Artist and curator Taylor Balkissoon is, in the language that’s become popular today, both black-ish and queer-ish, though you wouldn’t know it from appearances. She’s the first to mention that her light skin and impossible-to-peg manner — her “white femme-ness” as she puts it — confuses people who might be in a hurry to ferret out her identity.
That ambiguousness, she acknowledges, is enough to get her past the gates of an art world where ethnic and sexual minorities like herself are often cut out of the power structure. When Balkissoon claims to be succeeding professionally in a cultural domain that “remains largely controlled by hyper-wealthy white people,” she can point to the vast majority of galleries and museums across the country, including Denver, to prove her point.
So, what do you do when your ability to pass allows you to prosper while others in your demographic remain outsiders? You turn it into one of the most engaging commercial art exhibits to come along in months. In this case, “Now More Than Always,” a showcase she has curated featuring national artists who are all African-American.
And, in a sense, you turn against the people who let you in the door in the first place — in this case, Gildar Gallery, a “decidedly white” Denver space where the show is taking place. You also take on the ways black identity is exploited by curators and buyers of art. To make it clear you are completely taking over, you also install some of the art down the street, in the actual apartment of white gallery owner Adam Gildar. His space, all of it, is yours.
Of course, there’s collusion here. Gildar is, and bravely, giving her the keys to his places. But it’s a complete enough takeover to create an effective platform for dialogue about race at a point in history when we’re not all getting along. This is a small gallery show, but it’s important.
Interestingly, Balkissoon uses it to say something sort of like this about the art world’s treatment of minorities: It is what it is. The show isn’t malevolent, self-pitying or preachy.
Instead, it simply seems to breath in the air of inequality, to acknowledge exploitation and, in some ways, accept it. The “always” in the exhibit’s title isn’t full of hope; it signals resignation that this power structure isn’t going to change anytime soon and the best that most artists not born into the Caucasian class can hope for is to profit from the occasional sale of a piece of art — after the white dealer takes his 50 percent cut. The exhibit’s subtitle, “Gimme Gimme The Money, Please Please I Want The Money Please,” explores a painful reality. Artists need to eat, and for that they must make compromises.
That means playing the game when the point spread isn’t in your favor. And it means selling art that the well-to-do’s who make the gallery world go around want to buy from black artists, which — as this exhibit starkly points out — is often a clichéd idea of “black art.”
Balkissoon explains what that is through the objects on display at Gildar Gallery. They are full of reductive symbols of ghetto culture, dark continent folklore and black inferiority.
Kahlil Cezanne Zawadi’s “Imitation iLife” features one of those self-guided Roomba vacuum cleaners that is actually in-motion. But it is decked out in clichéd icons of urban blackness — it bears a Cadillac hood ornament and a grill of gold teeth. What it is sweeping over, cleaning up if you will, is an image of a black male in a hoodie, loose jeans and sneakers.
Jibade-Khalil Huffman’s “Duets (A [and in order of appearance])” is a projected piece that hodgepodges together video clips, text and still images. It starts with a clip of Miles Davis being introduced for a television interview, where the announcer notes, with great surprise, that the genius musician also happens to be an intelligent human being.
Patrice Renee Washington’s “Untitled (No Boundaries),” is a mostly porcelain work that hangs on the wall and is inscribed with dialogue from the 1949 Hollywood movie “Lost Boundaries,” a film that exploits for dramatic effect, and box office sales, the perils of a mixed-race doctor who faces discrimination in his medical career.
Of course, these pieces go further than simply presenting hackneyed images. They ask viewers to consider what kind of black art makes it into high-end galleries and, in many cases, that seems to be art that wears its ethnicity on its sleeve. Dealers show it, and clients buy it, for its exotic qualities and to demonstrate their support for not just art, but also for specifically-black art. It’s tokenism and part of what Balkissoon calls in her curator’s statement “the complex relationship between white guilt and black frustration.”
But rather then fighting for a better world, “Now More Than Always” is content to profit from it, and to say: “You want black art? Here it is. Now pay up!” By throwing in the towel on social progress, it makes some interesting points.
“I can own my blackness, my queerness, and my womanhood, and you can buy it,” Balkissoon writes in her statement.
She goes all the way here by including a piece of her own in the exhibit, a wall-hanging that features the actual smashed, shattered and bent windshield from her car. It seems a neighbor of hers wasn’t all that happy when Balkissoon and her partner recently moved into the area, adding a mixed-race, same-sex family to the traditional demographic mix of residents. And so he took it out on her car.
The piece is full of the kind of violence that is perpetrated against those who are black-ish and queer-ish in today’s world, and Balkissoon has short-handed and commodified the experience in the way art galleries do. What’s for sale here? The intimate and authentic expression of an artist laid bare on canvas? Or a reductive symbol of urban minority life that some white collector can purchase to show he’s in touch with the other side of society?
Balkissoon says she just wants to sell the piece so she can get a new windshield.
“Now More Than Always (Gimme Gimme The Money, Please Please I Want The Money Please)” continues through July 8 at Gildar Gallery, 82 S. Broadway. It’s free. Info at 303-993-4474 or gildargallery.com.