Instead of waiting for wider representation of PoCs within traditional art institutions, we speak with five artists creating (and thriving within) alternative spaces
Whether it’s the overwhelming whiteness of The Oscars, The Grammy’s, The Brits and Fashion Week, rallying cries for diversity are coaxing the creative industries to confront issues surrounding inclusivity and wider representation. It’s exhausting, pedantic and repetitive trying to convince the powers above that their archaic structures need an urgent overhaul, especially when their adjustments happen at such a sluggish pace. Although it’s empowering to see that adjacent to this, creatives of colour are building and using alternative platforms to celebrate their own work.
As institutions like the MoMA and The Metropolitan Museum of Art rethink their collections and staff, and the UK investigates the whiteness of the creative industries, artists are working social media and other online spaces to champion themselves and each other. In these spaces, anonymous suited white men and other so-called art authorities hardly have a say, and their opinions certainly don’t matter.
Rounding up five artists of colour at the forefront of this change, the panel discuss the nuances of their own artistic experience online, how their identity factors (or doesn’t factor) in the creation/dissemination of their work, why conversations concerning representation are important (and perhaps annoying), and what it means to navigate the art world on your own terms.
“The art word itself, to me, is already a grey spacious void. Ready to be filled and depleted with colours and ideas” – Mars (Art Hoe Collective)
Mars: A 15-year-old artist, activist, Dazed 100-er and co-founder of the Art Hoe Collective, Mars has helped create a space where young creatives of colour can express and represent themselves freely, namely through the viral “art hoe” movement and it’s dedicated Instagram page.
Nakeya Brown: Californian-born Washington-based photographer Nakeya Brown creates pastel-tinged images that unpick the rituals and aesthetics of black beauty. Black hair and grooming are among the topics explored in her work.
Monica Kim Garza: Working across painting, sculpture and print, Garza pictures curvaceous, naked (or nearly naked) brown women in various leisurely settings – whether they’re pictured lying on the beach or in a bedroom. The New York-based artist also collaborated with NYC Skate brand 5BORO on a number of limited edition boards.
Ronan McKenzie: A London-based photographer, McKenzie creates intimate portraits of her peers and family, empowering and enlightening viewers with her diverse depictions of contemporary society. She’s also worked with designers Claire Barrow and Marques’Almeida. Her first solo exhibition, A Black Body, was staged at Dalston’s Doomed Gallery last year.
Vivian Fu: Fu is a San Francisco-based photographer who often casts herself, her family and friends in her work, exploring her own identity and surroundings – touching on themes related to representation and intimacy.
First things first, how has social media supported your art practice as artists of colour?
Mars: Social media aids tremendously when dispersing our work and intentions. Being artists of colour we have to squeeze ourselves into narrow pathways. The limitations imposed on us are like shackles. Instead of trying to find the key to unlocking them we have to make our own or find a new way to escape. We do this by creating and implementing empowering spaces for us. I do this with a collective I founded with Jam, Amandla, Sage, Taylor, Alia, Sandra, Myles, Anisa, and Anajah called the Art Hoe Collective. Artists of colour are too often silenced in the art world and by creating this platform we showcase QWOC,TPOC,NBPOC,WOC,POC,QPOC, etc and their work. I think it’s imperative to make spaces on social media where artists of colour can encourage and motivate each other while giving valid critique and opinions. There is no such thing as apolitical art, as all art is fabricated with a social conscious. Being an artist of colour, it really helps to have a platform such as Instagram to display my work and mood-boards. It [shows] that people of colour can be colourful, vivid, whimsical, creative and any other adjective used to describe the “quintessential” representation of art and beauty.
Nakeya Brown: I have to agree as well, artist collectives, as Mars mentioned, are especially important. In order to sustain visibility, artists must find a community to call themselves a part of.
Monica Kim Garza: In general, it has opened up the door for opportunity and visibility. I think therein after, people can decide how they feel. But being a woman especially, life is hard, so big ups to not having a dude ask you to suck his D to get some visibility.
Ronan McKenzie: I agree with Mars too, but I also feel that for me, social media is a platform where someone doesn’t necessarily even know who I am or what I look like as I hardly post photos of myself – just my work. So, it takes away the whole prejudice of being an artist of colour because people don’t know what you are and have to judge you solely on your work.
What is the relationship between your identity and the work you produce?
Mars: Being a non-binary black gender-fluid artist I try to implement the way I feel and identify with my work. My work displays a merge between masculinity and femininity. I want to grasp the attention of my viewers. Not only do I want to show them how I feel, but put them in this dreamy landscape. Two of my previous works (a series of film stills) brought light to dismissed topics. In one series, I addressed black boys and black men being hypermasculinized in The Boys series. In Vulnerable Point, I addressed being black and not being perceived as soft and dreamy. All artists create what they feel and want to address. Even if some of the work we produce is rather arbitrary, it comes from the intention of politics.
Vivian Fu: The work I’m making is very personal and diaristic, and I appear in the work often. Regardless of whether or not my work is directly about my identity because of who I am, what I look like and the opinions of other people on people who look like me – it comes to be about identity. When I was 14 and taking photographs and sharing them online, I wasn’t thinking, “wow this is about identity!” When I’m making photographs of myself and my partner I’m not thinking, “wow this is totally me reversing the typical power dynamics seen within photography” with every shot that I take. Photography is my way of documenting and examining my life and the external forces which influence my life, and that includes notions of identity. We make work from our personal perspectives, and our lives and experiences play a role in the work that’s made.
Nakeya Brown: My work is very pointed towards referencing my lived experiences as a black woman trying to deconstruct pervasive beauty myths that alienate and control black female identity.
Monica Kim Garza: All my work is my diary.
Ronan McKenzie: I second Monica, my work is everything that I see and that I like so I hope that someone can look at my work and see who I am.
What are your thoughts on the overrepresentation of whiteness in the art world as whole?
Vivian Fu: I am always asked about the Asian-ness of my work, but the other aspects about it become secondary. We are so rabid to see more representations that we get stuck at the conversation of representation. I have no qualms with my identity, or discussing how my experiences and identity inform the work I make and have been comfortable discussing it at length in the past, but because of that, I think that the conversation seems to continue to focus on that. Sometimes it feels like the questions I’m asked about my work mirror the questions I’m asked about while out in the world.
Mars: It's oppressive. It's not even a matter of restrictive spaces for artists of colour but it's also a matter of being brainwashed that you don't fit the "ideal image " of the art world. This is an indirect reference to a piece my friend Sandra (Art Hoe Collective curator) wrote about being a fat black artist and having a lack of representation. The art word itself, to me, is already a grey spacious void. Ready to be filled and depleted with colours and ideas. Whiteness sheds a cloud over the subjectiveness and freeness of the art world. It gives it an image and a theme when really there is none. It's subjected to change. It's up to creatives of colour to go and make it that way. To force our narratives and fix the misrepresentation.
Nakeya Brown: The overrepresentation of whiteness doesn’t leave room for a variety of meaning-making, perspectives, or voices. Art can be a powerful place of critique and critical reflection on societal conditions. An artist's’ age, race, gender, sexuality, economic status, religion, and cultural or ethnic background can greatly shape an artist's’ approach. The overrepresentation of whiteness is more of a broom that sweeps these various subjectivities under the rug. When you can filter your artwork through these various lenses of existence, it calls attention to seemingly resolved issues.
Monica Kim Garza: IDK, I don’t look at art like that. I love Matisse and Frida Kahlo and Peter Doig and shit. Yeah, a lot of white dudes take the cake but you know, it’s not like they ain’t good. Maybe it’s overrepresented because there have been more white people. But you know slowly things are changing so... It just is what it is. If I’m lucky, I’ll die and some rich ass white dude will buy my painting, or maybe he will be Chinese. Or maybe it’ll end up in the Fuego. All good.
Ronan McKenzie: I agree with Monica totally! In the world we live in right now, the over-representation of white art, people and culture are everywhere and we can’t get away from that no matter what… and I don’t necessarily think that we need to compete with that. I think as artists of colour we just need to do what we like, what we feel represents us and create that.
How important is the gallery setting for you? How has social media and technology affected your approach to viewership and audience?
Ronan McKenzie: I presented my first exhibition in December and before that I hadn’t thought of exhibiting my work, I appreciated how great it is that people see your work in the flesh and can appreciate your selections of it and the way you compose it instead of just scrolling through on a screen. I also appreciate that technology has connected me with so many different people, even younger people who wrote to me about my exhibition to say that it touched them and inspired them… which was incredible.
Vivian Fu: I was recently asked by a curator during a studio visit how I would ideally show my work, and my immediate thought was “on the web”. When showing work in physical spaces, things like printing, framing, and shipping become things I need to consider, and as somebody who doesn’t actually sell well (lol), that’s money I’m spending and not getting back. Of course, I love seeing my work hung up in a physical space, but in some ways, it’s also kind of limiting. Once it’s in the space, who has access? I came to really enjoy art through viewing it online, so I think that really influences the way I personally approach viewership and audience, and also why I mostly share work on social media. The internet is the best way to disseminate your work, as well as finding other artists that you find inspiring.
Nakeya Brown: I work with printed photographs so an interior setting is usually preferred. I have shown my work in a corridor, in a house (a few times), and in a store, in addition to the gallery/museum setting. I keep an open mind with spaces of presentation out of necessity: I don’t own an art gallery. As Vivian mentioned, being an artist is very costly and most times we don’t get paid to participate in solo or group shows. In fact, in some instances, we have to pay to have our work considered. If your work doesn’t sell or isn’t saleable you're out of pocket. It’s a challenge that I have run into and haven’t quite found a way around.
Monica Kim Garza: Yep, like Vivian said, shit is expensive. A gallery is cool because there is nothing like having the opportunity to present your work IRL, but I think there’s a lot of unsaid shit within galleries and money and stuff. For me, I just love sharing to people IRL or online, it’s nice to be able to touch people and have them feel what you feel. Like when a good ass song comes on… you know.
“The overrepresentation of whiteness is more of a broom that sweeps these various subjectivities under the rug” – Nakeya Brown
Representations of people of colour in popular media continue to skew and mis-represent reality. What are your thoughts on the possibilities art can provide in broaching new/truer/experimental representations?
Ronan McKenzie: I think art can definitely provide truer representations because if people of colour are creating it, it will always be more personal, true and honest. But for me, the main misrepresentations aren’t in art, they’re in the media which is the most widespread so unless art becomes something that gains mainstream appreciation or the media decides not to criminalise and demonize certain people, skewing reality, then things will take a long time to change.
Vivian Fu: Honestly, I think that’s what is so great about the Internet being a generally democratic space for specifically two reasons. The first is that an artist is able to share work from their perspective, which can broach newer/truer/more experimental stories. The second is that an artist can share work without needing to get approval from somebody else in order to disseminate it. You don’t need approval from a gallerist or publisher or editor. Of course, I think that art can provide these new representations, new perspectives, and new readings. But it’s not very helpful if the “gate-keepers” to putting the work out there are uncomfortable with being “too edgy” (AKA too far from the pre-existing narratives). It makes me think about Eddie Huang’s show Fresh Off The Boat, and how he feels that on the show his father was “neutered” and his mother “exoticized”, and what was a show based on the memoir of a Taiwanese-Chinese American gets put through the ringer and churned out as something palatable. I would definitely suggest reading the New York Times article he wrote on the matter.
Mars: The representation of people of colour in popular media is greatly misrepresented. While I can only speak from my perspective it's imperative to raise discourse on this issue. 9/10 TV shows I've watched paint black people as the brash, opinionated sidekick or the "hoodrat". Black women are given roles where they are ridiculed and stereotyped, especially dark skin black women. This is where colourism plays to mind. Shows centered around the narratives of blackness, and how they're prevailing in today's society are rare. This is why I'm thankful for shows such as Blackish, Scandal, Empire, How To Get Away With Murder, Steven Universe, etc. It paves the way for further representation of black/POC. Showing the respectability politics in marginalized groups ignites discussion. Discussion is imperative to improve representation.
Nakeya Brown: Revolutionary, radical, and experimental representations of POC by POC are abundant within the arts. Literature, in my opinion, posses the most comprehensive collection of revolutionary, radical, and experimental representations of POC. The visual arts follow suite because they allow POC artists to illustrate their representation on their own terms. If you want true representations of POC, the last place I would direct anyone is to mainstream popular media. There’s a lot of artifice, stereotyping, and exaggeration within it to increase ratings and revenue. Read books by POC authors, read POC artist interviews and essays, watch independent POC films, and immerse yourself in POC art practices.
Monica Kim Garza: Artists have done great things voicing the reality of race versus media. I think it’s important to be honest with yourself in your art to allow others to see what’s up.
In a world where cultural appropriation is continuous and grave, how vital is it to have spaces (online/offline) that offer opportunities for critique and support by other POCs?
Ronan McKenzie: I don’t necessarily think that excluding non-POC’s from critique and support spaces is a good thing. I think for wider society to be able to support and understand each other it is more important that everyone has a voice in a space and that there can be mutual appreciation, support, and critique.
Mars: It's extremely crucial for POC to have spaces for ourselves. Our culture is being exploited, ridiculed, and slammed by white society. It's our job to protect and preserve our culture and identity. At the same time, we must retaliate against the appropriation of it and use our spaces as battle calls. We have to develop a stronger kinship to embrace our work and similarities as people of color. We have to constantly encourage each other to be our utmost self. We have to talk about how our feelings and work is invalidated and work to promote it together. Giving constructive criticism to each other is so essential to our progress.
Monica Kim Garza: I think we should all just be together you know. POC, white, whatever. I think if you go to an all-Mexican show or something it’s like, only Mexicans you know. Yeah, our culture is being exploited I guess, but you know, be true to yourself and love everyone for them. I would love to be in a space with anyone amazing regardless of their colour.
What should be done to ensure that more diverse voices are represented in the arts?
Vivian Fu: Showcase more artists, ask more, think deeply.
Mars: First the art world has to be less restrictive, whereas people of colour aren't forcing themselves into spaces that are supposed to be subjective. We have to ensure that there is a dialogue between communities. We also need to encourage each other. We need to create spaces where we can thrive and be known for our art and not just solely our identity. We have to build a platform where we can all grow.
Nakeya Brown: Start from the inside out. Always question who is on the administrative side. Is there is a wide range of personnel, with varying backgrounds, acting as gate-keepers? Ensure that the media outlets providing coverage and critical reviews of artists and their works, are diverse in their make-up. Partner with fellow like-minded artists, form collectives, and make opportunities together; having both a community and a network is vital.
Monica Kim Garza: I agree with Nakeya, you just gotta start from the center and allow the opportunities for everyone and anyone talented.
Ronan McKenzie: I second Nakeya and Mars, and also appreciate people’s work. Don’t make everything a competition, be happy that others are doing well and listen to others.
[This roundtable has been shortened]