‘Black Art/White Space’ to discuss working as black, female artists in white spaces



By Cassandra Santiago
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Sitting on the panel of Black Art/White Space crept up on Alea Adigweme; she was offered the spot to replace an absentee. Despite the suddenness, she said yes.

“It’s nice to answer questions and have conversations in public that usually occur in private,” said the nonfiction writer, artist, educator, and media scholar.

Today, she’s back for part two of the Black Art/White Space discussion at 7 p.m. in the Iowa City Public Library, 123 S. Linn St. This time around, Adigweme will run the show, serving as moderator. Adia Victoria and PHOX’s Monica Martin will join her to discuss working as black female artists in white spaces.

The Daily Iowan: What is your definition of blackness?

Alea Adigweme: “When I think about what it means to be black, I’m always thinking about the ways I don’t fit narratives that already exist and haven’t ever really in my life. The kind of idea that I had about blackness from everyday life and what I saw on TV or read about in the paper, those things were conflicting. It was kind of that disconnect that had me like, ‘OK, what does it really mean to be a black person.’

“There are so many different types of black people and also because black as a descriptor for humans recalls a sort of mental image for people. It makes all of these other types of folks who are people of African descent living in the United States invisible. In thinking about blackness, it exists and it doesn’t exist.

“In thinking about blackness, it exists, and it doesn’t exist. It’s something that was constructed by people who were not well-meaning, and it’s fake. The concept of blackness, despite being a social construct that doesn’t reflect reality, can be useful as a political identity. But at the same time, it’s something that, because it’s kind of been built and given life, it’s something that can be helpful.

DI: Can you breakdown what white space actually means?

Adigweme: I’m thinking about intersecting systems of oppression that keeps institutions of art-making, institutions of higher learning, all of these things predominantly white. For me, white space is the liberal-arts college I went to in Oregon, it’s the nonfiction writing program that I went to here to get my M.F.A., it’s the University of Iowa, period. It’s Iowa City. It’s the reality of having what it means to make art be something that people mostly understand in having an artist be a white man.
But it’s also in some ways, because it is so pervasive and something that one can bodily be in, it’s somewhat of a mental space that can be damaging sometimes for artists. If you were forced to shape your art in some way that doesn’t feel authentic to you because you know that the expectations, what sells or what’s really art, is white and male…

DI: What is your opinion about black artists of any sort working or aspiring to work in predominantly white spaces?

Adigweme: You almost have to because of the ways that race, and class, and a number of other factors have combined in order to make it so that if you want to be successful … you have to engage with those models. White spaces aren’t necessarily the most hospitable for people of color, particularly women of color who are artists. I think interacting with white spaces are often necessary and not 100 percent bad.

Though I think it can be really nice to be in spaces that are designated for people of color where there’s a conscious commitment to anti-racist and general anti-oppression work because then you get to just make art and you’re not worried or fending off micro-aggressions or straight-up aggression or people who don’t understand your aesthetic because they come from very monoculture environments. I think it’s important to know how to interact in those spaces, while also trying to make time and make space to build the types of relationships that enable one to have conversations with people of color and white allies.

DI: What do you think you can gain from this as a moderator?

Adigweme: I found something pleasant and powerful about the telephone conversations I had with Adia and Monica separately. It’s nice to hear about someone’s experiences and talk about your experiences and have this sense of … somebody sees you. Being able to articulate and share the kind of difficulties that stem from being human, that stem from a particular set of intersecting identities, with other people I think is really helpful and be kind of healing in some ways.

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