Inclusive Group Shows Matter – an Open Letter – Happy birth month, Prince!

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On the eve of Prince’s birthday, I’m sharing a letter I recently wrote.
This letter is in response to a reply to a meme I had posted on the event’s fb wall.
Since initiating a dialogue, the show referred to in the letter has been cancelled. We are now in conversation with organizers. Organizer response below.
Letter was first read out at Nina LaNegra’s #artislifeitself open mic @ Haley House. Cuz art is life itself.

DOVES B CRYiN’

An Open Letter to a studio space in Somerville, MA

Re: A group art show inspired by Prince

cuz #blacklivesmatter very much
cuz I <3 Prince
cuz #enoughisenough

Dear Curator:

Thank you for your response.

I truly appreciate and am moved that you shared your organizing process. In so doing you are opening a space where I feel I can begin to engage meaningfully. This is how healing begins.

Having said this, the content of this letter may be difficult to read because I am speaking frankly. By virtue of your role as an arts organizer, your response to this letter will contribute to a barometer of sorts in regards to measuring the great work necessary for addressing privilege in the spirit of reconciliation and comradery in this town. I urge you to think on Prince and his body of work in assessing your response.

I can see how extending an invite to me to participate in your group art show can be seen as a nice gesture.

What’s problematic with your invitation is that it sets up restrictions that would elicit and allow you to measure my acceptability in your art show even before you address concerns about the whiteness in your show. You could have answered those questions with a simple online search therefore truly being inviting from the start of the invitation. This is about putting the wrong foot forward and truly being conciliatory for having done so. As polite as you’re writing, you’re blaming the city’s whiteness and offering that you’re working alone.

11061280_1066570123357941_8407040824199766538_nMost Somerville shows are alienating to people of color. This city had been aggressively gentrifying not only artists of color, but more importantly, the communities who have been living here all along that look like us – whom we feel comfort amongst. Representation is important for comfort and safety, particularly for artists of color. The reason I spoke out about this particular Somerville show and not others is because of the theme. You are celebrating Prince. By virtue of even accepting to go forwards with a show that is so white, the statement you are making is one of erasure. You are erasing his blackness (a major reason he went to Baltimore). You are erasing the idea that Prince is as appealing to white folks as he is to people of color (for immigrant kids like me all over the WORLD, Prince and artists like him were and continue to be vital for our survival – his very existence allows us to be resilient in an aggressive assimilatory culture of whiteness. We see ourselves represented in pop culture that is innovative futurist and just fucking fly. He makes beautiful other worlds that bring relief, possibility and self love with every song he works).

For many of us following Prince, his going to Baltimore was not a stunt. He was using his celebrity to make people see the violence against his people. He was bringing attention to people who follow him that #blacklivesmatter. Even now people don’t know this movement is happening or are in disbelief of the movement’s legitimacy due to the erasure and vilification in big media. He is also reminding his fans he is black. Too often commercially successful longstanding musicians like him due to the otherworldliness of their work have their blackness erased over time. Whiteness tries to claim them as not black predicated on “we are colorblind” messaging. Prince is clearly responding that he stands by his black identity.

So for this show, in my eyes, for it to really be celebratory, at the very least, 50% of the participants ought to be black artists, 25% artists of color, and 25% white artists. In fact, it ought to be organized or co-hosted by a black artist.

In my shows I do not move forward unless at least 50% of the artists committed are artists of color. It is about representation – not merely the showcasing of token brown or black bodies. It is a politically motivated and just intention. Art engages identity and therefore in its root it must be political. It’s not enough to tag someone to make your show brown. It is to make it an inviting space that people feel nurtured in, one where they see you as an ally, and keep coming back.

And, yes, this takes effort. Just because I’m brown doesn’t mean artists of color just come to me. I have organized for six years now. Any calls for art immediately are addressed by white artists because white artists tend to have more means, time and access than artists of color. It takes effort, recruiting and holding space for artists of color to feel welcome and know that an organizing body is serious about inclusion. I also work with a partner, so while I recruit and support artists, she plans the logistics so that it can all come together. We take these measures, because it is just this important that our work with others be inclusive.

I encourage you to consider working in a partnership or collaborative when organizing. This is difficult, emotional and time-intensive work. You need support and ought not to be taking this on by yourself. It’s also the responsible thing to do because multiple perspectives are essential. Many hands make richer work.

My partner and I organize very openly so as to be inclusive. In my experience, there is no way to not be exclusive if calls are closed. My inclusivity is lifelong: Growing up in India I would often be a ringleader during recess, but in the U.S., I was shunned because of how I looked and spoke. I therefore see exclusivity as an erasure because I know what it is like to live both experiences.

There are not that many artists here in Boston. In my experience, it’s about the same effort if you choose to work with folks you know versus open up to all, because, there are really not that many of us. I also strive to operate from a place of abundance and benefit of doubt: I choose to see that most people choosing to do this work as a living are fairly serious and have quite beautiful things to offer.

Given the topic, if you had made it open from the beginning there is no doubt people would have been excited.

There was also no indication on the facebook event page that you are accepting art till May 27 so for anyone who may have been interested (I saw it two weeks back and I was), it looked decidedly closed. Even now the description on the page has not been changed – perhaps because it’s still closed and only I was extended an invitation to potentially address the problem that the show is too white. It’s a subtle way to co-opt my brownness to make your show acceptable.

The invitation to meet a deadline in a little less than two weeks is also unfair, especially as I do not know if I’d be the only brown performer.

These are all the types of concerns many artists of color – if not most – are constantly negotiating in joining shows. When you invite an artist of color for their “unique” perspective, know it is hard won and often painfully rooted.

11243710_10102164665424931_1216073775164805121_nFinally, when inviting artists of color, whenever possible, make sure you consider a budget that has enough to compensate fairly. Due to systemic racism, resources are not equal between white artists and artists of color. That’s why it feels like Somerville is so white. Look also at the folks receiving awards here. Look at who gets the contemporary arts grants and who gets those qualified as ethnic arts and crafts. It’s important to make every attempt to compensate. Otherwise it’s a hollow gesture.

And if you can’t do these things then don’t organize a show. Don’t contribute to erasure. Take the time to do it properly. There is no rush. It takes courage to stop and assess, especially in considering what’s really at stake. What is at stake? Is it a group show not happening? In many people’s lives, erasure is a quiet violence, mirrored in the brutality we are seeing every day against black people. Instead, consider writing a piece about wanting to make a show like this and why the systems in place make it terrifically difficult. Think about how you can leverage your whiteness to create truly inclusive shows and plan based on this analysis. And find and reach out to artists and organizers of color. Another world is possible. We just need to refuse to go by the way things are done per usual.

And please check out Mass Creative Workers: we are working for living wage within an equitable social justice framework because together we can make change!

This is the work that white people and people of color must do if we’re serious about vanquishing anti-blackness. If you love Prince, as you claim you do, you would celebrate him in this spirit.

Pampi

Organizer response: “After much consideration, we have decided to cancel the Prince-themed show scheduled for June 2015.  In light of recent discussions, clearly a show of all white artists does not do justice to the subject, and we would be unable to reorganize the show in a truly inclusive way in the short time remaining before the scheduled opening. We are grateful for dialogue around these issues and hope to revisit this show in the future when we are able to present it with a more diverse representation of artists.”

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