Art on my Mind: Visual Politics- bell hooks

“Does man love Art?
Man visits Art, but squirms.
Art hurts.
Art urges voyages-
and it is easier to stay at home.”
— Gwendolyn Brooks

hooks sees a dearth in the area of black art critique and she issues a call to arms for more critique and also for a new vocabulary for this to happen.This book is such a great look into the state of black art, especially as it relates to the dominant male Eurocentric art. Although the book was less accessible than hooks’ other books, the relatively slow speed that I read it at meant I took more time to ruminate on what I had read and think about the role that art has played in my life.

I was struck by quite a few of bell hooks’ quotes, primarily about the politics of seeing. hooks says how we see things  and relate to them depends on our worldview. hooks laments  the fact that art is often seen as superfluous in so many black people’s lives just because there might be so many other pressing issues at hand. She finds that worrying for a number of reasons, primarily because of the transformative power of art.
Reading on hooks’ own experiences with art, I thought of my own. Seeing as the majority of the art I’ve viewed is European art, that probably formed the lens through which I view art. It doesn’t help that black art, African in particular, is often called “folk art”, a term that devalues the art both intrinsically and price-wise. Having visited several African countries on vacation with my family and wanting to buy African art for souvenirs,  I was always looked at with some  bemusement as the art was created for (Western) tourist consumption, not for a “local” such as me. I find it interesting that without this Western demand for art, perhaps the art would not have been created but it does beg the question of how authentic the art is as African art as it was created with a western audience in mind. Either way, I liked it and I bought a lot of it.  When I bought batik in Zimbabwe or malachite carvings in South Africa, what I saw was its beauty and the fact that I could buy art I could actually touch, art that wasn’t hung in a gallery somewhere, and art I could relate to on a deeper level because of my heritage.

I have seen some great African diasporic art collections in Toronto and Vancouver and I’m often left thinking why aren’t the artists better known, and why aren’t more journals and magazines writing about their work?  I attended Chantal Gibson’s art talk at the Vancouver Public Library during Black History Month and her discussions on her works Tome and Historical In(ter)ventions: Altered Texts and Border Stories were truly insightful, although it needed her explaining her vision, process etc before I fully understood what she was trying to portray.

Black artists as “image-makers” was a profound point for me. About photography hooks says: “I think about the place of art in black life, connections between the social construction of black identity, the impact of race and class, and the presence in black life of an inarticulate but ever-present visual aesthetic governing our relationship to images, to the process of Image making.”

Photos are seen as a “disruption of white control over black images.” I think of the gollywog on Robertson’s jam labels when I was growing up and  how amazing it is that giving a black person a camera lets them create their own images to counter the negative ones:

“The camera became in black life a political instrument, a way to resist misrepresentations well as a means by which alternative images could be produced.”

hooks touches on black male art, but her focus is on the feminine. I enjoyed her thoughts on Lorna Simpson‘s work in particular, an artist who uses images of black female bodies that counter stereotypes:

 “Whereas female bodies in this culture depict us as hard, low down, mean, nasty, bitchified, Simpson creates images that give poetic expression to the ethereal, the prophetic dimensions of visionary souls shrouded flesh.”

Although bell hooks is talking mainly about African-Americans and their experiences with art, I feel it’s very similar to the African diaspora’s experiences with, and perceptions of, art.In fact, there is a lot in the book about collective memory of the diaspora. It’s definitely not an easy read but I personally found it very rewarding.

Some Diasporic art:

2014-10-17 14.52.34
Recycled South African art from the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology. No artist’s name was available.
2014-10-17 14.37.54
The Merger- Mario Miguel Gonzalez, Niels Moleiro Luis, and Alain Pino “Remember” (2012) Museum of Anthropology
2014-10-17 14.32.08
“Aguas del Rio” (2009)- Manuel Mendive Hoyo Museum of Anthropology
2014-09-13 18.45.09
Malawian mahogany art on display at my aunt and uncle’s house. Unfortunately no artist names are available. The one on the left is a candlestick holder, and the one on the right is a popular abstract rendition of the African mother and child.
2014-10-19 16.17.50
El Anatsui, a Ghanaian contemporary visual artist who created this piece using recycled bottletops. On display at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto
2014-09-13 18.45.03
More Malawian art: tea coasters.

12 thoughts on “Art on my Mind: Visual Politics- bell hooks

  1. Awesome review! I’ve not read anything by bell hooks just yet but she is on my TBR for this year. I liked the images in this review and I’m,definitely going to be putting this one on my TBR right next to Bone Black.

    1. Thanks, Didi! I know you will enjoy bell hooks.She’s such an authentic voice out there, I love her. I also have Bone Black, still haven’t read it. By the way, I’ve updated the photos with the artist’s names.

  2. Thank you for reviewing this book, Rowena! Indeed, Art On My MInd IS NOT a book to zip through! The things bell hooks addresses in it are super rich and complex and I’m not sure if other writers and cultural critics have “gone there” [WITH HER] — even though the book is 20 years old. I hope your review will encourage more people to read this and tussle with the holistic impact of visual culture on our lives. Also, I’m curious to know the names of the artists whose work is represented in your photos. peace & blessings!

    1. And thank you for reading it with me, Leslie! I’ve really enjoyed our discussions and I hope to read your reflections on art soon. Yeah, you’re right, when I was reading the book I felt that the issue hooks addresses are still prevalent, at least to my uninitiated mind. I have now updated my photos with artist’s names. Thank you:)

  3. Thank you. I found your review very encouraging, particularly to take up the challenge to seek out and ponder black art. Where have I been exposed to art created by black people? How did it reach me? What did I learn about the artist or the origin of the work? Your post offers a positive nudge to take those steps and raise those questions.

    1. I’m so glad this review was helpful to you! Since reading the book I’ve been thinking more about black art and I’ve found it interesting to journal about my experiences; I think your questions would be great writing prompts for me actually! Hope you have a happy new year:)

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