Why Black Art?
(Note: I went to bed on Wednesday, April 20, 2016 fully prepared for a full night of rest. Instead, it became a lot of tossing and turning and frustration. This blog has been on my mind for a few weeks but it has been building up for years. I got up and wrote it hoping that the release would bring me some rest and it did. I got dressed the next morning and before leaving my house I checked Facebook to find that a great and inspirational friend, author, playwright, teacher and exceptional human being named Richard Fewell transitioned over night. He always applauded and supported my work in the community because I gave artists who might not be heard in traditional arenas, really great opportunities to share their art. He paved a path for me that I will forever honor by how hard he pushed until he could push no more towards getting his work into the world. He often said he was proud of me, I am proud of him and thankful for his friendship. There is no doubt in my mind that when he stopped in on his way out, he made sure this spilled from my mind first. Did I mention that Prince, the artist, the master of music transcended on the same day. Why Black Art? This is why. There are stories to tell.)
My blank bedroom walls motivated me to paint. There were no posters in entertainment magazines electric or soul stirring enough to feed my hunger for inspiration. Those pale pink walls looked less like a girls room and more like a desert. It was then that colors became delicious.
I found pictures of people, mostly people of color. Beyond their skin and captivating eyes were stories. Although the images were silent, their voices penetrated into my psyche. I was a poet since childhood and my empathy rises up to the call of a painting. I was writing about love, race, inequality. All of this based on my feelings.
People had unique reactions when I began exhibiting my art. However, one common reaction from women and people of color was how good it felt to see theirselves reflected on canvas. This motivated me to look closer at historical work and notice how often places we occupied were reproduced on canvas excluding our likeness.
I attended the Kehinde Wiley exhibit at The Brooklyn Museum where he took images of Black men today and created stain glass images of them as saints. He did gold leaf trimmed portraits, enormous stretched canvas paintings and sculptures of regal Black people on wild horses as soldiers and as beautiful women admiring our gardens. It was glorious. He filled in so many empty spaces but there are more to be filled. Who better to create the work than those who live the stories?
I've always called it spirit work. People have declared that an old island woman exists inside of me controlling my creations. It's honestly how I often feel. Some have called it Folk Art, Black Art, Frida Khalo inspired, Jacob Lawrence inspired. The truth is that it is dream inspired, vision and surrounding inspired, music and poetry inspired, church and community, love and pain, history, laughter inspired work that happens to come through the beautiful tones of mostly Black people who I appreciate and honor for being my muse.
In a question/statement, someone asked while they declared, "so I guess you are an urban artist, right?." If you are determined to box me in, the separatist in you could put me in that box. Alternatively, I could be an artist depicting my human experience from the truest perspective that I know. Not unlike the many artists throughout time who weren't questioned about their decision to create "White Art". Strange, isn't it?
Kalief Browder Transform to Transcend by, Shanna T. Melton
Kalief Browder is a young Black man who was incarcerated on Rikers Island over a stolen book bag. Over a three year span he suffered beatings, solitary confinement, depression and many other effects from being in jail while declaring his innocence. Once released, he was expected to acclimate back into society and function without the proper tools to recover from the trauma he experienced. It was too big and he put an end to this torment at the age of twenty one. He did not commit suicide, he stopped being tortured. One thing he requested in all of the interviews he gave was that his story continued to be told.
Brad Walrond had a poem in honor of Kalief Browder that was set for publication in African Voices Magazine. I was chosen to create the portrait that would compliment this great work. At the opening of our exhibit which featured artists from the magazine a poet named Kleaver Cruz thanked me. He said that my painting gave him the courage to also write a poem in tribute to the story of Kalief Browder.
So the questions continue to surface. Why Black art! Why so much Black stuff? Aren't you afraid that White people will be uncomfortable or offended? These questions make me wonder about God's feelings. How sensitive might the creator be about so many human beings wishing to exclude such a large portion of society. About so many wanting to paint over that section because they deem it unworthy of recognition. About a culture that contributes so much to the rhythm of life having to continuously declare and prove that we exist and matter. How does God feel about people who turn portions of themselves into "the others" like they are somehow superior in all of their birth, blood, flesh, time and death that only gifts them a spirit to take beyond this world.
Painters are gifted an inside scoop. All humans are painted with many shades of brown, tan, white, yellow, pink and the list of colors can go on depending upon how detailed we really wish to be in our work. The more people that I paint, the more it becomes foolish that we cause so much pain over color. It justifies nothing, not even capitalism. Different people come from many places with unique traditions for a purpose greater than we can comprehend. As artists, it is our job to paint what we know and document the time we are gifted to live.
"Lighthouses sell better than your work. How do you feel about painting lighthouses?" Well I feel like the ancestors who jumped ship while being tortured into an unfamiliar land will be silhouettes in the light cascading across the water. I am a painter with stories to tell and they resound vibrantly. Why Black art? Why all this Black stuff? I am "Black stuff" determined to fill these empty spaces with all that this life gives me to convey through my art. I do this unapologetically because this melting pot needs to feel less like witches brew. Our future depends on it. I paint, write and share for Kalief, Kleaver, Brad, grandparents and their grandparents, ancestors, children and their children, myself and God who chose me as a medium for this work.