Friday, June 26, 2009

Yeah but do we design, Yeah we design

Have you ever had an unsolvable problem or a nagging complaint about a situation in the world? I guess when I was a young man trying to find role models among African-American men that pertained to my artist interest, there were few if any. It really hasn't changed. One name stood out, Sam Gilliam. He is an abstract artist. I still don't know or appreciate his vast body of work, but just to know a black guy has the guts to be who he is, is enough. Like John Coltrane, his work is an acquired taste I check out from time to time to calibrate myself.

Against this abstract expression is a menagerie of black artist who play to the supposedly popular demand. Mostly pictures of p-e-o-p-l-e in African subjects, religious subjects, jazz musicians, etc, all with the stereo-typical air of this is what we are about. I wondered in the face of our unique art history, is there an African-American style that we could put into architecture, art, home furnishing and decor. We put our influence into music and dance but not into home decor other than old stuff. There is so much appreciation of our slave past in our practical living, that it keeps us slaves. There are exceptions, but if you look over the mainstream offerings, the influences are not there. I want to tell all black artist to look forward more, look back less, I think we need to look at ourselves less, need to explore outside. We could keep our tether to our history, I don't think it is going away. Maybe the world is ready to see what we see when we are not explaining ourselves.

Let me illustrate further. You want to decorate your home with some African-American themes. You buy pictures of black people in various poses and guises and a starving artist canned abstract or two. If you go more African, you buy African subject matter, carvings, masks etc. Your home resembles the museum of collected African stuff. You are surrounded with reminders of oldness, but you force yourself to think revolution, overcoming adversity and embracing the black aesthetic. Oh, Africans are really colourful, so you layer fabric prints into a nauseating display and try to convince us saying poly-rhythms, syncopated patterns and complex cross-cultural influences. You know, ugly is ugly, no matter where it is from.

This is why style is carefully crafted over time, not haphazardly thrown together (fad or trend). Black artist need to spend the time to access the symbols, patterns, colours and influences and use the normal tools of art; line, colour, proportion, composition. With me, I looked at lots of African things, allowed the images to settle into the back of my mind. I wrestle with those images until something must come out, I see something new heavily influenced by the images I've been taking in. Now I add my art into the mix of other artist and a style emerges. In the past there have been design movements where cultural interest produced a style. However the artist were gathered, college, international consortium, world's fair collaboration, the thrust produced a outcome celebrated in the market place. It was not just material culture that produced the various styles of home furnishings we have today. We black folk still don't admit we even have a material culture. Much of what we display is about the person, clothes, make-up and bling. We rap, sing, dance and shoot hoops, but do we design?? Ah!! Do we design??

Yeah, we design, but there's not enough of it in one place to make an impression beyond fashion, fad and trend. Time will tell and I am endeavouring to put in my two cents.

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