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The Glass Ceiling on Black Art

By Jenna Caldwell | 5/4/17 9:14pm | Updated 5/4/17 9:53pm
Meriam Salem / American Word Magazine

Before words, there was art. Regarded as the universal language of creativity, art allows us to recreate the trials and tribulations of the world before us. Whether we possess the ability to sing, draw, photograph or create, art has long been the passionate driving force behind humanity. After we leave a museum, we continue to resonate with the artwork because it is not simply entertainment, but a soul necessity. It is important that artists not only have the ability to connect with their audiences, but receive the recognition they deserve. Unfortunately, recognition is a privilege not accessible to most.

Black artists have long been victim to a glass ceiling decorated with the chandeliers of prejudice, racism, bigotry and mediocrity.

In 2009, Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me” music video beat Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies,” winning the Best Female Video category at the Video Music Awards. Moments after, Kanye West stormed the stage, took the microphone and announced that Beyoncé deserved the award. Vilified by the media, West was portrayed in a negative light for overshadowing Swift’s accomplishment. Many failed to notice that he brought attention to an important issue.

The most Grammy-nominated woman in history, Beyoncé Knowles, has been nominated for 62 Grammys, with an unusually low win rate of 35 percent. Eighteen of her 22 wins have come in racialized categories such as R&B and rap. Her visual album, “Lemonade,” has not only been regarded as a pivotal moment in the celebration of African-American culture, but has given voice to the pain, struggles and history of an ignored community. Black women “experience pain and loss and often we become inaudible,” she said in her acceptance speech for Best Urban Contemporary Album. “It’s important to me to show images to my children that reflect their beauty so they can grow up in a world where they look in the mirror and see themselves. And have no doubt that they’re beautiful, intelligent and capable.”   

Black excellence is continuously mislabeled and categorized by those it was neither intended for nor speaks to. Music by black artists is regarded as “urban” without the polar existence of a “suburban” category. This racial theme is not only a common recurrence inside popular media, but is a narrative that many college artists are accustomed to. Nickolaus Mack, a writer for the Eagle and a photographer for AU Photo Collective, has experienced the glass ceiling in his writing. “My writing tends to emphasize the experience of Blackness in America, and while it is beautiful prose, it does not nearly receive the attention that less-striking pieces covering less-immediate issues do,” Mack said. “My writing has to be twice as good.” 

In museums, we often find offset exhibits dedicated solely to black artists, allowing sightseers to skip over their work entirely due to biases imposed by large institutions. Artists who are solely nominated for “urban” categories within the music industry receive less recognition than those nominated for Best Album or Best Record of the Year. The separation of black art creates a false narrative that the art is unworthy of being displayed or in competition with their white counterparts. 

Meriam Salem, a photographer for AU Photo Collective, questioned her work in relation to her identity. Does an artist’s work need to be overtly “black” in nature to be considered black art? “Do you expect me, because I am a cis black woman, to photograph black femmes with their natural hair? Or because I am Muslim to photograph only women who distinctively look Muslim?” Salem said. “If I deviated from that narrative...would I still be considered a black artist and featured in museums promoting those artists?” 

Black art that is not reflective of black culture “doesn’t fit the minstrel narrative that white spaces have for black artists,” Salem said. An artist’s race should not be the determinant in the way her work is displayed, celebrated or received.  

Salem reminded us that showcasing black art to a white audience should not be considered the epitome of success. Our society has been conditioned to believe that attention and praise from white individuals defines our level of prestige. “Regular onlookers do not walk into a museum of mostly white artists and think, ‘look at this white museum, and these white artists,’” Salem said. “Instead we expect them to say, ‘I loved visiting the Smithsonian.’”

While many have become trapped by this ceiling, there is hope that its glass can be broken. With the recent diversification of the Academy Awards voting committee, “Moonlight,” a film starring an all black cast, won Best Picture. If large institutions continue to diversify their boards to properly reflect society, black artists and their artwork can finally be celebrated. 

“Breaking the glass ceiling is not just having our art respected, but also having our communities and people respected and valued,” Salem said. This is part of the issue, she said, “Everyone can be apart of the beyhive and love Beyoncé, but can’t spend two seconds organizing against systemic issues purposely disenfranchising the black community. That is a glass ceiling on black art.”