Thursday, March 31, 2016

Kerry James Marshall: Bringing Black Faces to Classic Art

This Modern Master Spent His Life Bringing Black Faces to Classic Art

Where are all the black people? Kerry James Marshall says the question launched his acclaimed body of work, featured this spring at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Kerry James Marshall is looking for a book—an artifact, really. It’s buried somewhere in a back corner of his studio, a slim, two-level brick building on a corner in Bronzeville. He shoves aside some boxes. Behind them, three bookcases are filled with sets of encyclopedias that Marshall has collected. The library is an apt introduction to a painter who, at 60, has spent his career meticulously studying the canon of Western art with one question in mind: Where are all the black people?
After a few minutes, Marshall spots the book, its spine held together with duct tape: Great Negroes: Past and Present. Marshall was in fifth grade when he first encountered it. He had a preexisting passion for art—it started with his third-grade teacher, who taught him to paint flowers—but his imagination was captured by one of the book’s subjects: Charles White, a Chicago-born artist whose social realist drawings and murals depicted the everyday lives of African Americans. Marshall did a project on White, a Works Progress Administration artist, for his school’s Negro History Week. It wasn’t until two years later that Marshall realized White was still alive and teaching at an art school in Los Angeles, where Marshall lived at the time. So, in seventh grade, he made a decision: He would study under White at the Otis College of Art and Design.
Now, four decades into his career, Marshall has long since joined Charles White—who died in 1979—in the ranks of important African American artists. A MacArthur “genius,” he is widely recognized as one of the country’s preeminent contemporary painters. He has shown pieces all over the globe, including at the Whitney Biennial and Documenta, and in 2013 the National Gallery of Art hosted an exhibit of Marshall’s work to showcase its acquisition of his Great America, a tart, haunting rendering of the transatlantic slave trade as a ghastly carnival ride.
And now Marshall is the subject of a new retrospective, Mastry, which will open in Chicago at the Museum of Contemporary Art on April 23. “The best, pound for pound,” says Helen Molesworth, the chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and cocurator of Mastry.“He’s one of the most important artists of his generation.”
For Marshall, the best measure of that success is whether his work has affected others. “What’s the point of making artwork—of making anything—if it doesn’t in some way become influential or meaningful to the progress of somebody else?” he says.
Marshall, who has lived on the South Side since following his wife, the actress, writer, and director Cheryl Lynn Bruce (Head of Passes), to Chicago in 1987, was always drawn to the canvas. His interest began in 1963 when his parents—his father worked as a dishwasher at a VA hospital; his mother was a homemaker—moved him and his two siblings from Birmingham, Alabama, to Nickerson Gardens, a public housing project in the Watts area of Los Angeles. It was there that Marshall began to sketch obsessively. He didn’t create much original work but absorbed every technique he could from the Jon Gnagy TV show Learn to Draw. He went to the library and studied every art book he could find.
In high school, Marshall sneaked into Otis and sat at the back of Charles White’s evening art class, hoping to remain unnoticed. “I didn’t have any business being in there in the first place, and then there was a naked person in there, so that was even more of a factor, you know,” Marshall recalls, laughing. White noticed the youngster and approached him, saying, “You can’t see nothing from back here.” He moved Marshall to the front and taught him how to draw a head in profile. He could come back anytime, White said. The memory makes Marshall grin. He has a broad, generous smile, and he punctuates most sentences with it.
Marshall knew he wanted to be an artist, but he didn’t know what kind. After graduating from Otis—he did end up studying, formally, under White—he tried some social realist stuff. He tried collage. He tried abstraction. But none of it fit. “I hadn’t quite figured out what my interest in making art was supposed to be,” he says. “Except I really wanted to do it.”
So, at 25, he decided to return to the basics and paint a self-portrait—a classic portrait, almost. Its title alluded to a great literary work: Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self. Marshall used egg tempera, a 13th-century favorite. He adopted compositional techniques associated with artists such as Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael. But, of course, his subject was black. So black that the shade of his skin is deeper than the portrait’s black background, which he fades into, as if invisible. Compared with conventional European portraiture, it’s like a photo negative. “This is where I first started to figure out you can use all that information, all that knowledge, you can use that technique, you can use this medium, but it doesn’t have to look like any of the things that you say it’s intellectually based on.”
And so Marshall settled on creating a body of work inspired by and in dialogue with the classics—his early barbershop portrait De Style, for example, its name a sly play on the Dutch abstract art movement de Stijl—while remaining resolutely its own thing. He found success with a simple insistence on placing black people, and black history, at the center of his raucous, colorful paintings, and that has opened a space for younger artists.
One Marshall disciple, Kehinde Wiley, the star 39-year-old New York artist whose huge canvases show black people in the heroic postures favored by the old masters, has said that when, as a child, he walked into the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and saw a Kerry James Marshall painting, its black subjects highlighted nothing so much as their absence elsewhere in the museum.
In a certain sense, young Kehinde Wileys have always been Marshall’s target audience. “If I have anything to do with it, you’ll always be able to encounter a picture that has a black person in it that’s also made by a black person,” says Marshall.
But his work does more than simply represent black people in art; many of his pieces also express something humorous, or ambivalent, or ironic, which the painter credits to a moment when he was 9 years old. He and his brother watched as the Watts riots—which erupted in 1965 out of the black community’s growing frustrations with its plight—lit up Los Angeles. Marshall spent most of the night looking out the window of a neighbor’s second-floor apartment. Across the street, he saw a Jack in the Box, the restaurant all burned up except for its ludicrous clown head out front. “Everything was pitch-black behind, because the lights were out, but there was a wall of flames, and the jack-in-the-box was on the top of that pole, just slowly going around,” recalls Marshall. “It was surreal.”
The rioters had made a potent political statement; they’d also, in the process, burned down their neighborhood. “That clown really started to make things come into focus. It said: ‘You think this is funny now? Wait till you wake up tomorrow morning. You’ll see how funny it is. You can’t even go to the store.’ ”
Marshall’s paintings are about the inescapableness of history—an appraisal from the morning after. They’re often dark or grim, but they’re never hopeless. What he wants is to show black people in every kind of circumstance, he says, to create a “whole-person picture of the black figure” through his body of work: “They can be political at times. They can be mundane at times. They can be heroic at times. They’re all of those things.”
About two hours have gone by, and Marshall suddenly remembers something he meant to say about the book that set him on his path. When he was named a MacArthur fellow in 1997, he used the grant money to buy his first studio. Like his current one, it was in Bronzeville; it was on Indiana Avenue and had formerly housed a roofing company. As Marshall was clearing out some of the junk, he opened a desk drawer, and there it was: Great Negroes: Past and Present. Just sitting there, left behind by a previous tenant. He hadn’t seen a copy since fifth grade. “So of course I keep this,” he says, holding the book in his hands. “I could never get rid of this.”

Five of Marshall’s Standout Works

‘Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self’ by Kerry James Marshall

Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self 1980

Photo: Matthew Fried, © MCA Chicago
Marshall painted this, his first major work, at 25, just a few years after graduating from art school. The title is a nod to a book by James Joyce, and the image itself to Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, who was a huge influence. The piece launched a series that Marshall created in the 1980s of similarly mordant black-on-black paintings, one of which was actually titled Invisible Man. For all the punch it packs, Portrait measures just six and a half by eight inches—one of Marshall’s smallest works on paper.
‘Beauty Examined’ by Kerry James Marshall

Beauty Examined 1993

Photo: Matthew Fried, Courtesy of Charles and Nancy Adams-Sims, © MCA Chicago
One of the first paintings Marshall created in response to a historical work, this piece recalls Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp. But Marshall puts a black female body under the knife in place of the white male cadaver. It’s a critique of white beauty standards—a frequent refrain in his work.

‘Many Mansions’ by Kerry James Marshall

Many Mansions 1994

Photo: The Art Institute of Chicago, Max V. Kohnstamm Fund, © The Art Institute of Chicago
In 1963, when a 7-year-old Marshall moved with his family into Los Angeles’s Nickerson Gardens, his initial impression was that the housing project was “paradisical.” After all, there was a yard, a gymnasium, and a library from which he could borrow toys. Only later was the neighborhood beset by neglect and violence. In the 1990s, Marshall created a series of paintings depicting public housing projects—including Nickerson Gardens and Chicago’s Stateway Gardens and Altgeld Gardens. In an ironic flourish, he called the series The Garden Project. Despite their sunny names, the locales were at this point “notorious for everything but being garden spots,” he says. Still, for years after the Chicago high-rises were torn down on the South Side, Marshall noticed former residents gathering on the vacant lots for barbecues during the summer. “For all the hardship, there was pleasure to be had,” he recalls of growing up in the projects. “There was community to be had.”

‘Vignette’ by Kerry James Marshall

Vignette 2003

Photo: Defares Collection, Image courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner, London
Marshall says that this Edenic painting, first displayed at his 2003 show at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, poses a question: “How do you recover something like that [Eden] when you, after generations, have been conditioned by a history of deprivation?” In earlier works, Marshall favored painting subjects with an absolute blackness, but here the figures have more nuanced tones. Vignette was his first painting to fetch more than $1 million. It went to a private collector.

‘School of Beauty, School of Culture’ by Kerry James Marshall

School of Beauty, School of Culture 2012

Photo: Sean Pathasema, Collection of the Birmingham Museum of Art. Museum purchase with funds provided by Elizabeth (Bibby) Smith, the Collectors Circle for Contemporary Art, Jane Comer, the Sankofa Society, and general acquisition funds
Inspired by Your School of Beauty Culture, a cosmetology school a block from Marshall’s Bronzeville studio, this piece reflects, he says, a space where “[black] women go to make themselves into their own ideal of beauty.” Contrasting white-centric notions are represented by the distorted Sleeping Beauty head, which mimics the tilted skull in the 16th-century painting The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger.

Friday, March 11, 2016

South Asian Indians' Owe a Lot to Black America

Indians' Debt to Black America

  • Neil Padukone Author, Council of Urban Professionals Fellow, Musician  
Last year, I had the great honor of attending India Abroad's Person of the Year awards, a celebration of some of the most accomplished members of the Indian diaspora in the US.

The evening was incredible. I met a 14-year old that had invented a braille printer. I met a lawyer who was cleaning up generations of corruption in New York's state capital. I met the owner of a professional basketball team, the country's Surgeon General, who was using his White House appointment to fight against our country's epidemic of gun violence. I even met the very first Desi Miss America.

This was just a small cross-section of the talent that makes up the Indian-American community. We can count some of America's most innovative and successful people as members of our diaspora---doctors, authors, lawyers, musicians, and of course, the backbone of Silicon Valley. In 2010, the Pew Forum found that average household income for Indian Americans was $88,000 a year---almost double the US average. 70% of adult Indian Americans had college degrees, higher than any other Asian-American groups and 2.5 time the US average. This success has even transformed India itself, as Indian Americans have invested money, championed minority rights that had long gone ignored, and shaped new ideas about what's possible in India.
Within America, these shining examples of economic and social success have given Indians a reputation of being a "model minority." We came to America with little, the story goes, abided by the laws of the land, and pulled ourselves up by the bootstraps into positions of success. By emphasizing education and economic achievement, we've turned the American dream into an Indian-American reality.

But flattering as it may be, it's a reputation that glosses over our tremendous diversity, stereotyping us as monolithic. (Plus it sweeps under the rug the 300,000 of us that live in poverty, the 22% of us that speak limited English, and the struggles that come with being the fastest-growing group of undocumented migrants in the country).

At its worst, though, it's a reputation that's given us contempt for other groups in the US that haven't "mastered the system" in the same way. It's a contempt that's most often directed at Black Americans, who are derided as irresponsible, violent, scary, and worse. They're stereotypes that are sadly pervasive throughout the US, but we've internalized them with the Hindi slur "kallu" that too easily finds itself on the lips of many South Asians. As the comedian Russell Peters pointed out, "it's not like Black people colonized India for 200 years!"

In fact, it's the Black community to whom Indian-Americans, and India, owe a tremendous debt for our current stature. Let me unpack that.

Small as our numbers are, South Asians have a pretty long history in America. As far back as the 1800s, north Indian traders came bearing 'exotic articles from the orient,' selling silks, spices, and hookahs in New Orleans, Detroit, and even the old Southwest (think of Ali Hakim from the play Oklahoma!).

Not just lacking immigration papers, but having brown skin, these Indian migrants were shown the door at White-owned hotels and neighborhoods. And the racism and antipathy didn't stop there. The 1917 Immigration Act made Indians, as author Vivek Bald puts it, "equivalent in the eyes of the law to alcoholics, professional beggars, and the insane," and the Supreme Court ruled that "Indians who were already in the United States were racially ineligible to become citizens."

Fears of a "Hindoo Invasion" and a "Turban Tide" swept American newspapers, and as Erika Lee documents in The Making of Asian America, brown people from Washington State to Florida were denied citizenship (despite American military service, in the case of Bhagat Singh Thind), beaten by white mobs, forcibly removed from entire towns, imprisoned if they sought to marry Caucasian women, and worse.

But where they did gain acceptance were the Black majority enclaves of all of these cities. In his brilliantly revelatory book, Bengali Harlem, Bald describes communities in Tremé, New Orleans, the west side of Baltimore, and East Detroit where scores of Desi men married local African American women and settled down.

And through the 1900s, when British vessels docked in New York Harbor, dozens of Indian maritime workers jumped ship, interspersing in New York's crowded streets before settling in the "Black Mecca" of Harlem.
There, they married Black, African, and Caribbean New Yorkers, and set up New York City's first Indian restaurants right in Harlem. In those restaurants, Malcolm X debated Islam with South Asian Muslims, the trumpet virtuoso Miles Davis first heard the ragas that would revolutionize jazz music, and the international labor, Indian independence, and Black civil rights movements found solidarity. Stemming from interactions like these, the prominent Black activist W.E.B. Du Bois even pledged public support for Indian independence, strengthening the movement in the US.

Across the country, another group of South Asians made their way to the West Coast, working as farmers in California's upstart agricultural economy. Together, Punjabi and Mexican migrants picked fruits and vegetables for low wages and in poor working conditions. Years before Cesar Chavez, Punjabis like Dalip Singh Saund helped to organize workers of both ethnicities---many of whom were intermarried---to demand labor rights.

In solidarity with Mexican workers, Saund traversed the US, mobilizing undocumented Indian workers to become more politically active. He, along with Arizona farmer Mubarak Ali Khan, JJ Singh of New York's India League of America, and other Asian activists lobbied Congress to pass the Luce-Celler Act, which allowed 100 Indians to gain US citizenship every year.

This act wouldn't be enough to bring all South Asians out of the shadows, to end the racist immigration quotas that had restricted America's talent pool to Europeans, or to bring a new generation of South Asians to American shores.

What did push the envelope was the Black Civil Rights movement of the 1950 and 60s. Coming at the height of the Cold War in defense of democracy, the sight of Black activists being hosed, beaten, and tortured by their own government, just for trying to live their lives, made America rethink its own contradictions. How could Washington be the standard bear for freedom if it was beating down its own citizens because of their race?

As a result of this raised consciousness, Congress passed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts that would remove explicit racism from the books. America's awareness of its own racial inconsistencies, awakened by the Black civil rights movement, soon extended beyond US borders. The Immigration Act of 1965 took down racial quotas and allowed a new generation of Asians to enter the US---including my own parents.
In effect, Black activists had endured hoses, beatings, and torture for our right to be legal as well.

The next phase of South Asian immigration was not from the same working class that had found refuge in Black communities and organized for change therefrom, but professionals who had received training in India and arrived in the US mostly ready to provide the engineering, medical, and other talent that American consumers needed. Even today, almost half of the H-1B visas given by the State Department go to Indian engineers, many of whom are already trained in the discipline before arriving in the US.

This leg up, in terms of educational legacies and social networks, within South Asia and the US, helped a generation of Desis attain the successes that would be honored at events like the Person of the Year awards. Compare this with many of the migrants from throughout the world, including India itself, that have come since---many escaping tyranny, only dreaming that their children could have in America the kind of education my parents left India with.

What about Black Americans? Didn't the Civil Rights movement end racism in the United States and put that community on equal footing?

A Black middle class of professionals has unquestionably established itself, which is why we've seen Black doctors, CEOs, Secretaries of State, preeminent astrophysicists, and even a President of the United States. But all of these people have had to be, as the saying goes, "twice as good to get half as far," precisely because Black Americans still face structural hurdles that other groups don't.

For example, since World War II, as European and Asian Baby boomers have built up their own wealth in the form of suburban home ownership---subsidized by Mortgage Interest Rate and other tax deductions---most Black Americans were not given any access to home ownership because of blatantly racist practices initially supported by the government: racially restrictive contracts, zoning laws, and neighborhoods "redlined" as too risky for lenders.

Left to languish in urban areas, too many children of the Civil Rights movement were unable to build wealth---notably the housing assets that other communities used to underwrite college loans---even as highway construction tore through their neighborhoods, hastening their decline.

Education might have paved a path out of poverty, but since it was funded by property tax, its quality mirrored the poor economic circumstances in which many Black people found themselves.

Compare this with our relative luck. Nancy Foner, a leading immigration scholar at Hunter College points out that "because they are not Black, Asian immigrants face less discrimination in finding a place to live...which translates into access to heavily white neighborhoods with good public schools."

Meanwhile, a 'War on Drugs' specifically targeted Blacks and Hispanics simply for the crime of being young---white and suburban youth consume drugs at a higher rate than Blacks, with little consequence, but more than 1 out of 3 Black men will find themselves in the clutches of the correctional system for the same offence. This has of course meant that many have been left far from the American dream, languishing on street corners and in prisons---just three out of every ten Blacks are able to make it to the middle class, compared to two-thirds of Whites. As President Obama once said, "what's remarkable is not how many Black men and women failed in the face of this discrimination, but how many overcame the odds."
Yet we're still seeing the effects of this violence in racial profiling cases throughout the country, through the deaths of horticulturist Eric Garner, teenaged aspiring astronaut Trayvon Martin, 12-year old Tamir Rice, and the countless others who live this daily reality. This violence is not just an ancillary issue that affects "those" people, and it definitely doesn't increase our safety.

This racial violence directly harms all of us. Just last year, an old Indian man was left partially paralyzed after Alabama police responded to a call about "a skinny black guy" walking around the neighborhood.

And though it's nowhere near the same scale, it's a similar strain of systemic violence and vitriol that brown people in America have felt since the War on Terror. As the Black writer Greg Tate said of South Asians after 9/11, "welcome to racial profiling." This strand of ignorant virulence targets many people of color, regardless of religion or economic "success": In 2012, a Hindu PhD student named Sunando Sen was fatally pushed into the subway tracks in New York by a woman who claimed she "hates Hindus and Muslims ever since...they put down the twin towers."

These realities tell us that even as the successes of Indian Americans are celebrated, our challenges remain---and they intersect with those of people we too often exclude. It's a strange paradox we live; as the pianist Vijay Iyer has said, "to succeed in America is, somehow, to be complicit with the idea of America--which means that at some level you've made peace with its rather ugly past...with all of its structural inequalities, its patterns of domination, and its ghastly histories of slavery and violence."

As the #BlackLivesMatter movement seeks to correct injustices that should have long been consigned to history, we need to recognize that true Black liberation in America will lead to liberation everywhere. Let's start by making sure our workplaces look like our country; by acknowledging the impacts of past and current discrimination; and by fully championing, without coopting as our own, the message that Black lives really ought to matter today, as always---only then would all lives truly matter.

Fundamentally, as members of our diaspora go on to lead the largest companies, invent the next path-breaking technologies, and even populate the nation's highest courts, let us, as Iyer put it, "choose to be that kind of American that refuses to accept what America has been, and instead help build a better America even for others, who might not immediately seem to 'belong' to us."

This piece was originally published in India Abroad Magazine

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Black Education Working Retreat Set for 8-9 April 2016

If you are an ACTIVIST Parent/student/educator struggling around the battle to save your local public school from closing/charterized/deemed a failed school... or if you are being locked out as a parent or being denied Black educators or a culturally relevant curriculum, then you should come to this working retreat to be held at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, NY! Please read the details below and then join us on this historic journey towards Education for Liberation!