I exhaled deeply, slouching into the sleek black seats of the National Gallery of Art where, not four months prior, I’d taken a similar moment of reflection. This time I’d actually been granted the opportunity to bask in her humbling presence, rather than leave my many observations and curiosities subject to speculation in the disappointment of her absence. Yet, even in October, I’d found myself in those same seats, emotionally exhausted by the weight of Carrie Mae Weems and her momentous Kitchen Table Series on my own roles as an artist, art appreciator, and art interpreter.
In the rush of sneaking out of class, catching an Uber, and neglecting all of my anterior Tuesday responsibilities, I was once again late to her lecture by a few minutes. As I walked into the brimming auditorium aware of the eyes that followed, my bright yellow coat squeezing between two older white women while I scrambled for my notebook, Carrie Mae Weems proceeded to tell stories of Nina Simone and Zora Neale Hurston. My eyes locked onto hers in admiration, mesmerized by the warm intense wisdom she exudes. I could hear Simone’s voice booming in self actualization, “Music is my God.”, and closing my eyes I mused over Weems’s words, seduction and suffering dripping from her lips, “Our body is our guide,”. This is the tongue of the black woman artist.
Weems has spoken my language for more than 40 years; reiterating motifs of police brutality, shifting power dynamics, and histories of violence as they pertain to the black subject. This shared language is one that Weems, among a multitude of black creatives, has dedicated her life’s work to articulating, in the hopes of communicating intimate truths of the black experience to an empathetic and impassioned public. Weems, to whom I personally feel deeply artistically akin and regard as the most important black woman photographer, demands the black voice be heard in its own words, and though hers rings deafeningly through my psyche, manifested in tears I had never before let myself spill, I fear it remains unheard and unanswered.
Studying painting at Howard University, with black female artists like Elizabeth Catlett, Mildred Thompson, and Alma Thomas preceding me, has gifted me a new self-awareness in the way I approach art spaces. I have the privilege of practicing, interpreting, and appreciating art as the fascinatingly turbulent social, racial, and political climates of Trumpian America produce equally controversial and critical cultural movement. I can walk to “the nation’s museum” on a Saturday afternoon to hear Kevin Beasley’s conversation on his works Strange Fruit Part I and Part II, Amy Sherald’s interview on her commissioned portrait of Michelle Obama, or to see one of Kara Walker’s tortured silhouette installations, however, as I discover the black body in formal art spaces, I can’t help but feel a tinge of bitterness towards the older white woman peeking over my shoulder in her futile attempt to decipher my language.
DC houses a plethora of accessible art and art education, yet its museums and galleries are consistently one dimensional in the demographics they engage. Even with an abundance of talented black artists, formal art spaces function as predominantly white spaces. My fear of a lack of black presence in art interpretation and appreciation parallels my love for art and the black subject. “Kitchen Table belongs to those who engage it.”(Weems), and though it is set, rich and bountiful, my own hunger insatiable, I turn to see that black bodies have not found their seat at the table. When left subject to the sole interpretation of white audiences, the black voice is lost in translation. In her own words, “You became everything but what you were”, a bedrock for the miscommunication, misinterpretation, and mistrust that further proliferates the illusion of art as exclusive and segregated.
How do we reconcile the neglect of the black subject in art, and where does the black body exist in white spaces? I pondered these questions as I rose from my seat, and finally ascended to gallery’s Mezzanine floor and entered Carrie Mae Weems’s Kitchen Table Series as I’d done back in October. As I stood in that empty room, I considered the disheartening irony of the woman who’d focused her attention on my illegible note taking at the expense of her own engagement, and of the masses who’d congregated in the auditorium for the lecture and even in the lobby for an autograph, but had collectively failed to make their way to her work. I knew they hadn’t heard her. “They don’t speak our language”, I’d wanted to tell her, yet as I scanned the room, her eyes told me she already knew.
“We just have to keep trying.”