The Black Artist

Illustration by Rachel Harvey

“It is only as we move away from the tendency to define ourselves in reaction to white racism that we are able to move toward that practice of freedom which requires us first to decolonize our minds” - bell hooks

When in art classes, my art teachers seemed for the most part to only understand half of my art. A majority of them could understand the art but never the artist it seemed. I always turned to bright colors and the images in my imagination to escape from my world. I sometimes wonder if these feelings were shared by the black artists creating during the Civil Rights Movement. Whether they kept creating in spite of the world around them or whether they created because of the chaos. I learned at a young age, before I knew anything about perspective or how to make colours blend and bleed into each other, that the world’s perception of your blackness could very well end your life. My blackness is either seen as a deadly weapon or my Achilles’ heel. Therefore I learned how to knead myself like clay into various forms. I would - and continue to - code switch and dial down by blackness while in white majority spaces where I have to represent my entire race.

One of the few things that saved my peace of mind during the summer of 2020 - when COVID-19 cases kept rising and countless black people protested in the streets - was art. I found solace in escaping into a world where the only thing I am is an artist. Where my blackness is not a weapon or a weakness. I found it quite ironic. The further the world seemed to be plunged into chaos, the more fantastical my art became. Unlike the world, a paintbrush doesn’t ask you to dial down who you are in order to ‘fit in’. The paintbrush is a tool that allows one to create images that satisfy the longing to see the art of your mind be brought to life. I found solace because while feeling like a paintbrush in this world, I finally felt in control of my own life and narrative in creating art. It is then and only then that my words, thoughts, and feelings won’t be taken out of context or cross-examined to fuel the notion that my blackness is a tumor. I’m free when I create art because I no longer have to defend my reason for existence, and gain the privilege of being an individual who happens to be black, among other things, rather than a caricature of a human being whose blackness serves as a prop or a political symbol.

Being a black artist scrutinised by a white majority sometimes feels like you’re looking at your art through coloured lenses. Without the lense you know what your art is. WIth them, the lines and curves are still there but the colours change into something distorted, to the point that it no longer looks like something you created. The hands that created the art were black but it seemed like everyone thought that the only kind of mind that could create such things was a white mind. Or, at least, a mind unburdened by the sheer weight of racism or any type of oppression. When creating art for myself I have the freedom to paint the feelings and experiences I don’t have the right words for. When presenting my art I have to reduce it to something non-threatening. I sometimes wonder what kind of art black slaves created. I wonder whether they still created art even though they were someone else’s property by law. I wish these were the stories and art I was exposed to in school. The art created by black minds in spite of a world that only rewarded white minds for their creations.

Being a black artist sometimes feels like a complex feat. On the one hand you admire the art of those deemed to be geniuses in the art world. On the other hand, you know that most of them never intended for someone like you to study and appreciate it. It is knowing that while people may marvel at what you create, they very rarely care about you as an individual. At your rights and struggles as a black person. That they see half of you but will never be able to fully understand your art because they don’t understand your existence. If asked, many non-black people would claim their love for black creatives yet would shy away from the pandemic that is racism. When it comes to being a black artist, many prefer to separate art from the artist in an attempt to ignore racism while enjoying something that is the product of a black mind. I sometimes wonder whether it is our trauma that fuels or art or our love of the privilege of being an individual granted freely to our white counterparts.

Article by Sanaa Mirz