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  • Creative SoulsThe Exhibition
  • Paul von Blum (bio)

For many decades, I have embarked on a long personal journey to bring African American visual artists out of the shadows of marginality into a level of recognition and visibility, at least at the local and regional levels in Southern California. This emerges from my personal activism in the civil rights movement in SNCC and CORE more than 50 years ago and my desire to infuse my teaching and scholarly work with this spirit of civil rights and political activism.

I have written regularly on African American art, including various books, catalogue essays, reviews, and articles, including some in Tikkun. Recently, I have focused on the vibrant community of Los Angeles' Black artists. Throughout my research, these women and men have transcended the status of artistic subjects; they have become my friends. I have been privileged to share their lives and to become part of their extended community. I have spent countless hours in their homes and studios and have regularly attended their exhibitions. My scholarly work about them has been openly political, in deliberate contrast to the prevailing (and absurd) tradition of academic objectivity.

Not surprisingly, these gifted artists have endured substantial marginalization and exclusion from mainstream museums, galleries, university, and college curricula, and mainstream media coverage. They have created alternative venues serving the African American community effectively, including major museums and cultural institutions like the California African American Museum, the Museum of African American Art, the Watts Towers Art Center, the William Grant Still Arts Center, and various other galleries catering to this community. But artistic racism—that is exactly what it is—remains the norm and Black artists as well as Latinx, women, LBGTQ, and other artists outside the mainstream of white male artistic hegemony still face substantial barriers and exclusion in the masculine art world of 21st century America.

The major change today is sophisticated tokenism where the white art establishment, consisting of wealthy philanthropists and conventional (but of course politically liberal) curators, critics, and museum directors, decide to "anoint" various African American artists as worthy of inclusion in mainstream discourse and commerce. In Los Angeles, artist Mark Bradford (and a very few others) has been the recipient of this status. A dramatic example is billionaire Eli Broad's recent purchase of Bradford's painting "Helter Skelter I" for $12 million for his Broad Museum in downtown Los Angeles.

Mark Bradford is, by any critical standard, a magnificent, award-winning artist. A substantial body of scholarship has been published on his work. I note this in my introductory chapter in Creative Souls and explain that this is why he is not included in this volume. Many of Bradford's works are socially conscious and he has been a major contributor to the cultural life of the Black community in Los Angeles. He fully deserves all the recognition he has received. But he is an anointed one, among several others including Kerry James Marshall, Kara Walker, Mikalene Thomas, and a few more in the U.S., all of whom, like Mark Bradford, are thoroughly first-rate visual artists with justifiable international reputations.

This tokenism is identical to that of society in general, which conceals its structural racism by allowing and highlighting a small percentage of people of color to have highly visible positions in corporations, government, nonprofits, colleges, universities, and the like. Meanwhile millions of other African Americans and Latinx endure segregation, poverty, police brutality, and other hardships while privileged white Americans ignore these realities and often congratulate themselves about their country's social and racial "progress." The art world is a mirror image of that disgraceful arrangement.

I wrote Creative Souls and co-curated its eponymous exhibition at the Watts Towers Arts Center because some of the 21 artists in the book and exhibition are of comparable quality and stature to Mark Bradford and other highly praised Black artistic luminaries throughout the nation. They deserve equivalent recognition because of their exemplary work over the decades. And all of them deserve as much exposure as possible. Their works reflect powerful creativity and imagination and their efforts address a wide variety of themes, especially issues of racism in many...


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