Nine Black Artists and Cultural Leaders on Seeing and Being Seen

“If you’re silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it,” wrote Zora Neale Hurston in her 1937 novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” Throughout this country’s history, black Americans have been reminded near daily that this remains true — both literally and more obliquely. In creative fields, for instance, from the visual arts to theater, the white gaze has long determined whose stories are told — what gets to be seen, what’s given value and what’s deemed worthy enough to be recorded and remembered — enforcing a seemingly immovable standard by which black artists and other artists of color are nearly always cast in supporting roles to the mostly white stars of the Western canon.

Today, though, many black artists are actively resisting that idea, creating work that speaks directly to a black audience, a black gaze, in order to reform the often whitewashed realms in which they practice. We talked with nine of them — each a voice of this moment, as the nation reckons with the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others, and beyond — about making work that captures the richness and variety of black life. Whether it’s the artist Tschabalala Self discussing the fraught experience of seeing her paintings be sold, like her ancestors, at auction or the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Michael R. Jackson searching for his characters’ interiority, their perspectives distill what it means (and what it has meant) to be black in America. — NOOR BRARA

These interviews have been edited and condensed.

I realized very quickly, once I crossed into painting the black figure, that we are a political statement in and of ourselves, especially when we’re hanging on the walls of museums and institutions. Because of that, I knew I didn’t want the work to be marginalized any further, and I didn’t want the conversation to be solely about identity or politics — our images deserve more than that. And that accounts, I think, for why I paint in grayscale.

For a long time, I felt the work wasn’t good enough. But then I started asking the right questions: If I hadn’t been born in Columbus, Ga., where I had to perform my identity based on how the lines were drawn down in the South, who would I be? If I wasn’t so aware of my blackness because it had been placed against the stark white background of my private school, how would I see myself?

I was excited by American realism in the early 2000s and began thinking about how I hadn’t seen any work about just black people being black, captured in moments that were nothing special. For years, I’ve been trying to find the language for what draws me to my subjects, most of whom I’ve cast by just running into them while out living my life, then photographing and painting them. I still can’t explain it, but I always use this example of walking into a room and catching the eye of someone warm and familiar-looking and thinking, “Huh.” If these people were furniture, they’d be like antique furniture, like midcentury modern, you know what I mean? They seem as though, in their spirit, they’ve been around for a while. I always want the work to be a resting place for black people, one where you can let your guard down among figures you understand.

Yet white collectors continue to ask me if I’m ever going to paint white people. It’s interesting to me because it shows me they recognize the absence of themselves in a room full of my paintings but don’t recognize the absence of us in the greater narrative. I always tell them, “You should go look at a history book and get back to me. Thumb through and take note of how many times you see something that looks like this, and then let’s have another conversation.” — As told to N.B.

When I think about the now popular idea of “confronting the white gaze” in theater, I think about the fact that I was born into a black family in a predominantly black city (Detroit), where I attended a black church and predominantly black schools taught by predominantly black teachers alongside predominantly black students. The first boys I kissed were black. The first boys I did anything more than kissing with were black. When my father would sit me down to tell me about the evils of the white man, I would roll my eyes because, at the time, the man I felt most spooked by was not some racist white man — it was my father, who was black. I grew up in such a black context that eventually I had to rebel against it. So I moved to New York City at 18 to study playwriting.

In my college plays at New York University, as in most of the short stories and poems I had written in high school, the central characters were black. I remember taking a master class with the playwright Kenneth Lonergan, who brought in two white actors to read scenes from all of our plays aloud. Because this was a pre-woke world, I had to listen to them read my very black, Southern-born characters’ dialogue in a “This Is Our Youth” dialect. As cringe-worthy as that experience was, it was a seminal moment: the first time I recognized white consciousness as the default in theater. But while I recognized that, I was not intimidated by it, because my default consciousness had always been black. I saw the world through artistically, culturally and sociopolitically black eyes. Because of how race is constructed, I understood how whiteness shaped the world my blackness lived in. But I did not cater to it.

In my musical “A Strange Loop” (which last year completed a run at Playwrights Horizons in association with Page 73 Productions and recently won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in drama), the protagonist is a black queer man named Usher who is writing a musical about a black queer man who is writing a musical about a black queer man who is writing a musical about a black queer man ad infinitum. I constructed the play in this way in order to explore the interiority of a black man without having to sacrifice him to the trauma of slavery or police violence. I wanted to capture the everyday misery of being a self. For some, this structure is about “confronting the white gaze.” For me, it’s about what it’s been since I first began writing stories: being myself. If being myself is confronting the white gaze, then I suppose the only way I can explain my supposedly confrontational strategy is by appropriating my favorite white gaze of all: that of the character Joanne in George Furth and Stephen Sondheim’s 1970 musical “Company,” in which she says, “Sometimes I catch him looking and looking. And I just look right back.” — Michael R. Jackson

I focus on the fantasies placed upon the female body because I can speak more earnestly to that experience (having lived it), but I think it’s obvious from what everyone has seen — everyone who cares to see, anyway — that there are lots of falsehoods associated with black people.

Race is understood primarily on a physiological level: through one’s color, features and build — one’s literal physical form. And so racism is therefore a preoccupation with control over the body and, in turn, disdain and desire are projected onto that body. There is one kind of blackness in America that’s publicly praised — one that seems to support the general consensus of black worth — while the larger, more commonplace reality of American blackness is often ignored. I attempt to explore that duality in my practice.

When I’m making a work, I primarily think about the subject in the painting. They’re always imagined individuals; I don’t work with real people. My main objective, first and foremost, is to create a charismatic, interesting and complex character so that they can function as a true subject instead of an object. When I’m thinking about them in relation to gaze, I think about the community I’m from, which is the black community — I grew up in Harlem — so that’s who I’m imagining experiencing the work. That’s the cultural framework in which I feel the work is best understood.

Still, I’m very skeptical of the fetishization of black artists that’s consumed the current moment. I do not feel comfortable, for example, with my works being up for auction. It’s entirely inappropriate and unnecessary to auction work, especially mine: I’m a black American artist, and I paint black bodies. I’m a descendant of slaves in this country, so it’s unfathomable that people could come to me, with glee, to ask if I’m excited about seeing my work, which shows black figures and bodies, being auctioned. That shows me that people have no real understanding of black American history, and they don’t understand anything about me and the specificity of my ethnicity as a black person in America. It’s over their heads. — As told to N.B.

Some of my most recent collages deal with Klansmen, in the hopes of producing conversations about race relations, both contemporary and historical, here in America, especially given the rise of white nationalism from 2016 on. I am captivated by the people behind these masks. I think about their level of humanity. I think about how they exist in the world as people with souls, morals, jobs and families. We don’t share the same beliefs in those ethics, but people have these roles within the Klan as individuals.

I am interested in having straightforward conversations, and I am extending an invitation to the viewer to discuss issues that are troubling, prescient and fraught — issues that some may deem inconsequential. I’m trying to communicate these conceptual narratives in a way that allows audiences from a number of different backgrounds to engage: I want to shift the focus of the conversation around predominantly white institutions so that the institutions that have grown around these hegemonic ideals can be restructured. I am not considering one specific audience when making the work. I am just focusing on the work itself, and how it relates to a white viewer, a black viewer and a transgender viewer depends on the viewer themselves. I cease to have a sense of ownership over my work once it leaves the studio, but I want the work to have life outside of me — to have agency — and for the audience to consider what I’m trying to say. The goal is to create pieces that will be relevant long after I am here on this earth. They are my own personal pyramids. — As told to Tiana Reid

In my work, I return the power of the gaze to the subject — and usually my subjects are black. My subjects come off very strong and empowered. They don’t fall into the stereotypes of black people that white people have created. That’s something that has been interesting to present in the art world since 1993, when I was the first artist of color to blow up the black body to over seven feet tall and unapologetically return the gaze to the viewer. If you’re presenting black people as victims, that goes a longer way to the bank, but that doesn’t change the status quo of the power structure of racism (because racism is about power and economics). I have been more interested in upsetting that paradigm, in at least having the fantasy of having the power, if not the reality.

A lot of my subject matter is me. I was born in Jamaica in 1960, and my family never made me feel like I was a victim. They always made me feel like I was on the same level as anybody else — intellectually and, though perhaps not penny for penny, economically. I certainly wasn’t struggling. Coming from that background, I’ve never had to walk with my eyes cast down to the floor because I couldn’t make eye contact with somebody. I’ve always felt that I was either on the same level or above people [laughs]. I never felt like I had to pretend to be lesser than in order to make Caucasians feel comfortable.

I’m trying to create my own propaganda for the enhancement of black folks. I’m focused on people who look like me. That’s why I’ve returned the gaze: to let my people know that they don’t need to have this subservient slave mentality. Returning the gaze is natural for me but there’s a radical nature to it, too. A lot of artists don’t want to talk about it because they’re afraid. Some are comfortable with the monies and the accolades. As far as I’m concerned, they’re not doing anything for the race. And they’ll say, “Well, I don’t have to. I’m just an artist. I’m not a black artist, I’m just an artist. I’m not a black woman artist, I’m just an artist.” What are you talking about? When I walk into the room, they see I’m a black woman artist. When they look at the work, they assume it wasn’t Muffy in New England who made the work. Why are we running away from who we are? For whose benefit? I’m black and I’m proud and, as a woman, I’m all-powerful. I am the giver of life. Put my ass on a pedestal. — As told to T.R.

I learned how to swim much later in life — just seven years ago — and through the quiet laps and the breathing, it became very therapeutic for me. Whatever I was dealing with before I got into the pool, I didn’t feel the weight of it after I got out. A few years ago, I started to think about how I could explore that in my art. I learned about water-memory theory: this idea that water retains the substance of things that run through it. I thought about that in regards to the Middle Passage and how many memories must be in that water.

My parents didn’t learn how to swim, and neither did their parents. That’s a direct result of segregation. We didn’t have access to pools growing up in Wilmington, Del., and my father would tell us stories of his own childhood spent on the Maryland Eastern Shore. Though his family lived just 10 miles away from the beach, they weren’t allowed to go there except once a week. And even then they were only allowed on the boardwalk. The beach itself was a symbol of rejection.

I was thinking about the residual effects of that, which manifest in the numbers: We in the black community have the highest rate of drowning. That fear still lives with us. So, ever since I was a little girl, I’ve said, “My kids are going to learn to swim.”

In my last series, “A Dream for My Lilith” (2020), I tried to work through this layered experience by putting black people and black bodies in water — there’s a lot of emotion in that. I photographed and then painted girls swimming in and around the rippling waves and liquid blue, surrounded by flickering stars that form when light hits the water in the right way.

With this work, I wanted to discuss the intersectionality of the black female experience, as well as the theory of triple consciousness, which stipulates that black women in this country view themselves through three lenses: the American experience, largely defined by white men; the female experience, generally written by white women; and the black experience, usually associated with black men. To make work, for me, is to seek a kind of spiritual healing from all of that. While I can’t say gaze doesn’t affect me, I try not to think too hard about what people want from me.

It’s funny, though, because I didn’t think that making work would become about teaching my culture as much as it has. There’s a whole black swimmer community that’s reached out to tell me they’re so happy I’m depicting these images. And there are people who can’t swim who love them, too, and they like to get lost in the beauty of just seeing us in water. Sometimes you want to see yourself in places you’ve never been before. — As told to N.B.

I work in an art world that has historically been and continues to be a very white space, in terms of collectors, curators, the entire ecosystem. So I’m always concerned with how I present the artists I work with to the world, particularly because I have positioned my work life in such a way that centers black artists. To me, that means paying attention to how we articulate the mission of the artists and their work, and to how they and their works will live beyond the gallery. We are challenging the historical narrative by amplifying the artists’ intention and/or providing a context that is generally not examined or considered with depth.

I have been with Jack Shainman Gallery for 12 years now, which has given me the opportunity to collaborate with so many artists who are disrupting and growing the canon. Last fall, we opened three exhibitions across our New York spaces with the 38-year-old Botswana-born artist Meleko Mokgosi, titled “Democratic Intuition.” In his practice — which also includes figurative, cinematic painting — he takes existing texts and then annotates and injects them onto canvas, quite literally presenting a history that is a departure from Western hegemonic academia. Mokgosi’s work is undeniably a challenge to the white gaze.

But it’s hard for me to only talk about Shainman or only talk about We Buy Gold, a roving gallery I started in 2017, which happens to center artists of color. They’re both continuations of how I think, but the latter had a lot to do with circumventing the white gaze, or perhaps refusing it: I wanted to create exhibitions that had a different audience, that resisted the traditional elite white space that Chelsea represents. Many people don’t feel like Chelsea is a space for them, even though it’s an area in New York where there are hundreds of exhibitions a year — all free and open to the public. It’s crucial for art workers to help develop future audiences, whether they’re patrons or people who show up and participate. We Buy Gold interrogates the exclusionary ethos of Chelsea, and is a way to bring art closer to my own position, to where I live.

Earlier this month, We Buy Gold opened “FIVE,” an online video group show curated by the New York artist Nina Chanel Abney, and released a publication, We Buy Gold’s deconstructed manifesto, which not only includes contributions from the artists who have shown in each iteration of the gallery but is also another means of questioning how we present our cultural production. Even as we resist the traditional catalog, archives and publications are still important in terms of people looking back and knowing what we did, where we were at and that we were here. — As told to T.R.

What is the white gaze? Which white gaze? Most of my work has challenged the idea that blackness is monolithic. The fact that I and artists like me have so aggressively challenged that position calls into question why we might suggest whiteness is something so simple.

I have people in my community who are white — friends, family, people who influence and participate in my work. If it’s their gaze that we’re discussing, then it’s quite an informed one. If it’s a bigoted white gaze, then it’s different. But I don’t imagine the latter having much access to my work. All of that is to suggest that I don’t believe there is a white gaze that we can speak about without delving into the complexity of whiteness.

We need to have these conversations: What whiteness are we talking about? Is it the white liberal? The white New Yorker? Is it European whiteness? Is there a privilege that is also qualified by a real financial agency as opposed to poverty? This produces different kinds of perspectives. Although we like to imagine that white privilege is inherently linked to white wealth, it’s not. That’s clumsy at best. I’m as guilty as anyone of referencing whiteness with a tremendous implicitness.

I was quite lucky because of how I was raised in Chicago. My mother and father took it upon themselves to introduce me to a black literary and intellectual tradition at an early age. I never had to search. There was never a suggestion that they didn’t exist. There are other artists and black thinkers who have had to more or less discover what they felt was an underground world of black intellectualism, having gone to schools that put more of an emphasis on white and Western traditions. When they discover black thinkers, it’s a revelation to them. For me, it was never a revelation — it was the way things were — so I don’t conjure black literary figures in my work as an opposition to the white underlying concepts and traditions that someone would probably think I’m reacting against. I’m not.

We would never ask Picasso why he painted white people. We wouldn’t position him as an outsider, and yet we consistently find new ways to position the work of black artists as inherently being in response to the obstacles presented by a white world. I’m just speaking from how I understand the world, how I see it. And at the center of my world is not whiteness. — As told to T.R.

I ran to the studio so that I didn’t have to consider anybody or anything, and I’ve always said that my work was my way of freeing myself — from students, from my own teachers, from concepts that I had accepted. There’s this painting I made in the early ’80s called “Meaningless Ritual, Senseless Superstition” that has to do with coming into your studio and maybe jumping around three times, lighting your candles, emptying all of your cigarette butts and sweeping. There are these things I had to do every time to get all of that “outside stuff” out of my head.

Whenever I was teaching — at U.C. Berkeley or the San Francisco Art Institute or the California College of the Arts in Oakland — I would come home and maybe have dinner or take a shower, and then I would get dressed. I’d put on earrings and makeup and my work clothes — a blue work shirt and corduroy trousers or a wool or cotton dress, my favorite lab coat, my clogs — and go to the studio. I didn’t know it at the time, but what I was doing through those little rituals was cleansing myself so that I could get rid of all the awful work my students were doing and all the horrible stuff I was seeing in the museums where I was taking those kids, and in the galleries where I’d go for openings. In my studio, I would try to come into myself. I didn’t try to make work for black people or brown people or white people or red people or yellow people or crazy people. That wasn’t it. I was there to deal with my stuff, to deal with me.

I knew early on in the days of the civil rights movement, when I was at Howard University as a young student and artist, that I didn’t have the ability to do what lots of artists could do, like those Cuban artists and those artists in Chile in the ’60s who were making these incredible heartbreaking prints that talked about the pain of oppression and taught you how to resist it. I didn’t think I could make work that was strong enough to voice what needed to be said in that call-to-action kind of way.

But I am so thrilled when I see people who do really know what they’re talking about, like the painter Joe Overstreet, who was one of my best friends back then, or Kerry James Marshall now. I love Kerry’s work, and I love, even more than that, the way he talks about it: how he digested what he learned, and what school meant to him, and how he makes things legible for people. For me, though, I knew it wasn’t going to move anybody to do anything like that. All I could do was put myself on the line. — As told to N.B.

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