Artistic Cultural Center
As millions of black parents delight in seeing their child gleefully embrace Black Panther and its cast of positive characters, a natural question emerges: how do we get more movies and stories like this? The answer is simple: we encourage more black children to take up the Arts.
In an era where President Trump has threatened to defund the National Endowment for the Arts, we need artists of color more than ever. More painters, more dancers, more filmmakers, more photographers, more writers, more musicians, more performance artists, more sculptors, more fabric artists, more abstractists. And we need more spaces and venues for black artists. Unfortunately, for many people in this country, a career in the arts is considered unnecessary, unrealistic, and elitist. While it’s easy to blame America’s anti-intellectual leanings, the truth is that for many people of color, a career in the arts is unobtainable due to finances or a lack of art education in their community. Being a painter is a largely white, middle-class dream. And we have to change that.
Not everyone can be as fortunate as I. I was born in the artistic cultural center of my home state to a highly supportive middle-class family. I’ve been creative my entire life. I drew on walls, but don’t remember ever getting in trouble for it. I told detailed stories about going to the grocery store. I learned to read and read music at the same time. My father still keeps a short story I wrote and illustrated at age 9 to show to other children. My mother, knowing when I am frustrated with my career and have faced rejection for the thousandth time, says “I believe in you. Keep at it.” If I seem preoccupied with some other part of life, my mother would say, “what ever happened to your sketchbook?”
I began to study art seriously as a high school student at the Alabama School of Mathematics and Science. My instructor, Orren Kickliter, encouraged students to try various artforms before concentrating on a medium. With his direction, I took an interest in filmmaking, photography, and digital media. I took the AP Studio Art exam and scored high enough to earn college credit. My academic advisor at USC said earning college credit in studio art was “unusual.”
Being a black artist is a lonely existence. Just like any other field, success hinges on networking and connections. The wrong move and you can be labeled as hostile or “difficult to work with.” Because we are conditioned to believe the most artistic people are white, many black artists feel the need to overperform in order to prove that we also belong in the room. Black work is considered inferior to “regular” work until proven otherwise, either by financial proof or critical success. Once black artists have proven themselves by producing exceptional work, the opposite effect happens. Now, you are put on display and paraded as a shiny example of “a new era in storytelling,” or as “a fresh, new artist.” White artists suddenly want to talk to you and collaborate. And that is what’s happening to Ryan Coogler right now. And it’ll be even lonelier at the top when you realize that your race is filled with talented people who never make it. And never forget that black art is still considered inferior, even if YOUR black art is exceptional. Don’t believe me? Name five living black fine artists. It’s hard for me, too, and I went to art school.
As a dual film and digital media art student at USC, I saw efforts the university made to diversify its arts programs and highlight minority art and film, but I also saw the racial apathy of the white students around me. While getting inspired by the works of Gordon Parks, I was constantly reminded on just how white the Arts actually is. It was at film school where I learned that racial bias was actually engineered into the filmstock and traditional lighting setups. I learned about Oscar Micheaux’s pioneering work and Melvin Van Peebles’s French New Wave-inspired early work, but never learned about these artists separate from D.W. Griffith and François Truffaut, respectively. They were footnotes to those “more important” white artists. The film school had a diversity requirement, and yet white students rarely showed up to class, or openly complained about the requirement. All Roski students were required to read Orientalism by Edward Saïd and Black Skin, White Masks by Frantz Fanon, but any racial frustration experienced by either author was quickly forgotten when a white student proclaims a love of “primitive and animalistic” art, like Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work. Then the other white students agree. You sit there, wondering if you, as a black art student, can love a Basquiat without the racial baggage. And for every black art student, there are dozens of other black students that have an interest, but were pressured to pursue “a real career” and do art “as a hobby.” I’ve met several of these students while in college.