Breonna Taylor Show Points Art Museums to a Faster Track

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — People talk a lot about getting back to pre-Covid normal. But our traditional art museums can forget about that. After a year of intense racial justice reckoning, a paralyzing pandemic and crippling economic shortfalls, aging hidebound institutions are scrambling just to stay afloat. And the only way for them to do so is to change. Strategies for forward motion are needed. One is in play here at the Speed Art Museum, in the form of a quietly passionate show called “Promise, Witness, Remembrance,” which might, with profit, be studied by other institutions in survivalist mode.

Conventional encyclopedic museums like the Speed, the largest and oldest art museum in Kentucky, are glacial machines. Their major exhibitions are usually years in the planning. Borrowing objects from other museums can be a red tape tangle. “Historical” shows, by definition, are usually confined to events and cultures of the past. “Promise, Witness, Remembrance” revises all of that. It speeds up exhibition production, focuses on the present, and in doing so reaches out to new audiences vital to the institutional future.

Combining works from the Speed’s permanent collection with loans in several cases directly from artists and galleries, the show was assembled and installed (beautifully) in a mere four months. And it was conceived as a direct response to a contemporary news event: the killing, by Louisville police, of Breonna Taylor, a Black 26-year-old medical worker, in March 2020. A posthumous painting of Taylor by the artist Amy Sherald is the exhibition’s centerpiece, accompanied by photographs of local street protests sparked by her death and by the lenient treatment of the white officers involved.

The availability of the painting by Sherald, who is widely known for her earlier portrait of Michelle Obama, was the impetus for the show. Originally commissioned by Vanity Fair, it appeared on the cover of the magazine’s September 2020 issue. Sherald herself expressed interest in having the painting shown at the Speed, and in November the museum hired Allison Glenn, an associate curator of contemporary art at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark., who, with astonishing speed and acuity, built an exhibition around it in Louisville, comprised entirely of Black artists, with funding found to keep the admission free.

Accessibility, cultural and financial, are crucial features of the show. Until now, museums have generally ignored the country’s changing population demographics. The history that our big, general-interest art museums promote, through their preservation and display of objects, is primarily white history, with views of all other histories filtered through it. But that slanted perspective is no longer representative of audiences that museums will — speaking purely pragmatically — need to attract to survive.

Museums also tend to underestimate radical shifts in awareness of, and interest in, the past. In a social media century, attention seems increasingly focused on the 24-hour news cycle. How can that new consciousness be reflected in classical museums, which pride themselves on being slow-reacting monoliths. Only by staying limber, being ready and able to adjust, absorb and adapt, can our art institutions thrive.

In “Promise, Witness, Remembrance,” the Speed offers an example of this dynamic. Working closely with Taylor’s family, Glenn quickly mustered advisory committees of artists and activists from the city itself and from across the country. In the Speed’s permanent collection, she found solid material to build on, including works by several artists associated with the city. Pieces included a magnificent, warm-as-an-embrace draped painting from 1969 by Sam Gilliam, who grew up in Louisville; a sculptured bronze head of a Black Union soldier by Ed Hamilton, who still lives there; and a suite of strategically altered Ebony magazine pages by Noel W. Anderson, who is now based in New York City.

Glenn then began making requests for loans. Within a time frame most museums would consider impossibly tight, agreements were signed, and pieces began to come in. The last to to be installed, shortly before the opening, was the Sherald portrait which had by then been purchased jointly by the Speed and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C., with the help of a $1 million donation by two philanthropies, the Ford Foundation and the Hearthland Foundation (run by the actress Kate Capshaw and her husband, the director Steven Spielberg).

The resulting show isn’t huge — around 30 pieces— but the museum has given it prime space, clearing out three permanent collection galleries on either side of its sculpture-filled central atrium to accommodate it. This guarantees that individual works have room to breathe. It also symbolically offers a gesture of welcome on the part of a traditional museum to a display of Black contemporary art. (By contrast, two years ago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art installed a truly regal Kerry James Marshall retrospective, not where it really belonged in special exhibition galleries in the museum’s Fifth Avenue headquarters, but in what was then its Breuer annex on Madison Avenue.)

Glenn mapped out the show in three parts keyed to the themes in the title, all proposed by Taylor’s mother, Tamika Palmer. The work in the first section, “Promise,” suggests a nation’s vaunted humanist ideals and abuse of those ideals. A 2011 wall piece by Nari Ward spells out the opening words of the Constitution, “We the People,” in letters made from multicolored shoelaces. In Bethany Collins’s “The Star Spangled Banner: A Hymnal” (2020), militantly nationalist songs are seared, as if written with acid, into the pages of a book.

The second gallery, “Witness,” focuses loosely on the theme of cultural and political resistance, recent in images by Louisville photographers — Erik Branch, Xavier Burrell, Jon P. Cherry, Tyler Gerth (1992-2020) and T.A. Yero — documenting the city’s 2020 Black Lives Matter demonstrations; and historical in the case of Terry Adkins’s sculptural column of stacked-up drums referring to a march organized by the N.A.A.C.P. in 1917 in New York City to protest a national plague of lynchings.

The third section, “Remembrance,” is dimly lighted and sparsely hung. Here what look like commemorative floral tributes — a sculptural one by Nick Cave and a painted one by the Cuban-born Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons — flank a wall-filling projection of Jon-Sesrie Goff’s video “A Site of Reckoning: Battlefield,” a brief, moving meditation on the 2016 mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.

Sherald’s portrait of Taylor, whom she depicts in a breeze-blown turquoise dress against a turquoise ground, hangs just beyond, in a chapel-like space, otherwise empty except for a wall text in the form of a biographical timeline composed by her mother. The entire show is basically designed to lead to and enshrine this image. You can see it far in the distance, an eye-catching blur of color, from the minute you enter three galleries away, and approach it by a processional route.

I find myself resisting such enshrinements, whether of people, or art, or history. So I was glad the show didn’t quite end there, but with a two-channel video by the artist and filmmaker Kahlil Joseph called BLKNWS®” in a bright room, with an outdoor view, one flight down. Raucous and nervy, the video is a careening jump-cut alternative view of what the media leave out, or misrepresent, in reporting on Black life and experience.

In the context of the Speed exhibition, its mock newscast is a reminder of what museums, too, leave out. As far as I know, “Promise, Witness, Remembrance” is the only large-scale institutional show to date that addresses the important episode in our contemporary national history that Taylor’s violent death, and the communal reaction to it, represent.

And it’s worth considering that the Speed show coincides with the trial in Minneapolis of the white police officer accused of killing George Floyd, another epoch-shaping event that — again, as far as I know — no major institution has yet even glancingly touched on. If you’re wondering why our museums are looking too often these days like dated artifacts with shaky futures, Covid-19 can’t take all the blame.

RankTribe™ Black Business Directory News – Arts & Entertainment

New book and show gives everyone a look at Charleston Renaissance artist ‘Alice’

It’s high time we talked about Alice.

By Alice I mean Alice Ravenel Huger Smith, most famously known as a Charleston Renaissance artist of evocative, masterfully crafted Lowcountry watercolors.

Alice Ravenel Huger Smith work of art (copy)

Artist Alice Ravenel Huger Smith’s “Lotus in the Great Blake Reserve” c. 1926-1936, is featured on the cover of “Alice.” Private Collection. Provided

Those works, and her leading role in the movement, helped transform the down-and-out city of Charleston in the decades between the two world wars into a sought-after cultural hub.

This spring, Smith again commands the cultural conversation by way of an exhibition and publication.

The exhibition takes place at both Middleton Place and Edmonston-Alston House. It is up now through Jan. 10.

Alice Ravenel Huger Smith Self Portrait

“Self Portait” by Alice Ravenel Huger Smith, c. 1908. Watercolor on paper, 28 x 20 inches. Collection of Anne Gaud Tinker. Rick Rhodes/Provided

The show was timed with the March publication of “Alice: Alice Ravenel Huger Smith, Charleston Renaissance Artist,” a new volume chronicling her life and her work written by Dwight McInvaill with Caroline Palmer, Smith’s great-great-niece and Ann Tinker, her great-niece. It was published by Evening Post Books in collaboration with Middleton Place. (Evening Post Books is owned by the same parent company as The Post and Courier.)

The aim of the volume is to expand on past scholarship while providing a more intimate and vibrant portrait of the artist based on new archival findings, some from the author’s own family collection.

Like the artist’s finely detailed works of art, “Alice” fastidiously layers the facts of her life drawn from correspondence and other documents, folding in 200 images of paintings, prints, sketches and photographs on its broad, glossy pages.

Sharing the influences and the evolution of an artist as she deepened her craft and plied her trade, it spans days at her lifelong residence at 69 Church St.; the death of her mother in her teens; collaborative projects with her father; and a succession of Charleston studios.

It highlights many cultural figures drawn to Charleston who informed her work, aesthetic influences such as the Barbizon school with its Naturalist movement in painting and the Japonisme trend of Western art that was prevalent in the early twentieth century. It covers her departure for study in New York and her ultimate emergence as a leader in the Charleston Renaissance.

Among her most celebrated works are those on rice cultivation, which she gathered in a book, “A Carolina Rice Plantation of the Fifties,” which studied plantations of the 1850s.

The book doesn’t soft pedal, noting that the realm Smith was born into had a “worldview shaped by a desire among once-wealthy, rice planting families to preserve the hierarchies and traditions of the past.”

The aim of the book and exhibition is to talk.

Art on the wall (copy)

Alice Ravenel Huger Smith’s work is on display at Middleton Place. File/Adam Parker/Staff

“The publication of ‘Alice’ and its accompanying exhibition provide the Foundation an opportunity to continue its mission to educate and engage in conversations about our complicated history,” Tracey Todd, Middleton Place Foundation president and CEO, said in a statement.

Artists and rice

With that in mind, I invited artist Jonathan Green to join a viewing of the works, mounted at the Middleton Place Museum House, on a stellar Charleston spring day with the grounds bursting with pink and white azaleas.

“Alice is a dangerous woman,” Green said. He describes himself as a devoted feminist who recognizes her as having been adventurous and independent in a man’s world. He considers Smith one of the most important and undervalued artists.

Green came to Smith later in life. By that time, he had seen, and collected, a great deal of works involving the Black American experience, particularly those created by African American artists as part of the federal Works Progress Administration. Many of the works depict Black domestic life, striking studies in isolation, and tableaux that bring to harrowing life incidents of white supremacy.

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But there was little in the way of rice — a part of African culture enslaved people brought with them to America.

“When people talk about Black people, it’s always from the perspective of slavery,” he said.

'A Winter Field Still in Stubble'

“A Winter Field Still in Stubble,” c. 1935, by Alice Ravenel Huger Smith, from the series A Carolina Rice Plantation. Watercolor on paper, 21 7⁄8 x 16 7⁄8 inches. Gibbes Museum of Art/Carolina Art Association

Green thus became involved in the Lowcountry Rice Culture Project, which seeks “to discover and revive the significance of rice cultivations and its legacies, and to use this history as a launching off point for broad discussions of race, class, art, trade, history and economics — in short, the various aspects of culture in the Southeast.”

He created a series of works entitled “Unenslaved,” which give back the age-old practice of rice cultivation to its workers. In 2014, the Gibbes Museum of Art presented the exhibition “Rice in the Lowcountry: The Art of Jonathan Green and Alice Ravenel Huger Smith,” a display of 21 works by the two artists focused on rice cultivation.

For Green, Smith’s painstaking, expert illustrations of the rice fields offer much in the way of a record of this culture, while also underscoring the dignity of the subjects.

“I think people get into trouble because of the medium she uses,” Green said.

What to see

Walking through the exhibition in Middleton Place, Green marveled at Smith’s use of movement. He pointed out her deft layering of wet and dry watercolor techniques, the delicate white egrets taking wing.

Together, we admired the rich palette of “Colorful Swamp,” and the subtle figure of a perched young girl in “Miss Josephine Smith in Oak with Peacock.” He talked about the progression toward the abstract, which can be seen in works like “The Painting Lesson.”

“She was very sensitive to the feel of the environment, the atmosphere,” Green said, noting that the intrepid Smith was known to spend a great deal of time in natural settings. “She knew exactly how it felt to be out there.”

Taking in water-rippled, intricate layers of warm pinks and deep indigos, moss greens and pale yellows, the word controversy may not be the first word to percolate. However, to some, Smith’s works represent a rhapsodizing of the White agrarian South, a romanticized watercolor haze ennobling aspects of the Southern experiences in the early 20th century.

Alice Smith's father, Daniel Elliott Huger Smith (copy)

Alice Ravenel Huger Smith painted this portrait of her father, Daniel Elliott Huger Smith, in 1909. File/Adam Parker/Staff

When it comes to Smith’s depictions of serene-seeming Black rice field workers, Green observes that in this instance the artist painted from photographs. Like any artist, he said, she then put her subjects in the best light possible.

Walking the grounds at Middleton Place, Green gestured to the raised stretches of green lawns and the rice fields beyond them, identifying them as the work of Black people.

“Charleston is a Black museum,” he said, noting the work of Black people in creating the city.

For him, Smith’s paintings illustrate that the Black and White narratives of the South are intimately intertwined — or shared, as Todd might put it. Green found it confounding that so many people attempt to separate those stories.

“I just find it difficult if you can’t talk about it,” Green said.

At Middleton Place, Todd would no doubt concur. “Alice Smith was once quoted as saying ‘Open the windows of your mind to let in the fresh air.’ ‘Alice’ gives us an opportunity to learn more about ourselves and each other through the exploration of our shared history,” his statement on the effort said.

With the book and exhibition, one story is now shared more fully than it has been in the past. it is the story of a Charleston artist who, among her many creative pursuits, took to the rice fields of the Lowcountry.

Perhaps it can serve as a point of departure from which to engage in such meaningful exchange.

At Middleton Place, the conversation continues with a virtual book talk on April 20, from 6:30-7:30 p.m. Moderator Harlan Greene will be in discussion with McInvaill, Palmer and Tinker for a Zoom webinar hosted by Middleton Place Foundation, which is free and open to the public.

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RankTribe™ Black Business Directory News – Arts & Entertainment

Academy Art Museum Announces April Exhibition Openings

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Miró, Joan, L’Antitete pair D-J, 1947, Etching and Engraving, Courtesy of Dolan/Maxwell.

The Academy Art Museum is opening two new exhibitions on April 16. Miró in New York, 1947: Miró, Hayter and Atelier 17 will be on display through July 8, 2021 in the galleries and August 1, 2021 online. Norma Morgan: Enchanted World will be on display in the galleries and online through August 1st, 2021.

Miró in New York, 1947: Miró, Hayter and Atelier 17 explores a group of little-known etchings Joan Miró made with influential British printmaker Stanley William Hayter at Atelier 17, the New York outpost of his seminal printmaking studio in Paris. Both Miró and Hayter were key participants in the community of artists in Paris who ultimately formed the core of international movements in contemporary art from the 1930s to 1945.

In the 1940s many of these artists, including Hayter, moved to New York to escape the horrors of the Nazi occupation of Paris. There, the confluence of these émigrés and the ingenious and energetic American artists who created Abstract Expressionism fueled the relocation of the center of the art world to New York. Works will be drawn from the Museum’s Permanent Collection and loans from Dolan/Maxwell Gallery, Philadelphia, and private collections. The exhibition catalogue includes the wide breadth of experimental and collaborative work done at Atelier 17, with pieces by Fred Becker, Terry Haass, Gabor Peterdi, Anne Ryan, Yves Tanguy, Helen Phillips, Alice Trumbull-Mason, and others, all of whom worked in Atelier 17 alongside Hayter and Miró.

Norma Morgan image credit: Norma Morgan, David in the Wilderness.

A lecture “Joan Miró, Stanley William Hayter and Atelier 17,” presented by Carla Esposito Hayter, will be held on Saturday, May 8 at 10 a.m. on Zoom. Esposito-Hayter is an art historian and the author of the Monotype: The History of a Pictorial Art, and Hayter et l’Atelier 17 (Hayter and Atelier 17, published in French and Italian), as well as the catalog essay for the exhibition at the Academy Art Museum. She is also the daughter-in-law of Atelier 17’s founder, Stanley William Hayter. In dialogue with Academy Art Museum’s Curator Mehves Lelic, Esposito-Hayter will talk about the rich history of the Atelier’s decades-long influence in printmaking, as well as share anecdotes, insights and family history, told through her close relationship with Hayter and Miró.

In July, the Museum presents a double bill of Miró Makes a Color Print and On and Around Miró by avant-garde filmmaker Tom Bouchard. Miró Makes a Color Print pictures Joan Miró as he works at Atelier 17 in New York on a print – the subject of Academy Art Museum’s Spring 2021 exhibition, Miró in New York, 1947On and Around Miró is a more expansive record of the artist’s work and studio. The film screenings, which will be held on July 1 at 11 a.m. and July 2 at 7 p.m. are free.

Also opening on April 16 will be the exhibition, Norma Morgan: Enchanted World. This is an exhibition of the late artist’s prints, watercolors, paintings and drawings, and spans over 30 years of her prolific yet under-studied career. The exhibition highlights Morgan’s ability to convey a spiritual experience through her landscape and portraiture work and to effortlessly transition from formal observation to magical wonder. While her prints are a testimony to her mastery as a printmaker, her mid-career paintings, which include experimental materials such as Day-Glo acrylic, shine a light on the artist’s inquisitive mind and inventive inner world.

Morgan’s unique visual language invites the viewer to step back to take in the entirety of her layered compositions and to look closer and notice the figures hiding in them. One of the two African-American women artists to study with Stanley William Hayter’s Atelier 17, Morgan was a trailblazer as an artist and printmaker. Her works are in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Library of Congress; the National Gallery of Art, and others. The Academy Art Museum is proud to present this exhibition with loans from the Kerry and C. Betty Davis Collection of African American Art, Mr. Donnell and Mrs. Dorothea Walker Collection of African American Art, Mr. Freddie Styles, Mr. Darryl Love, and Dolan/Maxwell. The exhibition catalog will feature essays by art historians Dr. Amalia Amaki and Dr. Christina Weyl.

The Academy Art Museum exhibitions are sponsored by the Talbot County Arts Council, the Maryland State Arts Council, and the Star Democrat. The Museum is open daily, Tuesday through Saturday, 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. and Sunday, 12 noon to 4 p.m. For additional information, visit academyartmuseum.org or call the Museum at 410-822-2787.

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RankTribe™ Black Business Directory News – Arts & Entertainment

DMX was a Gen X icon who gave Black men like me a stronger voice

The death of hip-hop artist Earl “DMX” Simmons at the age of 50 represents not just an occasion for mourning, but one of celebration and commemoration for the iconic rapper who culled soaring artistry from personal trauma and grief. A Generation X impresario who burst onto the scene during the Clinton administration, DMX offered a bold reinterpretation of conventional depictions of Black culture in postindustrial urban America.

I first encountered DMX, or the X-Man as many called him, through his 1998 masterpiece, “It’s Dark and Hell is Hot.” The veritable album of the year, at least the hottest joint in hip-hop, put New York rap back on the map. As a 25-year-old New York native, writing a PhD dissertation on the Black Power movement back then, I instantly related to DMX’s lyrical flow, menacing swagger, wicked sense of humor and aching vulnerability. I recognized, like many of his millions of fans, aspects of myself in the lower frequencies of Black life that he recounted with brilliance and bravado.

The X-Man’s public persona reflected the kaleidoscopic nature of Black masculinity in the late 1990s. DMX raged against stereotypes of Black criminality even as he invoked, then subverted, the tropes of thug, gangsta and hoodlum into a showcase for Black artistry. The image of DMX, rippling body emblazoned with tattoos, smoking a blunt on stage and galvanizing audiences all over the world represents a hinge point in the history of Generation X hip-hop lovers such as myself.

DMX’s growl, his hoarse voice and raw lyrics didn’t so much move crowds as stun them into aural submission, winning them over with the mellifluous power of the beat and the confessional nature of lyrics that interrogated Black masculinity with new depth and breadth.

If Jean Michel-Basquiat poured his pain onto the literal canvas of the masterpieces that he created (and sometimes destroyed) during his brief career, DMX turned his personal battles with alcohol and substance abuse into music that explicitly grappled with addiction, self-medication, depression, anger and grief. In doing so, he powerfully showcased Black male vulnerability in an industry that too often relied on a one dimensional view of masculinity to sell records and project subjective notions of authenticity. And his humor, dark and subversive, shone through his frank talk about sex, drugs and violence.

When the X-Man raged in “Party Up (Up In Here),” “Y’all gonna make me lose my mind up in here, up in here! Y’all gonna make me go all out up in here, up in here,” it allowed us all to root for the underdogs in ourselves. Appearing on the scene less than three years after the deaths of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious BIG, DMX and his Ruff Ryders Crew took hip-hop and American popular culture by storm and, for a time, he emerged as perhaps the most versatile rapper-actor-entertainer in the industry.

His turn as a thoughtful gangster, opposite the iconic rapper Nas, in the film “Belly” — directed by Hype Williams — remains a cult classic and offered glimpses of an immense talent that stretched from music to movies, and influenced generational fashion and style trends.

On this score, DMX paved the way for future hip-hop entrepreneurs, such as 50 Cent, who would leverage their personal biographies as street hustlers to become brand influencers and business moguls on a level unimagined during rap’s early days.

At times DMX’s well-documented troubles with the law obscured his still potent stage presence and impact on fans who flocked to him in concert and, during the pandemic, in a Verzuz battle with legendary rapper Snoop Dogg. But until the end of his life DMX fought, and at times overcame, personal demons that would have leveled the less resilient. Ultimately, the most defining aspect of DMX’s legacy will be his courageous willingness to plumb the depths of his personal trauma to produce art that will continue to shape hip-hop culture long after his death.

RankTribe™ Black Business Directory News – Arts & Entertainment

Diddy Pens Letter Accusing Corporate America Of Exploiting ‘The Almighty Black Dollar’

Media mogul and rapper Sean “Diddy” Combs published an open letter on Thursday accusing corporate America ― and General Motors in particular ― of paying lip service to Black businesses without actually supporting them.

“The same feet these companies use to stand with us in solidarity are the same feet they use to stand on our necks,” Diddy wrote in the letter, which was published on the website of his media network, Revolt.

Diddy’s letter echoes the concerns of several other Black leaders and entrepreneurs who have accused GM CEO Mary Barra of stonewalling them and allocating less than 0.5% of the company’s advertising budget to Black-owned companies. Last week, a group including rapper and actor Ice Cube and Allen Media Group head Byron Allen took out a full-page ad in the Detroit Free Press lambasting Barra.

In response, GM spokesperson Pat Morrissey disputed the advertising budget claim, telling the Free Press that 2% of the company’s ad budget is spent on Black businesses. Morrissey also said the company plans to increase this percentage, aiming for 4% in 2022 and 8% by 2025, and that it is committed to supporting Black-owned companies, including Revolt.

“While REVOLT does receive advertising revenue from GM, our relationship is not an example of success,” Diddy wrote in his piece. “Instead, REVOLT, just like other Black-owned media companies, fights for crumbs while GM makes billions of dollars every year from the Black community.”

Diddy went on to argue that “no longer can Corporate America manipulate our community into believing that incremental progress is acceptable action,” and said GM’s behavior is a symptom of a larger problem.

“In 2019, brands spent $239 billion on advertising,” Diddy wrote. “Less than 1% of that was invested in Black-owned media companies… It’s disrespectful that the same community that represents 14% of the population and spends over $1.4 trillion annually is still the most economically undervalued and underserved at every level. To repeat, $1.4 TRILLION ANNUALLY! The Almighty Black Dollar!”

The media mogul’s passionate entreaty received a largely negative reaction on social media. Many people called the statement hypocritical, since Diddy has himself been accused of failing to pay artists under his music label, Bad Boy Records.

A number of artists, including the rapper Mase in 2020, have publicly accused Diddy of keeping master recordings and failing to distribute publishing royalties.

RankTribe™ Black Business Directory News – Arts & Entertainment

Mission Creek performer Billy Dean Thomas: ‘I choose to stand confidently in my existence and truth’

Mission Creek Festival 2021: DUOS

missioncreekfestival.com, Thursday and Friday, April 29-30, 7 p.m.

Harlem-raised hip-hop artist Billy Dean Thomas — courtesy of Mission Creek Festival

Billy Dean Thomas, a.k.a. “The Queer Biggie,” is a quadruple-threat: a rapper, singer, instrumentalist and charismatic performer whose dynamic presence permeates their live shows and music videos. In “Rocky Barboa,” the Harlem-raised MC can be seen rhyming and bouncing to a sparse, retrofuturistic beat while dressed in unique, stylish outfits tailor-made for this gender-nonconforming artist.

After a New York City arts program unlocked something within them, music became a vehicle for reinvention, starting with their moniker, which emerged from a song they wrote years ago with their sister and best friend. Thomas recalled making a beat with a Biggie Smalls vibe and then began emulating the rap legend’s flow, something that inspired their sister to blurt out, “The Queer Biggie!”

“Once it was said out loud,” Thomas said, “it dawned on me how similar to Biggie I actually was, which I had never thought about before. My birthday is the day after his, we both are rappers from New York City, we both are dark skinned, chubby and not really seen as commercially ‘attractive’ by Western beauty standards. However, we still possess our own swagger, appeal—and stand tall in our confidence.”

While they are proud of their birth name, Billy Dean was given to them by their chosen family and it deeply resonated with them spiritually. “The name Billy Dean really allowed me to reintroduce myself to myself and claim me,” they told me, “in the same way that Malcolm X did with the letter X.”

Thomas grew up in Harlem and was raised by parents who played music all the time, especially R&B. Their mother gravitated to ’90s singers like Mary J. Blige and Jaheim, while their father spun older artists such as Marvin Gaye, Ray Charles and the Delfonics. They lived on a major block — 116th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues — and each year the African American Day Parade would pass by Thomas’ apartment, so they didn’t even need to go outside to hear the sounds of the street.

“Harlem is music,” they said. “You literally cannot walk down the street without hearing the hottest new record on the radio blasting in someone’s car or walk into the local grocery store or deli without hearing Bachata or some music in a different language. I mean, there are sounds everywhere.”

The rapper is grateful for the experience of growing up in the heart of Black art, Black creativity and Black enterprise, which helped make them who they are today — as did other opportunities that they seized. A spoken word and performance class at the Facing History School in Manhattan transformed Thomas, who entered the arts high school as a shy and insecure kid who was still very uncomfortable in their own skin.

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“Wow, that class changed my life, literally,” Thomas said. “I was just surprised that my teacher saw something in me that I hadn’t seen in myself. After I took this class, I ended up performing all over New York City and then ended up winning first and second place at my high school talent show while being the host. I mean, this moment was probably one of the most validating experiences that I had, and it made me think, ‘Wow, maybe this could really be something.’”

A woman from a nonprofit arts program in SoHo saw Thomas at that talent show and invited them to perform on Broadway during their senior year, which led to a $40,000 art scholarship to attend Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. The elite private women’s college wasn’t a culture shock for this Harlem native because they had always attended predominantly white schools. But the level of privilege they witnessed was a new experience.

“I was in class with people who were princesses in their countries,” Thomas said, “people whose entire families had gone to Smith, when all of my grandparents, aunts and uncles had never graduated high school and had all passed away before I was 12. Those reminders were hard, made me angry and were amplified when I went into restaurants in town where I was treated differently because I was Black and people would commit microaggressions constantly.”

Thomas was regularly reminded that they didn’t belong — in subtle and not-so-subtle ways — by the racism woven into every fiber of these kinds of educational institutions, college towns and, for that matter, the world. Nevertheless, it grounded them; it made them far more proud and knowledgeable about who they were and about the world around them.

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One positive aspect of their time at Smith was its Media Lab, which was the epicenter for Thomas’ creative explosion.

“There were no limits to how long I could sit in the recording booth and completely exercise the range of my voice and start to teach myself music production and engineering,” they said. “Throughout those years in the Media Lab, I wrote some of my best songs. It was pure bliss. However, I realized that access is power. Without the access to the equipment and the space to be creative, I would not have known that I possessed an ability to produce the art that has become my career and life’s purpose.”

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That learning curve exposed Thomas to harsh truths about systemic racism, such as how people who enjoy certain privileges are afforded more access to artistic resources than others. Still, it allowed them to use those tools to propel them forward and give back knowledge to their family and community. And those experiences also led them to Boston, where they have thrived. Thomas thinks they would be far more inspired in their hometown of New York City, but Boston has given them opportunities, access to resources and funding in the same way that Smith did.

“It has also provided me with the framework to transform my art into a business,” they told me. “When I was in New York City, I felt like being paid for my work was going to be impossible. Music industry circles seemed invisible and beyond reach. Boston pushed me to be the creator of my own productions and build the skills to curate my own shows and my artistic framework. So, I am grateful for both places pushing different aspects of my artistic identity.”

One deeply-ingrained societal narrative that Thomas wants to change is the romanticized idea of the starving artist.

Courtesy of Mission Creek Festival

“My goal for myself and the artist community is to unlearn ideas from systems that don’t want us to thrive,” they said. “Art is power, and it is possible to be paid for it.”

Thomas is also trying to unlearn who is allowed to be legendary or iconic — something that has largely been the domain of cis males. They see it as their mission to elevate the greats who haven’t been celebrated in the same way: artists like Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and pioneering rapper Roxanne Shanté.

“By virtue of being born in this body and not conforming to any checkbox, whether it’s about who I am attracted to or the music that I make, I push narrow perspectives without trying to,” Thomas said. “I choose to stand confidently in my existence and truth. I figure if people are going to always judge and stare at me, let’s give them something good to talk about.”

By day, Kembrew McLeod is the chair of the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Iowa; by night he is the chair of Dance Floor Wrecking! This article was originally published in Little Village issue 293.

Thoughts? Tips? A cute picture of a dog? Share them with LV » editor@littlevillagemag.com

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Beneath the Water’s Surface, a Moment of Repose

In each installment of The Artists, T highlights a recent or little-seen work by a Black artist, along with a few words from that artist putting the work in context. This week, we’re looking at a painting by Calida Rawles, whose first solo exhibition in New York will open at Lehmann Maupin in September.

Name: Calida Rawles

Age: 45

Based in: Los Angeles

Originally from: Wilmington, Del.

Where and when did you make this work? In my studio in January 2020, right before the pandemic.

Can you describe what is going on in the work? I would say there is a figure in solitude, enjoying the water or having a moment to herself because she’s totally submerged. Her movement is graceful. She becomes a shape and then a reflection, and the reflection isn’t even exactly accurate. When I look at this I feel at peace. One of the feet looks like maybe Degas, like one of his ballet dancers. The work is photo-realistic and then it becomes impressionistic. I was able to let go and make some things up.

The orientation is vertical, but I think naturally it would be a horizontal piece. When I first did the shoot for the photo reference, I knew this image looked great, but then I rotated it and I thought: “Oh, this is the way it should go.” Changing the orientation made it much more interesting to me — I saw an inkblot, a kind of Rorschach test. I thought that people might be able to see more than what is there — more than just the Black body, more than just this woman.

What inspired you to make it? I think there was a desire to celebrate the female form, but I was also trying to find peace. I’m always trying to find that — that’s why I go to the water. It’s therapeutic for me. I am an anxious person by nature. I don’t do yoga, but I probably need to. What makes me anxious is not knowing what’s coming next — maybe it’s about control. I paint with teeny tiny brushes, which I think is psychologically connected to control. It’s funny because most of the artists I admire paint loose. I admire them because I wish I could do the same. At times, I have gotten the bigger brush and tried to let go, but then I come back and I’m like, “What is that? What were you thinking?” Even here, there are certain areas that are very fine-tuned, even if I painted them in a way that looks loose. But there are also moments when there is just the stroke, like that foot might have been one stroke of the brush, and I was so proud.

What’s the work of art in any medium that changed your life? When I was at Spelman, it might have been in 1996, they had a show called “Bearing Witness.” One of the pieces that was in the show was from Carrie Mae Weems’s “From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried” series. I just remember being so moved by the photograph with text — it was the red on the figures and the text itself. It was so strong, it stood out and it just seemed so smart. It made me think about my history and how humans are so complicated. Weems presented these photographs so beautifully, yet it was so disturbing. In my work, I am always trying to hit those two marks: A subject or a message that doesn’t feel good, yet you still want to look at it. It’s weird to feel these things at the same time, but I like when I see work like that.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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Young, gifted and Black… mentors guide Black artists through Philadelphia’s theater scene

Taylor J. Mitchell relocated to Philadelphia three years ago from Alabama, knowing no one in the city and never having been here before. She was fresh out of college and itching to get her career in theater started: Broadway was the goal and Philadelphia seemed like a good place to start.

“When I came here, instantly my body said, ‘Yes, this is it,’” she said. “Best decision I’ve made in my life.”

Mitchell joined an apprenticeship program at the Walnut Theater, where she has performed in several shows and now works as a teaching artist, but she noticed that she was one of the few Black people in the program.

“Since I’ve been born, I’ve been placed in predominantly Black settings, so it was a big culture shock moving to Philly and it being vice-versa,” said Mitchell. “I’m not seeing many African Americans in my work.”

Taylor J. Mitchell performs in Walnut Street Theatre’s production of ‘A Christmas Carol.’ (Mark Garvin)

Black Theatre Alliance Philadelphia has just launched a professional mentorship program for people like Mitchell, who are starting out in the business and could use a little guidance. She was paired with Angelica Jackson, a few years Mitchell’s senior and also a Philly transplant, originally from Maryland where she started performing as a child.

“Growing up in my hometown in Charles County, I would often be one of very few chocolate chips in the theater cookie,” said Jackson. “I was drawn to it because I just love telling stories. When I participated with local theaters and their education programs or children’s plays, I often found myself being the only brown girl.”

Jackson and Mitchell immediately bonded over their shared experiences. Like Mitchell, Jackson also went through the Walnut Street Professional Apprenticeship Program and noticed few Black colleagues.

“It wasn’t until I graduated from that program and moved further west, to West Philly, that I was able to discover so many cool small theater groups that were led and founded by Black theater artists,” she said, mentioning Theatre in the X and First World Theatre at the Community Education Center in Powelton Village.

The Black Theatre Alliance Philadelphia (BTAP) started less than a year ago as a way to offer support to Black theater artists and workers. Its first priority, upon launching last fall, was to raise money and distribute it to theater artists unable to work during the pandemic. Its next endeavor is this mentorship program, which utilizes the experience and wisdom of longtime Philly artists to help emerging artists navigate the professional theater landscape.

“Just a lot of things that newbies miss out on, pitfalls that many of us in the business have stepped in because we haven’t had someone there to say, ‘Nah, you don’t want to do that. You might want to think again about this instead,’ that kind of thing,” said Ardencie Hall-Karambe, a member of BTAP’s steering committee and the founder and artistic director of Kaleidoscope Cultural Arts Collective in North Philadelphia.

The yearlong mentorship program pays both the mentor and mentee a small stipend for their participation, as well as some basic services like headshots and resumé advice. In large part, the activities between the participants will be self-directed, each pair will assess its own needs and figure out how to best address them, not unlike the Big Brothers Big Sisters program.

Hall-Karambe said people coming into the theater profession may have terrific energy and stage artistry, but many don’t have the practical skills necessary to break into the business, like auditioning and juggling multiple gigs. Even people who study theater in college come out with little real-world experience.

Hall-Karambe said it can be particularly challenging for Black artists.

“A lot of these spaces weren’t built for us, built for African Americans and people of color,” she said. “I’m going to be real frank about that. We have to know the lingo. We have to have a space where we can come and decompress and be able to talk about the things that happen to us in these spaces that weren’t built for us, because it’s not always pretty.”

Recently, Black theater artists have pushed back against theater companies for inequities, such as PlayPenn for a perceived preference for white playwrights, and the Philadelphia Theatre Company for a lack of diversity in its programming.

The Black Theatre Alliance is also right now launching The Corner, a space for Black artists to informally convene to share opportunities, experiences, and support with each other. Because of the pandemic, and the fact that BTAP is still a very new organization, The Corner is a virtual space with hopes of becoming a physical location sometime in the future.

“We’ve never had anything like this, at least for Black people or [people of color],” said Bryan Jeffrey Daniels, a 33-year-old singer, dancer, and actor who has been performing in theater since he was three years old. He is one of BTAP’s mentors.

“We didn’t have any program dedicated specifically to enhancing each other in that way,” said Daniels, who currently commutes to Maryland every day to perform as the Donkey in a production of the musical ‘Shrek.’ “I did go through a period where I just felt like I was questioning, ‘Is this what I’m supposed to do? Am I doing this right? Is this for me?’ There was no one there.”

Brennen S. Malone in the play "FAT HAM"
Brennen S. Malone stars in the Wilma Theater’s film of James Ijames’ new play “FAT HAM.” (Caro Ramirez)

Daniels, who is also a minister at Christ Community Baptist Church in West Philadelphia, was paired with Brennen Malone, currently the lead in The Wilma Theater’s upcoming virtual production of the James Ijames play, “Fat Ham.”

It was a serendipitous pairing. Daniels and Malone have casually known each other through mutual friends for about a year. Neither knew the other was signing up for the mentorship program.

“With Brennen, him and I are in the same lane. You know, we’ll go for the same parts. Maybe not all the time, but we will do stuff like that,” said Daniels. “I learned this from my teachers: They taught us to eventually be better than them, or to surpass them. So that’s my goal, to help him get to a level where he’s even beyond me.”

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Diddy Goes to War Against General Motors: “If You Love Us, Pay Us”

Rapper, business mogul, and near-billionaire Diddy has just about had it with General Motors and the rest of corporate America. So he’s calling all of them out in an angry open letter titled “If You Love Us, Pay Us.”


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Posted to the Revolt blog, the letter argues that a big chunk of revenue of corporate America comes from the Black community. Yet when it comes to advertising within the same community, with Black-owned businesses, less than 1% of these companies’ advertising budgets goes here. Oversimplifying, Diddy says that these companies are profiting off the Black community but hardly spending anything here.

He specifically calls out General Motors, saying GM listed his TV network, Revolt, as an example of Black-owned company it supports through advertising. GM didn’t technically lie, but it wasn’t telling the truth, either.

“While Revolt does receive advertising revenue from GM, our relationship is not an example of success. Instead, Revolt, just like other Black-owned media companies, fights for crumbs while GM makes billions of dollars every year from the Black community. Exposing GM’s historic refusal to fairly invest in Black-owned media is not an assassination of character, it’s exposing the way GM and many other advertisers have always treated us,” Diddy argues.

He says GM, like the rest of corporate America, has been “exploiting” the Black community through behavior of this type. General Motors, for one, spent $3 billion in advertising last year, and only $10 million of that money was invested in a Black-owned company.

Unless a change comes about—and soon!—Diddy says, the Black community must “weaponize” their dollars, the mighty “Black dollar,” and no longer support GM and like-minded companies.

GM did not respond to calls for comment. Meanwhile, reactions from within the community are probably not what Diddy was counting on since his reputation for underpaying Black artists signed to his label is brought up quite a lot. Corporate America is Diddy, critics are saying.

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BMAC hosts artist, curator, and poet celebrating positive Black identity

Jennifer Mack-Watkins, David Rios Ferreira, and fayemi shakur discuss “Children of the Sun”

Jennifer Mack-Watkins - Portrait 3 (photo by Elizabeth Brooks).jpg

Jennifer Mack-Watkins Credit: Elizabeth Brooks

Vermont Business Magazine The creative team responsible for the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center (BMAC) exhibit “Children of the Sun”—artist Jennifer Mack-Watkins, curator David Rios Ferreira, and poet fayemi shakur—will discuss the exhibit in a free Zoom presentation hosted by BMAC on Wednesday, April 21, at 7 p.m. To register, visit brattleboromuseum.org.

Inspired in part by The Brownies’ Book, a groundbreaking magazine for Black children co-edited by W.E.B. Du Bois, and in part by the life and legacy of Vermont’s own Daisy Turner (1883-1988), “Children of the Sun” celebrates the beauty, importance, and complexity of positive representation of African American children.

Mack-Watkins’s first solo museum exhibition, “Children of the Sun” was the subject of a recent feature on Vermont Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition,” as well as write-ups in The New York Times (“Celebrating Black Children in America”), Vogue (“9 Art Exhibitions Worth Masking Up for This Spring”), and Essence (“11 Must-See Black Art Exhibitions Opening This Spring”).

The April 21 Zoom conversation is the first of four events to be presented by BMAC this spring exploring Black visibility and representation in art and in Vermont. Others include “Holding Space: Reflections on Children of the Sun” (April 28), “Black Representation in Children’s Literature” (May 4), and “Illuminating History: The Vermont African American Heritage Trail” (May 19). More information is available at www.brattleboromuseum.org.

“Children of the Sun” is on view at BMAC through June 13.

Founded in 1972, the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center presents rotating exhibits of contemporary art, complemented by lectures, artist talks, film screenings, and other public programs. BMAC is open Wednesday-Sunday, 10-4. Admission is on a “pay-as-you-wish” basis. Located in historic Union Station in downtown Brattleboro, at the intersection of Main Street and Routes 119 and 142, the Museum is wheelchair accessible. For more information, call 802-257-0124 or visit www.brattleboromuseum.org.

BMAC is supported in part by the Vermont Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts. Additional support is provided by Allen Bros. Oil, Brattleboro Savings & Loan, C&S Wholesale Grocers, the Four Columns Inn, Sam’s Outdoor Outfitters, and Whetstone Station Restaurant & Brewery.

Source: Brattleboro Museum & Art Center www.brattleboromuseum.org

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