Black Lives Matter And The Delay Of The Italian Art Sector With Its Black Italian Artists
What happened in Minneapolis ignited a wave of protests and reactions in the cultural and arts world. But what about Italy? Johanne Affricot, culture curator founder and creative director of Griot, explains.
The Revolution will not be televised, Gill Scott Heron sang in 1971. It has been nearly 50 years since this song, and the words of the poet, musician and activist from Chicago, reverberate again like a prophetic utopia in a new chapter of the same revolution, started more than 400 years ago. A revolution fueled by oppression and racial discrimination until, exploding in the umpteenth protest triggered by the umpteenth involuntary martyr robbed of his own story, except of a single and very familiar image: of race and a violent death. And the revolution is happening before the eyes of the whole world.
“NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE”. THE REACTION OF THE ARTS AND CULTURAL SECTOR
A funeral was held on June 8 for George Floyd, an African American man killed by ex-policeman Derek Chauvin, who for 8 minutes and 46 seconds fatally pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck. Eighteen days since Floyd’s death, the United States is still going through a massive wave of protests that has taken on a global reach, and has also seen the removal a and beheading of statues by people (both there and in Europe) that were symbols of slavery and colonial rule, violence and oppression. There is a global need to deal with an oppressive past, one that is still alive in the present. But if the issue of race and police violence against black people is what immediately catches the eye, the Covid-19 pandemic, that has predominantly cut down the African American community in terms of contagions and deaths, has brought systemic and institutional racism even more to light in the country of the American Dream. The inequality in the distribution of wealth has devastating effects on everyday life of the most marginalized communities—from access to healthcare to discriminatory housing; access to quality education to the high unemployment rate and from access to healthy nutrition to mass incarceration, to name a few. It goes without saying that interpreting these protests should go further than a superficial understanding and dig deeper to include more levels of general observation of the bigger picture.
Yet, the US art world’s reactions have been a little uncertain and weak, some late, some absent, especially in light of the fact that Floyd died on May 25, and that just before him, the violent deaths of two black, unarmed and innocent US citizens (Amhaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor) shook the United States and the West. The global scientific community, for example, went on strike against racism. Laboratories, universities and scientific institutions have added their support to the Black Lives Matter movement. Nature, the scientific magazine par excellence expressed their own mea culpa that proposes change: “Nature condemns police prejudice and violence, we stand against all forms of racism and we join others around the world in saying, unequivocally, that Black Lives Matter. Such statements are necessary, but they are not sufficient. They need to be followed by meaningful action,” says the editorial. The magazine acknowledged that it is “…one of the ‘white’ institutions responsible for bias in research and scholarship, denying space to black researchers. The enterprise of science has been—and remains—complicit in systemic racism, and it must strive harder to correct those injustices and amplify marginalized voices.”
GEORGE FLOYD: AMERICAN MUSEUMS
Turning back to the world of arts and culture, and taking three important American museums on Instagram and other social networks as reference, we notice that the response is inadequate. The New Museum only posted a black square on June 2 as a sign of solidarity (#BlackOutTuesday), accompanied by a terse post that reads: “In the wake of recent events, we are temporarily suspending our program on social media. Black lives matter.” The museum then lists a series of racial justice organizations to whom you can donate. Same story for the Guggenheim, in social hibernation since June 2. Sharing the black square and a concise message, that reads, “The Guggenheim is observing Blackout Tuesday, listening and grieving with the family of George Floyd and the many other black lives that have been lost. We stand in solidarity with those demanding justice and an end to racism.” The MOCA in Los Angeles, on the other hand, has not posted any (temporary) farewell letter, preferring to stay silent since May 31.
At a time when the United States is experiencing internal turbulence, and above all a revolution of consciousness (the revolution of Gill Scott mentioned above), it is impossible not to wonder why the arts system appears disoriented, almost frightened, incapable of responding to events that are yielding change.
The American journalist, intellectual, and writer Ta-Nehisi Coates (Between the World and Me, 2015), in a recent interview with Ezra Klein, highlights two interesting aspects of the current moment: the first is that in this chaotic scenario, he sees hope and progress (I suggest watching his June 2019 address to the House of Representatives Judiciary Subcommittee, on the reparations request for heirs of African Americans who were enslaved). The second is tied to his father. In an exchange of thoughts and comparisons, his father tells him how these protests seem to be more sophisticated in respect to the ones in which he participated in Baltimore in 1968. White and black folks protest together, there is a multiethnic solidarity that resonates in many American cities. The great author, activist and feminist Angela Davis (Women, Race and Class, first US publication, 1981, first Italian publication, 2018) prefers to be more cautious with the comparison, but she also brings up some key points in an interview with Channel 4 News: “This moment, this particular historical conjuncture holds possibilities for change that we’ve never before experienced in this country. I don’t know whether I would compare this moment with massive uprisings in the 1960s. What I would suggest is that there is a historical continuum, and in 2020 we are finally witnessing the consequences of decades, centuries of attempting to expel racism from our society,” she reflects. “This is a very exciting moment. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced this kind of global challenge to racism and the consequences of slavery and colonialism.”
GEORGE FLOYD: THE PROTEST AFTER THE PANDEMIC
Could it be that the present time, with the Coronavirus pandemic still fresh in our lives, our ability to see and hear is obscured? Or that the resulting budget cuts of museums, which have sent so many people home, are imposing a redefinition of priorities? It would also be interesting to understand who is pulling the strings in these institutions, most of which are private foundations.
The Guggenheim’s silence was partially interrupted by Chaédria LaBouvier, African American guest curator of the museum for the Basquiat’s “Defacement”: The Untold Story (2019). In a tweet from June 2 in response to the museum, LaBouvier called out the institution, denouncing it for institutional racism and hypocrisy, after it had shared the previously stated solidarity message. “Get the entire f-ck out of here. I am Chaédria LaBouvier, the first Black curator in your 80 year history & you refused to acknowledge that while also allowing Nancy Spector to host a panel about my work w/o inviting me. Erase this shit.” She continues: “This is the same museum that made up an IMAGINARY designation of ‘first solo Black curator’ b/c they were too afraid to admit that they had not hired a Black curator to lead a show in 80 years and erased me and history in the process. They are full of shit.” The Guggenheim, questioned by Essence, offered its version, amending some of LaBouvier’s incorrect statements, and at the same time admitting to the various missteps made since the museum’s founding, announcing its commitment to take adequate measures to improve.
The poor representation of black artists (as well as women and other non-white minorities) in the permanent collections of US museums is, however, a problem both real and felt, and despite the efforts repeatedly announced by the sector to create greater diversity, equality (which, to avoid misunderstanding, also translates into “quality”) for artists, the process is still long. The results of a study conducted in May 2019 shared by Hyperallergic, showed that 85.4% of the artwork in the collections of the main US museums are by white artists, and 87.4% by male artists. African American artists hold the lowest share, 1.2% of the artwork, while Asian artists total at 9%, and Hispanic and Latino artists constitute only 2.8% of the artists. Furthermore, according to the Andrew Mellon Foundation, black curators represent only 4% of the entire US curatorial staff.
BLACK LIVES MATTER. THE DELAY OF THE ITALIAN ARTS AND CULTURAL SECTOR WITH ITS BLACK ARTISTS
On the one hand, we have a civil society which through these protests appears more heterogeneous and united than in the past and that is sending a signal, at both a local and global level; on the other hand, the data in part suggests that if you make statements today, they must be real and concrete, and, above all, endure in the long term.
And in Italy? On June 10, the MAXXI launched the project #MAXXIforBlackLivesMatter on their social channels, an initiative dedicated to educating the public on the Black Lives Matter movement, founded in 2013, through art. The museum states, “[…] we kneel, for our brothers and sisters, to rise together, forever.” A bit late, but better late than never. It’s a necessary gesture, but it would be equally necessary to conceive and carry out a calendar of permanent initiatives, taking inspiration from the events organized in 2018 during their African Metropolis exhibition.
The peaceful protest that took place in Rome (and in other Italian cities) last weekend also directed attention to the institutional and structural racism present in our country. In the People’s Square (Piazza del Popolo) baked by the sun and full of bodies, rigorously wearing masks, Italian activists and African descendant artists brought many themes dear to me to the surface, including the forgotten citizenship reform Ius Culturae—the expert in international cooperation Susanna Owusu addressed this topic―whose struggle in the last few years, before it was discarded by the Governement, was promoted by the Italians Without Citizenship (Italiani Senza Cittadinanza) movement and other organizations. In a passionate speech addressed to thousands of people, the black Italian actor Haroun Fall linked the issue of citizenship to the scarce and/or total absence of representation and inclusion of black artists, of the Afro-descendant creative and cultural class in the media, arts, creative, and culture industries.
The Italian artistic, creative and cultural system in fact, in regards to these issues, and observing the United States and some European countries, has been completely and guiltily asleep, not only at the mainstream level, but also “underground.”
It is difficult to understand why no Italian organization has ever really questioned itself, has never tried to change the landscape, to promote and support a regeneration that includes a plurality of voices and thoughts.
If we think about the audiovisual sector, the MIBAC prize “MigrArti, culture unites” was suspended two years ago and, even if it had limitations, at least it existed and in part contributed to enriching the panorama and education. Fortunately there is the Mutti Prize, intended for directors with foreign origins. However resources are too scarce for this prize to be considered an alternative tool for the greater cultural and artistic emancipation of our country. In addition to these, to date I do not know of other important cultural instruments or opportunities for Italians with other origins.
Starting from primary and secondary schools is the key, the most important challenge. Creating and making tools available that would facilitate education and cultural progress is essential. Daniele Vitrone, known as Diamante, an Italian rapper-educator of African-Brazilian origin, is an inspiration. His music workshops in Milanese schools are already working towards educating young people. Before Diamante, there was the Italian-Egyptian rapper Amir Issa, who also works as a lecturer at universities in the States, including San Diego State University. American professors are interested in educating their students about the Italy of today, no longer only as a country whose people migrated [to the United States], but as a country that today is a land where many people arrive and settle, a country that is multicultural. And multiculturalism and migration are issues Amir Issa knows very well and has experienced firsthand.
EXPERIMENTATION SPACES: THE INTERNATIONAL CASES
These are just a few examples which clash with the bitter reality our country is facing. The absence of more voices like these is heavy and palpable. In the past five years, with every difficulty imaginable, we have tried to fill this void with GRIOT, which was born out of a personal need to create a transdisciplinary space for artistic and cultural sharing, a space in which one can recognize, inspire, experiment and create, an Italian space through which networking with the African diasporas in Europe, the Americas, and with Africa. But that’s not enough. Despite the numerous activities carried out with institutions or other artistic organizations, the lack of our own physical space in the cultural landscape breaks up any idyllic feeling of contentment of having made progress.
And if one wants to reflect on the existence, experience and artistic quality of black Italian artists, or artists from other origins, it would be wrong not to consider the delayed response which we are experiencing which represents a barrier in and of itself. The creative and artistic process is generated if there is exchange, interaction, and sharing. The Studio Museum in Harlem led by Thelma Golden (New York) is probably one of the main and most prestigious hubs for African American artists and artists from th African diaspora. Focusing within Europe, in Paris, France we have La Colonie, a cross-disciplinary, anti-academic and critical-thinking art space, co-founded by artist Kader Attia; in the United Kingdom, in London, there is the Autograph ABP, an art space that comes very close to our idea of a place for arts and culture, as well as the independent Savvy Contemporary space in Berlin, founded by the Cameroonian Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung (curator at large of documenta 14). And in Italy? Where is Italy? Why is it missing?
BLACK LIVES MATTER: THE NEED FOR AN EXPERIMENTATION SPACE IN ITALY
Even if for most it will seem like a form of ghettoization to close ourselves up in a space that is meant to focus mainly on Afro-descendant artists and artists with other cultural backgrounds, I assure you that it is not. Rather, it is a process for which, in my opinion, it is important to pass through, because the levels of knowledge and thought regarding certain issues, stories (whether individual or collective) and dynamics, beckon for this need and responsibility. One prior attempt close to this vision was made in 2018 by the director of the Egyptian Museum of Turin Christian Greco. Through the campaign, “Lucky to speak Arabic” (which had excellent results in 2016), he wanted to stimulate the use of the city’s cultural offerings at a reduced ticket price to Arabic-speaking citizens, to encourage museum attendance and community integration to those who have chosen Italy as their home. Controversy broke out, the leader of political party Fratelli d’Italia, Giorgia Meloni claimed that the initiative was a discriminatory act against “Italian” families.
Aware of the different cultural context in which we find ourselves, and of the gaps with respect to the international cultural and artistic spaces mentioned above, at GRIOT we are ready now, and we strive towards creating a space of our own. The “now” for us has been a long time coming. Because if not now, when?
This essay by Johanne Affricot orignally appeared in its Italian version on Artribune, titled ‘Black Lives Matter ma non in Italia. Il ritardo dell’arte e della cultura nel paese‘
Translated by Alexa Combs Dieffenbach