The Durham Art Guild, Innovate Your Cool Conference and ArtsNow co-hosted a panel on Thursday to explore ways artists can activate and engage their communities. The artist panel took place in the Reed Building at American Tobacco Campus, which also houses the second iteration of the “Black On Black” exhibition.
Four artists featured in the exhibition — Dare Coulter, Carrie Nobles, André Leon Gray and William Paul Thomas — shared their thoughts on “Black On Black,” the role artists play in their community and what it means to be an artist of color.
The moderator, Durham Art Guild board member and artist Natasha Powell Walker, started the evening by asking the artists how to get audiences more engaged in their art and the issues in their community. Coulter, an artist in her early twenties with three works in “Black On Black,” said being creative is the only way she knows how. “I’m not good at yelling,” she said.
“What I can do is make art, and make messages that reach people. Art can help with healing and closure, and might make a viewer reconsider something.” — Dare Coulter
Thomas, who has two videos and three portraits in the exhibition, echoed Coulter, and delved into some of his projects that touch on the idea of community. Some of Thomas’ earlier works include photographs of two people who had never met before, and who had little experience in the arts. He intentionally used these subjects to expose them to art and show that art is accessible to everybody.
Gray spoke on the lack of diversity in galleries, both on the wall and in the viewing area. Much of his recent work deals with the gentrification of his native Raleigh, and he said it’s important to expose collectors and gallery owners to these community issues through artwork. Otherwise, he thinks it’s likely that they won’t see the blights happening around them. But more than that, he said, artists need to take action. “We’re the only people on the planet who can start poor and go up,” he said. “We meet all kinds of people. It’s about finding people who are like-minded, not just talking about it.”
Nobles expressed her shyness in being an active communicator, and how she prefers to speak through her work. It’s the easiest way to draw in allies, she said, with Coulter nodding in agreement.
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The panel discussion moved on to the idea of the kinds of conversations that need to happen in the creative community. The moderator brought up the recent issues facing the 2017 Whitney Biennial, in which white artist Dana Schutz created a colorful painting called “Open Casket” of a bloodied Emmett Till laying in his casket. Coulter compared the “tone deaf” situation to the recent Pepsi commercial featuring Kendall Jenner, which received a similar negative response. “Artists just need to be aware,” she said. “We shouldn’t necessarily censor, but artists need to see what lines may be crossed [and which ones can’t].”
Thomas acknowledged the ugliness of racially insensitive situations like these, and said there is no “neat, pretty” way to resolve them. “You have to be upsetting sometimes to get your point across,” he said.
“It’s about permission. I sense a real gap between the artist’s choice and the response to it.” — William Paul Thomas
All four panelists agreed on one major issue confronting artists of color today: their underrepresentation in the galleries, and the responsibility of the curators to do a better job of diversifying the artists they feature. In order to make that a reality, Nobles said, “We have to keep up conversations like this. We have to be bold and make a statement.”
Jade Wilson, also an artist, attended the panel to support “Black On Black” and to join the conversation the exhibit has started. “I came tonight to get more connected to the community,” she said. “I came not only to support but also to figure out how I can be part of the conversation.”
When asked how to uplift and inform the community as an artist, Thomas turned to his fellow panelists. “We’re doing it now,” he said. “We have to show up.”
Watch the Facebook Live video above and see images by Caroline Cockrell below: