Updated: Aug 6, 2021
Some of the world’s most prestigious museums contain sections dedicated to art movements dominated by diverse cultures, but oftentimes these sections are full of artifacts that were stolen from their homes and brought back to the West to be put on display. In many cultural spaces, history is retold through a false artistic lens. Authentic cultural multiplicity in the art world remains scarce, as large-scale exhibits of authentic, representative art from and about diverse people of color are still uncommon.
“Explaining that an almighty, lily-white Roman Empire never existed will not stop white nationalists from pining for its return… Dismantling structures of power that have been shored up by the classical tradition will require more than fact-checking; it will require writing an entirely new story about antiquity, and about who we are today.”
We believe in challenging these false notions of art. Too often, minority artists are invisible. Their achievements are frequently understated and overlooked. A false retelling of history through art is a transgression against us all. When it comes to depicting people of color, many of the images we see portray a construed reality, conjured up by people who are not part of the community in question. Sometimes these realities are unauthentic and negative. There is an immense need to highlight art and artists depicting more diverse and authentic narratives. Their perspectives need to be seen, heard and felt.
That’s the inspiration behind ‘Curated by us,’ our initiative to showcase art and artists of color, and authentic images of people from diverse backgrounds. We do this through our ‘Culture from home!’ emails to our young members, which are full of diverse artistic and cultural content; Soul Food blog posts that explore art and culture; our cultural excursions, for which we maintain a balance, going to cultural institutions that specialize in art from different cultures; and our aptly named Instagram highlight, or virtual collection, that we've carefully and joyfully curated with some of our favorite artistic images from those we share on social media.
“…Black representation is almost always limited if we allow ourselves to be crunched into other people’s fantasies. In authoring our own images, Black people achieve some sovereignty beyond the reach of colonialist ideas and racist mythologies. Today you can see brilliant examples of this throughout our culture…”
Some artists, including Kehinde Wiley and Hilary Balu, embody this work by questioning the lack of people of color in Western art. They challenge this issue through their paintings, which depict Black people in different historical and thought-provoking scenes. Jiab Prachakul, who struggled to find gallery representation until she won a prestigious art award, does the same through her portraiture work, which strives to create representative, contemporary images of Asians.
Artists such as these are shifting the color of art history. They are painting, writing, sewing, dancing, filming, photographing, and drawing people of color into our collective consciousness and into the art world. We have already seen the positive impact this has on our young members, when we view oeuvres and go to performances by artists from their home countries, but substantial progress takes time, so persistence is essential.
Oftentimes, art also teaches us something, such as history lessons that aren’t always taught in schools. Art can also recount contemporary stories that are not accurately told in the media. We recently went on a Soul Food excursion to see a performance called Noire (French for ‘Black’), which tells the story of Claudette Colvin, the 15-year-old who refused to give up her seat on a bus 9 months before Rosa Parks did the same, but whose story is not widely known, due to the fact that she got pregnant at 16 and was a darker shade of black, and therefore not considered an ideal role model candidate during the Civil Rights Movement. The powerful performance, which combined singing, acting and drawing, left us all moved and more knowledgeable on the historical facts surrounding the Montgomery bus boycott and other Civil Rights protests.
Classicists, historians and art historians are shifting the truth of art history as they work to deracinate myths that run deep. For instance, through his research and work, Dr. Dan-el Padilla Peralta is fighting to set the record straight about the classics, which has “been embraced by the far right, whose members [hold] up the ancient Greeks and Romans as the originators of so-called white culture.” He believes that the discipline has “sown racism through the entirety of higher education due to “the classical justifications of slavery, race science, colonialism, Nazism and other 20th-century fascisms.” He is not alone in this belief. The marble Greek and Roman sculptures that still line the halls of some of the world’s most prestigious museums, would have typically been painted in antiquity and their creators did not believe themselves to be “white.”
The artistic work of these truth-bearers often embodies freedom, resistance, beauty, innovative responses to and perspectives on social issues plaguing humanity, and fresh critiques of capitalism, gentrification, history, elitism, and art itself. They represent a richly diverse array of cultures and countries, and in that way are representative of humanity. Through their art these artists build bridges, tell untold stories, amplify diverse voices, and help us process world events. Their art beautifully depicts nuanced cultures and refutes false, negative stereotypes. It changes the narrative surrounding people of color, recounts historical facts and provides a beacon of light as we strive towards a better future.