UPDATE: Less than 24 hours after he issued an apology to Sen. Audrey Gibson for using a racial slur and profanity, Sen. Frank Artiles apologized the floor of the Florida Senate. Watch the video
TALLAHASSEE — Miami Republican Sen. Frank Artiles dropped the n-word to a pair of African-American colleagues in private conversation Monday night — after calling one of them a “f—— a——,” a “b—-” and a “girl,” the two senators said.
Over drinks after 10 p.m. at the members-only Governors Club just steps from the state Capitol, Artiles told Sens. Audrey Gibson of Jacksonville and Perry Thurston of Fort Lauderdale that Senate President Joe Negron of Stuart had risen to his powerful GOP leadership role because “six n—–rs” in the Republican caucus had elected him.
Artiles later told Gibson and Thurston that he’d used the word “n—-as,” suggesting the slang term was not meant to be insulting, Gibson and Thurston said. It’s unclear whom Artiles was referring to, since the only black senators in the state Senate are all Democrats — and none of them backed Negron’s bid to lead the chamber.
Artiles apologized to Gibson late Tuesday afternoon, after he’d been reported to Republican leaders and reporters started asking questions.
“In an exchange with a colleague of mine in the Senate, I unfortunately let my temper get the best of me,” Artiles said later in a statement. “There is no excuse for the exchange that occurred and I have apologized to my Senate colleagues and regret the incident profusely.”
To Gibson and Thurston, it was clear Artiles wasn’t referring to them or to any other Democrats, but apparently to six Republicans who favored Negron for the job over Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater.
The discussion began Monday night after Artiles approached Gibson at the Governors Club to suggest that a series of questions he’d asked of one of her bills earlier in the day were payback for questions she’d asked before of one of Artiles’ bills.
At one point, Artiles referred to Gibson as “this f——- a——” and “this b—-,” Gibson said.
Gibson complained to Thurston, who had been talking to other people at Gibson’s table during the exchange. Thurston asked Artiles if he had in fact referred to Gibson in those terms. Artiles denied it, Thurston said — but urged by Thurston, apologized.
Then, someone else at the table — not an elected official — asked Artiles about another word he’d used in reference to Gibson: “girl.” Artiles said he meant no disrespect.
But when the conversation turned to Senate GOP leadership, Artiles used the n-word.
“He said, ‘If it wasn’t for these six n——,'” Gibson said. By way of explanation, he added, “‘I’m from Hialeah,'” she said.
“I said, ‘OK, Perry, I’m done,'” Gibson said.
Gibson left the conversation to go the restroom.
Thurston urged Artiles to apologize to Gibson upon her return.
“Let’s kind of nip this in the bud,” Thurston said.
But Gibson was so upset she didn’t come back.
“I’m very respectful to this process. I’m very respectful to everyone,” Gibson said. “And the way he was characterizing the vote — it wasn’t nice.”
Thurston offered to meet Artiles at Thurston’s office at 9 a.m. Tuesday so Thurston could accompany him to Gibson’s office to apologize.
Artiles never showed up, said Thurston, who by then had notified Senate Minority Leader Oscar Braynon of Miami Gardens about the incident. Though Artiles and Gibson on Tuesday were both on the Senate floor and at a transportation budget committee, Artiles didn’t apologize on either occasion, Gibson said.
“I’m at a loss for words,” Braynon said. “You just don’t speak to someone like that.”
By Tuesday afternoon, Negron’s office had been notified of the incident. His spokeswoman didn’t immediately comment.
But Artiles, escorted by incoming Republican Senate President Bill Galvano of Bradenton, showed up after 6 p.m. to apologize to Gibson, Thurston and Braynon.
Before he did, Gibson had told the Herald an apology would be “meaningless.”
“You’re just talking — loud — to a table of people about leadership. It made me sad,” she said. “I can’t remember a time in my life when anybody called me either one of those things,” she added, referring to the two insults directed at her. “It’s just the most disrespect I’ve ever encountered.”
Artiles, a Cuban-American ex-Marine who represents Southwest Miami-Dade County, has gotten into notorious trouble in Tallahassee before. Two years ago, a college student in town for spring break said Artiles punched him in the face at Clyde’s & Costello’s, a downtown bar a couple of doors away from the Governor’s Club, just hours before the start of the 2015 legislative session.
Voters elected Artiles, a former state House member, to Senate District 40 in November. He defeated former Democratic state Sen. Dwight Bullard, who is African-American.
Artiles’ slur came the night before a diverse group of lawmakers from both parties gathered in the Capitol Rotunda on Tuesday to offer an emotional apology to the Groveland Four, the four African-American men who were wrongfully convicted by a racist Lake County sheriff in 1949.
Gibson said Tuesday she couldn’t look at Artiles after he started railing against her Monday night because she had “never, ever, ever” been treated that way.
“Maybe I should’ve asked him to leave the table,” she said.
This is probably the blackest this backstage room at the Dolby Theater is going to be for a while.
Granted, there are only two black people in the room — me and a 30-year-old guy named Tristan Walker — but considering that the Oscars will be held here in a week, that’s probably a safe assessment.
Walker is the founder and chief executive of Walker & Co. Brands, the company behind Bevel, a line of shaving products for men of color. I’m here to interview him, but he’s busy admiring a photo on the wall. The photo is of Halle Berry and Denzel Washington, proudly displaying their Oscars during that one historic moment in 2002 when two black people won the Best Actor and Actress awards.
Walker has flown down from Palo Alto, where he lives with his wife and son, to speak on a panel about diversity in tech start-ups along with Magic Johnson, who is also an investor in Bevel. In the two years and change since Bevel’s launch, the company has raised $33.3 million in funding, gotten nods from GQ, picked up a celebrity endorsement from Nas and this month went from an online-only product to a debut on Target’s shelves.
I’ve never so much as touched a Bevel razor, but I’m constantly hearing about it on Twitter, black fashion sites and on any one of several black podcasts. You may be wondering, like I was: Why is everyone so excited about a razor?
Walker tells me that Bevel started from a pair of frustrations. “A lot of global culture is led by American culture, which in turn is led by black culture,” he says. “And also Asian and Latino culture.” Too often, he says, those contributions go unrecognized.
The second frustration is the plight of what he calls the “ethnic aisle.” I’m already laughing when he says the words, because I know exactly what he’s talking about: the spot in every grocery store set aside for hair-care products for black and brown people.
“You gotta go back to aisle 15” — at this point, he’s laughing too — “but it’s not really an aisle, it’s just a shelf in the back, right? And you gotta reach down to the bottom of the shelf for some dusty package, and there’s a picture of a 65-year-old dude in a Jheri curl and a towel, and they’re assuming that I’m going to buy that product. It’s that whole second-class citizen experience.”
So for Walker, that feeling of being ignored by cosmetics companies was more than an annoyance — it was an opportunity.
Traditionally, we don’t think of grooming as being at the top of the list of conversation among men. But for a lot of black and brown men with coarse and curly hair, shaving is a daily ordeal, and a cheap multi-blade razor that works wonders on your white buddy’s face can turn your neck into something approximating Nestle Crunch.
This is how Walker says that his company differs from Venice-based Dollar Shave Club, another popular start-up. Dollar Shave Club offers razors starting at $1 (plus shipping) per month, and at $89.95 for a three-month supply of blades and shaving product.
Bevel can’t compete on price. But Walker is betting that customers will find that his single-blade razor, which he says is better for men that suffer from razor bumps, is worth the premium. The gamble seems to be paying off, because the company reports that 97% of customers renew their subscriptions.
“I get all these emails,” Walker says. “I just got one from a guy in the Army, saying something like ‘For as long as I can remember, razor bumps have been as much a part of my military career as my uniform.'” He counts black men in the military among his most enthusiastic supporters.
One engine of Bevel’s word-of-mouth success is sponsored podcasts. Black-run podcasts have a wide listenership, and it’s pretty common to hear the host of “The Black Guy Who Tips” or “The Combat Jack Show” go on an extended riff about the virtues of Bevel. Walker is enthusiastic about podcasters and rattles off a bunch of his favorites. “We sponsor a whole bunch of them,” Walker says.
These podcasts are popular in part because they reach a community that is often overlooked by other media. Because this is a community that is savvy about social media and vocal about what they like (and don’t like), when something comes along that speaks to them, they pay attention.
“It was a pretty good point of validation for us, especially with all the really great work he’s doing,” Walker says. He admits that he gets excited whenever someone famous mentions Bevel online. “We send an email out to everyone, like, retweet! retweet!”
So much enthusiasm surrounds the company that there’s now a persistent rumor that Walker turned down a half-billion-dollar buyout offer from Gillette to keep his company black-owned.
“That’s not true,” Walker says. But he can understand why the rumor started.
“When my mother was growing up, she had SoftSheen Carson and ‘Soul Train.’ So I’m thinking about how can we build a company that this generation, and future generations, can be fundamentally proud to support? How much is that worth?”
It’s worth a lot, he says. People are proud of Bevel. “I think that’s why there’s this pent-up excitement,” which in turn fuels misquotes and rumors.
Bevel is a privately held company that doesn’t disclose its sales figure. But they seem confident about the future. Walker says they are getting ready to launch a line of products for women of color, and Bevel just announced two major accomplishments.
The first: After two years as an online-only subscription product, Bevel is now stocked on Target shelves because Walker struck up a relationship with a customer who left a glowing review from an @target.com email address.
“He turned out to be in charge of purchasing for personal care products,” Walker says. “Two months later we were in a meeting, a year later we were on Target shelves.”
Target seems pretty happy about the arrangement:
The second is the announcement of a new hand-held trimmer, accompanied by a celebrity endorsement of a rapper known for his intricate haircut: Nas. The endorsement was easy to get, Walker says, because Nas was the first investor in the company.
A pause. I stop Walker and ask him to clarify that he actually went and pitched Nas. Like, “I’m starting a shaving goods company, want to give us some money?” — just like that?
“Yeah.” Walker nods, as if asking a legendary rapper for cash to start up a shaving company is the most logical business decision in the world. “And the Queens connection helped too.”
So about a year into the business relationship, Walker asked Nas — who has invested in several tech start-ups — if he would be interested in helping the company market a new portable beard trimmer. He agreed immediately, and they produced a sleek ad for the device.
By creating a trimmer, Bevel is taking on decades of loyalty among professional barbers to time-tested brands such as Andis and Wahl.
But pre-orders are already rolling in, and thanks to relationships established via interviews at Bevel Code, celebrity barbers already talking the product up. One of the first in line: the personal barber for Barack Obama.
Walker’s drive for success isn’t surprising to his fans — yes, he has fans — who know at least a bit about his past. He was born in a rough neighborhood in Southside Jamaica Queens, N.Y., and after his father was killed when he was 4, he was raised by his mother. He went on to get an MBA at Stanford University, and was director of business development at Foursquare before landing at Andreessen Horowitz, the highest-profile and largest venture capital firm in Silicon Valley. Greg Bettinelli, a partner at Upfront Ventures, says that his company was interested in Walker even before he had an idea to pitch them. When he did, they wrote a check.
Walker & Co. (of which Bevel is a flagship brand) is located in Silicon Valley. It’s run largely by and for people of color, in a sea of companies that are overwhelmingly white, Asian and male.
Most of the company’s 22 employees are women and minorities, and it will probably continue to stay that way, Walker says. “We’re deliberate about that. I challenge anybody to say they have a more diverse team.”
Walker’s work doesn’t stop within his own company. He’s also the co-founder of an organization called Code 2040, which he launched with a classmate from his days at Stanford Business School. The name refers to an estimate of when people of color will make up the majority of the U.S. population.
The goal of Code 2040 is to create internship opportunities for black and Latino engineering students. More than 95% of the interns get full-time job offers from their companies.
“These are engineers who are really good,” Walker says. “So for a lot of these companies that say they can’t find [black and brown] engineers, they’re full of it. We’re proving that.”
The panel on tech diversity is about to start, and one of the organizers is waving to us to hurry up. Walker picks up his backpack and is about to walk out, but then he reaches into his pocket and pulls out his iPhone.
He wants a selfie next to that Halle and Denzel photo.
Black History should be celebrated every month not just one – but unfortunately, that is not the way it is.
Keeping with the times, I thought it only fitting to profile a fashion mogul whose life was cut too short, but left a massive impact just the same. Willi Donnell Smith was a 40’s baby. 1948 to be exact – he died in 1987.
Williwear, his fashion company was worth a reported $25 million at the time of his death – not bad for a humble boy raised in the city of brotherly love. New York Daily News Fashion Critic Liz Rittersporn called him the most successful black fashion designer in fashion history.
So how did he do it?
Smith studied fashion illustration at Philadelphia College of Art. He then won two scholarships to attend Parson’s School of Design. As a freelancer, Smith worked with Arnold Scaasi, and Bobby Brooke’s Sportswear Company. After several stints at other companies, Smith and his sister Toukie Smith started their own label; the same Toukie who is with Robert DeNiro.
After the label flopped, Smith partnered with Laurie Mallet to create Williwear. And like a fashion phoenix, Smith rose from the ashes of a failed business to become a fashion force to be reckoned with.
But that was only the beginning. “I remember being proud when he first come onto the scene. It was the first time that I saw a black designer,” said Lency Whitaker, a Philadelphia area designer of the luxury line, FEMI.
Some designers excel at one gender and merely succeed at the other – Smith was able to gain notoriety in both genders with career highlights that read like a divine Vogue profile.
“He was who I wanted to be like – I was done with words,” said Juanita Beasley a board member for the Philadelphia Network of Designers who will be honoring Smith at the organization’s gala on June 7, 2009. “My own dreams became attainable because I could identify with him. He made it possible for people like me,” Beasley adds.
And with Smith’s impressive and self-proclaimed, “Street Couture” he established himself as a permanent staple in the business. Street Couture indeed – Smith also provided all of the designs for Spike Lee’s, School Daze.
While some designers were designing for a certain type of people, Smith designed for the everyday man and woman.
But that didn’t mean that Smith designed only for the everyday man and woman. His designs were as versatile as they were wearable – appearing on the backs of Kennedy kin, and comic books.
For Caroline Kennedy’s marriage to Edwin Schlossberg, the suits for the groom and his groomsmen were Williwear exclusives. And for those comic bookers that come across this column on their way to the funnies, the dress that Mary Jane Watson wore for her marriage to Peter Parker in the original Spider-Man comic series was from the Williwear collection – Williwedding if you will.
Willi Smith was at the height of his career at the time of his passing – which no one expected. Though Smith looked weaker in his last days, those that knew him thought that exhaustion was the source.
In 1983, Willi was honored with the Fashion Critic’s Coty Award for Excellence in Women’s wear. Two years later, he won the Cutty Award for Excellence in Menswear.
At 39, Smith, who was openly gay was said to have contracted shigella and pneumonia as a result of AIDS while on a textile shopping trip in India. Smith was said to not have been aware that he had the disease – but died shortly after.
“I still haven’t seen a Black designer with as much impact as he,” said Whitaker. Mallet assumed control of the Williwear imprint and stayed on until 1990 when the company filed for Chapter 11.
In 1996, the brand was said to have been re launched with designer Michael Shulman at the helm for a collection exclusively available at the chain retailer TJ Maxx.
In a New York Times obituary for the designer, writer George James quoted Smith as saying, “I don’t design for the queen. I design for the people who wave as her as she goes by.”
Indeed Willi Smith was and still is the standard for designers Black and White.
At the time of the debut of her most recent public-art project, which was also her first public-art project, Kara Walker would clandestinely ride her bike from her home in Fort Greene to the then-defunct Williamsburg Domino Sugar factory, in which her massive sculpture was housed. The sugar Sphinx was raised in the summer of 2014; crowds as big as 10,000 people gathered to visually consume, and to Instagram, the monumental sculpture. Back then, Walker had dyed the top of her cropped Afro blonde, and her vague purpose in visiting Domino, she tells me, involved evaluating the people who had come to evaluate her work: She wanted to see how the moment of encounter with the colossus could change their faces. But Walker’s presence disturbed things, she says — as soon as viewers noticed, their eyes turned from the idol onto her, then they flocked in her direction. She was slightly exhausted by that, she says, still seeming a bit surprised. “I don’t know, I thought maybe people would be focused on the white-but-black gigantic labia!”
Commissioned by the downtown public-art fund Creative Time, A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby induced, like any Kara Walker work, an equivocal ceremony of looking — who looks, at what, and how. The central sculpture — a Sphinx creature with the kerchiefed head of a mammy figure, her breasts naked, her vulva prominent — stood 35 feet by 75 feet, a chimera of unvarnished American desires, protected by an infantry of black-boy figurines carrying agricultural bounty, built from Walker’s sketches by a team of nearly 20 fabricators, the 3-D sculpting and milling firm Digital Atelier, and Sculpture House Casting. A foam skeleton overlaid with 40 tons of sugar, water, and resin, the Sugar Baby was the largest single piece of public art ever erected in New York City. It was also one of the biggest in another sense: The show attracted 130,000 visitors, briefly lived a convoluted life as a coveted social-media geo-tag, and seemed, given the many pilgrims it enticed, to herald a new future for public art in the city. As Nato Thompson of Creative Time told me, “Kara immediately understood what a different form public art can be.”
The Sphinx was not meant to be a crowd-pleaser; it was too challenging for that, with compressed politics that were the result of what Walker calls her “magical thinking.” The Sugar Baby’s extended title referred to the workers who had been degraded, maimed, underpaid, and killed in factories like this one: “an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant.” The sculpture was a feat of reengineering, its materials not only sugar but also the events running through it: the brutal repurposing of black human life for the rank, commercial lusts of white supremacy; the emphasis on black female biological potential over black female creativity; both the bygone and contemporary processes of gentrification that threaten to wipe all indications of these dark and abiding practices from the structures in which they occurred. The developer Two Trees, which underwrote much of A Subtlety, broke ground on its Domino project not long after, turning the site into new apartments, and the Sugar Baby was conceived to be wiped away, too — to be almost completely destroyed following its single showing. But while it was up, Walker wanted to be sure to scrutinize how it was received, and sent a camera crew to film the crowds as they preened, laughed, and selfied around her — producing a kind of surveillance footage. Then she screened the result at Sikkema Jenkins, the gallery that has represented her since 1995.
It’s been nearly three years since the Sphinx, and Walker has spent the time interrogating what it means to make monumental and political art — representational or abstract — on the terrain, sites, and buildings in which the lives of black people have been compromised in some way. That is, how to exhume the traumas and delights of an environment rather than fabricating scenes out of black paper — and how to guide the problem of how people look. “I am still wrestling with my relationship to what my art might do in the public space,” she says. “How I can control it.”
Entering any room, Kara Walker redirects the flow of attention. She is tall, and her posture is strictly vertical, rarely lax, as if her neck were cinched to the goings-on of a higher plane. Standing in the foyer of her Fort Greene brownstone, the artist wears nondescript black workwear, Timberland boots, and her hair in utilitarian plaits.
Walker first became famous, quite abruptly, at 25, with her landmark 1994 show “Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart” — a stunning mural installation of cut-paper silhouettes depicting antebellum horrors that remains, by far, the most notable exhibition the Drawing Center has ever mounted (and which at the time thrilled and repulsed viewers, including a constituency of older black artists suspicious of her ease with racial stereotypes). Walker seemed to arrive fully formed, an American confessor exposing the terrors of sentimentalist history. Like the Spanish master Goya, to whom she is often compared, Walker carefully excavates the horrors of her country, rendering the events in stark black-and-white contrast on cut-paper tableaux, paintings, drawings, and sometimes films. A picture of a little girl in profile she found in an academic text aroused a point of entry for her early on in her education. In graduate school at RISD, she pursued the classically vulgar silhouettist style, which allowed her to conflate the ideologies of cartooning with a wry necropolitics. Out of the appalling details of slavery-era subjugation — the contour of a disembodied male arm emerging from a girl-child’s skirt, a master’s penis approaching the slack maw of a slave-woman — Walker makes commanding work that hews not to the black bourgeois ethic of psychic uplift nor to the art-world tradition of producing to market.
Now 47, and a new kind of public figure thanks to the Sugar Baby, Walker remains suspicious of herself, and of the world, however much it has come to celebrate her, expressing to me the bewilderment of a thinker for whom no level of success can stamp out a phobia of personal self-satisfaction — or, worse, infidelity to craft. We talk at her home, by phone, and in her studio, where she brings me one cold day in March. She can be especially mordant in talking about the predicament of the famous black fine artist, a position she’s occupied for 23 years. “We’re in too much of a celebrity culture,” she says, “but at least that means I can be a disappointment to others.”
Walker’s 2007 traveling retrospective “My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love,” which drew enormous crowds to the Whitney in New York, cemented her status as a present-day master — and one with an especially urgent set of concerns. The art Walker has produced in the decade since the retrospective is loaded with references to contemporary emergencies that compound, rather than replace, the lynchings, rapes, chases, and captures of Walker’s translation of the pre- and post-Reconstruction South. The last few years have brought events that fleece the sweet false parable of post-racialism of its saccharine optimism: “I fear that Michael Brown and Tamir Rice and all the rest were killed as proxies for The Black President,” she wrote in an essay called “Assassination by Proxy,” published last September.
Walker did not watch the inauguration of President Trump, she tells me, having brought me to the Garment District studio she has occupied for seven years. Instead, she painted The Crossing, a 9-by-12-foot watercolor that references Leutze’s 1851 painting Washington Crossing the Delaware. The painting, which I see bubble-wrapped behind her movable wall, appeared in The New Yorker in February. Currently, she’s working on another wretched scene of interracial confrontation. “It will be finished in a few months,” she says, pointing to the most striking action: a naked black woman whipping a police officer dressed in riot gear. The reference for this painting sits on a bench beside drawing paper and Conté crayons — The Slave Trade, by François-Auguste Biard, in the fourth volume of The Image of the Black in Western Art.
But her next two projects will be public works, a sign that the Sugar Baby might have been the beginning of a new period, however cautiously Walker has found herself wading into it. “After A Subtlety, everybody was asking me to do something in a grist mill or some industrial setting,” she says. Last year, megacollector Dakis Joannou’s deste Foundation for Contemporary Art offered a former slaughterhouse on the island of Hydra in Greece; beginning on June 20, the left hand of the Sugar Baby, making the figa gesture, will be displayed in the center of the facility. “What’s going to happen is, this summer, the important art people of the world are going to go to the Venice Biennale, and then they’re going to go to Art Basel, and then some of them are going to get on a boat and come to Hydra and see something they’ve already partially seen,” she says confidently. Currently, it’s sitting in a box in a storage facility “in New Jersey or Long Island.”
“I just felt conflicted,” Walker says, speaking of the hand. “I destroyed the whole piece but I felt something should remain. I didn’t keep the head around because I didn’t want her just sitting around, staring at me.” The interaction of art and place will no doubt inspire prognostications about the nature of relics in the age of the migrant crisis, about the line connecting the genesis of democracy in Greece and the mutilation of women in America. But right now all the curators are worrying about is how they’ll get the gigantic hand through the slaughterhouse door. Walker isn’t. “ ‘You may not cut the hand in half,’ ” she says she told them. “I can make another piece, but I don’t want to, since we’re running out of time,” she says.
And then, this fall, in New Orleans, an ambitious new work. Walker, together with an engineer and a composer, will fabricate a novel musical instrument and have it play macabre versions of traditional protest songs from its whistles for the Prospect. 4 festival. She conceived the idea when visiting Algiers Point, a site where slaves were held before being auctioned in the 18th century and black men were shot on sight by white vigilantes in the 21st, just days after Katrina viciously rearranged the earth. She is hoping to set the project there.
In the meantime, a looming move: In May, Walker will transfer her work from Manhattan to a spacious studio in Industry City with a parking lot for snow trucks, a view of the Ikea loading dock and, a bit further off and obscured by fog when I visit, the Statue of Liberty. The move is practical — the new development is much closer to her Brooklyn home, and the rent in midtown has grown exorbitant. The new studio is one massive, rectilinear room with white walls. A recessed cove will serve as an office, and the rest of the space will be divided into a kitchen, two areas for her two assistants, and an open workspace for Walker to produce her paper arts.
She’s still affectionate for the old space.
“The Garment District is certainly inhospitable to making art, which is why I love it here,” Walker says back in midtown. Every artist partially lives in her workroom, where the relics of failures and half-thoughts are accrued in strange arrangements. The cliché is that the organization of a studio is chaos to everyone except for the artist and her assistants. Walker and one of her assistants had repeatedly described the old studio, in the midst of the move, as messy, but her space looks orderly to me. The cavernous midtown room is stacked with boxes labeled books, office, bookshelves. Elsewhere are photo albums, historical textbooks for reference, her mother’s quilt. There is a creaky ladder she’s owned for more than a decade. On a gray sectional is a gigantic teddy bear Walker bought from a nearby pharmacy once, after a rough day. Beside it, Italian hand puppets. She squats down, putting on a spontaneous show.
She lingers over a box labeled for OCTAVIA & KLAUS. Walker moved to New York in 2002, after having accepted a teaching position at Columbia University. Before that, she’d been living with her then-husband, the jewelry designer Klaus Bürgel, and their young daughter, Octavia, in Providence. Walker delayed the initial move to New York for months, a time she remembers mostly as folding laundry in a house in Maine, where Bürgel had a brief teaching position. She gave up the Maine house and a black Isuzu, which she sometimes misses driving around the city; the divorce was only finalized in 2010. “I certainly had no problem with getting successful at the age that I did,” Walker says. “But I wasn’t the only one in the marriage.”
“She isn’t a diva,” says the novelist James Hannaham, Walker’s cousin, collaborator, and close friend. “But Kara just always knew she would attain a certain level of fame.” “Gone” made Walker a sensation at 25, the year she completed her MFA at RISD; the following year, she produced The End of Uncle Tom and the Grand Allegorical Tableau of Eva in Heaven. She earned a MacArthur “genius” grant two years later, one of the youngest ever to do so. That she was ever loathed, especially in the wake of the Sphinx, may seem odd.
Depending on whom you ask, the campaign against Walker was motivated by an intraracial or a matricidal anxiety. In the ’90s, a young black avant-garde — Walker, Glenn Ligon, Michael Ray Charles, Lorna Simpson — felt liberated (by postmodernism, among other things) from the shallower agendas of affirmative art. This liberation appeared to some older artists as a betrayal of tribe.
What are they debating, really? My right toexist?
“I felt the work of Kara Walker was sort of revolting and negative and a form of betrayal to the slaves,” said Betye Saar in 1999; two years earlier, she’d staged a letter-writing campaign asking that Walker’s work be censored and destroyed. “She’s in deep trouble,” said the photographer Carrie Mae Weems at a symposium held at Harvard in 1998 about the use of black stereotypes in image culture. “But then so are all of us — in deep trouble.” An entire issue of The International Review of African American Art was devoted to dissecting the morality of her work. Walker’s bluntness underscored the issue. “I think really the whole problem with racism and its continuing legacy in this country is that we simply love it,” she wrote in a 1997 artist statement. “Who would we be without the ‘struggle’?” Failing to identify with “the struggle” meant a failure of aesthetic and professional solidarity.
Today, Walker keeps that issue of International Review on her bookshelf, along with another work calledKara Walker—No/Kara Walker—Yes/Kara Walker—?, published in 2009. “What are they debating, really? My right to exist?” she asks. “I was getting a lot of letters and phone calls. People were concerned about me. They were excited to see the work but also concerned about the endemic racism of the gallery system, that I might be swallowed up and spat out by a gallery because of the sensationalistic quality of the work,” Walker says of the mid-1990s. “I created this space where I as the artist was also the Negress who is to some extent living in the master’s house or vying for the master’s attention.”
Walker has played with this provocation — of figuration versus personhood, and the relationship of her own identity to those bodies depicted in her work — ever since. She sometimes refers to herself as a “Negress of noteworthy talent,” a reference to the slave girl-child character Hilton Als once identified as the “saint figure” of her compositions. She looks to the languid narrators of southern novels like Gone With the Wind for the flamboyance and piquancy of her drawings. To Walker, art is description, not advertisement. To those who say she might be politically alienated, or that she doesn’t exhibit much black allegiance, Walker more or less agrees. “I recognize it when I see it in other people, and I recognize it in myself. Even my dealer [Brent Sikkema] would say, ‘People would reach out to you and you seemed to be someplace else.’ I’m older now, but I really lacked empathy in a way I did not realize. Desensitized. Not fully grasping … the ‘positivity’ of black life and looking more closely at cruel native spaces. But I do that because I’ve lived in that space quite a lot.”
“I’m sure she knows the difference between herself and the Sugar Baby,” says Hannaham. “She knows that her work and persona is a lightning rod for what she calls ‘the pathologies’ that are everywhere in the country. But she also knows that putting a naked representation of a black woman in a public space invites all sorts of projections, bullshit, and reverence. She likes that.”
“Many black artists do prefer to make affirming images,” says historian Nell Irvin Painter, author of (among other things) The History of White People. “But many others want to make whatever images their eyes take them to, whether affirming or not affirming.” The controversy remains a live one. In 2013, Painter and Walker participated in a public dialogue following a controversy at the Newark Public Library. Scott London had sent Walker’s graphite drawing the moral arc of history ideally bends toward justice but just as soon as not curves back around toward barbarism, sadism, and unrestrained chaos to the library on loan. Its loquacious, literary titling belies the overtness of its chaos: floating figures engaged in states of amoral hygiene. A figure of President Obama wags a condemning hand over a podium, a naked black man clutches a fleeing figure, and the head of a black woman is forced into a white man’s crotch. Employees at the library decided to cover the painting with a sheet.
I wouldn’t make art if it were purely an ego-drivenexercise.
“It’s funny, there’s a way in which the accusation of stereotype reveals more of how their eyes work versus how my work works,” Walker says. “I wouldn’t make art if it were purely an ego-driven exercise.” Then, calmly, she moves in another rhetorical direction. “If the work is reprehensible, that work is also me, coming from a reprehensible part of me. I’m not going to stop doing it because what else could I do?”
“Even as interest turns her way, Kara Walker is not excitable,” says Hannaham. “Kara is almost as calm as Obama. She has the hermeneutic idea of the role of the artist in society — a person who is strong enough to withstand projection and then can project ideas back to the people in such a way that their minds change. Or not.”
Walker speaks at a hushed but youthful clip, which makes it seem like the artist is sometimes startled by the drift of her own brain. She will dole out a terse declaration — “I’ve been disinterested over the years with my own family history” — only to soften a moment later — “This is my childhood couch,” she says, gesturing to the gray piece of furniture in her living room.
Born under the constructed glow of “golden multiculturalism,” as she calls it, in Stockton, California, in 1969, Walker moved with her family to Stone Mountain, a suburb of Atlanta, in the mid-’80s. Her father, the artist Larry Walker, had gotten a job at a university. The area is named for the geographical feature on which a conspicuous bas-relief was dynamited into existence post-Reconstruction, a propaganda carving of the Confederate martyr figures Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, and Jefferson Davis sponsored by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. There, Walker endured the double adolescence of black childhood: the common social ritual of becoming an adult and then the explicit social ritual of becoming a black adult. “Perhaps you could say that much of my work is an endeavor to disappoint my father,” she jokes. Later, she clarifies: Walker père appreciates his daughter’s oeuvre, but has asked, when considering a negative-space watercolor of burning crosses called Burning Crosses Don’t Mean Anything Unless Accompanied by a Burning Nigger, “When are you going to get over this race thing?”
Curiosity guides Walker, even in the difficult milieu where stereotype and humanity collude, where the mammies, tar babies, demonic masters and their apathetic wives live. As she tells me about Georgia back at her house, she places ginkgo and black teas at a pale wood kitchen table. Her cat, the plump and ornery Pearl, has taken up residence someplace unseen outside the kitchen’s screen door. Next to notebooks and stray pencils is a laptop that holds video Walker filmed, unsteady shots documenting the circuit of civil-rights landmarks and stone Confederate erections that surrounded her as a teenager. Two years ago, Walker realized the rock’s intrusion into her daily horizon made it an icon of technique and of subject, to say nothing of the allure of uncut ideological brass. “I make work that’s historical, that’s profiled, that’s cut out. There was a moment, looking up at it, where I knew that this” — she pauses before finding the word, which is right but not appropriate — “this monument was the biggest influence on my work,” Walker says.
Since A Subtlety, trips have provided Walker novel filters through which to see her familiar American ruins — and possibly some strategies to revivify them. Last year, she completed a residency at the American Academy in Rome. “Going to Rome was good medicine, a little distance on the violence in America, and a cultural break from being perceived as a black girl,” Walker wrote after the trip. And earlier this year, she led a group of graduate students she teaches at Rutgers down to Atlanta, America’s premier black bourgeois metropolis, and its mellow environs, including the small town of Franklin, her father’s birth town. Nominally, it was a resource trip to collect rubbings and video for an installation. But she also found herself conducting personal business, visiting Old Friendship, a dilapidated cemetery that held several of her ancestors’ remains. For more than two uninterrupted centuries, segregationist codes decided where and with what flourish her people could lay their dead, she says, recounting the trip. “I wonder if I half-expected something to jump out at me. Like the idea of a ghost.”
Were it that sort of morning, the works on the walls of Walker’s open-plan living space would have been streaked with light. There is a portrait of a black man in profile by the Ghanaian-British painter Lynette Yiadom-Boakye that Walker acquired in a trade with the artist. Photos by Ari Marcopoulos take up most of the wall space: Jean-Michel Basquiat nude in his tub, a zoomed-in shot of the black soldier at Grand Army Plaza’s Soldiers and Sailors Arch, and a gold-framed portrait of the rapper Pusha T, looking imperious in an expensive white T-shirt. Marcopoulos himself is in the living room, grazing through Walker’s vast record collection. He chooses Miles Davis. “I’m sure people already figured it out, but if they didn’t know yet, they’ll know now,” says Walker, raising up her arms.
Marcopoulos and Walker met when he took a portrait of her in her old Garment District studio; they live together now. For the past few years, they’ve collaborated on books, pamphlets, and exhibitions. The photographer went with Walker to Atlanta in 2015, helping her to collect the impressions that would compose “Go to Hell or Atlanta, Whichever Comes First,” her 2015 show at Victoria Miro in London and her first major exhibition after A Subtlety. Marcopoulos had an insurgent fantasy of slowly vandalizing Stone Mountain by planting wisteria on its seditious face.
When Walker entered the Atlanta College of Art in 1987, she had yet to develop her silhouetted antebellum world. An etiquette of racial politesse guided her studies. And Walker says she tended toward a cartoonist style, regardless of the subject. She loved Andy Warhol and Charles Schulz. (Schulz sent Walker a cartoon and letter, which she stores in the library on the top floor of her home.) “It had to be historical, as well as figurative, and it had to speak to the whole range of black consciousness,” she says, enumerating the Atlanta-art-world expectations. She read her Toni Morrison and Octavia Butler on the side, she says, but “I was sort of tsk-tsked by the other classmates for not doing blackness in my work. I just always thought it was too direct. I thought I was going to do it wrong. My lack of edification, or my lack of clarity on what black identity could be in my own experience … I just thought I was going to put my foot in my mouth if I was honest about my own failings as a black woman.”
“Don’t look,” Walker says, after leading me to the computer in her midtown studio. The sound of a freakish wind instrument fills the room, playing a dirge whose melody is at odds with its high pitch. “I was walking down an uncomfortably picturesque street in the Ninth Ward, and I heard this alien sound,” she says of a recent trip to New Orleans. She pulls up a video of the Steamboat Natchez, which operates on the Mississippi River. Walker first responded to Hurricane Katrina and the racialized, wrecking power of water in the “After the Deluge” 2006 exhibition at the Met. But she isn’t yet finished reckoning with that flood.
“New Orleans is its own art piece,” Walker says. For her, the dilemma of a site-specific project is one of reconciliation. The site provides the medium, and often the subject, too. But conceiving a project entirely through a space is a surrender. Walker is adjusting to the ritual, developing a method of producing works of monumental art over which she maintains authority.
When Walker first visited the Domino refinery in 2013, the whole place overwhelmingly “stank of molasses,” she recalls. “The history would not dry.” The sugar-baron Havemeyer family opened the complex on the Brooklyn waterfront in 1856; much of the initial sugarcane harvesting was done by slaves. An 18th-century missionary poet, shaken by the violent exigencies of cultivating and cutting sugarcane, theorized that inevitably, blood was in the sugar — symbolically, sugar might have then been in the blood. By 1870, the Williamsburg refinery, which got renamed Domino Sugar in 1900, was producing more than half the country’s supply of sugar.
Algiers Point presents a different challenge: The blood of the black dead was spilled so recently; its memory still courses. By making a cyclical performance piece, she realized, Walker had the opportunity to honor the past, and the city, without giving up control. “The instrument will be a performing object, one that will have an effect on the nerves, maybe,” Walker says. She is still figuring out the vessel to carry the instrument, a wagon that “may or may not” take human form.
Walker tells me that New Orleans may become something like the next iteration of a project she half-abandoned two decades ago in Minneapolis. When she installed that silhouette mural, called Slavery! Slavery!, she’d hoped to extend the round room in which the cut-paper scene was mounted, like the Civil War cyclorama at the Atlanta History Center. “I imagined that all the cut-paper pieces were existing on the same landscape somehow, and that if you put them all together you’d be in this endless cycle.” That way, she explains, the work would be both monumental and animate — all the binaries of the “master-slave” dialectic would constantly reassert themselves, and though there would be moments of exit, escape, and resistance, the theater of carnivalesque action would not end. She calls the result a kind of “plantation fantasy,” one that she is trying to figure out how to remote-control from Brooklyn. Then she pauses. “I’m saying something out loud that I hadn’t even admitted to myself,” Walker says. “So there you go.”
*This article appears in the April 17, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.
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On a sweltering spring morning, the façades of America’s National Mall shimmer in the sun. Their faces, mostly pale marble, stand sedately alongside one of the world’s most august ceremonial spaces.
At one end, in front of the white dome of the Capitol, protesters are shouting for President Donald Trump to release his tax returns.
At the other end is a new addition, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, designed by a team of architects led by David Adjaye. Its façades of bronzed aluminum rise up in a jagged zigzag, each side catching the light differently. These are screens that can be stolid or shimmering, dark or light, depending on how you look at them.
You could say the same about America: Enslaved people were once bought and sold in the heart of Washington, where the museum was opened in the fall by then-president Barack Obama.
The architecture of the museum eloquently expresses that variousness. The building is designed to contain a set of historical narratives full of both despair and joy, inseparable from the larger culture and yet different. “To look at the building and see how it stands out – that’s the experience of being a minority in a majority culture,” Adjaye says. “There is this powerful American idea, that all men are created equal, but of course that hasn’t always been observed.
“Just by becoming visible” – and being different – “the building takes on all of these issues.”
This is a lot of symbolism for concrete and aluminum to carry, but this museum succeeds on those terms – thanks largely to Adjaye, who was to speak Friday in Toronto as part of the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Creative Minds series.
At 400,000 square feet, it is a massive and complex facility that captures a three-part narrative of history, community and cultural expression. Accordingly, the museum was designed by a large team: Adjaye Associates with Philip Freelon, Davis Brody Bond, SmithGroupJJR and 28 other consultants.
Yet for all that, it is also an icon, a self-conscious symbol of what this place is and what it can be. Adjaye, the Ghanaian-British architect who has recently risen into the elite of his profession, doesn’t shy away from architecture’s power to articulate a narrative. Here, he’s done so convincingly, with a museum whose sequence begins with claustrophobic underground galleries that depict the experience of slavery and rise toward daylight and the expressions of black culture that have changed the world.
Along the way, the museum reveals a rich quilt of the black experience in America, beginning with the abduction of West Africans and proceeding upward through emancipation, the Great Migration and the civil rights movement, and cultural expressions that produce the P-Funk Mothership, Art Blakey’s drumsticks and J Dilla’s drum machine. It’s dense with revelations, especially if you don’t – as even most Americans don’t – understand the variety and richness of early black cultures in America.
Adjaye argues that “the African-American community is part of the West African diaspora” and says the interplay between the U.S. civil rights struggle and African independence movements provided a personal link for him. (His father was a Ghanaian diplomat in the decades after that country achieved independence.)
The architecture has something to say about that link. The form of the building is a crown, what Adjaye chooses to call a “corona.” It’s derived from a sculpture by Olowe of Ise, a Yoruban craftsman of the early 20th century; Adjaye’s scheme turns into an object on a plinth, then renders it in bronze.
Along the way, “I wanted to alter the form so it makes that journey from African to African-American,” he says. “The building plays that game: It learns an American technology, casting, and transforms into a screen.”
The reference is to architectural ironwork, a trade practised by black craftsmen in the U.S. South. Adjaye cites the work of Philip Simmons, a self-taught tradesman in Charleston, S.C., as a specific inspiration for the pattern on the façade, which was abstracted and varied using digital design. Seven different types of panels line the façade. An original piece of Simmons’s work has pride of place within the museum.
At the same time, the building sits at the end of the Mall, right where a procession of museums gives way to a precinct of memorials. Adjaye argues that the building serves as a “knuckle,” bridging the two realms of contemplation and veneration. To bridge the gap, the angles of the corona precisely match those of the adjacent Washington Monument.
You’ll have to look hard to notice this, but when you see it, something clicks: The building is clearly Modernist in its form, evoking Marcel Breuer, but that doesn’t mean a rejection of history. In Adjaye’s hands (as with most of the greats of the past century), architecture that strives to invent a new language also draws upon the language of the past.
Accordingly, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) building provides a “porch,” facing south, evoking the characteristic hospitality of the American South. This is the sort of reference that in other designers’ hands could descend into kitsch. Adjaye avoids that trap.
A porch, of course, is an informal place, and the Mall is a highly formal space. It was defined by Pierre L’Enfant’s 1791 plan for Washington and then the Beaux-Arts McMillan Plan of the early 20th century, which brought the Mall into its current pristine condition. The Capitol at one end and the prominent Lincoln Memorial at the other speak a Classical language. While the museums on the Mall are more diverse, the NMAAHC – dark, shimmering and spiky – introduces its own dialect.
Through years of negotiations with government (the federal government paid half of the museum’s $540-million cost), the architects were careful to present it as contextual and polite.
“The regulatory environment in Washington is incredibly complex,” says Freelon, whose firm was the architects of record and who was involved with the museum from its early planning stages. “We made a real effort to make the form of the museum fit what was expected,” and the fact that more than half of the museum is underground testifies to this. “But the building, I think, continues to assert its own presence.”
It does. The building is not perfect – inexpensive materials and some undercooked details on the interior reduce its emotional impact – but the central ideas of the design remain powerful: the descent into the earth, the pause in a gorgeous “Contemplation Court” just below ground, where a fountain descends from the ceiling, then the ascent toward the present, with windows framing wary views over Washington’s monuments.
In an important sense, the museum speaks to the city around it, what Adjaye refers to as “outer Washington” – or, to put it in other terms, black Washington. More than half the city’s residents are African-American, and the city is heavily segregated. After winning the museum commission, Adjaye’s firm designed two library branches – both moody, well-crafted and complex works of public architecture – in D.C.’s predominantly black Southeast.
“My remit was to understand the community, to understand how users interact with institutional space,” Adjaye explains. And what did he learn? “The sense of black Washington was that they never received anything of beauty,” he says. People were resigned to the perception “that they had a somehow mundane experience and were supposed to make do with very ordinary things, quite apart from the ceremonial core of the city.”
That’s already changed. When I visited the museum, it was Easter Sunday. There were many more people of colour there than at any of the other Smithsonian museums I’d seen, and as I sat down to lunch at the museum’s excellent restaurant, families were gathering to feast on gumbo or Louisiana-style catfish. It was easy to forget the political tensions of the moment – or the centuries of strife and oppression that were recounted downstairs. People were celebrating. They felt at home.
“That, I think, is the importance of building architecture that talks about diversity,” Adjaye says. “Simply through presence, simply having a place that reflects oneself – that creates a quiet confidence.” And that is a crowning achievement.
David Adjaye speaks Friday, April 21 at Massey Hall in Toronto as part ofCreative Minds; the program will be broadcast on CBC Radio 2 at a later date.
New York-based choreographer Reggie Wilson’s Citizen asks loaded questions about belonging and not belonging. Tigertail presents Citizen this weekend at Miami-Dade County Auditorium, and Wilson will offer a full program, including a panel discussion and multiple dance workshops.
When he began working on Citizen, Wilson was thinking about author Zora Neale Hurston and Jean Baptiste Belley, an African-born man who came to the Americas as a slave, bought his own freedom, fought for the Haitian revolution, and ultimately died a political prisoner in France.
Centuries later, Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman were in the news. Black Lives Matter gained steam. The finished piece premiered in 2016 and, again, the characters in the news had changed. Wilson says Citizen could be about all of this or none of it.
The idea of belonging and not belonging is an age-old human question. And Wilson freely draws from a wide range of dance traditions to tell the story. His work is remarkably difficult to label, and he offers his audience an opportunity to enter into his piece from whatever perspective they bring. The result is an experience that is at once charged and poetic.
New Times spoke with him to learn more about the ideas behind the work.
You have written that this piece was inspired in part by Zora Neale Hurston and the question of why she didn’t go to Paris like many other African-American artists of her generation.
Reggie Wilson: The piece is not a literal piece. There were a lot of beginning points and questions that started me on the road to working on the piece, and that was one of them.
There are many questions about Zora that always have intrigued me. In spite of the American system, she felt complete in herself. She felt she could make the artwork that she wanted to make here. She didn’t feel like she needed to go someplace else in order to be liberated from that. She already was kind of liberated in her own being.
I feel like probably about 30 or 40 percent of the work is what I do, which is the choreography… then another 30 or 40 percent is what the dancers do with the material — how they interpret it and how they perform it. And the remaining percent is what the audience actually does with it when they see it.
Do you think of yourself as working in a particularly African-American dance tradition?
That’s a long discussion and a debate. The material and the work that I do is definitely part of African-American culture.
I often wonder what people are meaning when they say “African-American dance.” If they are talking about tap dance, if they are talking about breakdancing… if they’re talking about African dance-work traditions. But there’s also ballet. There’s a lot of jazz. There’s a lot of different modern dance techniques.
It also depends on the audience’s literacy with different kinds of dance, because it sounds like you move freely among myriad styles.
All dance is kind of equal in my eyes. And it’s equal fodder for me to take apart choreographically.
Whether it’s a dance from Zimbabwe or Senegal, or from Trinidad or from Haiti, or it might not actually be a step but a movement idea from the Mississippi Delta, or it might be from a Chicago nightclub. What are people doing when they do this dance? What aspect of that am I interested in trying to replicate, and what am I trying to do with it myself?
Is the theme of belonging and not belonging in Citizen a particularly black experience or is it a human experience for you?
It’s both. And it’s also about the performers.
Who are the performers who are performing this piece? Over the years, the bodies that are in the studio… were born and raised in different parts of the globe: China, Ghana, the Netherlands.
I started off talking about Neale Hurston and the Harlem Renaissance and African-American artists not feeling like they could be themselves here even though they felt that they were American and that they belonged here. And then that in comparison to some of the immigrant company members that I have who feel like they have gone through a whole number of things, where they come here and they want to belong, but people don’t think they belong. Another revelation for me was during the Summer Olympics last year. I was watching the opening ceremonies and the countries are marching out, and then they have this contingent of refugees — these people who didn’t have a country. That hit me. I was like, Oh, that’s what this piece is also about.
For me, this piece about belonging and not belonging is about all of those things. And if there’s anything concrete, I do believe that dance is an art form that can hold more than one meaning at the same time.
Reggie Wilson’s Citizen Presented by Tigertail Productions. 8:30 p.m. Friday, April 21, and Saturday, April 22, at Miami-Dade County Auditorium, 2901 W. Flagler St., Miami. Tickets cost $25 for general admission, $20 for students and seniors, and $50 for VIP. Visit tigertail.org or call 305-324-4337.
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On preparing for a world filled with new music, but missing the man
Prince onstage in 1979. Leni Sinclair/Getty Images hide caption
Leni Sinclair/Getty Images
Prince onstage in 1979.
Leni Sinclair/Getty Images
It is important — and always devastating — to remember that Prince died alone. He had probably also been in great pain that evening. But there was, as far as we know, nobody around to help him.
A few weeks before he died, Prince and I talked on the phone for an hour, because he unexpectedly wanted to discuss a piece I’d just written for NPR Music. He was funny, feisty, charming and kind. He was also eloquent, articulate and highly intelligent. It was a real conversation about music, the industry, social issues and life in general. He even gave me romantic advice. He should not have died alone.
He left no will. He either didn’t care what happened after he was gone or simply didn’t trust anyone to handle it. Again, nobody was there to help him out. In his late middle age he had no spouse, no manager and no lawyer. His employees were dedicated and loyal, as far as it goes, but none had the authority to persuade him to make sensible decisions about his legal and business affairs, to say nothing of the apparent addiction that killed him. Warner Bros. was once again his record label, but this was a largely symbolic union. Its executives were no longer telling him what to do. Perhaps we should not be so surprised by the way all of this played out; years ago, he’d told us that “in this life, things are much harder than in the afterworld. In this life, you’re on your own.”
His presumed heirs — one sibling, five half-siblings — are currently spending hundreds of thousands of dollars each on legal fees to work out how to divide his estate. It is not clear when or how this situation will be resolved, and there is a lot at stake. Aside from nearly $1 millon in gold bars and about $25 million of real estate, the inheritance includes the world’s most extensive, valuable musical archive from a single artist.
Prince’s masterpiece, Sign O’ The Times, recently turned 30. It is the greatest album ever made. (I don’t say this lightly and I am well aware of competing claims.) It is not widely known, however, that this exceptional record is actually the result of an uneasy compromise with his record company. Many of its songs were meant for other albums (Dream Factory, Camille, Crystal Ball) that were all shelved — too much material for a record company, even one as big as Warner, to handle. That Prince released around 40 albums in his lifetime is extraordinary enough.But there is a huge amount of unheard material in a vault, which has attained semi-mythical status. While it is probably true that many of these pieces are unfinished or, by his standards (and allowing for his capriciousness), not quite good enough, most of us know there are plenty of diamonds and pearls in there.
“He was capable of going into the studio and being on output for far longer than mere mortals, because ideas kept coming and because the speed with which he could execute those ideas was extraordinary,” his former engineer Susan Rogers, now a professor at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, told me one morning over coffee. “Why would you sleep? Why would you leave the studio? He was not a perfectionist: he was just incredibly competent.”
A lot of songs from the Sign O’ The Times era, Prince’s most creatively fertile, remain in the vault, but it was never completely airtight: For years, bootlegs have been available to those who know where to look. Most of my old tapes are from trips to London’s Camden Market in the early 1990s. I used to buy them off Skinhead Dave with my mates Asif, Rob and Sidh. Prince was well aware that his most dedicated fans had somehow got hold of copies of songs he had not officially released. Sometimes he even played them on stage, usually in smaller venues after the main concert, in acknowledgement of this especially loving crowd. He understood how much it mattered to us.
The author’s bootleg vinyl pressing of The Black Album, obtained in 1992, two years before Prince released it officially. Hasit Shah hide caption
The author’s bootleg vinyl pressing of The Black Album, obtained in 1992, two years before Prince released it officially.
But he did not want everything he recorded to be constantly accessible — and went further than any other musician to protect his artistic legacy and commercial rights, particularly in the digital era. He wanted fair compensation for his hard work and talent, and felt that many internet music platforms were exploitative. We now know that Prince gave a lot of money away, anonymously, to some very important causes. He had his own studio complex, publishing company and record label, whose staff did not work for free. Nobody should have been surprised — and certainly not outraged, as some were — that a talented, hard-working black man who grew up in the ’60s and ’70s felt it was important to get paid. Black artists rarely got the best deal and often still don’t.
Legally, many of his personal policies and business decisions no longer matter. These were generally considered eccentric while he was alive, with some inevitable revisionism after he was gone. But now, his songs might be viewed simply as a collection of under-utilized assets that could generate revenue for decades. Under US copyright law they will eventually become part of the public domain, but for many years before then, whoever owns them can make a lot of money. People will always pay to listen to Prince, even as formats and music-industry business models change over time.
Prince grew up in Minneapolis and never left the area. He felt comfortable there and didn’t need to move to LA or New York. His studio complex — including an apartment where he regularly stayed—- and his main home are a few miles outside the city, falling under the jurisdiction of Carver County, Minn. The county’s district court quickly appointed a local bank, Bremer Trust, to administer Prince’s estate until the inheritance could be settled. The bank then oversaw a rapid commercialization of his work, including a number of decisions that, for many people, seem contrary to what Prince himself would have wanted.
An actual vault sits below Paisley Park; it was drilled open just a week after his death. In October 2016, Warner Bros. announced plans for new releases, starting with a greatest-hits compilation that also included the much-loved bootleg classic “Moonbeam Levels,” as its only previously unreleased track. A reissue of Purple Rain, along with extra material, is scheduled for June. Far more from the vault will surely follow.
Earlier this year, Prince’s music reappeared on all the major streaming services; he had removed his songs from Spotify and most other platforms in July 2015, and they had never been available on Apple Music.The unauthorized uploads on sites like YouTube and Soundcloud are no longer being taken down (although a lawsuit has just been filed against a sound engineer for seeking to make personal profit from a few Prince songs he claims to possess). Prince’s music is now just as accessible, legally and otherwise, on digital platforms as anyone else’s.
From a financial point of view, this is necessary. There is an enormous tax bill of around $100 million, half the estate’s value by some estimates. Court documents show the millions being spent on legal fees to sort out the mess he left. It is unlikely the six presumed heirs have independent wealth of this scale, so the money has to come from the estate. To that end, Paisley Park has become a museum, where a VIP tour costs $100. Around the first anniversary of his death this weekend, there is a four-day event called Celebration 2017 — “bringing together musicians, creative personnel, special guests and friends who worked closest with Prince and knew him best” — for which the $999 VIP passes are sold out.
In October I went to the Official Prince Tribute Concert ($140), an exhausting, underwhelming five-hour event, attended by the usual pleasant middle-aged crowd in St Paul, Minn. Stevie Wonder and Chaka Khan performed a few Prince songs as part of an extensive bill that for some reason also included Nicole Scherzinger of The Pussycat Dolls. I met Bilal beforehand, a few hours before he tore into “The Beautiful Ones,” one of the show’s few genuinely great moments. “He really opened doors and made artists think about royalties and things like that,” he said. “A lot of things he did beyond music were inspiring.”
Neither Bremer Trust nor Prince’s siblings had the wherewithal to negotiate deals with a notoriously ruthless music industry, so they hired two experienced insiders and former Prince associates as ‘special advisors.’ L. Londell McMillan was Prince’s lawyer for several years, while Charles Koppelman is a former senior EMI executive. McMillan’s Twitter bio reads: “RIP PRINCE. Nothing Compares 2 U! The Greatest Artist/Musician! We shared a Great Legacy 2Gether & Changed The World 4 Artists 4Ever! ALSO: RIP ALI #GOAT.”
In a joint interview with Billboard published in February, Koppelman said: “What we needed to do initially was get the deals in place that are going to enhance the estate and make it valuable for the heirs, and those deals needed to be in the hands of the best of class. We must have had 20 different publishing meetings — with every multinational, and some that just administer and collect. It’s important to understand that over the last couple of years, Prince’s business life was a bit of a shambles.”
In the same interview, McMillan adds: “I do want to make clear that if Prince were here, we likely would not be making these deals — but also, Prince would not be needing half the value of his estate [to pay the estate tax bill] right now. While some people may say, ‘Why are you making all these deals? Prince wouldn’t make these deals,’ Prince never wanted to lose ownership and control of his creations, so we place ownership and control over dealmaking [in order to] preserve the assets and stay within Prince’s brand values.”
This sounds somewhat reassuring to Prince fans, especially given the difficult financial circumstances — but inevitably, nothing is straightforward. Carver County District Court has since appointed a different bank, the Texas-based Comerica, to look after the estate, and less than a fortnight ago, Comerica appointed its own ‘entertainment advisor’: Troy Carter, a Spotify executive. The new administrators have cast doubt on the durability of the deals made by Koppelman and McMillan. (Compare this tangle of financial interests to the news this March that Laurie Anderson had donated the complete archives of her husband Lou Reed, who died in 2013, to the New York Public Library, where they will be accessible for free.)
Meanwhile, there are many other legal problems with Prince’s estate. This is to be expected given the amount of money involved, the number of claimants and, most importantly, the absence of a will. To their credit, family members have mostly avoided publicity — but there are battles over representation, involving McMillan and the CNN commentator Van Jones; a complicated dispute with Tidal, which had signed an exclusive streaming deal with Prince before he died, over the extent of its rights; and a separate issue, once again involving the omnipresent McMillan, about the organization and proceeds from the tribute concert in October.
For anyone of a certain age who cares about Prince — the music and the man, not the ephemera around him — it is probably wise to accept the sense of uneasiness that will accompany the many posthumous Prince releases for years to come. Sensitive curation, by the right people, could help: Trustworthy, respected collaborators like Susan Rogers and Sheila E., for example, know better than most what a Prince record should sound like. We would accept and appreciate a “Selected by Wendy & Lisa” note just below the magical “Produced, arranged, composed and performed by Prince.” But this is hope rather than expectation; the music business is not such a romantic endeavor.
With Prince’s catalog back on major digital platforms, however, there may be a resurgence in interest among younger listeners. Too many have been largely unaware of who he was and what he could do, partly because they couldn’t surf through Spotify playlists or YouTube and discover his work there. When they play Kendrick or Beyonce or D’Angelo, many genuinely don’t know whose influence they’re hearing. They should also know that Prince, the greatest of them all, died alone and in pain, suffering from an addiction for which he should have been treated.
Eden, a fan in the making. Hasit Shah hide caption
Eden, a fan in the making.
But all good things, they say, never last. The new, unusual accessibility of his work may be driven by financial imperatives, but ultimately, it will help protect his legacy. When he called me last year — “Hello sir, this is Prince” — I was holding my baby nephew and I had to quickly get rid of the child; I think I managed to find my dad somewhere in the house. Eden is now a lively toddler who already loves “Starfish and Coffee.”He might not know it now, but there is going to be a lot of music for us to discover together.
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Cookie Washington is a force to be reckoned with. She was the curator of the show The Holy City: Art of Love, Unity, and Resurrection that was held at 414 King St. for over a month last summer. Washington is also a member of the Passages Artists Collective, a group that seeks to find a permanent place for African-American artists on the Charleston peninsula. Washington called for art from all over the country for Art of Love, and she received an outpouring of both support and submissions from multimedia artists, painters, quilters, and more. The show itself paid tribute to the nine lives lost during the Mother Emanuel tragedy with images featuring both the reverent and the revolting, including those who pushed boundaries with stark images of the church shooter, Dylann Roof. The show is gone now, but its impact remains. And the search for a space exclusively for African-American artists continues. —Connelly Hardaway
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The Film Society of Lincoln Center (FSLC) and African Film Festival, Inc. (AFF) will present the 18th New York African Film Festival (NYAFF) in celebration of the United Nations International Year of Peoples of African Descent, which serves as the festival’s guiding theme.
This year’s NYAFF will also commemorate the 50th anniversary of independence in both Sierra Leone and Tanzania, countries from which much of the African Diaspora draws its roots. The festival, which will include 15 features and 16 short films by emerging and veteran filmmakers from 24 countries, will commence with a screening of rare archival footage from the Russian State Archives of both Sierra Leone and Tanzania’s 1961 liberation from the United Kingdom.
The NYAFF will include classic and contemporary films, as well as presentations by visual and performing artists paying tribute to historic moments and luminary figures who have been influential in the arts and culture of the Diaspora. The NYAFF will run from April 6 through 12 at The Film Society of Lincoln Center, and throughout April and May at the Museum of Arts and Design, Columbia University’s Institute of African Studies, The Big Screen Project, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s BAMcinématek.
“This year’s program will offer both a great deal of variety for moviegoers and a great deal of optimism for Africa,” said African Film Festival, Inc. Executive Director and Founder Mahen Bonetti. “From family-oriented films to dark dramas to informative shorts and documentaries, attendees will be immersed in the rich lives of people from across the Diaspora, as filmmakers show their view of Africa—one of pride, determination and hope for the future.” Film Society of Lincoln Center Program Director Richard Peña agreed, saying, “There is much to be excited about in this year’s program. This year’s selections deliver a vibrant and dynamic group of films from a number of very talented filmmakers who have done a wonderful job of introducing us to a fascinating and sometimes very unexpected view of Africa through the camera’s lens.”
Opening Night features Kinshasa Symphony, the story of Democratic Republic of the Congo’s only symphony orchestra. Directed by Claus Wischmann and Martin Baer, the film follows the determined members of L’Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste (The Kinshasa Symphony Orchestra) as they overcome coups, chaos and war to celebrate life through the power of music—even creating their own instruments.
Armand Diangienda, founder and conductor of the orchestra, will be in attendance to introduce the film. On Friday, April 8, Viva Riva, Djo Tunda Wa Munga’s fictional feature about the seductive, vibrant, and lawless underbelly of Kinshasa, will be screened as the festival’s Centerpiece film. Both films, together with director Daniel Cattier’s Kongo – Grand Illusions, examine the Heart of Africa, which the Democratic Republic of the Congo, situated in the center of the African continent, has long been considered. At the crossroads of Northern, Southern, Eastern, and Western Africa, its cultures seem to pulse in time with the heart of the continent.
Additional festival highlights include the following themes and films:
“The Camera – a Filmmaker’s Weapon” featuring those who use the camera to shine light on issues of critical importance to people from across the African Diaspora. Films in this category include One Way, a Tuareg Journey, a child who documents his family’s transition from being nomads of the Sahara to urban Italian residents directed by Fabio Caramaschi and Stolen, unwitting outsiders whose cameras lead them toward a terrible secret about modern-day slavery by directors Violeta Ayala & Daniel Fallshaw.
“Africa – The Next Generation” depicts the resilience of Africa’s youth in the face of adversities—personal and global, large and small. From the simple act of writing a letter to Santa Claus to bravely facing life with AIDS. These films include: Soul Boy, directed by Hawa Essuman; Africa United, directed by Debs Gardner-Paterson; Ousmane (Deweneti), directed by Dyana Gaye; and Thembi, directed by Jo Menell.
The NYAFF will also include the short Bongo Barbershop by legendary filmmaker Charlie Ahern—whose groundbreaking 1983 film Wild Style was the first to capture the nascent phenomenon known as hip hop—and the 2011 Focus Features Africa First Shorts Program. Africa First is a program to support the growth of groundbreaking emerging African filmmakers, now in its third year.
The NYAFF begins with a nod to the dynamic artistic voices of the Diaspora at a special presentation at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) on Saturday, April 2. The 3:00 pm event will feature a dynamic panel of international artists, including entertainer and humanitarian Harry Belafonte, textile artist and writer Xenobia Bailey and filmmaker and curator Zina Saro-Wiwa. The panel will be followed by a screening of the 1996 film African Rhythmus, which is about the First World Festival of Negro Arts (now known as the World Festival of Black Arts); African Rhythmus is a visually stunning fifty-minute Soviet survey of the first large-scale exhibition of arts from throughout the Diaspora.
The festival moves to The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater at 165 W. 65th Street, Plaza Level, running from April 6 through 12, then travels to Columbia University on Thursday, April 14 for a daylong free public program in partnership with Columbia University’s Institute of African Studies. On May 20, a co-presentation with The Big Screen Project will bring Africa and the Diaspora into the public sphere through the presentation of short and feature-length films on a giant outdoor LED screen located on Sixth Avenue, between 29th and 30th Street. The festival concludes, as always, at the end of May over Memorial Day Weekend at the Brooklyn Academy of Music BAMcinématek—part of the music, dance, culinary delights and merchandise for purchase that make up the high-energy festivities of DanceAfrica. For details, visit African Film Festival online at www.africanfilmny.org.
The programs of AFF are made possible by the generous support of the National Endowment for the Arts, The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, JPMorgan Chase, New York State Council on the Arts, NYC Department of Cultural Affairs, International Organization of La Francophonie, Divine Chocolate, United Airlines, Domenico Paulon Foundation, New York Foundation for the Arts, American Express, New York Times Community Affairs Department, Bradley Family Foundation, South African Consulate General, The Russian State Documentary Film and Photo Archive at Krasnogorsk , French Cultural Services, Bloomberg, Broadway Cares, Lambent Foundation, Columbia University’s Institute of African Studies and Center for African Education, WNYC, 57 Main St. Wine Company, Putumayo World Music, Websignia, Africa.com, and Omnipak Import Enterprises, Inc.
Under the leadership of Rose Kuo, Executive Director, and Richard Peña, Program Director, The Film Society of Lincoln Center offers the best in international, classic and cutting-edge independent cinema. The Film Society presents two film festivals that attract global attention: the New York Film Festival, now in its 47th year, and New Directors/New Films which, since its founding in 1972, has been produced in collaboration with MoMA. The Film Society also publishes the award-winning Film Comment Magazine, and for over three decades has given an annual award—now named “The Chaplin Award”—to a major figure in world cinema. Past recipients of this award include Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese, Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. The Film Society receives generous, year-round support from 42BELOW, American Airlines, GRAFF, Stella Artois, The New York State Council on the Arts, and The National Endowment for the Arts. For more information, visit www.FilmLinc.com. More information about AFF is found on the Web at www.africanfilmny.org.
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Controversial piece of art raising eyebrows in Lake City
LAKE CITY, S.C. (WCBD) — A controversial piece of art is raising eyebrows in Lake City.
A quilt by African-American artist Loretta Gerald depicts a fully-clad Ku Klux klan member, a burning cross, and a black man hanging by a noose.
“It’s about me and it’s about what I’ve suffered and what my ancestors have suffered,” Gerald said. “I wasn’t trying to cause a controversy coming from this, so the people who are feeling extra about it is because something is already inside them.”
Gerald submitted the piece titled, “Bitter fruit racial crop,” to the 2017 ArtFields competition that draws hundreds of artists from around the region. The works are displayed at various businesses around the city, and winners are chosen in multiple categories. Business owners select the artwork they want to display inside their stores.
According to Gerald’s website, the depiction on the quilt is based off a bible verse which is presented alongside the display.
Gerald says it took her eight months to create the piece, and it wasn’t meant to stir controversy. “This piece that Barbara has took me 8 months to create and it was hard to create and I wept while I was creating it, it wasn’t like something you just go and do,” Gerald added.
“Art tends to evoke conversations and that is exactly what’s happening with this piece,”ArtFields organizer Kevin Lassen said. We might not like all the conversation but everyone gets an equal voice in the conversation.”
“The panel chose this piece for its power to evoke, as did the venue owner, ”according to a statement on facebook by ArtFields. “They understood it would create important dialogue. We empathize with any anger or fear this decision has caused, yet stand by an abiding belief in artistic expression.”
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