When I was in art school, the first thing we learned about was African art. But back then, and probably still now, the only words in our textbooks used to describe it was “primitivism” — the work that came from people that looked like me was “primitive.”
It comes from a rich American history: People and continents are colonized or pillaged, black people are enslaved, then you tell them they are beasts or animals, which is why you have black people depicted as mammys, or in Sambo-face; these tropes are still being reinforced to this day. This historical canon of eurocentricity made its way into our curriculums, where it is taught and disseminated everywhere.
Now an estimated 85 percent of artists represented in museums in this country are white, but it's more than just the art world. The nude figures — the skinny white women that appear in the art—created the beauty standards of our culture today. So when Black artists like me set out to make art, or take photos of myself, I still get comments online saying that the art world doesn’t look like me.
I’ve managed a gallery in Los Angeles for five years. The other day, in the parking lot, a white woman handed me her keys as she was heading in. She thought I was there to park her car! Being able to document myself in my art is a healing process, an undoing of centuries of racism, reclaiming a space that structures of power are trying to preserve as white. I have to be my own canon; I make art to empower myself, and others like me because, because that work has yet to be canonized. And I’ll keep making that work until I don’t have to anymore, and even then I’ll still make it. —as told to Fran Tirado
This article appears in Out's May issue featuring artist Zanele Muholi and model Ruth Bell as cover stars. The issue is guest edited by Kimberly Drew. To read more, grab your own copy of the issue on Kindle, Nook, Zinio or (newly) Apple News+ today. Preview more of the issue here and click here to subscribe.