The Other Black. Am I Too White?

In 2010 a debate was held in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, called ‘Am I Black Enough for You?’.

Dutch black artists discussed the perspective of being a black artist in a European country. Part of the problem that artists confronted during the debate was the hegemony of American and British ideas of blackness and the need of the Dutch artists to establish their own black identity. “In order to avoid misinterpretation, I choose the word Black here to denote people of color,” said Dutch artist Charl Landvreugd in remarks he delivered to introduce the discussion. But he said, “A word such as Black does not have the same connotations in our environment as it does in the Anglo-American context.”

[From: Dominion of New York, ‘Am I Black Enough for You? Dutch Artists Debate Their Identity’, by Erik Kambel ]

On January 24th, 2013, another debate was organized to discuss this subject. ‘Am I Black’ was held in the in Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam. The central question was whether it is useful to think along racial and ethnic lines about contemporary art in the Netherlands, and if it could be useful to develop an Afro-Dutch and Afro-European art discourse? One of the lecturers was art critic Rob Perrée, who is also known for his insightful contributions to Sranan Art Xposed. His lecture is entitled ‘The Other Black. Am I Too White?’ and can be read below.

The host of the evening, Aspha Bijnaar | PHOTO Courtesy Am I Black, 2013
The host of the evening, Aspha Bijnaar | PHOTO Courtesy Anne Ruygt, 2013

Am I Black 2

Lecturer Rob Perrée | PHOTO Courtesy Am I Black, 2013
Lecturer Rob Perrée | PHOTO Courtesy Anne Ruygt, 2013

In the beginning of the 90’s I started getting involved with the subject of art made by black Americans.

Despite its high quality, there was at that time very little attention for it.

Only Adrian Piper and David Hammons enjoyed some level of fame. Connoisseurs knew who Martin Puryear, Robert Colescott and Carrie Mae Weems were. But that was pretty much it.

The galleries were not hosting black artists. Museums rarely showed the work and did not at all collect it (Romare Bearden, a now widely recognized artist from the fifties and sixties, did not get an exhibition at the Whitney until after 2000…….). If there were any private collectors at all, they usually went for the cute, endearing and accessible Folk Art.

In the Netherlands, hardly anybody knew who I was talking about.

This especially motivated me to seek extra attention for it. That type of motivation gets a hold of me quite often during my life.

When in the course of the nineties I wrote a book about it (Postcards from Black America) and curated a traveling exhibition for the De Beyerd in Breda and the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem (both in the Netherlands), there was already some change in the air. A clear indicator was when at the last moment, four artists withdrew from the exhibition. They did not want to be labeled as black. They did not want to be part of an exhibition with work from only black artists. That a number of the participants were not at all engaged in black issues, was not capable of changing their minds.

Back then, this quite annoyed me. Now, more than 15 years later, I would no longer make that exhibition.

One of the deserters, Glenn Ligon, together with Thelma Golden, director of the StudioMuseum in Harlem, would coin the term ‘Post-Black’ in 2001. They came up with it in the exhibition Freestyle. Although there were many misconceptions related to the term, the intention was clear. The participating artists had in common that they no longer wanted to be seen only as black. It was in fact a “redefining of blackness”. Mark Bradford – one of the participants and currently one of the great black artists, with his ripped billboards – formulated it as follows: “We are all making work that doesn’t hit people over the head with the race conversation anymore.”

It was clear: many black artists no longer wanted to be talked about because of being black,  they no longer wanted to express themselves according to the expectations many whites but also many blacks had of blacks, nor did they want to benefit from (or be patronized because of) being black. The ‘affirmative action’, the preferential treatment of blacks, set up by the government, was even considered outdated by many blacks.

A translation of that other mentality is also the work of Kara Walker. Pretty much every art lover sees her as a black artist who deals with the history of blacks, the history of slavery. She fits into the ‘black’ box. This is not exactly the case. She is occupied with the phenomenon that history is always taken out of proportion by minorities who stand to benefit from it. She relays the true history of slavery. Many blacks have always denied that. She is therefore less popular among blacks than she is among whites. Just like how black culture critics have for years kept silent about the real ‘Harlem Renaissance’, the heyday of black culture in the beginning of the 20th century. That success is after all to the credit of a rather large group of homosexual writers, musicians, and artists. Revealing that fact would take some of the shine off the success and it is because of that, that it wasn’t until twenty years ago that it was first mentioned.

Because ‘Freestyle’ symbolizes a turn-around, Okwui Enwezor called it one of the most important exhibitions ever made. He linked it to the election of Obama as president of the USA. Although the latter might not deliver on everything, his election was a breakthrough, an illustration of the fact that the discourse on racism and black has changed.

I am not at all saying though, that the discussion has been totally silenced.

Last weekend I was in Paris for the conference ‘Black Portraiture’. (Interesting report about ‘Black Portraiture’ on the ARC Magazine website.) In it lectures were given by black academics, curators and artists from all over the world. They brought forward issues that are important to them.  Black issues, but also various other issues. Heated discussions, but also discussions during which for many the word ‘nigger’ almost automatically slipped out of their mouths. Unthinkable 10 years ago. Most of the discussions were not intended to emphasize blackness or to distinguish themselves as black, but to give, from another, fresh or personal perspective, a new impulse to the discourse in the visual arts.

I give you another example of which is still heavily discussed. On social media you can read the reactions on Django, the new movie from Tarentino. It is about a slave who, as a black cowboy, takes revenge on his masters and black defectors. The nature of that discussion is also different compared to 15 years ago. On blogs Spike Lee, the black movie maker, forbids blacks to go to the movie. In his opinion a white person should not be allowed to make such a movie.  He got scorned for that position by many black intellectuals, also in Paris. Samuel Jackson, one of the main characters, was interviewed on television and was questioned about the frequent use of the N-word in the film. He ridiculed the interviewer by forcing him to say the word ‘nigger’. The latter refused for fear of being branded. Jackson’s reaction:  that is nonsense and shitty.

England has been through a somewhat similar development. The big difference is, that black there usually refers to Africans who have been in England since the sixties, to blacks living in Diaspora. But most black artists over there don’t want to be branded as black or African anymore either. They are British and they want to be judged on the quality of their work. Elvira Dyangani Ose, who has recently been appointed as curator by the Tate, formulates it as follows: “geographical provenance should not be considered an aesthetic category”. Her appointment by itself in fact already proves that there is some development going on in the UK. She has, as she stated in a recent interview, been appointed because of her knowledge of African art. It is explicitly not her intention to make African exhibitions, but to supplement the collection of the museum with contemporary African works of art. I admit, this is quite late, but the approach is similar to the way in which the USA at this time, appreciates and treats art from blacks.

In this context it is perhaps useful to quote the African curator who recently made an exhibition in this space (Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam). Koyo Kouoh says in De Volkskrant: “The left behind African artist is an idea-fix of the European world. My generation has long since freed itself from that colonial framework of discrimination. I consider myself completely equal to any other curator in the world and the same is true for the artists whom I work with.”

Provocatively perhaps, but I am inclined to replace the word ‘African’ in this quote with ‘Surinamese’ and then direct myself towards Charl Landvreugd. How outdated is your struggle when it concerns the Netherlands? Is there still reason for a struggle? Why don’t you trust more in the quality of the artist and in his work itself? The artists who are about to sit at the table here shortly – Remy Jungerman and Sara Blokland – in no way deny their Surinamese roots, but they do not want to be labeled as black artists who occupy themselves with black issues.

Lecturer Charl Landvreugd | PHOTO Courtesy Am I Black, 2013
Lecturer Charl Landvreugd | PHOTO Courtesy Anne Ruygt, 2013

Charl Landvreugd always defends himself by referring the alleged existence of a “black aesthetic”. By that he means in fact, that many white viewers would not be able to understand, to interpret, work from black artists because they are not familiar with the culture of the maker or because they are not interested in that culture.

I never quite know what to think of those type of terms. I genuinely don’t know what it means, ‘black aesthetic’. In my view artists make work about issues that concern them.  For a black artist this can be the culture he originates from, it can be about identity or about the way in which people are represented, to name just a few examples, but those are in fact themes which are universal, which can also apply to white artists.  With many white artists it also takes quite some effort from the viewer to understand what the work is about. Upon seeing my first Mondriaan I had no idea of what was hidden underneath those colorful lines. When I saw my first performance I also thought that I had ended up in the wrong show. Is there then a ‘white aesthetic’ as well, or a ‘Dutch aesthetic’? Why does Landvreugd want to emphasize the differences? You can also look at the similarities. You can also let yourself be inspired by the other.

I generally find it objectionable when someone rejects a work of art because he/she does not understand it or because it is seems strange to him/her. I have nothing against making some effort to try to understand what you see. Art must disrupt, not entertain or decorate. But then it doesn’t matter to me whether the artist comes from Purmerend, Paris or Paramaribo. Certainly as a professional you have to open yourself up to all artworks and judge them based on their quality, not on their geographical or racial origin.

There is nothing wrong with putting unfamiliar art, and that is often art from other cultures, consciously in the limelight and talking about it, but isolating art from other cultures as though it is from a different order altogether, as though the quality is not the first consideration, and as though it cannot stand on its own, that to me, does not seem desirable.

Remy Jungerman, Sara Blokland, Macha Roesink & Annet Zondervan | PHOTO Courtesy Am I Black, 2013
Remy Jungerman, Sara Blokland, Macha Roesink & Annet Zondervan | PHOTO Courtesy Anne Ruygt, 2013

TEXT Rob Perrée, lecture presented on January 24, 2013

Rob Perrée works as freelance writer, art critic and curator, specialized in contemporary (Afro-) American art, African art and art using new media. His work has appeared in countless catalogs, books, magazines and newspapers. He is editor of the Dutch art magazine Kunstbeeld.

TRANSLATION Cassandra Gummels-Relyveld

A review (in Dutch) of the evening ‘Am I Black’ was written by Anne Ruygt for Metropolis M.

An interesting article about ‘Am I Black Enough for You?’ was written by Erik Kambel on his blog Afro-Europe International Blog.


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