Culture and politics have existed together as an interwoven inevitability since time began. Then from the moment of the first cave drawing, art was grabbed by both sides; culture used it as a weapon, while politics used it as a tool. For the purposes of this book, author Jeff Chang reveals how the art movement took these two threads and weaved them into a chronicle of the treatment of race in this country. Whether the picture is a pretty one depends on what side you stand on.
Who We Be: The Colorization of America details the struggles for artists of all minorities to gain relevance in the mainstream art world without being tagged only by their race. The movement was a backlash against the extreme dearth of minority artists represented in the top galleries around the country.
This was not the artist’s version of affirmative action. They were crying out for acknowledgement about not only their artistic achievements, but also their contributions to present day culture. Huge strides were being made by people all around, but only the Caucasians were hung on the walls for everyone to admire.
Chang goes after the idea of race immediately in the opening pages:
We can all agree that race is not a question of biology. Instead it is a question of culture and it begins as a visual problem, one of vision and visuality. Race happens in the gap between appearance and the perception of difference. It is about what we see and what we think we see and what we think about when we see. In that sense, it’s bigger than personal affinities, preferences, tastes, and bonds.
Of all the essays and books I’ve read and all the lectures I’ve heard no one has nailed down the true identity of race as cleanly or succinctly.
As Chang moves through the decades he shifts the spotlight onto various groups that formed to fill that gap of color in the art world. Surprising to the unaware, these groups did not always play well together. On many occasions the various groups found their mission statements and creative directions to be at odds with each other.
All outsiders are looking for a way in, but many have different maps.
Chang also points out how state and federal officials helped to create the ceiling and walls these artist collectives had to break down. Touching on the Nixon presidency and the rebirth of the Southern Strategy, Chang said:
Nixon believed that people did not vote their hopes, they voted their fears.
The Southern Strategy was a long fuse winding through the lower half of the country ready to relight those fears. By triggering the nightmares of white culture and its supposed impending demise, Nixon and the Republican Party energized their new base not only for his terms, but still to this very day.
Who We Be is a slow-moving storm washing away the layers of ignorance and ambivalence about the continuing growth of our culture. Our culture, not theirs, not yours. It is a vision of our past shown through the kaleidoscope of histories and experiences of the artists who captured the images that still teach us today. It shows how all the colors flowing into this attempted melting pot can be equally and honestly represented, and it doesn’t have to feel like a Benetton ad.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=0312571291]