Monday, 29 June 2015

Christopher Hutchinson Writes on Kehinde Wiley

Our Front Porch: Would Atlanta Ben­e­fit from a Post­colo­nial Dialogue?

Writ­ten By Christo­pher Hutchin­son on Jan­u­ary 24, 2012 in Our Front Porch for

Art credit: Kehinde Wiley (Amer­i­can, born 1977), from the series, The World Stage: Brazil, oil on can­vas, col­lec­tion of the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, 2010.8. Image cour­tesy the High Museum of Art.

What is Kehinde Wiley really saying?

The idea for BURNAWAY orig­i­nated from a front-porch con­ver­sa­tion about the need for more dia­logue about local art. Please wel­come Christo­pher Hutchin­son, today’s guest writer of Our Front Porch.

I vis­ited the Atlanta Con­tem­po­rary Art Cen­ter dur­ing the National Black Arts Fes­ti­val last year, and when I sur­veyed Melvin Edwards’s exhibit Inside & Out, I was stunned. Really!? Is this sup­posed to be the most con­tem­po­rary African Amer­i­can artist work­ing in the Atlanta art scene? While I enjoyed the exhibit, I was dis­ap­pointed that the most con­tem­po­rary dis­cus­sion you could have about Edwards’s work would be based on a con­cept that is over 60 years old—formal analy­sis circa 1950.

But, depend­ing on your per­spec­tive, Edwards’s exhibit may indeed be viewed as rad­i­cally advanced in com­par­i­son to the anti­quated African Amer­i­can art often found at Ham­monds House Museum. The art typ­i­cally pre­sented at Ham­monds House con­tin­ues to roman­ti­cize con­cepts crys­tal­lized in the Harlem Renais­sance, which hap­pened over 80 years ago. Nos­tal­gia is being per­pet­u­ated, and a liv­ing, evolv­ing cul­ture is mar­gin­al­ized, bot­tled up, and pack­aged for sale. We’ve grown up on Good Times, but why are there still African Amer­i­can artists whose high­est aspi­ra­tion is becom­ing “The Black Picasso of the Ghetto”—stuck attempt­ing to fig­ure out syn­thetic cubism. Aaron Dou­glas fig­ured it out a long time ago.

Dis­cussing a work strictly in for­mal aca­d­e­mic terms—line, color, form, com­po­si­tion, value—carries with it a con­scious uni­ver­sal lan­guage that ends up being the edit­ing of cul­ture. The post­colo­nial dia­logue con­cern­ing African Amer­i­can art is out­dated and diluted. This prob­lem is global and is also one of the major con­tribut­ing fac­tors for the archaic state of the Atlanta art scene. When will African Amer­i­can art enter into an avant-garde dia­logue in step with cur­rent times, instead of always work­ing in retrospect?

So much of con­tem­po­rary art today is con­nected to con­tem­po­rary philosophy—philosophies that are often French and the­o­ries of art that are con­stantly evolv­ing, but deriv­ing most of their power from Mar­cel Duchamp. In order to have a truly con­tem­po­rary African Amer­i­can art dia­logue, we have to be just as flu­ent in mod­ern and con­tem­po­rary black/African Amer­i­can phi­los­o­phy, such as the writ­ings of James Bald­win, Frantz Fanon, Fred Moten, and Stu­art Hall.

Are Atlanta’s insti­tu­tions of learn­ing equipped with the resources for teach­ing stu­dents how to decon­struct African Amer­i­can art through the lens of these philoso­phies? Through my own expe­ri­ence as a Jamaican/American artist and pro­fes­sor of art at Atlanta Met­ro­pol­i­tan Col­lege, and after receiv­ing my MFA from Savan­nah Col­lege of Art and Design, these prob­lems and ques­tions are present in my own prac­tice as well as teach­ing. Omis­sion and inclu­sion into the his­tory depends on whether we have an ade­quate vocab­u­lary for crit­i­cally ana­lyz­ing African Amer­i­can art.

Post­colo­nial­ism envi­sions a men­tal space where peo­ple affected by colo­nial­ism may return to an orig­i­nal con­text of their own his­tory, in one’s own lan­guage. Put plainly, post­colo­nial­ism takes the aspects that are impor­tant to a cul­ture, from that culture’s per­spec­tive, and uses them to build that cul­ture up.

The dia­logue has made a lit­tle progress in Amer­ica. Thelma Golden and the Stu­dio Museum of Harlem, for exam­ple, has engaged in the dia­logue by intro­duc­ing some the most famous black/African Amer­i­can artists of late, one of the most notable being Kehinde Wiley. Wiley uses a West­ern visual nar­ra­tive to por­tray the spec­ta­cle of hip-hop, the spec­ta­cle of black­ness, in a roman­tic light.

Using hip-hop, slav­ery, and art his­tory to point out the omis­sion of Africans and African Amer­i­cans from his­tory is not actu­ally post­colo­nial­ism. It just points out a redun­dancy: colo­nial­ism exists. Can we truly say that Kehinde Wiley is using his own lan­guage, or is he using the exotic nature of hip-hop and spe­cific links to art his­tory as an “in” to the con­tem­po­rary art scene? Using the lan­guage of acad­e­mia has been a deci­sive choice for African Amer­i­can artists. The African Amer­i­can artist’s con­flict is “how do I edit my work just enough for it to be accepted into what­ever institution?”

The nos­tal­gic pack­ag­ing of African Amer­i­can cul­ture is not just restricted to exhibits at the Ham­monds House Museum. I found the same ideals fused into Rad­cliffe Bailey’s exhibit at the High Museum. To its credit, it was a truly suc­cess­ful exhi­bi­tion that received a great deal of acclaim and press. And over­all it was ben­e­fi­cial to the Atlanta art scene. Nonethe­less, with the excep­tion of a few pieces such as Wind­ward Coast and Cere­bral Cav­erns, the exhibit was once again nos­tal­gia at its finest. Base­ball fields, gui­tars, music, and ref­er­ences to Satchel Paige were all pack­aged into large-scale mem­o­ra­bilia, again mar­gin­al­iz­ing the African Amer­i­can experience.

Char­lene Teters is one artist that has embraced post­colo­nial­ism. She reclaims her Native Amer­i­can cul­ture from a colo­nial aes­thetic and returns to the rit­ual prac­tices of her native tribe. She does not attempt to fit into the mold of a West­ern aes­thetic or nar­ra­tive. Teters could care less about the for­mal ele­ments. She does not use a West­ern nar­ra­tive to engage the viewer. Her intent is to destroy the exotic nos­tal­gia present in Native Amer­i­can cul­ture. As a result of her work, many “Indian” mas­cots and imi­ta­tions of Native Amer­i­can cul­ture have been eradicated.

My ques­tions for BURNAWAY’s Front Porch:

What can be done to move past nos­tal­gic blackness?

Does Atlanta have the power and resources to be at the helm of the post­colo­nial dialogue?

What cul­tural lex­i­con or lex­i­cons are present now in Atlanta? How can art relate and incor­po­rate these languages?

Christopher Hutchinson 
Christopher Hutchinson is an accomplished Jamaican conceptual artist, professor and contributor to the art community as a writer, critic and founder of the nonprofit Smoke School of Art. He is a Professor of Art at Atlanta Metropolitan State College and has been featured as a lecturer including prestigious engagements at University of Alabama and the Auburn Avenue Research Library. For two decades, Chris has been a practicing artist. His works have been exhibited in internationally recognized institutions including City College New York (CUNY) and featured at the world’s leading international galleries such as Art Basel Miami. He has always had an innate passion for creating spaces where Africans and people of African descent contribute to an inclusive contemporary dialogue—ever evolving, not reflexive but pioneering. This requires challenging the rubric of the canon of art history, a systemic space of exclusion for the Other: women and non-Whites, and where necessary he rewrites it. He received his Master of Fine Arts Degree in Painting from Savannah College of Art & Design, Atlanta and his Bachelor of Arts Degree from the University of Alabama in Huntsville, Alabama.

Website: Christopher Hutchinson

No comments: