Hidden in Plain Sight: African-American Artists in Kansas City
“Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.” –Albert Einstein
The Kansas City Metropolitan area is feeling a lot of love from the art world lately. Truth be told, it’s a fantastic place to be an artist. New galleries seem to open weekly, writers frequently extort the awesomeness of its art museums, and artistic support exists in an envious array of methods. The Convention and Visitors Bureau even dubbed Kansas City “America’s Creative Crossroads,” giving art the ultimate civic stamp of approval. The prevalence, success, and growth of Kansas City’s artistic community is evident, yet creating art can sometimes feel like a solitary endeavor and it’s often easy to think you’re alone. As an African-American, I have to wonder: does that isolation increase when you’re a person of color?
Kansas City has a long and celebrated art history, but rare are the moments when artists not representative of the mainstream (read: “white”) have commanded attention. It’s telling that the Kansas City Art Institute (KCAI), founded in 1885, didn’t admit its first black student until 1948. Leonard Pryor, a Topeka, Kansas native, arrived in Kansas City in 1941 and studied under painter and sculptor Thomas Hart Benton. A distinguished teacher and artist, Pryor should stand out not just in Kansas City’s artistic history, but its collective one as well. If Winston Churchill’s assertion that history is written by the victors is true, it seems that Kansas City’s African-American artists have lost the war of recognition. For unabashed art nerds like myself and arts enthusiasts to come, a more cohesive story must be told.
Addressing African-American representation in Kansas City’s art community means tackling a hornet’s nest of issues involving race, politics, economics, class, and gender– all subjects that we have been conditioned to avoid in polite company. That the United States has had difficulty confronting its racial past is not a secret, but in the Midwest, where we inherit an almost physical aversion to being rude or provoking discomfort, it can be almost impossible to do so. But avoiding the topic significantly impacts how the work of contemporary African-American artists is exhibited, endorsed, and collected.
Kansas City-based art collectors John and Sharon Hoffman, whose collection of over 100 works dates from the early 1970s to the present, began acquiring art by African-Americans in the mid-1980s. According to Mr. Hoffman, that decision was fueled by their “interest in urban issues and the black experience in America.” The collection boasts well-known names: Kehinde Wiley, Kerry James Marshall, and Mickalene Thomas. But while “content, message, emotional attraction and visual impact” ultimately drives their acquisitions, Mr. Hoffman attributes the lack of Kansas City African-American artists within the collection to the dearth of national exposure, although he cites Paul Anthony Smith and Sonie Ruffin as notable.
The Hoffmans’ collection strategy is not unique and is often emulated by major art museums and galleries worldwide, proving that, in many cases, exposure is everything. But attributing the difficulty African-Americans face in the Kansas City art community solely to the whims of art world taste-makers is letting everyone else off way too easy.
The elephant in the room is that in the African-American community, the messages are often mixed. Represent the race but be true to yourself. Get in the game but don’t be a token. Push the boundaries but stay in your lane. In this, the experience of people of color is unique. Shifting between identities and living double lives becomes commonplace even amidst your own culture, adding unnecessary and psychically burdensome layers of frustration.
Despite the very real obstacles African-American artists encounter, it’s hard to make a strong case for endorsement when there is a lack of support from your own culture. As a youth, it was difficult for me to understand why dedicating effort to perfecting dance moves and high notes or mastering a musical instrument was acceptable, but practicing drawing was viewed by those outside my immediate family as a waste of time. My African-American peers that bucked conventional wisdom and pursued visual arts careers often subsequently declined collaboration with other cultural groups for fear of having their “black card” pulled. That is a poor strategy for life in general, and especially so for creative endeavors that are inherently enriched by diversity.
In an attempt to contextualize these issues and gain perspective, I reached out via email to Whitney Manney, a fiber artist and designer who recently showed at Kansas City Fashion Week.
Adrianne Russell: When many people think of visual artists, they might imagine painters or sculptors. Do you encounter people who misunderstand your medium or don’t consider it “art”? If so, how do you counter those assumptions?
Whitney Manney: I embrace the word designer…it does not offend me one bit. Earlier in my career, before a show I would have to explain that all fabric used in the collections is hand dyed and/or printed with original textile designs. Now, this is what my work is known for and I did a lot of work in the beginning building the brand. People who have never seen my work in person automatically know that it is all original. For me fashion is art, whether or not you are creating your own materials; it is truly wearable art. At some point you had to go through the process of interpreting inspiration, creating an innovative design, choosing materials, decide how to technically create the piece and create a whole package that properly conveys your vision for the runway, print, a customer, etc. In the end, I did the same, if not more, amount of work that a “traditional” artist does for a painting or sculpture. The only difference is a woman can clothe herself in my art. I can’t change the perception of fashion for everyone, but I feel that with each collection that I design, the message is becoming clear, fashion is more than a glamorous lifestyle– it is art.
Adrianne Russell: African-American artists seem to suffer from a lower profile in the Kansas City region. Do you find that Kansas City is supportive of a diverse pool of artists? What, if anything, should be done to foster a more inclusive artistic community?
Whitney Manney: I have never found that to be a problem. Kansas City has a very supportive artist community, but if you are only looking to have support from the African-American community, then you will have a lower profile. I have noticed that some African-American artists are scared to affiliate or exhibit with the emerging community here. I think it’s a mindset of being comfortable. As an artist, fear cannot be a word in your vocabulary. I know that first and foremost, I am an artist. There is no reason that I do not deserve to receive recognition for my work. I know that it is worth it.
AR: What challenges have you faced as an emerging African-American female artist?
WM: As a emerging African-American artist, the main challenge is being pigeon holed as solely an African-American artist and all of the expectations that come along with it. As a minority artist, often times the public will search for cultural meaning or expect it in your work, when the work that is created has nothing to do with race. Also, not creating work that is blatantly culturally driven can hurt the acceptance and support that you receive from the African-American community. For me it almost doesn’t seem enough that I am a young well accomplished designer for my fellow African-American community to be proud and support me. As far as being a female people feel like “Oh she’s a fashion designer, that’s every girls dream” or “Oh, every girl loves clothes, so that makes sense for a girl to want to make pretty dresses.” Because of these typecasts, I refuse to create anything that resembles mainstream fashion. For some reason, the general public in Kansas City thinks that fashion is one big pink, fluffy party that doesn’t involve any kind of artistic process.
AR: For some artists of color, their racial and ethnic heritage informs their work the most, while others draw from a wide variety of experiences. What influences your artistic process?
WM: Patterns and colors are always an inspiration. Street art has been a main inspiration for the label, which is definitely culturally inspired, as well as street art being a culture of it’s own. The excitement of creative freedom, altering an existing environment, creating a unique motif and the pace of creating new imagery is something that draws me into the street art culture. The boldness and confidence that is found in our culture is also an inspiration, I think we as a people are just drawn to things that have a bit of flash to them. Creating work for the everyday woman is also a driving force in my work…if I couldn’t wear it everyday or style it into my wardrobe there is no reason to make it. I don’t want my clothing to be something that women buy for a special occasion and leave in the back of their closet. Function and wearability is key. For example, patterns from nature or patterns formed from architecture are inspirational for me. I love good clean design from the lines, symmetry and reflections. I look for these elements in everyday life. My family inspires me too. They all have their own unique style. I look back at old pictures all the time and think, “Hey, I would wear that.” My faith inspires me to create fearless work, the foundation scripture of the label is Proverbs 31:25, “strength and honor are her clothing.”
All images are courtesy of Whitney Manney.