guest post: can Black art be gentrified? / ronke lawal

Gentrification is the process of making a person, place or activity more refined based on Western ideals and the “mainstream” gaze. Gentrification is often linked to property districts and the transformation of an “undesirable” area into a more desirable area as form of social cleansing. Those areas are often taken over by a more economically stable demographic (usually but not exclusively Caucasian) who can change the essence of the area and afford to redevelop it. If gentrification can take over an area of land is it possible to take over a creative space? Can gentrification impact art and our consumption of art?

When we look at the history of art consumption, there has always been a skewed perception of what quality art is and who is worthy of consuming it. There is a sense of elitism that is attached to the art world, which has kept the doors closed for so many talented Black artists. What I speak of here, is not simply access to galleries, but access to financial freedom from selling Black art and media profiling for talented artists. Being in PR myself I have seen how often Black creatives struggle to be seen and heard until the “mainstream” deem them worthy. Until a Black artist is considered cool or on trend then their art is often left unnoticed, until Black art and the spaces that Black art fills become gentrified do they really hold a value? Well of course they still hold value! This is not a piece on the measurement of artistic value. This is a piece that looks at how Black Art has been repackaged for White audiences.

Black art spaces and the consumption of Black art has been monopolised by what society deems to be the acceptable face of art. Yet we know that art has been consumed and enjoyed by Black People for generations. In 2018 P. Diddy purchased a piece of artwork by renowned artist Kerry James Marshall for $21.1 million dollars making Marshall the highest paid living African-American artist.  Aside from the price, the fact that a Black man purchased this piece is testimony to the fact that Black people do appreciate art. There are a number of initiatives which celebrate Black artists such as the art collective Black Blossoms and the online art store Ayok’a both founded by Black women (Bee Tajudeen and Alice Gbelia) for Black artists. The Black British Female Artists collective give Black female artists from across the diaspora a platform to showcase their talents. The BLK Art Group was established in the 1980s by a group of Black artists who were at the helm of the British Black Art movement. Why are these initiatives and movements so important? Because Black art has long been claimed by others. There are museums all over the world which “host” African art, often stolen from countries during the colonial era as if using Black labour and resources from those lands was not enough. But there is also something to be said for galleries and art agents who have been making money from Black artists whilst not necessarily giving Black audiences the opportunity to enjoy the art let alone buy it.

The Gallery of African Art is a unique space as it is one of the few (perhaps even the only) galleries in London which is owned by a Black family. Ownership is important because at its core the reason why gentrification spreads so quickly is because those who are seen as disenfranchised lack the economic power and influence to block changes or make an impact because they do not own the spaces that are being taken. Without ownership an external party can override the power and dominance of the creator. Black art and culture has been appropriated since the dawn of time, however where there is ownership, there seems to be some remnants of protection. I say protection because whilst art is created for the wider world, everyone should be able to enjoy art and creativity freely those who create the art need to be given the opportunity to enjoy the fruits of their labour. It would also be remise of me to overlook the urgency with which we need to ensure that Black people from all generations are given access to view and consume Black art.

Many major galleries in the UK specifically have struggled with ensuring that they promote their exhibitions to a diverse audience in diverse ways. The challenge has been that quite often those at the top in many galleries seek to promote to audiences they know and understand, even though the art curated should also reflect the artists background. Yet this is how gentrification works, seek out the raw essence of something pure and repackage it or rehouse it to make it palatable for a less nuanced group. After a while Black art becomes a trend rather than a lifestyle and culture. We need to ensure that Black artists are given the media exposure that they deserve, that they have access to funding and spaces to create. Galleries should have inclusive teams which advocate for real change not just well meaning rhetoric. More should be done to dismantle myths that Black people do not enjoy art, although perhaps that is a more complex issue as art is a very personal experience in Black homes.  We have it in our power to make sure that a balance is struck and that Black art does not simply benefit the world of the artistic gentrifier but the world as a whole.

I hope that one day we can truly use that power.”

Ronke Lawal Founder/PR Consultant of  Ariatu PR which  represents a variety of clients in various industries including the entertainment, fashion, lifestyle& beauty, food and luxury goods sectors.

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