Writing from Atlanta, where the African population including Ethiopian, Nigerian and Ghanaian in particular reside, there is a great love and appreciation for art and architecture evident in almost every area of the city. Atlanta is the historic home of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; a major city for filming blockbuster movies; a draw for hundreds every second Friday to the Castleberry Art Stroll; and abode for the prestigious High Museum and countless visual and performance artists of Africa and the Diaspora. It is the creations of Black people that is shaping up to be the art of the 21st century in the USA.
The New York Times recent opinion piece by Elizabeth Méndez Berry and Chi-hui Yang entitled “The Dominance of the White Male Critic” has lots to say about the possible trajectory in a frank commentary; food for thought if not action. So let’s start with the rise of black contemporary artists on the art scene in the USA and the role of reviews. Critiques are an important aspect of promoting exhibitions and artists, attracting viewers, influencing buyers, and documenting the impact of said art. Berry and Yang state, “It’s 2019 and we are in the middle of a renaissance in black artistic production. And you are telling me the best people to evaluate that are the same ones who basically ignored black artists for decades?” the art critic Antwaun Sargent tweeted in May. “The problem is not that these critics lack some essential connection with the work of artists of color,” the art critic Aruna D’Souza said in an interview. “It’s that many of them simply are not familiar with the intellectual, conceptual and artistic ideas that underlie the work.” The article goes on to say, “This matters because culture is a battleground where some narratives win and others lose. Whether we believe someone should be locked in a cage or not is shaped by the stories we absorb about one another, and whether they’re disrupted or not. At a time when inequality and white supremacy are soaring, collective opinion is born at monuments, museums, screens and stages – well before it’s confirmed at the ballot box.”
With the fast shifting sands on the continent and in the Diaspora including the launch of the African Continental Trade Agreement and Year of Return on one hand and political instability and rampant racism on the other, art remains a visual voice amidst the shouts. Hence, the role of critics to lead the discourse and to help decipher the influences and inspiration of Black art is crucial. So the premise of Berry and Yang’s commentary are on point. Its not that the white critics don’t have the qualification to critique the plethora of exhibitions, its more a mater of the disconnect and the perspective. After all, we view things from our own lens, naturally and expectedly. However, in a time when Black voices are being raised and the quest for equal rights and justice for all are being sought, art and the critics who write about art definitely need to get it right. Getting it right means relaying reviews which are relevant and beyond mere aesthetic assessment. It is also an opportunity for more black critics at home and abroad to write about art and for that matter, art schools in Africa need to offer writing classes to grow a new generation of art critics. But alas, that is merely my opinion and I do hope that those who can and are trusted with the power to shape art curricula, will. The future of black art depends on it.
I close with a quote from the same New York Times op-ed, “Art reviews matter because they can define aesthetic movements or dismiss them. Think of cultural criticism as a public utility, civic infrastructure that needs to be valued not based just on its monetary impact but also on its capacity to expand the collective conversation at a time when it is dangerously contracting. Arts writing fosters an engaged citizenry that participates in the making of its own story. Conversations about our monuments, museums, screens and stages have the same blind spots as our political discourse.” If the latter is true then it is certainly time to take off the blinders and ensure proper peripheral vision.
Dr. Desta Meghoo is a Jamaican born Creative Consultant, Curator and cultural promoter based in Ethiopia since 2005. She also serves as Liaison to the AU for the Ghana based, Diaspora African Forum.