Racial Identity and Cultural Diversity

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To quote curator and writer Ryan Wong, “There is a deep resistance in the art world to accepting race and racial order as a reality.” As Michael Scott (unintentionally) points out: in this day and age, we so fervently avoid stereotypes, circumventing issues of race, gender, sexuality, etc. altogether, that we often end up sounding more ridiculous and offensive.

While it is certainly important and ideal to treat everyone equally regardless of their racial identity, in reality, this does not always pan out, namely within the cultural heritage. How does the racial identity of an artist affect how they produce artwork, and how it is viewed by the masses?

Artist Kerry James Marshall discusses black artists’ desire to be called simply “artists” without having to insert a qualifying racial identifier into their titles. Cultural identity is defined both by the search and creation of definitions of its own members and by the perceptions and propaganda of others and, more specifically, those in power.

Both before and after the Civil War, African Americans were depicted by mainstream visual culture as caricatures, both as an attempt by the white mainstream to define what it didn’t understand, and to keep from elevating the status of African-American culture. This took an obvious form in the “mammy” archetype, as well as artwork relegating African-Americans to subservient roles, such as entertainer, cook, caretaker, and servant.

Kerry James Marshall

During the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural movement in the 1920s and 1930s characterized by an explosion in African-American literature, music, and art, there existed a heavy focus on re-conceptualizing African-American identity representation.  Writer and philosopher Alain Locke (1855-1954) encouraged artists of the early 20th century to celebrate their race by representing African-American subjects, and looking to African traditions in order to illustrate a sense of cultural pride and interest.

This racial and cultural dialogue has not ended.  Contemporary artists still discuss and confront issues of race and art.  Kerry James Marshall confronts marginalized black history by re-appropriating historical African images to become more heroic within in his own work, and by emphasizing skin color.

Detail of Gone, An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart, 1994

Another contemporary artist, Kara Walker, primarily uses figurative and narrative silhouettes cut from paper to comment on race relations in America past and present. All of her figural cut outs, regardless of race, are rendered only in black paper, therefore not allowing the viewer to differentiate between ethnicity based on skin tone.  Instead, these racial variations can only be identified through stereotypical facial features that Walker emphasizes on purpose (ie: obscenely large lips on African-American figures).  This is meant to make you uncomfortable and question your own stereotypical notions about different races.

Some artists choose to confront race as directly as possible in their identity art, even making the audience question their own identities. Adrian Piper’s famous 1988 video installation piece entitled Cornered shows Piper, a light-skinned African-American, speaking to her audience directly about her blackness, and how her acknowledgment of her race may make the audience feel. Not only that, but she discusses the notion that a majority of white people statistically have black ancestry, and how being presented with that information makes the audience feel. She implicates everyone, black and white, as part of the problem and part of the solution.

This post is meant to give an overview of ideas related to racial identity within art. Obviously these ideas only represent a select few points of view within a broad and beautiful artistic culture.

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