Last year I wrote about seeing the Lynette Yadiom Boakye exhibition, Voices After Dark at the Serpentine Gallery and the huge effect it had on me. My responses to the exhibition had been the cause of a small spat between me and another associate at Open School East because I found it really difficult to explain what it is like to be in my skin, with my experiences to stand in a gallery surrounded by unglossed images of black people. The spat was interesting because the conversation rapidly shifted from being about me and my experience to being about him not being a racist. I know he isn’t a racist, it never crossed my mind to think he could possibly be a racist. But he is white and I know a lot about the emotional lives and experiences of white people and when it comes to art, well, until last year my entire art education has been about the preoccupations, proclivities and perversions of, for the most part, white men.
And then, Qiana Mestrich tweeted about the Black Portraits II Revisited conference in NYC and I booked my place, bought my ticket and spent the most fantastic two days listening to presentations and reflections from the Florence conference last year which I dearly wish I could have attended. The presentations began with the executive director of NYU Florence describing her own arrival in La Villa Pietra and her responses to the two Blackamoor statues flanking the door to her office that had lit the touch paper. From there on I was taken through a historical overview of the black body in the arts via a myriad of contexts and a multiplicity of practitioners from a contemplation about Giovanni Moro a 16th Century Florentine actor/writer/musician; the possibilities of humanising through photography and the work of Gordon Parkes; reflections on migration and refugees, the experiences of black people travelling abroad from the USA freed from segregation by the willingness of the Europeans to put commerce before prejudiced when it comes to restaurant seating; a terribly moving account of abstraction in art illuminating the chaos of suicide for someone who had little time for awkward art; a corrective account of Ota Benga who was housed in a monkey cage in the Bronx zoo eventually released only to end his own life in despair; the exploitative nature of the American penal system that charges inmates $200+ for a staged family photograph; a fictionalised description of the taking of a photograph of captured Ethiopian women; notions of passing and the price of passing on the individual (boom) ; objectification; fictionalised accounts that illuminated real and terrible incidents; reasons for travel and exploration of other cultures; ornamental blackness; Betty Davis – no not that one, this one; and while we are talking female musicians, obviously Missy Eliot; Berry Gordy insisting that the lyrics in Motown songs could be heard and properly understood; the use and abuse of melisma in current popular music; Aftofuturism; a female Cuban documentaryist who managed, somehow, to work with a group who abjured women; a fascinating panel of artists who all seemed to use, in some way or another the camera.
That isn’t everything, I met some wonderful people especially Jacqueline Johnson who introduced me to Marilyn Nance and between the two of them, they seemed to know everybody. What I need to do now is to start to synthesise this into more coherent thoughts around the panels I saw and heard. Ultimately the best thing I took away was the knowledge that I was given privileged access to a whole world of art practice that I knew precious little of and this access has given me more confidence to explore my own preoccupations through my medium of choice without needing to explain that I am not calling someone else a racist just because I want to talk about living in my brown skin.