At Mochi, we proudly amplify Asian American artists, entrepreneurs and other public figures on a regular basis. Because representation is political. Yet the push for more Asian representation in media is typically tied to capitalist gains (e.g., this year’s live-action Mulan). Too often, we Asian Americans forget to consider how representation works as resistance. This is particularly true for Black, Brown, and Indigenous folks, whose representation can bring up uncomfortable feelings when cast in both stereotypical and non-stereotypical roles.
Representation as resistance works to upend the cultural norms that largely reflect a white society. The Conscious Kid defines white supremacy as “the preferential norms, laws, treatment, privilege, power, access and opportunities that benefit white people at the expense of cumulative and chronic outcomes for Black and Brown communities. It is infused in all aspects of our society which include our laws, history, education system, culture and entire social fabric.”
Uplifting and valuing diversity works directly against oppressive hegemonic standards. While a huge part of the Black Lives Matter movement asks us to dismantle misconceptions about the criminalization of Black bodies, the other part of the work is to celebrate Black lives in their beauty, genius and joy. Here are just a few Black artists we are celebrating:
Aaron Philip – @aaron___philip (model)
Aaron Philip wants the world to know that she is first and foremost a model and artist. She just happens to be Black, trans and disabled, but does not “want to be politicized that way.” After “spend[ing] endless nights pitching emails to model agencies,” Philip signed with Elite Model Management in 2018. Since then, her iconic look and fierce confidence have gone viral; she has shot editorials for Vogue, W, i-D, Dazed, ELLE, Paper Magazine, and more; and she is the new face of Moschino’s FW 2020 campaign. At just 19 years old, Philip uses her Instagram platform to post amazing and empowering selfies, while advocating for Black trans women and Black women with disabilities.
Morgan Parker – @morganapple0 (poet) // www.morgan-parker.com
In both her poetry and essays, Morgan Parker navigates intersectional feminism, sex, race, social media, pop culture and “woke” culture. Her voice is electric and fun, but always poignant; her writing simultaneously bleeds dark humor and grief. Parker has written three poetry collections: “Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night” (2015), “There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé” — just to clarify for the Beyhive, Parker does not actually bash Beyoncé — (2017), and “Magical Negro” (2019). She has been the recipient of the 2017 National Endowment of the Arts Literature Fellowship and 2019 National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry. You can read some of her scintillating poems at the Poetry Foundation.
Tawny Chatmon (photography-based artist) – @tawnychatmon // www.tawnychatmon.com
Tawny Chatmon is a self-taught, photography-based artist whose works are absolutely breathtaking. She starts by photographing her subjects and then adds gold leaf, paint, and digital edits to challenge the narratives surrounding Blackness and to “celebrat[e] the beauty of Black childhood.” In her artist statement, she says she is “inspired by artworks spanning various art periods in Western Art with the intent of bringing to the forefront faces that were often under-celebrated in this style of work.” Chatmon was named the 2018 IPA Photographer of the Year by the International Photography Awards, and her artwork is currently featured in galleries around the world. Her most recent series “The Redemption” is inspired by Gustav Klimt’s Golden Phase, applying his lavish and ornate style to empower a new generation of Black kings and queens.
Reginald Dwayne Betts – @dwaynebetts (poet) // www.dwaynebetts.com
Reginald Dwayne Betts is a poet, lawyer and PhD candidate at Yale University. As he explores in his most recent poetry collection, “Felon,” Betts spent eight years in prison after committing a carjacking at 16 years old. However, he does not embrace the sugarcoated narrative of redemption after prison. In a NPR interview, when asked if writing an essay on solitary confinement had been cathartic, he replied, “I don’t know if the essay for me is cathartic, as much as it’s a duty.” In prison, Betts gave himself the name “Shahid,” the Arabic word for “witness,” and his poems continue to uphold his duty of bearing witness, even when painful. The U.S. has long been criticized for having the worst prison rehabilitation system. It was not this system that guided Betts to all his accomplishments as a writer and a scholar, but the poems of Lucille Clifton. In turn, his words shine a light for those behind him.
Kara Walker – @kara_walker_official (multimedia artist) // www.karawalkerstudio.com
Artist Kara Walker is best known for her controversial cut-paper silhouette friezes, which display an uncensored depiction of slavery and the consequential association of Blackness with ugliness. Her current commission on display at the Tate Modern is equally stunning. The four-story fountain tells the horrific history of the transatlantic slave trade in white marble — channeling the Western aesthetic hegemonic in art history, and serving as a metaphor for the whitewashing of US history. At its base, slaves drown among sharks, lost forever to the Atlantic Ocean; adorning it, a Black wet-nurse lactates and gives life to the fountain.
The reason why you might not recognize these names as easily as Rothko or Koons is because only a little over 1% of artists featured in museums across the United States are Black. It is a sad reality that Black artists and artists of color do not get the same acclaim, recognition and praise reserved for artists who preserve a narrow definition of beauty. When you visit the museum next time, ask yourself, “Who are the artists on display? Are they predominantly white? And what aspects of white supremacy are being represented and upheld by these homogenous displays of art?”
To see exhibits at museums that have made a commitment to curate with more inclusivity, you can look to the Art Institute of Chicago, the Baltimore Museum of Art, or attend online events held by the Museum of the African Diaspora.
Mochi magazine’s Black Allyship @ Mochi column is an ongoing project that urges an awareness of racial injustice in the United States, particularly the oppression of Black people in America. The articles, resources and opinions we share are a call to action, an open discussion, and a place to take a stance against anti-Black racism. Read more about the column here.
We want Black Allyship @ Mochi to spark productive conversation. We want to know how we can do better: Feel free to email the co-editors at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Top photo credit: Toa Heftiba//Unsplash