!? Is this sup­posed to be the most con­tem­po­rary African Amer­i­can artist work­ing in the Atlanta art scene? While I enjoyed the exhibit, I was dis­ap­pointed that the most con­tem­po­rary dis­cus­sion you could have about Edwards’s work would be based on a con­cept that is over 60 years old—formal analy­sis circa 1950.

But, depend­ing on your per­spec­tive, Edwards’s exhibit may indeed be viewed as rad­i­cally advanced in com­par­i­son to the anti­quated African Amer­i­can art often found at Ham­monds House Museum. The art typ­i­cally pre­sented at Ham­monds House con­tin­ues to roman­ti­cize con­cepts crys­tal­lized in the Harlem Renais­sance, which hap­pened over 80 years ago. Nos­tal­gia is being per­pet­u­ated, and a liv­ing, evolv­ing cul­ture is mar­gin­al­ized, bot­tled up, and pack­aged for sale. We’ve grown up on Good Times, but why are there still African Amer­i­can artists whose high­est aspi­ra­tion is becom­ing “The Black Picasso of the Ghetto”—stuck attempt­ing to fig­ure out syn­thetic cubism. Aaron Dou­glas fig­ured it out a long time ago.

Dis­cussing a work strictly in for­mal aca­d­e­mic terms—line, color, form, com­po­si­tion, value—carries with it a con­scious uni­ver­sal lan­guage that ends up being the edit­ing of cul­ture. The post­colo­nial dia­logue con­cern­ing African Amer­i­can art is out­dated and diluted. This prob­lem is global and is also one of the major con­tribut­ing fac­tors for the archaic state of the Atlanta art scene. When will African Amer­i­can art enter into an avant-garde dia­logue in step with cur­rent times, instead of always work­ing in retrospect?

So much of con­tem­po­rary art today is con­nected to con­tem­po­rary philosophy—philosophies that are often French and the­o­ries of art that are con­stantly evolv­ing, but deriv­ing most of their power from Mar­cel Duchamp. In order to have a truly con­tem­po­rary African Amer­i­can art dia­logue, we have to be just as flu­ent in mod­ern and con­tem­po­rary black/African Amer­i­can phi­los­o­phy, such as the writ­ings of James Bald­win, Frantz Fanon, Fred Moten, and Stu­art Hall.

Are Atlanta’s insti­tu­tions of learn­ing equipped with the resources for teach­ing stu­dents how to decon­struct African Amer­i­can art through the lens of these philoso­phies? Through my own expe­ri­ence as a Jamaican/American artist and pro­fes­sor of art at Atlanta Met­ro­pol­i­tan Col­lege, and after receiv­ing my MFA from Savan­nah Col­lege of Art and Design, these prob­lems and ques­tions are present in my own prac­tice as well as teach­ing. Omis­sion and inclu­sion into the his­tory depends on whether we have an ade­quate vocab­u­lary for crit­i­cally ana­lyz­ing African Amer­i­can art.

Post­colo­nial­ism envi­sions a men­tal space where peo­ple affected by colo­nial­ism may return to an orig­i­nal con­text of their own his­tory, in one’s own lan­guage. Put plainly, post­colo­nial­ism takes the aspects that are impor­tant to a cul­ture, from that culture’s per­spec­tive, and uses them to build that cul­ture up.

The dia­logue has made a lit­tle progress in Amer­ica. Thelma Golden and the Stu­dio Museum of Harlem, for exam­ple, has engaged in the dia­logue by intro­duc­ing some the most famous black/African Amer­i­can artists of late, one of the most notable being Kehinde Wiley. Wiley uses a West­ern visual nar­ra­tive to por­tray the spec­ta­cle of hip-hop, the spec­ta­cle of black­ness, in a roman­tic light.

Using hip-hop, slav­ery, and art his­tory to point out the omis­sion of Africans and African Amer­i­cans from his­tory is not actu­ally post­colo­nial­ism. It just points out a redun­dancy: colo­nial­ism exists. Can we truly say that Kehinde Wiley is using his own lan­guage, or is he using the exotic nature of hip-hop and spe­cific links to art his­tory as an “in” to the con­tem­po­rary art scene? Using the lan­guage of acad­e­mia has been a deci­sive choice for African Amer­i­can artists. The African Amer­i­can artist’s con­flict is “how do I edit my work just enough for it to be accepted into what­ever institution?”

The nos­tal­gic pack­ag­ing of African Amer­i­can cul­ture is not just restricted to exhibits at the Ham­monds House Museum. I found the same ideals fused into Rad­cliffe Bailey’s exhibit at the High Museum. To its credit, it was a truly suc­cess­ful exhi­bi­tion that received a great deal of acclaim and press. And over­all it was ben­e­fi­cial to the Atlanta art scene. Nonethe­less, with the excep­tion of a few pieces such as Wind­ward Coast and Cere­bral Cav­erns, the exhibit was once again nos­tal­gia at its finest. Base­ball fields, gui­tars, music, and ref­er­ences to Satchel Paige were all pack­aged into large-scale mem­o­ra­bilia, again mar­gin­al­iz­ing the African Amer­i­can experience.

Char­lene Teters is one artist that has embraced post­colo­nial­ism. She reclaims her Native Amer­i­can cul­ture from a colo­nial aes­thetic and returns to the rit­ual prac­tices of her native tribe. She does not attempt to fit into the mold of a West­ern aes­thetic or nar­ra­tive. Teters could care less about the for­mal ele­ments. She does not use a West­ern nar­ra­tive to engage the viewer. Her intent is to destroy the exotic nos­tal­gia present in Native Amer­i­can cul­ture. As a result of her work, many “Indian” mas­cots and imi­ta­tions of Native Amer­i­can cul­ture have been eradicated.

My ques­tions for BURNAWAY’s Front Porch:

What can be done to move past nos­tal­gic blackness?

Does Atlanta have the power and resources to be at the helm of the post­colo­nial dialogue?

What cul­tural lex­i­con or lex­i­cons are present now in Atlanta? How can art relate and incor­po­rate these languages?