I felt mixed emotions after highlighting the photography of Dutch artist Ruud van Empel. His originality, creativity and representation of black children as the face of innocence greatly warmed and inspired me, but I had another feeling: Disappointment. I wished he was black like his portraits.
My internal conflict is expressed vividly in the comments on van Empel's interview with The Guardian. The first approach says that the artist's race doesn't matter and we should be happy that black children are being portrayed positively in Western art. Further, there is no malice behind van Empel's work-- he features both white and black children with the theme of innocence and it's visually appealing for all. With this I agree. The second approach questions the artist's motives after saying "I don't have a special relationship with the African continent" and initially only drawing black children to prove he wasn't racist. As he admits, it was his work with black children in 2005 that brought him international acclaim and, subsequently, money. Without using the words "cultural appropriation", many comments seem to closely relate to the term to express their discomfort with yet another white person capitalizing on black experiences/aesthetics/culture. With this I also agree.
So where do I stand?
Art for me is more than just what is on the canvas. Even though I cannot say enough good things about van Empel's techniques, a part of me wishes it was coming from a deeper place, from someone who lives (or at least understands) the experience of a marginalized identity. There are millions of black artists in Africa and the diaspora making art that challenges the dominant stereotypes that plague us, yet the most celebrated works appear to come from people who appropriate our cultures and concepts to market as something original, shocking or progressive in their privileged circles. It's upsetting to see all our hard work and activism erased and credited to someone who picked it up as a fad, fetish or superficial curiosity.
As marginalized people, we have never needed others to tell our stories for us.
We've simply needed people to listen.