Painting Black Flesh into History

The first thing people do is pull out their phones or their cameras, without actually checking or asking first. So I feel like I’m on display. And it actually cheapens what I’ve been doing  because they’re not getting the real story…

David Ibata is a copyist at the National Gallery of Art. For 4 years he’s been attending the museum’s copyist program in which artists are permitted to illustrate classical works of art within the collection, an occupation not largely filled by Black artists. Museum Visitors are then able to witness as these works are redone. This experience is of course filled with awe of the artistic ability and its likeness to the original work of art, but David’s work is met with curiosity, confusion and contempt.

Exercising artistic license, he began to paint the figures with black flesh tones.

So what was happening was people were complaining to the guards… The security guards are black, they’re just statues. They see a guy like me and they’re like, “thank you.”

As we say in American Studies, “Lets unpack that.” The invisibility of African Americans as staff within the museum is not a new phenomenon, but the conversation is not complete without speaking to the large proportion of African Americans as security or in food services. Statues, that in this scenario, come to life in service to white patrons.

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A conversation over coffee––from art to museums, movies to black culture, gentrification to police brutality––collided into the crux of our discussion: the hyperspecialization of difference. With the coming of the new Smithsonian entity on the horizon, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, it is something to consider. Believe you me, I am waiting in excitement for the reveal of what I think will be an amazing contribution to black history and culture. However, we can’t ignore the fact that the need for such dedicated spaces is reconstitution of our place outside of the American story in some sense. It is to exist outside of the realms of “normalcy,” that the prefix “hyper” draws attention. Despite the good work being done to reassert the narratives of minorities, that of Native Indians, LGBTQ, disability and so forth, within these spaces as an appreciation simultaneously reaffirms their locality on the periphery. So when it comes to the work of David Ibata who merely dips his brush and with incredible ability, ‘reimagines’ classical paintings, he often confounds many of the guest. And I am apprehensive to use the term “reimagine” because in some sense he is making black bodies visible  which isn’t an untruth although it’s often accompanied by a suspension of belief. It would be akin to having a black James Bond or the backlash that came with the latest version of “Annie” starring Quvenzhané Wallis. The ways in which black folk, and other marginalized groups, are expected without question to be able to relate to the mainstream, but films with majority black actors and actresses, for example, become niche; ineligible to wider audiences and incapable of relating to broader experiences.

David and I discussed the above image in detail, and I don’t think there is a better scene of what is the simultaneous erasure and disruption that is black skin. David, despite being at the forefront of the photo, is not the focus. And the high contrast of the photo renders him almost invisible. As he marks one of the figures in the painting with black skin, an onlooker, a white female, observes the painting in utter bafflement. Meanwhile, a rendition of the biblical tale of Daniel in the lions den ironically gestures to them both in the background. Never mind that Daniel, a story set in Africa despite how media chooses to depict Egypt (re: the film “Exodus: Gods and Kings”), is unquestionably  illustrated as white. Thankfully, David has been able to have what I like to call “teachable” moments, in which there are people who engage with his work, find inspiration and open themselves up to the possibilities of blackness.

After Eric Gardner died. After Mike Brown Died. I kept thinking to myself how is the museum going to respond to that. Nobody did anything…

Going to art shows was like business as usual. We’re at war right now, so painting the black skin was a way to exorcise the demons.

All of these frustrations, negotiations, and tensions, illuminate through the black flesh tones in David Ibata’s work. Don’t ask why he’s painting them black but begin to wonder why they weren’t there before. Consider what it means to be surrounded by whiteness and then be asked to reconfigure them as they are with so many options to do so. To rarely have the opportunity to paint blackness as royalty and in dignity, and not because they did not exist but that history is told by the winners. That to just imagine them in the narrative is a disruption of time.

There was a moment in the midst of our discussion in which David and I spoke about time-travel, the ways in which art galleries especially beckon us to imagine a different time period. It is a moment I am sure we each have had; to want to time hop to another era just to see what it was like. But our imaginations were halted by the realization of comedian Louis CK’s words.

“Black folk can’t f–– with time.”

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#BGMBreads

Women’s Liberation March in Washington, D.C., Aug. 26, 1970 / Photo: U.S. News & World Report (http://www.ourbodiesourselves.org)

We were inspired this week by the #WomensEqualityDay Tweetup at the Sewall-Belmont House Museum to bring you a few titles that acknowledge those who have led the way for women’s equality, to include those who often get written out of the narrative or just don’t make the page. Share what your reading with #BGMBreads.

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In the ‘Business’ of Museums

I enjoy still moments and often feel like I do tourist sites because I have to. Like Instagram, If you didn’t take a picture, it didn’t happen. But what if there were this awesome thing where a person who knew stuff could show you cool places, filled with history that you never knew was there?–Yeah, I’d sign up too. Tourism is a booming business that brings in a stream of revenue into cities, and museums are prime to capitalize. And as funding becomes increasingly competitive in the non-profit sphere (such a catch-22), public humanities is growing more and more dependent on attracting audiences through tours as a means to actively engage audiences. With the wealth of resources available through technology, the museum isn’t the brick and mortar sanctuary it once was in this millennial age. So once you get people in the doors, how do you keep them there and convince them that it is worth coming back?

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Unraveling Identity: GWU Museum and The Textile Museum Exhibit Review

On Monday, I had the opportunity to visit the recently established, since March 21st, George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum. Housed in the same building, the George Washington University Museum recently acquired, as of 2011, the Albert H. Small Washingtoniana Collection which comprises of a rich and extensive historical documentation of the District of Columbia. Albeit, the name is a bit clunky, both entities offer an appreciated addition to D.C.’s museum-scape that tourists and residents alike should put on their itinerary. The Textile Museum, which occupied a majority of the building’s exhibit space, presents “Unraveling Identity: Our Textiles, Our Stories” (March 21-August 24, 2015) in a 3-floor exhibit of various cultural garments, multimedia, and text. Continue…

Relax, Relate, Release

Oh, did we mention that we’re in grad school?

This semester has been a whirlwind, from a research seminar to produce 25-pages, to maintaining jobs and an internship. And as much as we love the creation of Brown Girls Museum Blog (and trust me we do!), it all takes its toll, amounting in hours spent reading, researching, and contemplating. Personally, with all of my involvements I completely devoted myself to coursework, projects, and deadlines, and shunned the ability to work-out, continue my yoga practice, or other extracurriculars. Continue…

#HRRlive: Communities Mobilized for Social Change

What a critical time to be a museum. In what ways do we regard these institutions as classrooms, as discourse, as truth? The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) took a giant leap in this arena––prior to even finalizing construction (set to open in 2016)––on Saturday, April 25th. A mix of museum professionals, students, activists, and just interested folk, gathered at the National Museum of the American Indian for a symposium to engage discussion and solutions around “Ferguson,” which has come to stand in for the prevalence of state-violence inflicted on black bodies that is not a new occurrence but hyper-visible due to technology and social media. “History, Rebellion and Reconciliation: Communities Mobilized for Social Change” symposium hosted by NMAAHC was a day of intellectual and artistic musing. Continue…

Finding Our Space

Academia, museums, and my blackness are constantly in conversation with one another, and as of late, I can’t help but to consider the ways I negotiate these spaces. This week on the blog we wanted to take the time to address ourselves and the precariousness that often follows our existence.

I choose the word “space” intentionally, as opposed to place or some other designation, to highlight a lack of destination but boundless with possibility. Over the years, I realize that I make it a habit to insert myself into spaces that historically exclude my existence and intellect. In undergrad, beyond the comprehension of my family and immediate community, I majored in Anthropology and with the help of black feminism, I learned I would have to push the walls of a discipline laced in epistemological racism to make room for myself. Continue…