This month, 606 is honoring Black History by sharing art by black artists. We’ve invited artists, art historians, curators, archivists, and others with expertise in art to share their favorite pieces of art by black artists around the globe. If you find your life enriched by this blog series, say “thank you” by buying art from a black artist, visiting a museum, asking your local art museum to include more black artists, donating to an art scholarship for students of color, asking your library to stock more books on black art, dropping off some art supplies at your local community center or daycare or senior center, or donating art by artists of color to your local school, community center, or house of worship.
Today, we thank Dr. Stefanie Snider for introducing us to one of our new favorite pieces of art. If you like it, head to OKC for a larger exhibit featuring work by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh.
Fazlalizadeh and America is Black just after installation, November 27, 2016
Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, America is Black, November 2016, Wheat-pasted paper mural, Oklahoma City, OK
Immediately following the US presidential election in November 2016, contemporary artist Tatyana Fazlalizedah created a new public artwork in her hometown of Oklahoma City, OK. Using drawn portraits and text, Fazlalizedah’s wheat-pasted paper mural used the artist’s tried-and-true media as it responded to the impending threat of the white-washing of the United States through a Donald Trump presidency. The mural’s text read: “America is Black. It is Native. It wears a hijab. It is a Spanish speaking tongue. It is migrant. It is a woman. It is here has been here and it’s not going anywhere.” The America Is Black mural featured portraits of people of color, including Fazlalizedah’s mother. Fazlalizedah located the mural in Oklahoma City not simply for its personal significance, but also to actively engage with a primarily white city, state, and region that has a history of social conservativism and Republican voting since at least the 1960s; in 2016, more than 65% of those voting in the state selected Trump as their choice for president.
Prior to this artwork, Fazlalizedah was known for her series Stop Telling Women to Smile (STWS). Pasted on walls internationally since 2012, Stop Telling Women to Smile brought art to the same streets on which women are regularly harassed based on clothing choice, gender expression, sexuality, race, religion, and more. She showed solidarity with harassment survivors, elevating their voices and visages, while shaming their abusers with larger-than-life images and texts. In America Is Black, Fazlalizedah once again activated the public sphere in order to empower and promote populations who, despite their marginalization in US history and politics, form the backbone on which US society is based.
Fazlalizedah’s America Is Black questioned white supremacist and nationalist rhetoric by insisting on the centrality of people of color to the formation and formulation of the United States of America. During the 2016 presidential election cycle, and in the aftermath of the election, nationalistic propaganda of the state has sought to actively erase people of color and non-Christians from definitions of US citizenship. Actions that target new or returning immigrants to the United States, such as the threat of building a longer, more substantial wall on the US/ Mexico border; the so-called “Muslim bans” aimed at preventing travelers from countries with significant Islamic populations from entering the US; and the rescinding of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy demonstrate the current administration’s commitment to a white supremacist hegemonic US state. While Trump and his supporters in the government seem intent on making America white “again,” Fazlalizedah’s America Is Black project argues that the US as a purely white Christian state is, and always has been, a myth rather than a reality. In America is Black, the artist exposes the language and imagery propagated by socially conservative groups, the US president, and other government officials who wish to erase the country’s history as a colonizing nation, and lays bare the stakes involved in anti-racist resistance work by people of color in the US today.
America is Black features four pencil-drawn figures in black and grey on a white background. The text is in capital letters to the left of the portraits, some words in bold, and in multiple-sized fonts. Each portrait is a person of color; three appear to be women and one a man. Each figure is looking out from their space, considering us rather carefully while we study them. Although we are not given the specific names of these people, the drawings are individualized portraits blown up to an oversized scale, as are most of Fazlalizadeh’s figural works. The largest figure, on the left of this group, is Fazlalizadeh’s mother; the artist, in describing the impetus for this mural, wrote: “I used a couple of recent drawings, one old drawing, and a drawing I did the day before installing this of my mother, to put together a diverse group of folks.” By incorporating an image of her mother, Fazlalizadeh makes obvious that the political is personal – and vice versa. Furthermore, by using her mother’s portrait as the focus of this mural, Fazlalizadeh showcases her roots as a Black woman. Fazlalizadeh’s reference to the collection of images she collaged together, both old and new, renders visible her long-term commitment to producing art for and about people of color. It visibly links the past and present, reiterating the message of the text: people of color, especially women, have long been a mainstay of the US population and they are not going anywhere, despite the goals of the new federal administration. In one message, Fazlalizadeh vividly uplifts Black, Indigenous, Muslim, and immigrant people and starkly challenges white supremacist and misogynist dominant culture.
Upon installing this mural Fazlalizadeh had hoped to provoke conversations, but also knew that not all responses to the work would be supportive or positive. Moreover, in writing about the artwork, she recognized its inherent ephemerality as a wheat-pasted public mural and expressed her desire to see what physical reactions might come about in response to the work as well. While no vandalism of the mural was reported, it was taken down by officials of the Oklahoma City government in March of 2017 because it had not gone through the “proper” channels for approval according to the city’s policies. Fazlalizadeh had had permission to locate the mural where it was placed from the building’s owner, but according to Oklahoma City law, artists must go through a proposal process in order for the Oklahoma City Arts Commission, made up of 15 members, 14 of whom are white, and 11 of whom are men, to determine “aesthetic quality, design integrity and […] that a mural is appropriate to its setting, architecture, and [the] social context” in which it is placed. In response, Fazlalizadeh wrote, “My mural is 100% not for them. I’m going to submit a proposal. For this mural, and for another mural project I want to develop in OKC. But I’m already discouraged based on that group of commissioners, being a black woman artist, and who/what my art represents. This is why ‘diversity’ is not only important in the work and faces we get to see – it needs to be behind the scenes. Who is in the room making the decisions. Who is deciding what is a ‘quality aesthetic’.” The removal of America is Black proves the point Fazlalizadeh made with the mural: white supremacism and xenophobia don’t simply overlook, but actively erase, people of color and their concerns through nationalistic rhetoric and public policy.
Fazlalizadeh has continued her work to bring visual recognition to people of color in the US and in 2019 will have a solo exhibition called Tatyana Fazlalizadeh: Oklahoma is Black at the Oklahoma Contemporary museum in Oklahoma City.
Today’s guest blogger is Stefanie Snider, PhD. She is an Assistant Professor of Art History at Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University in Grand Rapids, MI. Her research and teaching focuses on contemporary visual representations by, for, and about marginalized communities, including LGBTQ+, fat, and disabled people.