Flash Points

“That’s Not Us”

Mural by Sofia Maldonado. Photo by Alex Mateo.

Mural by Sofia Maldonado. Photo by Alex Mateo.

Do artists from underrepresented demographic groups have a responsibility to represent their ethnicity in a positive light?  This is not a new question, in fact, it seems to re-enter the national conversation every time a minority artist ventures to create a provocative image.  This question has recently reemerged in response to Sofia Maldonado’s mural installed near Times Square.  As reported on CNN, the local Fox affiliate, the New York Times and several popular blogs, Maldonado’s work has come under fire because some viewers find her representation of the women of color in her mural—scantily clad with long acrylic fingernails—inappropriate. Furthermore, as reported by Jezebel, a feminist blog, at least one minority group, New York City Black Professionals, condemns the mural noting that, “this is not even about the Latina artist [Maldonado is of Puerto-Rican and Cuban descent] or her expression of how she sees NY; she was only painting what they [the Times Square Alliance] commissioned her to do in order to get her paycheck…and the end result was a slap in the face of every woman of black and brown descent.”

This question of “responsible” representation is not unique to the visual arts.  Over the years, African-American rappers, such as Ice-T and DMX, have been lambasted for their hyper-masculine, misogynistic lyrics.  Stephenie Meyer, the author of the wildly successful Twilight series, has been roundly criticized by feminist scholars for creating a heroine, Bella, who is devoid of all personality and lives only for her boyfriend.

The problem with this question is that it aims to reduce artistic expression into a Manichean dichotomy of good and bad, acceptable and offensive. The very supposition of responsibility removes the essential subjectivity from the creation and viewing of art. An African-American woman in the Fox 5 News piece on Maldonado’s mural condemns the work because, “that’s not who we are.” Maldonado would agree. In all of the statements she has given about her mural, she has never presented her work as representative of all women of color. Her most widely quoted statement makes this clear; Maldonado wrote on her blog that her mural “illustrates strong New York City women as a tribute to the Caribbean experience in America. Inspired by my heritage, it illustrates a female aesthetic that is not usually represented in media or fashion advertising in Times Square.” Maldonado’s mural depicts a segment of the Caribbean-American population. It may be a segment that some viewers would consider “ghetto,” as another person interviewed by Fox put it, but it is not a segment ever intended to represent the entire ethnic group.

So why this confusion?  Why do some viewers of subjective, specific pieces like Maldonado’s have this immediate, offended reaction? As African-American blogger Keysha Whitacker explained, people of color are concerned that “good white folks” will see “our shame.” She further admonishes people of color to stop trying to “manage” how they are viewed by other racial groups.

This desire to only present a positive face to the rest of the world is understandable, but also impossible. For one, who gets to decide which images of ethnic groups should be propagated? Government officials? Advocacy groups like the NAACP or LULAC? Curators? And second, which artists would be sanctioned as appropriate? Should Kehinde Wiley’s rappers and African youths be solely representative of the black experience? What about the work of Yinka Shonibare, Lorna Simpson, or Kara Walker?  Walker’s art, in particular, is provocative and many times vitriolic, frequently centering on stereotypical depictions of African-American slaves. Should her work, displayed in museums throughout the world, be banned from public spaces because it dwells on a shameful period in American history?

Moreover, the suggestion that there exists a correct and acceptable depiction of an ethnic group smacks of fascism. In reading and hearing people’s suggestions on how Maldonado should be representing women of color, in business suits and carrying briefcases, I was reminded of the official art programs in Nazi Germany and Communist Russia. By enforcing strict propaganda programs, these countries did not succeed in changing the world’s view of their regimes; they only succeeded in encouraging spiritless, mediocre art.

There is no singular and representative African-American experience or Latina experience—just as there is no singular and representative European-American experience. The world is made up of an infinite variety of people with myriad identities and experiences. Regardless of whether or not an artist comes from an underrepresented ethnic group, he or she should be allowed to express and represent him- or herself in any way he or she sees fit. We as viewers and audience members must, in turn, be willing to evaluate art solely on its own merits and not on our preconceived notions of ethnic identity.

Anna Daley is editor of the Gallery Crawl website and based in New York City.

  1. Aida R. Gil says:

    The issues is not one of “That’s not us” it’s of “That’s not her” – Frankly Sofia Maldonado’s mural lacks the intimacy of self-reflection that would contend on behalf of the piece’s confrontational use of images from “marginal” communities. In theory it is a beautiful piece – I find the women alluring, there is a certain mystique and elegance to their gritted urban presence in Times Square. In practice – I feel like I’m looking at materialized subjects, objects and the piece lacks the feeling that an artist’s empathy, or an artist’s dialogue with him/herself would have. Maldonado spoke openly herself about being inspired by women she saw, people she observed in their day to day, doing their own thing. Comparatively, Ice-T, DMX, the NWA, et al, though their lyrics may be deemed misogynistic and confrontational, they lived their art – they were not speaking of subjects or objectifying anyone, they were speaking of their own experiences, feelings, and reflecting really. What I see is not a representation of Maldonado’s close relationship or reflection of her relationship with these women, with this culture, but voyuerism and THAT is what makes it offensive. What I’d like to see is how a young, white, middle class woman (dare I say privileged – she’s a Pratt grad!) from Puerto Rico relates to the urban afro-american and hispanic underprivileged, to their culture, I’d like to see her interact with them and then produce something that’s heartfelt because that mural on 42nd street has very little soul. I don’t want to see what she sees, I want to see what she feels. I want to see the sensibility of an artist’s vulnerability not this cold display of hip-hop, urban culture.

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  2. Nettrice says:

    I can’t help but relate this to Erykah Badu’s new music video, in which she strips off her clothes and references the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. According to Badu her intent was “grossly misinterpreted by many.” I agree wholeheartedly.

    Who gets to decide which images of ethnic groups should be propagated?

    We, the artists, do!

    I first became aware of Langston Hughes’ “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” in high school. Hughes’ essay stresses the significance of being an individual artist by embracing one’s roots. He writes, “One sees immediately how difficult it would be for an artist … to interest himself in interpreting the beauty of his own people. He is never taught to see that beauty. He is taught rather not to see it, or if he does, to be ashamed of it when it is not according to Caucasian patterns.”

    Similar to Badu’s removal of “illusions”, Sofia Maldonado’s mural illustrates one artist’s depiction of the female aesthetic that is not usually represented ANYWHERE. How dare anyone negate her or Badu’s experience and point of view?

    “The Negro artist works against an undertow of sharp criticism and misunderstanding from his own group and unintentional bribes from the whites. “Oh, be respectable, write about nice people, show how good we are,” say the Negroes. “Be stereotyped, don’t go too far, don’t shatter our illusions about you, don’t amuse us too seriously. We will pay you,” say the whites.”

    We need to revisit the racial mountain in the 21st century.

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  3. Nettrice says:

    Part two of my reply:

    We need to revisit the gender AND racial artistic mountain in the 21st century, in the U.S. and elsewhere. As a black female artist I am hypersensitive to the feminine aesthetic having once been asked by a black female high school student why I “painted black people all the time”. I seldom exhibit my artwork in traditional galleries and related venues for fear of the work being judged by the wrong standards or it is, as Badu put it, “grossly misinterpreted” by an unaware audience.

    My success as an artist has been small compared to my work as an educator. I show my work to friends and colleagues. Sometimes I sell work to those who appreciate it but I often give it away as gifts to these same people. They encourage and support my artistic work. Stories like Maldonado’s (and Badu’s) only justify my fears but I am determined to carve a niche.

    The struggle continues.

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  4. The question is of Marxist “class”. Both the people who reject Maldonado’s work and Maldonado herself are grappling with how to understand the question of representation without grappling with the question of who gets to represent (in this case a middle-class, well-educated woman of colour) and who gets to react (various classes of people moving through urban space who react to work not as a private experience but as a public discussion). What if the class of women which inspired the work was able to make public art on the same theme – would it be received with less controversy because it was more “authetic”? The makers of public art are not the “public” of public art. They are a class apart.

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  5. Ross Selavy says:

    As a middle-aged middle-class white guy, my reaction to Sofia Maldonado’s mural was, “How refreshing! There, in the vast wasteland of consumer pornography that is the “new” Times Square, is a colorful, playfully sexual painting of some women cavorting with some, uh, things.” I’m probably an insensitive middle-aged middle-class white guy, because I didn’t perceive the women in the painting as African or Caribbean or Latina or any other specific ethnic group. And I didn’t take away any particular message, positive or negative. I just enjoyed it.

    The notion that art should have meaning, or even worse should convey a message, runs amok in the contemporary art world, stirring up considerable sound and fury. Once it is assumed that every work of art must be saying something, then it’s open mike time for anyone to criticize the artist for taking a position that the critic dislikes. The artist and/or the work can be disparaged for being:
    -negative
    -irresponsible
    -inauthentic (because the artist is not of the same class as the women who inspired the work)
    -elitist (OMG she went to art school!)
    -without “soul”

    Now, I’m not so naïve as to assert that art, and representational art in particular, doesn’t implicitly convey something. A simple portrait can be provocative. Think of all the time spent wondering what Mona Lisa is smiling about.

    Ms. Maldonado wrote about her mural: “It has made us all reflect, discuss, and has opened a space where everyone can come to his or her own conclusions. As an art piece it has accomplished its purpose: establish a dialogue between its spectators.”

    A work of art is a Rorschach test. What a work of art is “saying” just might be more about what the viewer is “hearing” inside his or her own head than what is on the canvas (or in this case, the wall).

    Or to put it bluntly, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

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