Arts News: A ‘Safe Space’ for Artists of Color

In the wake of the 2016 election, many were shaken and uncertain of what to do next. Encouraged by then Charlotte Street Foundation curator in residence Lynnette Miranda, a group of young artists formed the Artists of Color Alliance, an organization for non-white artists in Kansas City to come together, share thoughts and organize. Initially, the meetings were informal and impromptu, and to some extent they have stayed that way, but the group has grown to include dozens of participants coming from a variety of backgrounds and artistic fields. The current leadership includes Patricia Dibildox, Chico Sierra, Rodolfo Marron III, Jahaira Aguilar, JC Franco and William Toney.

At their first meetings, the organizers kept asking the crowd, “What do you want from this?” and before long a simple answer materialized: a place to connect, talk and share feelings among other artists of color. And so the organizers have focused on simple, low-pressure events: discussions, potlucks, movie nights and dance nights. They have also launched a newsletter to recount their events and share their members’ artwork and research. And while the meetings have been taking place through a variety of venues, including the Charlotte Street Foundation’s galleries, the Front Space gallery and the Drugstore studios, the AOCA finds it important to maintain total independence from these establishments.

All meetings of the AOCA are for people of color only. Some were uncertain about this at first, but with the help of Miranda, the artists realized the necessity. “People could finally say what they wanted to say,” said Aguilar. “It makes it easier to say we are upset and not be afraid about being blacklisted by white-owned galleries. When you go to therapy, your partner or family aren’t there. It’s a safe space where we don’t need to consider the feelings of others and can focus on our own feelings.” Dibildox added, “It’s not an organization for educating whites,” and William Toney agreed. “It’s not the job of the oppressed to educate; this is for all POC (People of Color) of all cultures.”

Last August, the AOCA came to the attention of the wider KC art scene when the group held a meeting to discuss two controversies that had been bubbling in the community: a sculpture called “Kneeling Flag” by white artist Archie Scott Gobber that referred to Colin Kaepernick’s NFL protests, and a T-shirt by white artist Peregrine Honig that utilized a “westside” hand gesture frequently used as a gang symbol. Both artists had been accused of cultural appropriation, especially because both artists had chosen to make money on these works.

Even New York art critic Jerry Saltz weighed into the controversy on Twitter by calling out Gobber: “Just go gorilla and do it yourself!! Make it out of cardboard. Why not!?!! Forget about the $. Do it for your country. Every TV station will put it on.”

But many of the AOCA members thought this call by Saltz was missing the point: that regardless of the financial arrangement, it wasn’t Gobber’s place to be appropriating Colin Kaepernick’s message. While Gobber and his gallery, Haw Contemporary, have since started selling T-shirts with the intent of donating the money to Kaepernick’s cause, many at the AOCA meeting felt this didn’t go far enough.

The AOCA is currently considering a second meeting on the controversies, with the intention of inviting the artists and other white people to the conversation. Bill Haw of Haw Contemporary invited the AOCA to host the conversation at his gallery, but the AOCA leadership rejected this offer.

Riffing on a famous quote by the first Black female presidential candidate, Shirley Chisholm: “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” AOCA organizer Patricia Dibildox went a step further: “We can make our own table.”

Above: Members of the Artists of Color Alliance include (from left), Silvia Beatriz Abisaab, Jahaira Aguilar, Chico Sierra, Patricia Bordallo Dibildox and William Toney. (photo by J. Ashley Miller)

About The Author: Neil Thrun

Neil Thrun

Neil Thrun is a writer and artist living in Kansas City, Missouri. He is a 2010 graduate of the Kansas City Art Institute and was a resident artist with the Charlotte Street Urban Culture Project in 2011 and 2012. He has written for publications including the Kansas City Star, Huffington Post and other local arts journals.

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