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  • Love African art
  • Original art & fine art prints
  • Shipped within 5 working days
  • International shipping
  • From Rotterdam to the world

What is blackness...?

A panel discussion at art fair Also Known As Africa art fair in Paris - 10 November 2018

In the rise of Africans and diaspora in the artworld how do people, both artists and public, define themselves? Can it be called "Black Art" or "Black Culture"? And what is the meaning of blackness today? Justin Dingwall is an artist from South Africa and his project Albus and A Seat at the Table worked with models with albinism and vitiligo. Here on the left side is and below are some pictures of his project Albus. It is one example that makes one wonder: what is blackness?
This thought was discussed In a panel discussion hosted by Yvette Mutumba, Editor in Chief of Contemporary And magazine. With :

Claude Grunitzky, Journalist, Founder of TRUE Africa and President of the Water Mill Foundation in New York
Justin Dingwall, Artist, represented by ARTCO Gallery
Moostapha Saidi, Model
Mbali Dhlamini, Artist, represented by Red Room Gallery

Left and below: a photo series Albus by Justin Dingwall

"Presenting how I look and how I feel about how I look changed the way how people see me and how I see myself." - Moostapha Saidi

Talking about blackness a taboo?
Albinism and vitiligo is considered a taboo in Africa and especially South Africa. How people with any of mentioned conditions are perceived inspired the project A Seat At The Table. Who gets a seat at the table and who's table are we talking about? The seat at the table is symbolic for your place within society or within a certain subgroup.
Moostapha Saidi, who is modeling in the pictures on the left, mentions that it was a journey trying to find peace in his blackness even though suffering from vitiligo. You can see the two white pictures with many oogling eyes on him how it must be to have vitiligo in a not so accepting or understanding society. He states that even if you don't always get a seat at the table then sometimes we have to create our own table. Projects like this and being able to model for Boss Models in Cape Town has given him an opportunity to inspire others, parents and children with vitiligo. Many people has come up to him stating that they were so happy to see him in a way they had never imagined to be possible so it brings a new perspective of what is possible for people with this condition. So you can see that representation of self is really important. However, being trapped in just being the black artist, or the Senegalese artist but rising above that box or label.
"Growing up in Paris, discussing blackness was a taboo. Because if you pronounced your blackness it is like rejecting your Frenchness." - Claude Grunitzky.
Black perspectives
According to Claude Grunitzky, founder of True Africa, stated that when he was growing up in Paris blackness was a taboo. Because if you pronounced your blackness it is like rejecting your Frenchness. But there was a need discussing certain issues from a black perpective so he created a platform himself which was True Africa. The platform gives a perspective on art and the world from a black point of view. And the subjects or perspectives are not necessarily centered around racism. For example; a commonality he noticed with Jewish people is that people can have different identities and knowing that "Jewishness" is also an important part of their life. The topics related to blackness eemed important to discuss for the last 15 years since the foundation of True Africa. The stereotypical depiction of black people in the art has often been quite denigrating so the legitimacy of the platform still stands for many reasons; coming together to crete a platform of diaspora. Having black lead and black owned media ventures. Claude mentioned that having Alek Wek on the cover in 1997 appeared to be so controversial, even from black people there were critiques suggesting that Alek was not seen as a representative of black beauty.

Below: pictures from the series A Seat At The Table by Justin Dingwall.

Could it be that the terms black and blackness are post-colonial Western concepts? Are we not black until other people are otherwise?

Different black experiences
People are having different experiences depending on their upbringing and their surroundings, where they live on this globe and whether or not they are a the majority or minority. A combination of factors is shaping how we define blackness. It seems that being a minority gives people more awareness as they are confronted by the majority by their being different. A young lady from Swaziland adds to this that she wasn't black until she went to study in the United States. I can recall a statement from writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie saying the same, that she wasn't black until setting foot in the U.S. Mbali adds that there is not one singular word in Swaziland for being black. An Ethiopian lady in the audience stated that people in her country were more concerned with their tribes and cultures within families. Speaking as an Afro-German, Yvette mentions her self awareness when hanging out with only white people in her home town. Only after moving to a bigger city she was confronted with other black cultures and thus with another part of herself. Claude mentions the instinct to majority rule.

Could it be that the terms black and blackness are post-colonial Western concepts? Are we not black until other people are otherwise? How then do we define blackness if our blackness is apparently only defined by those who are not and are most likely white? Do we then have to include white people into the discussion? A member in the audience suggests that yes, we have to include white people to the discussion because they influence each other and one concept cannot exist without the other.

Too black or not black enough.
Colorism is another dimension in the talk about blackness. Many lighter skinned black people may have been considered as not black or not black enough by their own communities. Alternatively, there may be a subliminal preference for lighter skintones which we see in the media and the rising demand and use of skin bleaching cremes and darker skinned kids are being bullied for being too black. So for some you might not be black enough, for others you may be too black. What is the problem here, can people only be considered black when in the exact right skin tone? And again, this colorism seems to only be an issue in families that are of mixed race or have experienced colonialism. It makes defining the term blackness all the more confusing.

"In the U.S. one drop of black blood makes someone black. In Latin America and the Arab world one drop of white blood makes you white." - Carlos Moore

One drop rule
In the United Stated the one drop rule is used to determine a persons political status. Having just one African ancestor anywhere in your lineage makes a person black and thus lowering their social status to non-white or coloured. Here it is used as a matter of purity, either you are white or "contaminated" by that one drop. But other societies may have a different criterium to what they consider to be black. In Latin-American and Arab countries black looking people consider themselves white when they have some distant white ancestry. There is some interesting work about that phenomenon by Dr. Carlos Moore, resident scholar at Brazil's Universidade do Estado da Bahia. His books the Blacks, and Africa (CAAS, 1989), and African Presence in the Americas (Africa World Press, 1996) reveal his discoveries about how mixed societies like Brazil may look colorblind on the outside but have their racism disguised and dominate every aspect of social and political life. A summary of his findings can be read here.

Once we have broken the taboo to talk about blackness there are many black perspectives on what blackness is. It seems that everybody has a different idea about the concept. Is it the skintone, the amount of melanin in someones skin, the presence of African ancestry or the lack of non-African ancestry? Evidently it goes beyond just indicating the colour of the skin. More so because there have been discussions about who is too black and who is not black enough. This colorism is a serious issue within many black communities. It seems to be nothing more than a post-colonial by-product of centuries or racial injustice which created the idea of seeing fairer skin as better and darker skin as worse. But how do you deal with vitiligo, albinism or people of mixed race who identify as black. Can they still be black too? The many opinions on this are divided.
The lady from Swaziland stated that there is not one singular term for the word black in her language, the lady from Ethiopia confirming the same. Does that mean that if a whole society is black, blackness is not a thing? If there is no word indicating your black skin, does it then really exist? Who is viewed as black and who is not depends on a variety of factors. It totally depends on the society that someone is part of; who is part of the majority and who is the minority. Who is the benchmark, what is the standard and who deviates from it. What is clear is that the African people who have dealt with colonization, in and outside of the continent, have been made aware of their blackness through colonization. The colonized were indeed black compared to their colonizers therefore blackness, to me as an African living in Europe, is synonymous to African because it indicates my origin. A product of this is black art and black culture and it originated from African continental cultures. It can be found all over the world and comes in many beautiful shapes, forms, and sizes.

Below from left to right; Yvette Mutumba, Mbali Dhlamini, Moostapha Saidi, Justin Dingwall, Claude Grunitzky.