By DONOVAN IRVEN October 19, 2020
She has seen this before. At 73, having just signed an exclusive contract with a respected New York gallery and preparing for a private sale through a prestigious auction house, artist Dindga McCannon has seen how the art world picks and chooses who gets a seat at the table. Poised to have another work acquired by a major New York museum, McCannon defies all expectations about an artist’s typical career trajectory. Hearing her story, I have to think that her current group shows curated by Kourosh Mahboubian Fine Art, Forget What You Know, are aptly named. An online iteration of Forget What You Know premiered September 21 with the physical show following at Art of Our Century on October 15.
Two days before I spoke to McCannon, the Whitney Museum announced that its Collective Actions exhibit would be cancelled after artists took to social media with scathing criticism of the museum’s acquisition practices. Photographers with the See in Black collective, notably Gioncarlo Valentine, had sold their work at steeply discounted prices to help raise money for charity. The Whitney had purchased these discounted images for as little as $100 and only notified artists of their inclusion in Collective Actions after the fact.
When I emailed press coverage of the debacle to McCannon, she responded with a story of her own, from 2000, when the American Craft Museum used images by McCannon and other artists on gift store bags without permission or a licensing agreement in place. When the artists complained, the bags were pulled. These stories are illustrative of how the artworld takes liberties with perceived outsiders, how art institutions often behave as if mere inclusion should be enough to satisfy artists struggling for recognition.
McCannon wonders, though, if someone doesn’t invite you to dinner, why are you so keen to go knocking on their door?
Rising to prominence through the Harlem art scene of the 1960s and -70s, McCannon spent most of her career building a table of her own, working with other Black and women artists whose work was, at that time, not considered proper art. One difficulty faced Black men and women together, in that depictions of Black experiences were considered unfit for inclusion in the canon of Euro-centric art. Yet a further obstacle faced women artists who were engaging in craftwork, expanding their materials to include fabrics, needlework, and other “women’s work” that further distanced their efforts from what was acceptable for display in respected galleries and museums. All this before we had the handy term “intersectional” – coined by philosopher and legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw to explain the confluence of social forces that work against people who stand at the intersection of multiple axes of oppression.
Like many artists in Harlem, McCannon was self-taught. It wasn’t strictly for lack of opportunity, though. Certainly, there were limited opportunities for young Black women to receive formal training in art. But attending any of New York’s art colleges at the time meant conforming herself to the taste and sensibilities derived from the European tradition – a tradition that did not reflect the life and experiences of Black people generally. McCannon is a chronicler of her culture, a storyteller as well as a visual artist who is interested in the people around her. Going to art school would have meant dulling her bright color palette, developed after she discovered acrylics, and abandoning the Black figures that populate her canvases. “Why are your figures black?” she was asked in a college art class. Not wanting to be in a situation where she had to constantly fight to portray herself and the people of her culture, she left college for the Art Student League where she could design her own curriculum and select her own teachers.
She built as she learned. As a founding member of the Weusi Artist Collective in 1965 and, later, “Where We At” Black Women Artists Inc., McCannon considers herself and fellow artists like Faith Ringgold and Kay Brown to be carrying on the legacy of the Harlem Renaissance. The collectives that McCannon helped organize arose alongside the Black Arts Movement, a circle of writers that included Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni, and Audre Lorde. These communities were dedicated to making art that spoke to Black people’s experiences, that upheld their value, and worked to help establish an audience for art within the Black community and ultimately beyond it. Building solidarity with artists in Harlem was a way to make their own opportunities and to take back their image from art authorities who cast them as “less than” and interpreted their art under the paradigm of “primitivism.”
In 1971, McCannon was involved in a show at the Acts of Art gallery in Greenwich Village that served as a clapback to the art establishment. The Whitney Museum had organized a show, Contemporary Black Artists in America, but refused to appoint a Black curator despite pressure from Black artists. Thus, Rebuttal to the Whitney Museum: Black Artists in Rebuttal was born. What emerged was a kaleidoscopic view of Black life in America, cutting against the popular white conception of Black people as a monolith, as a hegemonic identity that could be reduced to one stereotypical “Black experience.” What McCannon and the other artists she worked with were proving was that there was vibrant diversity within the Black community, within just Harlem itself.
My own experience anticipates the point stressed to me by McCannon. As a young, white adjunct instructor of philosophy at Cheyney University, the first historically Black institute of higher education, I was disabused of assumptions about a completely shared and unifying Black experience firsthand as I clumsily navigated the divisions between suburban, middle-class Black youth and their peers from the city of Philadelphia, not to mention those first generation students whose parents only just immigrated from the Caribbean, from North Africa, or the Middle East. The African diaspora spans the globe and places unreasonable demands on the “Black” identifier. Nevertheless, that identifier has real consequences for those to whom it is applied, effects that can erase substantial differences in seconds. The original philosopher of the Harlem Renaissance, Alain Leroy Locke, was sensitive to this diversity himself, and strove to include a cross section of various artists from a variety of backgrounds in his landmark 1925 anthology, The New Negro.
Locke believes that the beauty of Black art lay in its ability to traverse boundaries and ameliorate conflict through the communication of an experience that, while always particular, could achieve universality through form and structure. Certainly, McCannon and her colleagues carry on the mission of the Harlem Renaissance by creating works of art that, through their radical particularity and idiosyncrasy, nevertheless communicate the experience of their subjects beyond the immediate communities in which they were created. Thinking about this connection, I reached out to Leonard Harris, a philosopher and the world’s foremost expert on Alain Locke.
I wanted to know why Locke had included a piece by Albert C. Barnes in The New Negro, given that Barnes’ treatment of African art relies so heavily on the primitivist tropes that Locke rejects. For Barnes, African art is a primitive emotional outpouring freed from the formal restraints imposed by the overeducation of Europeans. The gift of African art was its connection to the primordial forces of sentiment. The Black artist, Barnes says, “is a poet by birth.”
Locke rejected this account, even though he chose to include Barnes’ essay “Negro Art in America” in The New Negro. For Barnes, African art carried a threefold value. It presented Black artists in America with a connection to a culture that supplied them with a classical background of their own. As the first Black Rhodes Scholar, Locke felt that the discipline afforded by the classics was indispensable to cultural development. African art was placed on the same level as classical Greek and Roman art and thereby supplied Black artists with a tradition of style and technique to draw upon. Highly stylized, African art was not merely an emotional outpouring, but rather, exhibited all the technical skill and prowess of the European tradition, though differently expressed. Where Barnes had attempted to elevate African art by including it in his collection among the best European art of his time, situating African ceremonial masks next to paintings by Modigliani to emphasize their formal similarities, Locke sought to elevate African art from within, as its own tradition with its own classical forms that could serve as the basis of the Harlem Renaissance.
This is why, in Harris’ words, Locke was later “dumped” by Barnes – over their differences concerning the aesthetic nature of African art. The inclusion of conflicting, even contradictory, viewpoints in Locke’s formative anthology solidifies the pluralism exemplified in the work of Harlem artists.
McCannon carries on this tradition by turning to Senegal and the Caribbean, particularly Haiti, to construct her own artistic canon, generating a living dialogue with the diaspora that informs her aesthetic. Her approach to materials is likewise pluralistic and exploratory. Rather than determining a material’s worth ahead of time, according to strictly formal considerations of what is “appropriate” to fine art, McCannon develops her pieces organically, making formal decisions as the work unfolds. This requires, on the one hand, an intuitive openness that lends itself to the “primitivist” paradigm, while on the other hand, expresses a mastery of technique that spans many material manipulations – from paint to textiles, jewelry making to needlepoint – thereby escaping reduction to sentimentality. The end result is a synthetic approach to art that harmonizes disparate materials into a succinct unity.
The communities McCannon found for herself were also of a pluralistic nature and carry within them the same kinds of tensions and divergences found in the collection pulled together by Locke. When it was published in 1925, The New Negro was received into the same interpersonal and community politics that echo today. After all, Locke not only included pieces by Barnes and white academics like Paul Underwood Kellogg and Melville Herskovits, but also the openly gay Black writer and painter Bruce Nugent and many figures of mixed and immigrant ethnicities, like Arthur Schomburg, a Puerto Rican of African and German descent, the Jamaican writer W. A. Domingo, and many others.
Throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, McCannon found herself in the midst of these cultural and political tensions. As a Black artist, she did not feel represented by the largely white, middle-class politics of the feminist movement, championing not only women’s liberation, but also, in McCannon’s mind, the destruction of the family structure. In Harlem, the strengthening of the family was a popular project and women artists were working together to help each other realize their professional aspirations while also meeting their obligations as mothers and caretakers. However, as women, McCannon and others faced the challenges of sexism and misogyny within the Black community as well. This dynamic between race and gender has been much studied and analyzed, notably by bell hooks and in the statement of the Combahee River Collective, who were assessing and theorizing the experience that Black women like McCannon and her contemporaries were living at the time under conditions that persist to this day.
McCannon and the women of the Where We At collective were building a table of their own outside the mainstream of the art community as they navigated what the Combahee River Collective described as “interlocking systems of oppression,” which here includes systems of racism, sexism, as well as the class system that marginalized the working poor and left many Harlem artists in economically precarious situations. Innovation among these artists was driven in part by necessity. The imperative to develop new markets for Black artists was not only a function of culture and education, but of economic survival. Collaboration on this front resulted in Abdullah Aziz insisting on having a printing press so that artists can sell more work at affordable prices. This had the dual function of putting needed money in the pockets of the artists while democratizing the art scene by increasing the accessibility of the art through affordable prints.
Community outreach started in the projects, in small artist-organized art fairs that grew throughout the late 1960s until they got so big that they relocated to St. Nicholas Park, evolving there into the Harlem Outdoor Art Festival and eventually into Harlem Week. These efforts speak to the importance of what bell hooks calls “kitchen table” conversations. It is a local form of politics that addresses the immediate needs of the community on several fronts, negotiating differences that crop up between those from different backgrounds or with different interests. McCannon transformed over time into a mixed-media artist, but in the early days she was primarily a painter who worked with and around writers, printmakers, sculptors, and theater people – everyone attempting to build up the community as they could and lend support to the others.
All of these activities were taking place outside the art world as it was embodied in the museums and galleries of fine art. This is how McCannon and her generation worked to build a table of their own. And McCannon is still building.
So much is behind her now. As she sees history repeat itself in certain events, she also sees how far things have come in other ways – especially in how her inclusion of “women’s work” is appraised. In January 2020, McCannon’s 1970 painting The Last Farewell was sold by Swann Auction Galleries for $160,000. Sold on the secondary market, part of the bankruptcy proceedings involving Johnson Publishing Co., McCannon would not see any immediate payment for her work. In a sense, it was a nightmare. In need of money, watching her work sold at such a high price-point and not getting anything from the sale was hard. But it opened other opportunities and provided McCannon with some insight into the value of her work in today’s context.
She has seen this before. She tells a story looking back in time, where these events take on their determinate place in history. But she continues to look forward as well. She is growing into her age, tackling the issues of ageism as she expands her repertoire and continues to develop techniques that can bring different materials together in new ways. Speaking with McCannon, she echoed the sentiments of Simone de Beauvoir writing on old age. “Society looks upon old age as a kind of shameful secret that it is unseemly to mention,” writes Beauvoir. McCannon sees that too and, like Beauvoir, aims to “break the conspiracy of silence.”
The work of Dindga McCannon has always been close to her and reflected the experience of Black women in America and now, too, of old Black women in America. But, in the tradition of the Harlem Renaissance, she has used her art to communicate that condition, those lives. In the act of communication, at the heart of artistic expression, McCannon passes from the particular to the universal, transforming the language of her life into a language that addresses everyone and demands they take notice. She is more comfortable now as a role model for the younger generation, though the work is still hard. When she first began integrating different materials into her work, using masonite, nails, screws and other hardware in 1971 to make “Revolutionary Sister,” McCannon was trying to create the woman warrior she and her peers wanted to see in the world. In her old age, still embarking on new journeys, McCannon now sees those warriors all around her, in the everyday women that have become her heroes – and maybe, finally, in herself. WM
Filo Sofi Arts Disclosures is a series of philosophical reflections on art and its place in the world. It has grown out of owner Gabrielle Aruta's progressive mission to bring art and philosophy together in thoughtful public engagement.
Donovan Irven is a philosopher, essayist, and writer of fiction currently serving as the Director of Philosophical Praxis for Filo Sofi Arts. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @donovanirven.view all articles from this author