As a celebration of Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art’s 25th anniversary, Intuit revisited the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s groundbreaking 1982 exhibition Black Folk Art in America 1930–1980 with the exhibition Post Black Folk Art in America 1930 – 1980 – 2016 curated by Faheem Majeed. The exhibition showcases artists included in the original presentation as well as artists whose work and practice parallels the criteria for the Corcoran exhibition. CAW Managing editor Dan Gunn sat down with curator and artist Faheem Majeed to discuss his motivation to revisit this historical moment.
DG: How did you come to curate this show, and what had you heard about the previous show at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1982?
FM: I really wasn’t aware of the show prior [to Intuit’s invitation.] I was aware of Intuit, and they had invited me a while back to do a talk about the Chicago artist Eddie Harris who is in the show. Anyone who knows my work knows that I was formerly the Executive Director of the South Side Community Art Center. My art practice centers around the mission of that historic WPA art center to support artists, especially artists of color. When I was invited, I spoke as an artist, I always speak as an artist first and as an administrator second. I talked about being impressed with the craftsmanship of Chicago artists and sculptors like Mr. Imagination, Eddie Harris and David Philpot and their ability to carve forms and do assemblage. These were things that I was interested in as a sculptor myself. The terminology of ‘folk artist,’ ‘outsider,’ ‘intuitive,’ none of these terms were familiar.
DG: Because you encountered these people as contemporaries through the South Side Community Art Center?
FM: Absolutely, yes. They were people I admired because of their artwork. So I talked about that instead of how their work was classified. The board president and former executive director here, Cleo Wilson said she really liked the way that I was talking about the work and approached me along with some of the art committee members to come and curate this show. I know what ‘outsider art’ is in a very surface way and I asked them to tell me what that is. Is that different than “folk art”? If there is a black folk art, is there a white folk art? So I had all of these questions. These questions led me down the rabbit hole.
DG: So going down that rabbit hole, what did you find in your research of the original show that surprised you?
FM: As a part of their 25th anniversary they wanted to revisit this show “Black Folk Art in America 1930-1980” from 1982. I didn’t understand Intuit’s relationship to the show initially. The show was a catalyst to the founding of Intuit when it came to Chicago from DC. But when it came here it came to the Field Museum. When you hear these things, it just fills you with more questions. What has been exciting for me is approaching this content myself as an outsider. I’m an outsider to the world of outsider art. They [Intuit] were excited about fresh eyes and the more I said that I “didn’t know” the more excited they were. So for six months or so it was a crash course in understanding the politics around the work, the history, and nuance of this genre of production and being overwhelmed with the exhausting numbers of the amazing artists who could fill up these spaces.
DG: So let’s take those two things in order, let’s talk about the politics around the work first and then we’ll talk about some of the works in the show. I’m really curious about the status of the term “outsider” specifically as it was assigned a racial category in ’82 and your provocative addition to the title here,“post-black.” What do you see as the differences between then and now?
FM: The curators of the 1982 Corcoran show, Jane Livingston and John Beardsley, didn’t have much precedent to follow. In many ways, this was uncharted territory because awareness of this artwork was really dispersed. In between exhibitions, Jane, as a prominent curator, was invited to jury shows around the country. In the South, the artists whom she would meet, they were the fans of this art. They would take her around to see these various artists. She felt like she could take this area that hadn’t been fleshed out and do a large survey. This was a significant show because it was the first time a museum of that size had committed such resources dedicated to artists that hadn’t been acknowledged by the art canon. This term “black folk art” was plucked out of the sky by Jane and John. Or it was there but she just really codified it into ‘black folk art,’ the category. They needed a term that would market the work, which would bring people in. Black art wasn’t enough, because, at the time in the vicinity of Washington D.C., you had Howard University right there, you had black artists in New York, you had black artists in Philadelphia, you all of these artists who were training and trying to push into the museum and get representation.
DG: The original show avoided academically trained black artists in the area because they weren’t outsiders?
FM: Yes, it did, but not so intentionally. It was kind of naive. Jane Livingston came from out west into DC, to the Corcoran Gallery which is near the Smithsonian and the National Gallery. She was bewildered that the population of Washington DC is like 70% black. (Black here meaning anything from African American to Caribbean or continental African, etc.) For the most part, they were not coming to the Corcoran. In her mind, she is thinking, “How can we connect?” So jump ahead 25 years. I’m not foolish. I know why I am here. I see who the audience is at Intuit. That’s the institutional critique. Intuit wanted me to revisit this show but also wanted me to think about how to bring in new audiences. The MCA and other museums are all still having these conversations about how [to increase the attendance of people of color.]
DG: So given the complicated relationships within the show and responses to the show, how does the addition of the idea of “post-black” enter into your thinking?
The Post-Black Folk Art in America title married the controversial term “post-black” that asserts a refusal by some African-Americans to be labeled Black but instead of shifts the power dynamic to self-identifying as black. The more I heard people try to give me definitions of what a folk artist was the more I began to see similarities with the discussion around the post-black. The answers that I was given were things like “the authentic experience of the artist,” which is subjective. Nothing can be authentic if a person from outside the community is in the room. In most cases, the collector’s experience can’t be an authentic experience. Never. Then they cited “the spirit behind the work” as an essential feature, where the artist is actually doing art therapy, or evangelizing, or working through abuse. Often artists were coming to art at a later age where they could create more freely.
I just thought that it was funny, that even in what seemed to be a small and nuanced sliver of the art canon that it mirrored many of the discriminatory practices of the larger whole. In the original show, there are like twenty-five artists and only two or three women. Why within a marginalized space, do we marginalize more? You know what I mean? It was incredibly confusing because I view the show as an extension of my art practice and that is all about institutional critique. It’s not about just exhibiting the artwork but also about challenging both the institution of “folk art” and Intuit.
DG: Is there also a class component here that speaks to the limited access to art education or even to conceptualizing oneself as an artist?
FM: The question that I was confronted with early on was that some of these artists went quite far in their art career moving in museums and using alternative modes of art production like avant-garde music or performance. So I thought “Well, maybe they’ve graduated out of this?” Because really you have to kinda be ignorant or not have access to wealth [to continue to be a folk artist]. This moved me back into the notion of the post-black and about self-identifying and empowerment. It’s not up to me in this context to identify them as something and to take them out of something else. It’s up to some of them, through their actions, artwork and voice they say, “Yeah, I’m a folk artist but I’m also a performance artist, a painter, and a masters student, I’ve been in the Studio Museum of Harlem residency, I’ve been in this museum and I have a wealth of information, that I’m not this small artist, I’m a huge artist.” That’s the thing that challenged me. Often I saw the way that the stereotypes around the work projected only the image of the small and the unempowered.
DG: Is there a good example that expansive view type of the folk artist in the show?
FM: It’s my favorite example actually, the untitled sculpture of the stone on the shovel by Lonnie Holley. What’s surprising about that piece is that it is so minimal. It’s brave to be able to put something out that simple. It took us forever to figure out how to install it. We kept putting the damn stone down, and the thing would fall over. Then we would slide it back, and it would flip up. We couldn’t figure out the balance. Finally, we realized that the stone had to sit directly on a single focal point to be stable. When it’s on that point, it doesn’t touch the ground! It’s got that weightless balance like a Calder. That’s the perfect metaphor [for the folk artist] in that something so simple ends up being very complex. Some artists play act. “If you think I’m this way. I’ll delve into my persona and give you an authentic experience. Then I’ll take what I need to get somewhere else.” They are hard workers, just like any other artist, they think about how to market themselves.
DG: As they are taking on the label as a folk artist? In order to access another opportunity or different resources?
FM: We can talk about the commentary on the term “black folk art” too. I spent all of this time talking about labels, and the collectors spent all of this time arguing about what is the best kind of P.C. terminology. The people who aren’t talking about that label, who don’t really give a shit, are the artists.
There is that ongoing joke “as long as you get my name right on the check… call me what you want”. In certain situations, if you’ve found something that people value, and you need to pay bills, then great , whatever. I remember being an artist coming out of school and trying to figure out the market. These artists are doing this too. Once they understand that their activity is valuable in this other space, then they use that knowledge.
DG: Joseph Yoakum has a big footprint in Chicago because of his influence on the Imagists like Roger Brown or Ray Yoshida. How do you think that kind of artist-to-artist influence works? Did the “finders” of these artists view them as naive outsiders or as their artistic peers?
FM: I think they saw them as peers. It’s a translation that the artist can have, what some people may hear as gibberish, someone else can hear as music and appreciate that. There are a lot of these cases where the artist as was an advocate. Take the case of Bill Traylor. There was a photographer, Charles Shannon, who was just in love with his work and if not for that lens, we might not know who Bill Traylor was. There was certainly a community of people who did know him and appreciated him but didn’t have the influence or affluence to take it to this other level. I would say that a majority of the artists in the room had some advocate to catapult them, whether it was a collector or other artists. You know, Roger Brown was an artist but also a collector.
One of the threads that we are programming around is the collectors. I have collectors, but they ain’t like the collectors of this art. They are sometimes as colorful as the artists themselves, and they are passionate and protective when it comes to representing these artists. They have these fascinating connections to the artists. Some of the works in this show highlight that, such as with James “Son” Thomas’ skulls that we have in the show. This artwork is a representation of a collaboration between the collector and the artist. Each of the skulls has a different kind of teeth. This was made during the AIDS epidemic, before they knew how it was transmitted and the artist was using real teeth. The collector was a dentist by trade and was worried that it wasn’t safe or socially responsible to be using real teeth. So one skull has real teeth, another has pebbles for teeth; still, another is a set of dentures, and the final one is made of caps provided by the dentist. So the close collector / artist relationship starts to influence the work. I don’t think that a lot of these artists would have reached where they are without having that advocacy of affluence. To tell you the truth is no different than any other artist. The avant-garde is the mix between the artists and the affluent. There are a lot of ways this show is a micro of a macro.
DG: What are some of the other threads in the show that come out in the work?
FM: Well the prison-industrial complex is prominent, whether it is Ines Walker making portraits of inmates that she remembers from when she was in prison for manslaughter in the 1970’s. She would execute this kind of kooky flat portraits. Also, you have Arkee Chaney who is currently in prison now and came to art as a student of Margaret Burroughs, the founder of the South Side Community Art Center. So this is ceramic electric chair, with a card that goes with it that reads “murder is murder”. I was reaching out to artist Sarah Ross, who frequently goes to Statesboro, picking up the torch of Burroughs, going in and teaching. She came across Arkee Chaney. I went into a collector’s home, Patrick McCoy, and I found actual pottery from him.
The energy of collecting the naive or untapped has moved today into the prison industrial complex and the special needs community through art therapy. There is viewpoint out there, that feels there is a difference between someone picking up a piece of mud and doing something with their finger versus someone else putting a paintbrush into their hand. They question the ethics of kind of “coaching” the individuals. Ultimately I don’t really care if they are being crafted as artists. Some individuals go to school for art that are equally crafted as certain kinds of artists. If you’re going to talk about that as an issue, you need not just to single out one community.
One of the other threads in the show is a public commentary, this piece by Steven Ashby. He is known for his very loud, sexualized depictions of women doing gruesome things. In between, you see these kind of things, like in this piece, Untitled (Hunter and Victim), where a white hunter is shooting a black man. This kind of jumped out of all of the collections that I saw. This is very specifically here to reach out to people who may not know anything about folk art they are going to recognize this. I thought about the kid walking in with Black Lives Matter with their position on the streets on their mind. This captures your attention. There are these undertones that hopefully get people to think beyond the importance of the object.
DG: That was really clear going through the show. You can see the artists recording their own lives, some of them are fanciful but on the whole, they seem deeply aware of their community.
FM: I want to challenge the institution, but I don’t want to offend. I want to create a space for dialogue about where the next 25 years could take Intuit. It was more important to me to try and pull in some collectors who don’t usually associate with the folk art label. It was important that I got something from a collector like Patrick McCoy, who loaned the Charles Smith pieces because he is an African-American collector, founder of a space called Diasporal Rhythms. When I go to him and ask him “can you show me your folk artists?” He’s like “I don’t know what the fuck you are talking about.” It’s the same thing that I was struggling with. So many of the living artists that I thought might fit in this show, were completely offended at the thought of me calling them folk artists.
DG: Ok, so that makes me feel like the term is completely bankrupt. It is either not useful for the artists of color except to self-identify as such to access a different market or…what?
FM: I had always thought of it as almost a derogatory term because of the connotations of the untrained or outsider. No one wants to be untrained or an outsider. The term ‘black folk art’ blew up in the face of the curators. The day the show opened, every day after that was about recoiling from the term. There was this article done by the journalist Dorothy Butler, who was the wife of painter Sam Gilliam that was scathing. It talked about the omission of all of these artists of color who had been patiently knocking at the door, playing by the rules. From their perspective instead of opening the door to them, the curators went down South and walked these people into the museum who aren’t aware and don’t even care about this space. Then to take it a step further, now that this is the representation because we only get one example, of all artists of color! Not only the artwork but the people themselves are from another place and class. Some of the northern artists in the show didn’t feel they had much in common with the southern artists. They thought “I’m sophisticated. I’m from the North. I come from two generations of trying to get away from the South, and now you want to group us all together like we’re all some kinda family.” It was this other critique that the curators walked right into.
DG: Then what could be left of value in the term ‘black folk art’?
FM: Almost every book you find that references the show spends the first page talking about recanting terminology. This was fascinating to me that no one wanted to commit to a term. The way that I got to the content around the show was by speaking to people who are close to the art. Taking the ‘post-black’ and grafting it onto ‘black folk art’ is an attempt to have a new conversation. We are tired of having this same conversation.
DG: Did most of the work here come from these active private collectors or museums?
FM: A lot of this work comes from private collections, which is truer to the genre of folk art. The museums got a late start because they weren’t interested which is why when the show came to Chicago, it came to the Field Museum and why it was so risky to do the show at the Corcoran in the first place. People viewed it as not even real art. It’s not shocking that it went to the Field Museum, but it is upsetting now when you look back. I think the Field Museum might have been the best place for it, because they just navigate their artwork differently. As a history museum, they let people get closer to the work. I think it fits more with the spirit of where the work comes from because their exhibitions spend more time educating visitors on the history and context of the work. They have also cultivated a culture of exploration that can feel less intimidating than many of our larger fine art institutions. I imagine that this might have been helpful for the relatively unknown aesthetics and content.
DG: That’s extremely unexpected to hear you say because my gut response is to recoil in horror at taking an anthropological viewpoint on all of that artistic activity.
FM: Absolutely, me too. After the show was up, I went for a meeting there. In 1982, they had those big banners out front on the columns that read, “BLACK FOLK ART in AMERICA”. It could be seen clearly by anybody driving on the Lakeshore Drive or visiting the Museum Campus. So it just drew people in. People who were passionate about this type of work met each other there for the first time because they had been working individually. They didn’t know each other except incidentally through galleries like Ann Nathan or Carl Hammer. That momentum prompted the founding of Intuit.
DG: So if you were to plot a course for what it would mean to be a contemporary folk artist, what would that look like? I mean I could see a reason to identify as a folk artist as an oppositional stance to the mainstream academic discourse. But to do so would be exact the opposite of the naive, or the intuitive.
FM: When I go and I talk with Bill Arnett, from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation he feels that folk art has time limits to it. Just the same way that there are periods for Cubism or other movements. There is a genre that ends, that caps. He defines it as the proximity to 1968. The further you get prior to 1968 the more the voices are hidden. “Whatcha making out there in the fields?” “Oh, I’m making a something to memorialize my grandma”. When they’re really making a subversive commentary, but you can’t be explicit because you’d get strung up or drug down the street by the back of a car. The closer you get to 1968 and beyond you can be a little more vocal. He thinks about the assassination of Dr. King as the endpoint of black folk art.
The outsider artist is more of a mentality today. It may be that instead of carving wood, they may be on their laptop at Starbucks working on a web application. Maybe it looks completely different. How do you build on the notion of the outsider? That was my first question. Can there be a contemporary version of an outsider artist? I intentionally did not pull in graffiti. That is one place that is too easy. You would never call Jean-Michel Basquiat an outsider artist, right? Or any other kid out there tagging.
DG: What are some of your favorite works in the show?
FM: We chose Thornton Dial because he was not included in the original show but was an individual who achieved so much in his life. He’d recently passed so we thought it would be important to acknowledge his impact as one of the great American artists. There is this term that I use a lot “unapologetically ugly”. His work pushes against any uniformity or expectation. Ronald Lockett was also really exciting to include because his work is starting to surface in the marketplace. Lockett was kind of an adopted nephew of Thornton Dial. With him, you get this question of the awareness of the social and fiscal potential of making art because he was so close to Thornton. Does that make you an outsider if you are aware of the value of the work in the gallery and museum space? I had to just let all of that go because it’s about self-identifying. Lockett contracted AIDS in the 1990’s and makes work showing these emaciated stags. He’s best known for his rusted tin work, with these interesting patinas and collaged elements, materials that held a metaphorical position of strong things deteriorating and breaking down. These were clearly images of himself confronting his own death. Each one of these artists has the most profound story.
DG: You made illusion about your work being about institutional critique early on, but how does this curatorial activity fulfill your artistic practice?
FM: A lot of my current practice is ‘socially engaged,’ which I’ve found problematic in the way that it’s being utilized to enter and change neighborhoods. Being an artist that makes sculpture as a platform for other collaborators, I think of myself as ‘the beautiful pedestal maker.’ We create our own spaces. If we’re not in museums, then we’ll create our own museums. At the core though I’m a maker. Some artists hone my eye to appreciate things that I took for granted before. I’m attracted to Mr. Imagination’s bottle cap sculptures or David Philpot’s bed post carvings. I just appreciate innovative craftsmanship. The thing that I’ve gotten out of this show most is a reconnection to the freedom to make that used to be there. When you go to grad school, then you can’t make anything without twenty voices in your head. Collectively they have the “I don’t give a shit; I want to make my beauty” mentality. I want to make my thing, and I’m gonna make it. I’m gonna make it forty or fifty times over. That’s where I used to be. That’s brave. That’s amazing. Tapping back into that mentality is what I want to do.
Post Black Folk Art in America 1930-1980-2016, curated by Faheem Majeed at Intuit runs until January 8, 2017.