Underrepresentation and pay inequality has long been pervasive in the art world—something that until fairly recently (perhaps in the last decade) has started to slowly shift. Lately, there have been more fine art institutions dedicating large amounts of their resources to those that have been marginalized. Of note: the Museum of Modern Art had a showcase on black filmmakers called “Black Intimacy” in 2017, the Tate Modern mounted “Queer British Art” that same year, and, most recently, the Baltimore Museum of Art has dedicated a year’s worth of programs completely devoted to women artists. Even so, the path to full equality has yet to be paved.
“Black female artists are not included—they are sidelined,” says Jessica Stafford Davis, founder of the Agora Culture, an organization that connects collectors with contemporary artists. “It is documented that they receive less compensation, less number of shows, and less gallery representation. They often do more for less.”
To right this systemic wrong, Davis created Art on the Vine, an annual, three-day art exhibition on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts that gathers dealers, curators, and appreciators in a venue that celebrates artists of color, with the 2019 edition focusing on black women in particular. The showcase began five years ago after Davis observed how there was a lack of diversity in the island’s art scene. “The work I do with the Agora Culture is to take the culturally curious and teach them how to navigate the fine art world,” she explains. “It seemed like a great fit to create a space in real life that would allow people to see the work, and attend educational programs where they can learn, acquire and join a community.”
According to the U.S. census, 87 percent of residents in Martha’s Vineyard identify as white, with the closest demographic being black at four percent. Such a gap makes it clear why minorities who strive for visibility are, as Davis puts it, “sidelined.” But with events like Art on the Vine, these creatives—albeit on a small scale—are put on the playing field. “I am continuing the work that we are doing here on Martha’s Vineyard and creating a space where artists from the diaspora can come commune together, present their work and meet those interested in their work,” Davis says. “I am looking to grow and sustain this important community.”
Before Art on the Vine’s 2019 edition ends on August 14, we asked five artists in the exhibition to express what their work represents.
Nommos by Elia Alba
“The work revolves around the mythology of a tribe in Africa called the Dogon in Mali. I was fascinated when I heard about a group of anthropologists who went to study the tribe. The people knew a lot about the galaxy that could only be seen through a telescope. The narrative is that one Nommos came down and regenerated into seven. They broke off into seven, which is the oral history how the seven seas were created.”
Becoming the Texture IV and Becoming Me by Jessica Hopkins
“Becoming Me is based on the other pieces in my series about my cancer diagnosis. By me being diagnosed with cancer, being the patient of a doctor, I became their piece, their subject matter, just like when I do art. With Becoming the Texture IV, I chose to use a wood pattern because it represents the pattern and texture of how my chest felt after radiation during chemo. I consider wood to be very appealing, alluring, beautiful and daring all at the same time. I chose to use black and white with a grayscale, and some of the pattern and texture is to create a mask to seal what I was really feeling, and what I was going through.”
Jump Down by Holly Bass
“This is from a series I called Rootwork, which was inspired by a story my father told me. He grew up in a sharecropping family, which I had known, but didn’t really understand that he’d been picking cotton from when he was five until he was about 15. I was thinking of the Lead Belly lyrics, ‘Jump down and turn around and pick a bale of cotton.’ When he was small, it was almost like child’s play. This song is playful, so I mixed that nursery rhyme vibe with this very deep history, and connected it to my family roots.”
Photographs by Tsedaye Makonnen and Ayana Evans
“So, we have an installation that’s available for the public to see. We have photos, ephemera from our performances, and a couple of sculptures on display from our work together. Our base is performance art. Operation Catsuit, which I’ve been doing for almost 10 years now, [is] where I would wear the neon, zebra stripe and kinda crash events. That’s how it started. But now it has evolved into action-based work, like the stacked Versace [pieces], and going down to the grocery store together, stripping down to our fishnets and just seeing what that is. It is kind of breaking reality and creating fantasy within the everyday.”
“It’s asserting ourselves as black women into all these different spaces.”