“Does man love Art?
Man visits Art, but squirms.
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: