by Josie Pickens
I am still processing all the beauty and boldness presented in Marvel’s Black Panther—a film directed and co-written by Oakland, California native Ryan Coogler—that was imagined and shaped, quite remarkably, from the Afro Future. The film has become an immediate artistic and cultural phenomenon, whether one is discussing designer Ruth Carter’s immaculately made (and thoroughly researched) costume designs, marveling at the all-Black bad ass woman-led army The Dora Milaje (and the woman warriors of Dahomey that they were inspired by), or admiring the shift in the traditional princess narrative offered through the character Shuri (King T’Challa’s tech savvy, whiz-kid, adorable younger sister).
Deep, philosophical conversations critiquing Black Panther are happening as well. Many viewers are attempting to ascertain who the true hero is in the film: is it King T’Challa or Erik Killmonger? Does the film present a positive portrayal of African Americans through its characterization of Killmonger? Does Wakanda—this fictional African nation untouched by colonial influence or rule—care only for its own countrymen, heartlessly forsaking other less fortunate African people on the continent and throughout diaspora? How do African people battle colonial mentalities that might lead them to behave like their oppressors? Black Panther is doing precisely what Black art should, pushing its viewers to wrestle with their ideas about Blackness, about community, about legacy, about politics and especially about resistance.
One conversation that we should be having more involves a short scene in the film where Erik Killmonger visits the African artifacts collection of a British museum. Here Ryan Coogler and his co-writers take the entire art world to task regarding accessibility, knowledge, cultural appropriation, repatriation and the lack of diversity in traditional and celebrated art spaces. In the scene, Erik Killmonger (the orphaned son of a Wakandan prince and heir to the throne), is seen admiring African artifacts. Of course, White museum personnel racially profile and follow him, a Black man wearing his hair in locs and dressed in streetwear. We learn that Killmonger is more knowledgeable about the artifacts than the White woman museum staff person pretending to engage him. We also learn that the artifacts Killmonger inspects were likely stolen from Wakanda (by way of Benin), and that the museum staff is so focused on profiling Killmonger that they fail to detect the setup and heist that follow. The scene reminds Black Panther viewers that Black patrons are often not welcome in mainstream, traditional art institutions, that these same art institutions are guilty of cultural and physical theft, and that they believe African art and culture to be important enough to include in their collections but not important enough to actually study, value or respect.
Casey Haughin, an art and history student at John Hopkins University, reminds us that the museum scene in Black Panther could not be a more honest representation of what is happening today in far too many high-ranking art spaces. She writes in an essay entitled “Why Museum Professionals Need to Talk about Black Panther”:
“African artifacts such as those shown in the film’s museum are likely taken from a home country under suspicious circumstances, such as notable artifacts in real-life Britain like the Benin bronzes which now reside at the British Museum. It is often the case that individuals will know their own culture as well as or better than a curator, but are not considered valuable contributors because they lack a degree. People of color are less represented in museum spaces, and often experience undue discrimination while entering gallery spaces. Finally, museums are experiencing an influx of white women filling staff roles, leading to homogenized viewpoints, and lack senior staff with diverse backgrounds.”
Lessons Learned from the film Black Panther about (Mis) RepresentAtions of Blackness in the Art World
Describing the lack of diversity in museum spaces, Haughin references a recent study conducted by The Mellon Foundation and the American Association of Art Museums that revealed only 28% percent of museum staff are people of color— with most of that staff working as security guards or custodians, and that Black people, while representing 11% of the U.S. population, only represent 6% of museum visitors and patrons.
The Mellon Foundation study also divulges that almost all curational roles in museums are held by Whites. Kimberly Drew, who works as a social media strategist for The Met, contemplated these statistics and what it means to be a queer Black woman working in such overwhelmingly White spaces. In an opinion editorial for I-D, Drew shares the following:
“According to a 2013 study funded by the Mellon Foundation, 84% of curatorial roles in museums are held by non-Hispanic white people. This means that nearly 84% of the people who are making critical decisions about who is added to the canon, who becomes the subject of monographs and which art is important enough to be remembered, are from the same racial group (and in most cases, the same socioeconomic background). What might happen if the 20- and 30-something-year-old reporters asked more people (of all backgrounds) about this crisis? What if the art world was constantly held to account for exclusion, with every opportunity?”
On too many days, for me, the answer to Drew’s question is that we may never know what the art world being held accountable for its obviously discriminatory practices would look like. But on other days, when I am more hopeful and radically imaginative, I know that Black folk and Black art will survive and thrive—as it always has, as we always have.
Here’s to Black futures where we are working towards Wakanda. Here’s to Black art that beautifully and authentically represents Black lived experiences. And here’s to Black folk creating our own art spaces, so that conversations about old, stale, offensively White high museums rejecting us as patrons, artists and art professionals, will be outdated and uninteresting.
A great African Proverb reminds us that until the lions have their own storytellers, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter. Josie Pickens’ life work is to help the lions of the world tell their stories. Pickens is an activist, culture critic, scribe, educator and soldier of love. She utilizes all of her various talents and passions to uplift and translate the narratives of women and people of color through the lenses of creative writing, journalism, performance and professorship. As a columnist for Ebony Digital, Jo explores love and relationships in a manner that focuses on our humanity and self-love foremost, and specifically comments on topics associated with race and feminism. She also offers insightful and authentic cultural critique on subjects ranging from pop culture to politics for various publications including Ebony.com, The Root, and The Guardian, and serves as a composition instructor and mentor for students at Texas Southern University.