Last year my fiancé and I went to visit the Kehinde Wiley exhibit in Brooklyn. It was a beautiful exhibition of the majesty of the black man and woman. I really enjoyed it, as did everyone else in Brooklyn, making it one of the most visited exhibits that year. Still, I did have a heaviness walking through Wiley’s exhibit, and it had nothing to do with the art, but more to do with my observations of the exhibit visitors. As we walked from painting to sculpture, it dawned on me that my fiancé and I were amongst only a handful of other black people; the rest were mostly white Americans and Europeans. I said to him, “all these hipsters are in here analyzing and applauding black men in G Unit shirts and timbs and I feel so uneasy about it all.” My fiancé put it perfectly when he responded: “It’s because, on their way here, they all passed and ignored ten men just like the ones in the paintings.” Boom.
As black people we were surrounded by art that looked familiar and depicted, more or less, the essence of the black experience. Simultaneously, we were also surrounded by comments like “such colorful clothing”, “look at the juxtaposition of the colors of the hats and the richness of the skin.” The hipsters were acting so enthralled in the images of black men, as if they had never in real life, in real time, seen one. It was as if they were truly seeing black men and not just acknowledging their existence.
I felt the same uneasiness two weeks ago when we visited the Seydou Keita exhibit in Paris. I was so pressed to see the work of a photographer who was astonishingly prolific. He captured the images of West Africa’s beauty in all its shades, shapes, and sizes. Once again, my fiancée and I were one of three black people in the exhibit. All around us were white French people admiring the portraits of beautiful Africans: the cheekbones, the lips, the head wraps. They had all paid 10€ to admire the esthetics of faces similar to those whom they probably ignore on the metro, at the grocery store, or in their neighborhoods all over Paris. But because similar faces are on display in one of the cities most revered exhibition spaces, dark skin Africans were more worthy of recognition.
When I asked the exhibit's Gambian security guard his thoughts on all of these white French people coming to see photographs of Africans, he said: “It’s like going to a zoo for them, they come and want to see the beauty of the black man, but in a controlled space where they feel most comfortable. If they actually went to the African neighborhoods in Paris, they would see people with the same faces as those in these photographs, but that would be too close for comfort.” The way our skin, clothes, and hair are seen as art within our own communities, is not the way they are seen in white communities. As the security guard said, our esthetic is packaged for consumption in museums and in the media, people are able to pick and choose how much they consume and when they have had enough. When they have seen enough photos of Africans, they can leave the exhibit and continue to ignore the Africans all around them in Paris. When Brooklyn hipsters are tired of seeing paintings of black men in fitted caps, they can leave the museum and ignore the negros they pass on their way home.
What draws white Americans or Europeans to art in our likeness, does not necessarily draw them closer to understanding our experiences outside of the museum space. There is a disconnect between looking at a photo of a Malian man with tribal scars in the Grand Palais, and understanding the racial injustices a Malian man with tribal scars may face in 2016 Paris. Is this not what it means to dehumanize a person? To separate their burdens and harsh realities from their physical in an attempt to appreciate what is the easiest to consume and comprehend. There needs to be more to these exhibits, not just photos or paintings of us and our ancestors, but also reflections on how our realities are carried in these images.