I have long admired the writing of James Baldwin. It was after I saw "I am Not Your Negro" in 2017, that I developed the desire to make his portrait. The message of the film was very powerful, with many images of newsreel scenes I had seen in my lifetime of the movement against white oppression. The film shocks us in how little progress we have made toward attaining racial equality, and how systemic oppression has ingrained itself in our institutions.
I met an elder Somali artist two years ago, and have advocated for and collaborated with him, along with his daughter and other interpreters, in order to show his work in public for the first time. Through photographing his art, creating an artist page www.facebook.com/HassanNorArtist/ , and sharing with social media, curators, and other contacts, I assisted him in the discovery that there is an interest in his work. I wrote a grant for him (Awesome Foundation, $1000) to buy art materials, and frames, and food for an art opening. I brought him on his first visits to art museums and to an art supply store.
His first art exhibit, Made Here (Hennepin Theatre Trust) was installed in an empty store window, in downtown Minneapolis -- it was his first opportunity to engage in telling the stories about his work to the public. Our families met that night, and it was very touching, when he said "your family, my family -- all one family."
His next two opportunities to show his work came last summer (July, 2016), at Capitol Cafe, a sweet little cafe on Franklin Ave (they also do a great catering business! capitolcafemn.com )
One evening, he brought two small artworks to exhibit, and spoke in Somali to a group of about 40-50 people of all ages. He has a great speaking voice and dynamic stage presence, and, I could see the audience was quite engaged. Also, that evening a Swedish writer, Awes Osman, spoke to the group, Later that month, Scot, the owner of Capitol Cafe invited him to show his art in Open Streets, a Minneapolis festival. There, pedestrians viewed his art, and the artist was present.
Next, he had an opportunity to exhibit 28 works in his first solo exhibit in an indoor gallery, also in Minneapolis-- Third Place Gallery www.wingyounghuie.com/f866931730
Just prior to this event, I had the opportunity to introduce him to a Somali woman who was a fan of his work, which she had seen on social media. This women and I soon disagreed about finding the right audience for my friend's art -- she saying that his work was "just for Somalis; and, was not for white people." I was, and am, convinced that art is for everyone, and can potentially help build bridges in the community. In the process, in her anger toward me for disagreeing, she told me I was "white privilege," and not a good ally, and blocked me on social media, and then even spread vicious rumors about me.
Beyond this, soon after the exhibit, she spoke to the press about our artist friend, and apparently claimed that she curated the exhibit. While she actually did nothing to curate the exhibit, I believe she told this to a friend of hers, a first-time journalist, so the story was published with this error. She had earlier told me she wanted his story to be told "with no white people", so I was not surprised when I read the story that my name was omitted, but I was quite shocked to see that she claimed to be a curator.
I reached out to the writer of the story on FB where I found her name, to request a correction, and she immediately blocked me, with no further response. Then, when I wrote to the paper, I was shuffled around in several emails between editors for days. Finally, I was asked to 'prove' I was the curator of the exhibit, and after I wrote the editors and proved the facts, two weeks after publication the story was silently corrected.
I felt that I was the victim of racial bias by this woman and by the media. No one likes to have lies told and people claiming their work as their own. It made me question my work in the community and whether I want to continue my efforts to collaborate with other artists.
So, painting this portrait of James Baldwin gave me time to reflect on some of my questions. We had a pretty good conversation, and his face became, in the painting, beautifully animated, like when he spoke. I am continuing to advocate for my friend, Hassan Nor, who will show his drawings at Mia later this month new.artsmia.org/exhibition/i-am-somali-?.