‘Black Women Artists Speak’ forum starts a conversation

A Tuesday night forum featuring a panel of five Black women artists from the Madison area, with both an in-person and a virtual audience, convened at the Madison College Goodman South Campus to discuss what the community can do to support Black women artists. These included the need for funding, more exhibit spaces, and acknowledgement and encouragement.

Responses ranged from the straightforwardly practical to anger.

UW-Madison student and poet Grace Ruo said that listening to what she and other Black artists have to say is important, while painter and muralist Lilada Gee said that the solution is out there already — “You know how to fix it,” Gee said. “Stop playing. I’m tired and I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

Panelists Ruo and Gee were joined by Fabu Carter, former Madison poet laureate; Catrina Sparkman, a writer, playwright and theater artist; and Sonia Valle, art teacher and musician. They all addressed what is important for people to know about them and their art; ways they have felt supported and unsupported in their work; and what needs to happen in Madison to create more understanding between whites and Black artists. They also fielded questions from the audience. 

The panel, sponsored by the Madison Arts Commission, Friends of MAC, and Seein-is-Believin LLC, was spurred by incidents surrounding Gee during the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art’s Wisconsin Triennial, and the subsequent withdrawal of art by many of the artists.

This year’s show, called “Ain’t I a Woman?” was guest-curated by Milwaukee gallery owner Fatima Laster and for the first time included only Black women artists. (The Triennial usually draws from all Wisconsin artists from across the state.)

Things started going wrong with the Triennial early. A clash occurred between Gee (along with MMoCA employee Annik Dupaty) and an Overture Center employee who tried to block Gee from reentering the building while she was installing her mural in March. As a result of that incident, Gee left her piece unfinished in protest. The unnamed employee was fired.

In June, several young children used paint and other art supplies left as part of Gee’s unfinished work to draw on the work. The mother and children then left the museum with parts of the exhibit. Museum director Christina Brungardt reportedly called Gee to ask if it was all right if the woman and her children kept what they had drawn on. The pieces were returned, but the damage, both physically and psychologically, was already done. An open letter to MMoCA from many of the participating artists laid out much dissatisfaction with the way the museum handled the show, ranging from the incidents surrounding Gee to “little promotion on social media or elsewhere and no event programming.”

Tuesday night’s forum did not center solely on the Triennial, however. Sparkman offered that having work spaces for Black artists, such as her own project, Creator’s Cottage —  an art studio and maker space which she called “my brainchild, my baby” — is crucial. Carter also noted that having a makerspace in south Madison that meets the needs of  women artists of color is essential, citing it as Madison’s “most diverse neighborhood.”

Sparkman stressed that funding is important to support Black women’s art. “Funding, funding, funding,” she said. She supports the Creator’s Cottage mostly by herself through her own art sales. 

“A lot of times, when you are a nonprofit and go for grants, and people don’t know your name, and you’re not on their radar, you don’t get in the funding cycle,” Sparkman said. 

The discussion returned to MMoCA’s lack of support for the Triennial. Many commenters in the chat accompanying the Zoom discussion wanted more of a response from MMoCA than its Aug. 24 statement and noted representatives from the museum were present on the Zoom presentation but not participating. 

MMoCA board member Hedi Rudd, present at the forum, expressed disappointment in the museum’s response so far. “I’m sad right now that this is here and I don’t see MMoCA listed anywhere as a supporter,” she said. “This is Madison, we’re so smart, but we can’t have conversations with people and can’t talk and speak the truth?” Rudd added: “It makes me sad that that’s who we are.”

Karin Wolf, arts program administrator for the city of Madison who helped Carter organize the discussion, called the evening “a very important conversation.” 

“I see the commitment by your presence here,” she said. Wolf promised another forum in six months.

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