MSB brainstorming

14 March 2010

Dawoud Bey: History Lesson in Philadelphia

The Society of Photographic Education Meets in Philadelphia

The Society for Photographic Education held its national conference this past week in Philadelphia. I had been active as an SPE member in the 1980s and early 1990s, but hadn't attended or participated in one of the conferences for probably fifteen years or more. This years conference theme and title "Facing Diversity," along with an invitation from the conference organizers to be a featured speaker, found me in Philadelphia among some 1200 photographers and photographic educators who came from all over the country to participate in panels, show their work to portfolio reviewers and to interview for various college and university teaching positions. A wealth of other programming--both on and off site--along with the presence of a number of a number of curators, writers, and critical theorists leading and participating in provocative discussions, made for a lively and engaging four days.

At the conclusion of the conference a convocation program was held that saw a number of awards given to both students and various professionals in the field, acknowledging their works and contributions within the field. The Honored Educator was my dear friend Dr. Deborah Willis, who received an outpouring of heartfelt tributes from former students, those she has mentored over the years and her son Hank Willis Thomas that left not a dry eye in the room. My remarks that evening were dedicated to her. I wanted to provide some historical context for the gathering, since the population of attendees at these events is becoming simultaneously both older and younger. The older folks may or may not know the history leading up that moment and the younger ones just coming into the field almost certainly don't. I was pleased to be introduced by Myra Greene, my colleague in the photography department at Columbia College Chicago. The text of my remarks follow below:

"When I was asked to speak at this event I thought long and hard about what I wanted to say here and indeed if I wanted to say anything at all. Actually I thought about what needed to be said on this occasion in this place as this community gathers here in Philadelphia where over four days a wealth of ideas, thoughts and work would be presented. As a black person I have to say that I was quite honestly somewhat put off by yet another event purporting to be about “Diversity” since on the surface it appeared to be yet another ready opportunity to preach to the choir or to come to Philly and “stick it to the man” while “the man” is actually elsewhere, going about his usual dastardly business, completely ambivalent to the absence of those routinely excluded from the institutional conversation. I also am aware that the conversation about “diversity” as a specific term has gone on now for well over two decades even as during that time some things have changed while sadly more than a few things remain the same. I thought then that it would be helpful to re-examine some recent history, since I believe that it is important to be familiar with that history in order to avoid some recurring pitfalls. I am also aware that some might not know this history at all and subsequently take a lot of hard work and struggle for granted. Whatever advances have been made require an historical framework.

My interest in making photographs was crystallized in 1969 when I went to see the exhibition “Harlem On My Mind” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art when I was sixteen years old. I had never been to a museum before on my own and I have to say that actually didn’t go to the museum that day to see the exhibition. Some of you may know the contentious history of that exhibition. You might know that Benny Andrews and a multiracial group of other artists organized themselves into a group that became the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition to protest the exclusion of the voice of the black community in this this exhibition that purported to speak on their behalf. You may know that Meir Kahane formed the Jewish Defense League at that moment to protest what he felt were the anti-Semitic statements made by a young black woman student, who took the Jewish shop keepers in Harlem to task for what she considered to be their exploitative relationship with the black community. Unknown to the writer her essay had been altered and footnotes removed, making some of the quotes appear to be her own rather than words of others that she was quoting in her essay. You may or may not know that Roy DeCarava, refusing to give up control of his work in order to be in the exhibition was on the picket line, with a sign that said, “The White Folks Show the Real Nitty Gritty.” So when I set off that day from Queens, NY to go to the met I was actually going to see what all of the controversy was about, since I had read about in the local papers. As fate would have it by the time I found my way there the picket lines had vanished. Or maybe they had never come that day. At any rate I then had little choice but to go in to see the show.

Usually when I talk about the “Harlem On My Mind” exhibition I talk about seeing the photographs by James Van DerZee for the first time and how that experience informed my decision—along with my own family’s history there—to begin my first project “Harlem, USA.” But what I am in interested in looking at and revisiting this evening is the sense I got very early on of the museum as a highly contested site as the Met sought to move what it considered to be “the black experience” into the halls of a mainstream museum.

The “Harlem On My Mind” protests were not the only flashpoints taking place between artists, the larger social community and mainstream institutions. That same year Andrews and others petitioned the Whitney Museum of American Art, demanding that they be more responsive to the works of black artists. In the ensuing back and forth the BECC announced what it called “a massive boycott” of the Whitney over its decision to indeed mount an exhibition of works by black artists but with no input from them or black curatorial input. Similar protests took place at the Museum of Modern Art that same year, led by the Art Workers Coalition, a group of artists, filmmakers, writers, critics and museum staff, pressuring MoMA into implementing various reforms. These included a more open and less exclusive exhibition policy concerning the artists they exhibited and promoted: the absence of women artists and artists of color was a principal issue of contention. The coalition successfully pressured the MoMA and other museums into implementing a free admission day that still exists in certain museums to this day. All of these actions were undertaken by artists to press the issue of how to dynamically engage the museum as a pubic institution and make it more truly responsive to that public and the larger art community.

Not only were artists and their supporters protesting the lack of equitable representation on the part of mainstream public institutions, but more importantly they were forming their own organizations in order to provide the support that others were not. It is worth revisiting this history as a way of also looking forward. So let me talk a little bit about some of that history:

In 1967 the Studio Museum in Harlem was founded. The institution took its name and identity from a proposal that was written by the painter William T. Williams, whose idea it was to have a community museum for African Americans that also included studio space where members of the community could interact with black artists, and the artists would have the opportunity to more directly engage the community. Williams and fellow artist/sculptor Mel Edwards rolled up their sleeves, and with push brooms and much sweat cleared the light industrial loft space--then located over a Kentucky Fried Chicken-- in preparation for repurposing it into studios and exhibition space. The Junior Council of the Metropolitan Museum lent its backing to the fledging effort shortly thereafter. By 1969 [the very year of the Harlem On My Mind controversy] the museum mounted an exhibition, "X to the Fourth Power" that featured to work of Williams, Mel Edwards, Sam Gilliam, and Steven Kelsey (a white artist). The museum has been continually exhibiting works by black artists ever since that time. It’s first artist-in-residence was the painter LeRoy Clarke, who was joined shortly thereafter by Valerie Maynard and Lloyd Stevens. The museum has been providing work space, stipends and exhibitions to artist continuously ever since and many of those artists have gone on to become some of the most celebrated artists working in this country. The numerous publications that Studio Museum in Harlem has produced and the curators and art administrators it has trained are all testimony to its endearing importance. But it is important to remember that it began with one artist’s proposal and then another one joining him to help make that vision a physical reality, one that continues to provide much needed and extraordinary support some forty years later.

Also in 1969 the photographer, curator, writer and educator Nathan Lyons along with his wife, the artist Joan Lyons, founded the Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, NY. For forty years now VSW has been provided a resource to the community of photographers and those committed to the artist book. Their publication AfterImage has been published consistently and has been an absolutely valuable source of information as well as providing an outlet for those writing on photography and media. Again, it was two artists who undertook the hard work needed to create, build and sustain this institution.

Another history lesson: In 1974 five New York Puerto Rican photographers—Charles Biasiny-Rivera, Roger Caban, George Malave, Phil Dante and Nestor Cortijo--came together to found an organization that became En Foco. While initially formed to create exhibition opportunities locally for their work and others, the organization for over thirty-five years now has exhibited, published and otherwise promoted the works of hundreds of photographers of color and provided workshops, portfolio viewings and other programming that have probably—both directly and by extension—benefited thousands of photographers as well as providing a resource for other institutions seeking the work of those photographers and artists. I know that many of you in this room today—including myself--have been the beneficiaries of the work that those five visionary photographers did as the organization has moved forward and grown over the years. It is important to remember that En Foco was not formed by someone deciding to open their doors and “diversify” or otherwise reconsider their pattern of exclusion. It was founded by photographers, by five Newyoricans who had a vision and attached a plan to it and did the hard work needed to make it a reality. So let’s acknowledge Miriam Romais and the current staff of EnFoco for the work they continue to do.

Let me continue with this history lesson: Around that same time in 1973 two former Syracuse University students Phil Block and Tom Bryan set up and began running the Community Darkrooms, a public access photography facility they had created by petitioning the University for much needed work space for area photographers. Community Darkrooms soon expanded and became Light Work/Community Darkrooms. Phil and Tom then brought in Jeffrey Hoone, who became and remained the director of Light Work from 1982 until recently, bringing in Hannah Frieser to continue the work of this extraordinary organization. Light Work’s residency program has provided an opportunity for hundreds of photographers over the years to have the necessary support to pursue their work in an absolutely supportive environment, and to disseminate that work through the publication Contact Sheet, which they grew from an 11X17 folded black ink broadside into a major publication which regularly puts that work in front of an audience of thousands. It would seem to me that we as photographers should be paying them for this, but no, they pay us while also providing this ongoing support through their residency and publication program. The existence of Light Work and its extraordinary growth makes it clear the power we each have to be the ones to make the difference that we need. I’d like to ask Jeff Hoone to stand so we can acknowledge his hard work on our behalf along with Hannah Frieser and current Light Work staff.

I could repeat these story in so many other ways by talking about so many other institutions. I could talk about Exit Art, which was founded by the artist Papo Colo and Jeanette Ingberrman, or Autograph, which was founded by several black photographers in London in 1988 who had previously started a group called D-Max, or we can talk about GASP Arts, founded five years ago by artist Magdalena Campos Pons and her husband, the musician Neil Leonard. I had a wonderful pleasure last night of participating in an event at the Philadelphia Photo Art Center, a new organization here in Philadelphia that is being run by two young photographers, Stephanie Solfa and Christopher Gianunzio, who are doing some really meaningful work right here in this community, creating opportunities and infrastructure for photographers here in Philly. All of these people, and others too numerous to mention, and some I don’t even know remind us what it is we as a community need to continue to do if we are to ensure our survival. There is no one else, quite frankly, but us. As the saying goes, “We are indeed the ones we have been waiting for.” I think we always have been and we always will be.

I believe that it is this self initiative, along with continuous public and vocal agitation insisting that public institutions be truly reflective of the public that sustains them by their tax dollars as well as demanding that public institutions reflect the very nature of the society in which they are situated, that will bring about the change that we both want and need. It was those public demonstrations, protests, writings and other forms of agitation that created whatever inroads were made over the past several decades. And progress has been made, but only because it was demanded. If you want an example of what happens when we fail to publicly agitate for change, what happens when we let our guard down, what happens when we stop letting people know that we have the capacity to get seriously pissed off if we are disrespected, one has only to look as far as the current Whitney Biennial. In an exhibition that ironically uses an image of Barack Obama on the catalogue cover, we find among other things absolutely no Latino artists and a total of three black artists among fifty-five artists in the exhibition. Artists from other non-white cultures are also underrepresented or not represented at all. What is your response to that? What would the response have been in 1969? I can’t imagine that this kind of situation would have been tolerated at that moment. Perhaps because there have been some changes over these past decades that we have become complacent or less vigilant. After all a few people of color have received MacArthur Fellowships, Rome Prizes, Guggenheim Fellowships and other forms of significant recognition. Some of us may have books, commercial gallery exhibitions, residencies where others pay us to simply do the work we want to do. I’m one of them And others here tonight are also among those fortunate enough to have have made important inroads, all due to those who came and agitated before us. So it’s easy to think the work is done, the struggle over. And yes, it’s frustrating to realize that even as progress is being made pressure must still be continuously applied.

And then along comes the Whitney Biennial 2010 to remind us just how little some things have changed as far as some people are concerned and why we must continue to agitate for an inclusive presence. With all of the profound problems we are facing as a country right now and for all of the frustration that grows out of a seeming inability to directly affect real and sustained social and political change, some have said that the progressive movement in this country is experiencing a kind of collective depression and that this explains the eerie silence surrounding so much of political discourse from the left at this moment. I wonder if those of us who have struggled so long in our various arenas may not also be suffering from a kind of battle fatigue? One thing I do know is that those who would like to maintain the status quo of exclusion never seem to get tired of doing so. And we must never tire of letting them know that we belong at the table as much as anyone else, even as go about the business of building our own tables.

So what to do? I don’t think it’s for me to come here tonight and answer that question. Rather I can only hope that through the example of history we get a sense of what needs to be done. Finally, I’d like to share a few thoughts on “Diversity,” since that is the theme of this conference. Diversity to me implies that there is still some normative paradigm at the center that we are seeking to destabilize rather than doing away with it in favor of something quite different. It suggests that institutions have an inherently white and male identity that needs to be added to. To operate out of this paradigm is, of course, a kind of tokenism by yet another name and seeks to trade on the momentary (but always empty and short lived) self-congratulatory excitement of seeing a new color in still unexpected places. It would seem to me that by now we should be approaching a point where anyone should be expected to be anywhere. I think it's time to turn away from "diversity" as an operative objective and turn instead towards the more meaningful and substantial goal of making institutional spaces ever more inclusive and embrace the goal of inclusivity, in which everyone's identity is central to the whole. One way to accomplish this is to consider how in fact the institution's identity can be meaningfully transformed and expanded conceptually by this enhanced inclusiveness in a way to deeply transforms the very nature of that institution. Inclusivity implies a desire to actually change through institutional expansion, while diversity implies to me that those being brought in have to simply fit into the normative and dominant existing paradigms and simply add "color" to it.

In the end of the day we still need to agitate for a transformed worldview within institutional culture that embraces the truly global and multiracial character of our human community.

Anything less than that should met with continuing, vocal and vociferous protest."

See more Bey posts at his blog, What's Going On?

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