In every man there is an underground winter. A place where the light hardly transcends. Black Americans have been in that basement for 400 years. Art, until recently, has been a space of lead.
Sean Diddy Combs, son of a drug dealer, has made a fortune as a producer and rapper since he created Bad Boy Records. Between 1998 and 2009, he organized a party every July 4 at his home in the Hamptons. The listing was stardust. Beyoncé, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jay-Z, Kim Kardashian. Scott Fitzgerald would have found material for a novel: Diddy, The Magnificent. But Diddy in art is magnificent: he paid 21.1 million dollars (about 18 million euros) in 2018 for the painting Past timesby Kerry James Marshall. The highest price ever achieved for a work by a living African American artist.
It is a gesture of winter, a warning. “Our lives matter and our art also. And some blacks can pay the price of the white oligarchs ”. Because the market moves with the strangeness of an ocean without a shore. Waves. Fashions. “First it was the photography, the installations, the archive and now the African diaspora is exploding,” says Vicente Todolí, former director of the Tate Modern in London. A scattering of names. Njideka Akunyili Crosby (Nigeria), Toyin Ojih Odutola (USA-Nigeria), Amoako Boafo (Ghanaian), JD Okhai Ojeikere (Nigeria) or the Americans Derrick Adams and Jordan Casteel. Creators of blackness that show the inequity in their lives and of the institutions that should show their work.
A 2018 report by the Mellon Foundation revealed that 73% of American museum curators, educators, curators and managers were white. “World public opinion has realized that museums are not innocent spaces where divinity made beauty dwells, but rather signs of domination, supremacy of one over another, abuse and misrepresentation”, he reflects. Bartomeu Marí, director of the Lima Art Museum.
The London National Gallery collection is unthinkable without the slave trade proceeds from Lloyd’s insurance company in the 18th century. “Colonialism equals capitalism”, Manuel Borja-Villel, head of the Reina Sofía, draws in an equation. And Picasso? The genie is the “box” of many collections. Man and white. But the only thing that stands between the work and the viewer is a label. Nothing about his relationship with girl prostitutes or his treatment of women. Criticism disappears. But all men also hide an underground spring. They arrive, with Santa Teresa, answered prayers.
“Any institution that shows the work of artists from the African diaspora without their context is only trying to benefit from the attention these creators are receiving,” warns curator Larry Ossei-Mensah. It is time for revenge and new stories. “We are facing a necessary settling of accounts with the legacy of racism, of which museums, aware or not, have been part”, reflects the curator Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro.
Times of expiation for “sins” are coming. Some institutions (San Francisco, Baltimore, Everson) are selling pollocks, rothkos or wharhols to buy work by women and the diaspora. “You have to be very careful. Museums are layers of history and an institution cannot always start from scratch ”, warns Borja-Villel. However, a storm of change and pride falls. “If interest recedes it will not be a surprise,” says Derrick Adams. But it will be your loss. We will continue working and living ”. No underground winter, no concessions.