A collaborative effort of Austin-based artists Christina Coleman, Dameon Lester and Marja Spearman, de stijl | PODIUM FOR ART is a newly renovated space in East Austin that mounted its opening exhibition, One / Sixth, earlier this spring. One / Sixth features the work of Janaye Brown, Zoë Charlton, Christina Coleman, Steven Jones, Walter Kisner, and Robert Pruitt. These artists are six of the seven African-American alumni from The University of Texas at Austin master of fine art in studio art program.
Many critiques have been made of the idea of shows geared toward artists of a particular race. Some view the effort as faulty and restrictive, further marginalizing minority artists. A show exhibiting all Black artists may prompt viewers to enter the space to see “Black art” instead of art created by individuals who are Black. It consequently positions race as a restrictive identifier, something seemingly taboo when thinking about art. Others see it as a productive way to project important voices and increase visibility. Rather than restrict certain styles to a group’s race, viewers may take extra time to admire and appreciate what art history has all too often overlooked as valuable.
Blackness has been highly politicized, and One / Sixth reflects that through a conceptual framework that is shaped by the exclusion of Black intellect in long-standing cultural institutions, from universities to museums. The central issue is that out of the hundreds of candidates who have earned a master’s in art from The University of Texas at Austin, only seven of them have been African-American. One / Sixth is important for a city like Austin because it brings attention to this void and combats exclusion with acknowledgement and timely discourse. Though the exclusion of Black cultural production in academia was a catalyst for the exhibition, its focus is on celebrating the presence of these accomplished artists of color.
With their graduations from the MFA program spanning from 1982 to 2013, the artists’ approaches show much diversity, but the variants in subject matter are seamless. The artists do not feel the obligation to speak to race through their work but do so regardless by communicating their personal curiosities and understandings through their practice.
“Being Black is my only frame of reference,” One / Sixth artist Zoë Charlton said. “Those are my diverse experiences, and they inform the interpretation of the images.”
Charlton’s drawings are filled with culturally loaded landscapes and symbols. The show features works from her Tallahassee Lassies and Paladins and Tourists series where she uses the Black female body as the foundation of mystical fantasies and manipulates the viewer’s gaze by merging portraiture with the powerful dismissal of nude sitters.
Christina Coleman’s work flows between drawing and sculpture, using hair as her primary material and subject matter. She is fascinated with line and repetition and channels her inspiration through forms that exist in space. She creates objects that have multiple associations and metaphors. Her sculpture Black Blonde is made from synthetic braiding hair, wire, and steel, taking the form of an antenna and playing into the communicative power of Black hair.
The youngest of the group is Janaye Brown. Her contemporary style of visual storytelling deals with the perception of time seen in her videos. Her work is the most explicit example in the show of an artist who is not restricted by racial identity. “I am what I am,” Brown said. “And I’m making what I’m making.”
The exhibition was complemented by an insightful artist talk moderated by Dr. Cherise Smith, professor and director of The University of Texas at Austin’s African and African American studies program. Smith is the first professor of color to have received tenure at UT Austin, speaking to the university’s problematic history of providing a stable environment for educators of color.
Having influenced the trajectory of a few of the exhibiting artists, Smith led a discussion surrounding their work, the importance of the show, and the issues surrounding representation of Black people in academia. The artists talked about the different reasons they decided to participate in the exhibition, why they pursued a graduate degree, and how they developed their artistic practices. Reasons for committing to the program stemmed from a desire to maintain legacy, to discover a personal narrative, and to have access to resources such as a studio. The discussion helped the audience get a better understanding of the show’s significance and purpose but certainly cued the question of “What now? What’s next?”
One / Sixth brings attention to the lack of Black graduates from The University of Texas at Austin’s studio art program, an issue that speaks to overall visibility of Black creators in the artistic canon and the daunting challenge of leveling the playing field of opportunity and support. One / Sixth is a celebration of Black excellence but also a reminder of how far we have to go to shake up the demographics within the academic sphere and beyond.
One / Sixth is on view through August 13, 2016. For more information on location and hours, click here.
Amarie Gipson is an independent curator and student scholar at St. Edward’s University. Gipson is the Editorial Director of Austin based publication Mud Magazine, the cultural compass of the south.