WHAT WOULD IT MEAN TO CELEBRATE JUNETEENTH IN THE ART WORLD?
One writer reflects on the complexities of celebrating Juneteenth and Black art.
By Mandy Harris Williams
Monthly, my mother and I board the Greyhound bus to Philadelphia, and then the SEPTA train to Temple University for my D’Zert Club Youth Meeting. This club (each cohort culminated in a Teen Summit to either Egypt or Ghana) is an offshoot of the African Genesis Institute, a non-profit educational venture co-founded by my dad’s fraternity brother and his wife, Ali and Helen Salahuddin. Between age 11 and 13, I learned lesser taught African and African American history, retraced sections of the Underground Railroad, learned the lyrics to all of the verses of the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” by James Weldon Johnson, and of course, celebrated Kwanzaa and Juneteenth with my Philadelphia classmates. Before the internet was functionally fluid, that is, there were pockets of us, radiating either physically or generationally from Texas, the epicenter of the story from whence the tradition derives, who acknowledged the reason for the season, and celebrated with local cookouts, parades, parties, and pageants.
I learned about Juneteenth in a fairly rigorous, historical, and (ethno-culturally) proud context, but it hasn’t been surprising to see Juneteenth taken up by the mainstream, acknowledged by US places of work and governmental bodies, and celebrated as the new Black holiday of note. Juneteenth has always captured my attention because it underscores how bureaucracy can cheat you out of freedom, how systems and communications can move slowly so as to sabotage the people who might benefit from their working the most, how the difference between servitude and liberation can be as circumstantial as access to and distribution of information. There are a few things I studied during my time with the AGI, as well as throughout my undergraduate concentration in Black History, that have come into today’s zeitgeist: newly popularized Blacknesses, Black artistic, creative, and celebratory trends that nod to history and contemporary collective efforts, but this one’s bitter twist seems to have gone underrecognized.
There is good and bad to Juneteenth’s popularization. The good is fairly obvious: acknowledgment, representation, celebration, joy. The bad is more insidious: prematurity, dehistoricization, representation standing in for structural change, or moral licensing. For this platform, we’d ought to think about what brings us here: art and artists, and beyond that, more spiritually, even: the source and sustenance of Black creativity. Let us, as we do in the gallery, inspect the form, and the structures, and the aesthetic principles at work, as well as absorbing the look and feel of the thing and surrendering to ecstasy, or its precursors, at witnessing the work.
Most Black uplift efforts have been made by way of inclusion and representation in the art world. This has done fair – not exceptional, not even that good – but we should be cautious to understand any criticism as a ‘yes and, in light of the severe conservative backlash of current times,’ more than an abrupt jolt off of this course. In light of neoliberal multicultural spaces of excellence tendencies to prefer and center what essayist and sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom calls “Special Blacks,” we should be cautious to denote that this celebration observes a specific Black history. And in light of our celebratory observation, we must center the intent of this celebration. Do our current forms of exposure, economic redistribution and remuneration, and valuation liberate Black artists and creativity? Or do economic relationships between patrons of the Black arts, galleries, and Black artists recall antebellum economic exploitation? How are Black artists supported? How do we acknowledge the history of resource inequality that keeps many Black artists from having the space, connections, education, or belongingness to create and show in the first place? And which Black artists make it through? Is it those Black artists who favor their ancestors on the coast of Ghana, or the enslaved Black people who learned of their freedom on the original Juneteenth, or do art worlds prefer those whose phenotype (the physical expression of genotype) more closely matches Europeans in their ancestry, or whose personal and familial history largely differs from the trajectory of the original Juneteenth celebrants? Is it those with their pleasant, lush figurative work that radiates Black wealth and wholeness, or those demanding reparations in explicit language – work that bears the pain of unequal life paths, outcomes and systems of care that remain today? Which work is exploitative? Which work is caring? Which work is truthful? Which work is soothing? Which work is activating? Which work is liberating?
To look forward toward a new Juneteenth, or Black Liberatory aesthetic, or more accurately, Black, “liminally enslaved US peoples”-descended art, a truly contemporary figuration, or perhaps, critique (of the old form), would be to update the aesthetics, and their implied politics, closing the gap between categorical representation and reality, between representation and historicity, and then expanding that representation, alongside more complex praxis, assessing structures of power as well as value in Black, enslaved peoples' descended artistry. I often contemplate how calls for the rich and powerful of the art world to take up a more creatively liberatory position is in part due to the work that has happened inside museums and galleries. Shows like: “We Wanted a Revolution,” curated by Rujecko Hockley and Catherine Morris; “Soul of a Nation” at the Tate modern in 2017 and its lesser-publicized (but superiorly informative) contemporary, “The Place is Here,” which ran during the same summer at the South London Gallery; the Art and Practice LA Rebellion show, “Time is Running Out of Time” curated by Jheanelle Brown and Sarah Loyer; as well as major retrospectives of critical/conceptual artists Adrian Piper or Pope L., laid the groundwork for bolder demands of the art world, as well as, of course, the uprising and a pan-disciplinary call for Black Lives [to] Matter in all industries, spaces and systems.
As we gather in exhibition halls, fairs, galleries and museums, and now even on the internet, with the advent of a burgeoning NFT market, in this reopening that will come to define an aesthetic period across all art forms and all communities, we might remain mindful of how the world reopens per Juneteenth’s lesson. The world reopens too slowly for some: the communication lags, it takes years for critical communications to reach those who stand to gain liberation, and too long in Black artists’ careers for incisive, socially engaged work to see its due. Juneteenth is certainly a celebration, but it is also a memorial. Accordingly, we must begin to re-imagine our investments among spectacles vs. structures. Celebrating Juneteenth in the art world means calling up and amplifying the necessary communications – the radical voices – eschewing the desire to figure the captives as celebratory more than deserving and critical, avoiding the opportunism of “outsider,” “emerging,” or “POC” markets and making reparational contributions to descendants of enslaved people in particular, investing in, if not sustainably patronizing artists, in ways that are not tied only to their output, but also their needs and upfront costs, as they try to remain floating and focused in an economy that will gladly pay them to apply their creativity to the distribution of sneakers, or self-care, or some other product that pays to advertise, at least, more than it would to bring the truest self to market. Where the celebration of Juneteenth reminds us of joy, let the lesson of Juneteenth be the need to support critical (liberatory) communication in the arts.