Courtesy of Jeremy Biggers.

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Black Creatives Talk About the Changes They Want to See in Dallas’ Arts Scene

Artists from across disciplines share their experiences and how we can back up our appreciation of their art with action.

For Black creatives, the sudden outpouring of support over the past few weeks is appreciated—but it comes with many questions: Will that support continue after the protests stop? Not to mention, why did it take so long to be seen?

Even as Black culture is ubiquitous in America, the pain that fueled that creativity is too often cast aside. We consume the fruits of Black artists’ labors without truly trying to understand the inequities of being Black in America—yet the two are inextricably tied. You may have heard the phrase, “Love Black people as much as you love Black culture.” To do that, we need to appreciate Black art in all its complexities, to listen carefully when Black creatives tell us the shifts they want to see in our city. We need to follow that guidance to make Dallas a better place.

Jeremy Biggers, a prolific visual artist whose practice ranges from large-scale murals to music videos, has spoken about systemic racism and police brutality in his work for years. He’s glad that so many people are finally seeing what he’s been trying to show them through art, but his enthusiasm is tempered with skepticism. He’s seen this pattern, the waves of support coming and going, before.

Figurative painter Abi Salami was thrilled with the new fanbase she gained over recent weeks—she had thousands of new social media followers in just days. However, when she saw that wave rolling back, numbers dwindling one unfollow after another, she, too, was reminded that these powerful moments are all too often cut short. She has some suggestions for Dallas cultural institutions who want to live up to the Black Lives Matter statements they’ve issued.

Desiree Vaniecia, a painter whose work honors her upbringing in a matriarchal Black family, is relieved to finally be heard as a Black woman. As an artist, she’s overwhelmed. Still, the urgency of the moment has pushed her to make her biggest ideas—including a celebratory Juneteenth piece that’s currently underway—come to fruition.

Some Black creatives, like young fashion designer Jasmine Lewis, are determined that the momentum of this movement will not stop until it brings meaningful change. She’s shifted her creative efforts to fuel the revolution in a way only the social media generation could.

Similarly, up-and-coming rapper Bryson Cole is optimistic that real progress is on the horizon. He’s inspired by the advocacy and action he’s seeing in our community, but he needs to see that action sustained in the coming months.

Here, they’ve shared some of their experiences as Black artists in Dallas, and what they hope to see shift in our city’s cultural landscape.

“Suffering and Smiling,” Abi Salami. Image courtesy of the artist.

Abi Salami

Painter

It’s been tough. I think it’s because I am so emotional about it, so angry about it, so tired. And every time I feel like I start to create something, that fatigue, that exhaustion, that sort of, like, you’re screaming into a void and it might just get lost. It overwhelms me. If you look at my art, I don’t like to paint about depressing things, even though I am painting about depressing things. If you look at the paintings, you would never know it’s about depression. So, every single time I try to create something, it’s so dark, it’s so sad, it’s so angry—not to knock work that does that—but I want to create art that makes the world a more beautiful place. So, that has been challenging for me and I always take a step back from it. I’m like, you know what? This is clearly not my lane. There are other ways that I can address this and show my solidarity and show my protest, which led to the illustrations.

Part of me is optimistic, because this COVID situation has kind of created this perfect storm where people are not distracted by anything else. They’re not distracted necessarily by work or vacations or other things that would keep your mind away or help them escape from what’s going on. So, now we have more people who are engaged with, who are actually able to protest. More people can sign petitions–you just can’t get away from it. That’s great. But a part of me is also just, like, is that not going to mentally fatigue people after a while, to the point where they self-isolate from the situation because it’s just too much? It’s overwhelming dealing with a lot of uncomfortable feelings that have been slowly removed from—like we do not teach the depths of slavery and effects that it’s had on society in school anymore, so people are very uncomfortable with that, just talking about it.

View this post on Instagram

I painted Lily White Spaces to bring awareness to the mental strain caused by being the only POC in spaces that are… less than accommodating. The woman is smiling to keep from crying, screaming, spazzing out and risk being deemed the "angry black woman". Although she wears her heritage proudly (re: African dress) she harbors a guilt (represented by the apple re: Eve and the apple) for not feeling like she can stand up for herself when someone tells a racist joke, or when she gets passed up for promotion because she needs to "smile more" or when someone calls her "one of the good ones". The impossibly stacked chairs in the distance symbolize the fragility of her mental health that even she has to ignore just so she can make it through the day. She looks fine, but she ain't. She really ain't. So, if someone you know feels like discussing/addressing racism makes them uncomfortable, tell them that they don't know what being uncomfortable really is. #iamtired #BlackLivesMatter #blackmentalhealthawareness #checkonyourfriend #createsafespaces

A post shared by Abi Salami | Visual Artist (@abi.m.salami) on

I grew by 2,000 followers in a week, which was insane and awesome and, you know, it had all the feels, and I was excited about it–but then I was like, well, this is not sustainable. How many people are going to keep following me after this, and how many people are going to, you know, keep caring and keep being engaged?

I mean I could literally screenshot you the analytics on my Instagram—it went nosedive down. Luckily, I had the foresight and didn’t get too excited about the increase, because I was sure this is just a moment and it’s gonna die down.

I was able to guard my mental and not let it get to me. But I just worry about other artists, who, if you’re not as seasoned, you don’t quite understand how all this is, and suddenly you have like a whole week or two weeks of people who are really heavily engaging with you and supporting you, and then suddenly, it’s crickets. What does that do to your mental, and do you look back and feel like any of that was sincere? How does that affect your confidence as an artist?

I would like for institutions to look at their rosters, look at their boards, look, just take a very introspective look at the way they run business, how they do business, who they’re doing business with, and ask themselves, are we creating opportunities for minorities here in Dallas? And I don’t think it’s enough to say, that once a minority overcomes so much, and finally makes it, breaks out of Dallas to the point of national acclaim, and then the institutions are, like, ‘oh, yeah, he’s one of us.’ Well, he was here all along, and no opportunity was given. It’s like, why does it have to escalate to the point where we have to overcome literally the impossible to get to a point where the world cares about them, and then, suddenly, Dallas cares about them?

There’s talent here now. And this isn’t just related to race—I think the Dallas institutions, galleries need to figure out a way to give local artists more opportunities.

No matter race—Black, White, purple, female, male—if you’re here, If you’re actively involved as an artist in the Dallas community, and you’re creating great work that, you know, if you were already in established galleries, Dallas galleries would care. They should care now. They should try to care.

Courtesy of Jeremy Biggers.

Jeremy Biggers

Multimedia artist 

It’s twofold for me. I’m glad that a lot of people that wouldn’t have been able to get opportunities otherwise are starting to see these opportunities and starting to have their work shared with others. On the flip side of that coin, it kind of upsets me a little bit, just because the fact that so many different people, so many galleries, are starting to show these works, lets me know that you knew they existed before now and you were actively not speaking about them.

In the back of my mind I’m like, Okay, cool, this is awesome. This is cool that it’s happening now, but also, where was the support before? It’s not like all of a sudden Black artists have become talented enough within the last week to be mentioned—even for myself, getting the amount of people reaching out to me to do shows and stuff of that nature. It’s not like I all of a sudden got this talented this week.

I think it’s become a necessary thing now for businesses to release a statement, and while that’s a start, it’s quite literally the least they could do. I think it’s more important what they do after the statement is made. Personally, I want to see what they do in terms of how you plan to change, how you plan to highlight these artists. I want to see what steps. As far as what they should do, I mean, who knows what they should do in terms of how to fix this? But I just want to see what they do, and I don’t think the onus is on artists of color to solve something that’s been historically problematic for centuries. I think it’s up to the people that are in the positions of power to make those changes and not, you know, seek out someone else doing homework for them.

I haven’t really had the brain space to create. I mean, yeah, I painted one thing this past week but, because it is something that is such a new feeling, I haven’t had time to sit down and process it and figure out what that looks like within the work. But it definitely is something that’s top of mind, and, again, the amount of support is awesome. It feels amazing to be seen. But in the back of my mind, this lets me know that you always knew I was here.

I’ll be interested to see in the coming weeks, and years, and months, to see how these new

policies and new practices are implemented, but right now, I’m extremely skeptical that it’s going to be long term. As soon as protests stop and as soon as the pressure stops being applied, I think it’s gonna go back to, as it always does, what has become status quo. And while there will be some people, some galleries, and some art institutions that will change, I think it’s just easier to go back to, like I said before, the status quo. If it doesn’t, I would love 100 percent to be wrong about that. But based on what I’ve seen before, it’s just going to be a matter of the pressure continuously being applied to let them know like, nah, this is not happening.

As I’ve always said, I’d just like to see more voices, more voices, period. It doesn’t always have to be a straight white man in these spaces. Not to say that it needs to just be Black voices, or whatever—there needs to be other voices, period, because that’s what truly makes the art, and just life in general, more interesting. It’s hearing other perspectives, hearing other people’s experiences.

Jasmine Lewis and models wearing her Good Gal Co. designs.

Jasmine Lewis

Fashion designer

This is my first time actually doing any protesting. I finally opened up. I’m from a small town where I wasn’t allowed to do stuff like this, so maybe that’s why I feel so empowered to go out and help protesters, or even to raise money. I feel like the momentum isn’t gonna stop. For the first time it’s lasted longer than a week. Usually our generation focuses on something for three days and then it’s done and it’s over with. There’s still protests, so I’m hopeful that we’ll keep on going, that we won’t let this be a one week thing, a two week thing, and we’ll actually get the change out of it that we want.

When COVID-19 started it was prom season, that’s where I make a good bit of my money. I had to do different things, and, you know, as all creatives are doing right now, figure it out. How are we gonna make our money? I was really kind of just resting up and getting ideas together. That’s given me time to put all my focus on the protests and be able to raise money and go out every single day and be a part of the protests.

I wanted to do something. I think everyone wants to do something, it’s just we really didn’t know what to do, you know? I wanted to do something, so I just sent out a tweet, and a guy that I shot with one time asked how he could help. So we just thought about, you know, getting a few waters and whatnot. We didn’t think we were going to be able to raise $4,000. We just made a tweet, and people from all over the world—Netherlands, Paris—started sending us money, so we were able to put together bags of supplies for protesters because of Twitter.

Social media has really been a good tool for us to spread the word. We’ve just been sending out DMs, posting a few times and seeing what happens. It’s just all about posting it and seeing what happens. Even though both of our platforms are small, all of our platforms are small—it shows it doesn’t matter how small or big your platform is, you can make a difference if you just stand up and use it.

I thought that it would be good for people our age to know the city’s history. My group, we always go to Deep Ellum. That’s our place, that’s our spot, but most people don’t even know the history of the place that they go to. So, I thought it would be cool to get on YouTube and get some videos and put them together.

Swimwear from Lewis’s brand, Good Gal Co.

I want my business to be swimsuits, lingerie, and the chain pieces that I do. I call the swimsuits that I make tiny things, because over the years, my swimsuits have gotten smaller. I like to celebrate our bodies. I come from a small, conservative town where covered-up modesty is the biggest thing that is preached to you from a young age. I’m more of a woman who just wants to celebrate all shapes, sizes, kinds of bodies and make women feel the most comfortable in themselves. So, it usually is something small and revealing because we’re told that we do need to cover up our bodies. I call my style raunchy women’s liberation.

It has been hard for me here. I came to Dallas thinking that, you know, it would be a little bit easier for me to start here than it would for me to start somewhere like New York. But it actually has been a little bit harder. It’s a small clique, and it’s hard to get into, especially if you’re just making a name for yourself out of nothing. So, I would like to see a lot, a lot more doors open, a lot more people willing to offer knowledge that they have, and money that they have, because there’s a lot of money in Dallas that could go toward opening doors for more young creatives and Black creatives.

Bryson Cole photographed by Trace Summers.

Bryson Cole

Rapper

This is an opportunity we have to really make change. My only thing is, now that we have so many people ready to stand up to the injustices, now we need to make a plan, and now we need an agenda of what we want. We want equality, and we want to tackle issues that were systemically and disproportionately impacting Black people and other underserved communities.

What I’m hoping to see is people band together, which I have seen. I was actually in Dallas yesterday, and it was so beautiful to see people of all colors painting on the boards, all the boarded-up shops. They weren’t vandalizing anything, they were just putting their art on the board, and it all had to do with George Floyd or Black Lives Matter. We took some pictures yesterday. It was just beautiful seeing people come together as a community. Especially Black people have so much pain–I think the best art comes out of pain. So, seeing that displayed was amazing.

This album Letters to Myself, is to help anybody who feels isolated, or detached from the world, or depressed, and it’s to show people that you can rise victorious. Everybody has somebody around them that loves them and cares for them, and I feel like people just need to nurture those relationships and check on everybody. Check on your friends, even your strong friends.  Check on your family. Just everybody check on each other, then will the world be a better place.

Cover art for Cole’s new album, Letters to Myself.

That’s what we’re seeing now. I’ve had random White people call me up, or DM me on Instagram. I’ve had random people of all races show how, collectively, people are tired of the anti-Blackness. And they want to support, and they check on me and see how I’m doing. People are doing that now because there’s a big movement, and I also think that’s something everyone needs to do on a regular basis. We’ve got to check up on each other, because everybody in this world goes through something—I don’t care what race you are, you’re going through something, and if we just track on each other and see how people are doing, I think humanity will really start to see that we’re not so different.

Right now, we’re seeing a lot of companies donate to the Black Lives Matter movement. I don’t want that to just be something we do right now. That needs to be throughout the year, you know, we have a Black History Month once a year, and I want to see and I need to see that anti-racism is not a trend, but something that we push for forever. Because, as Black people, we know that people love our culture, but we also need them to love the people.

Courtesy of Desiree Vaniecia.

Desiree Vaniecia

Painter

As a Black woman, I’m excited. I’m kind of relieved because it’s like, I no longer have to scream at the top of my lungs that stuff like this is happening. It’s really just out in the open for everybody to see and it’s been really nice and good to not feel like my voice is not being heard or, you know, my friends’, my family members’ voices are not being heard. As an artist, though, I feel very overwhelmed.

The support that I’m getting is great, and I’m very grateful for it, but then, also, with that being said, there’s just a lot at once. Like, it was last Monday or Tuesday when the Dallas Morning News article came out that I did the mural—from there it’s just been in boxful emails all the time.

I feel like there are certain people that are reaching out to me that I’ve been trying to get attention of, and I get that as an artist, you have to do the groundwork, you have to put in the time, you have to put in the effort to be noticed. So, certain people that are noticing me, I honestly think they’re noticing me because they see my artwork, they see what I’ve done. Now there are other people that have reached out to me, and I think they just want to make themselves feel better. That’s something that I have to mentally struggle with. I was telling my husband, I don’t want my artwork or what I’m doing to just be the safe work to invest in.

Because there is a purpose and there is a reason why I do my work, and it is very rooted in me being African American and growing up in a Black family and a Black family that’s run by a woman.

Now, I feel like people are really understanding who I am as an artist, and they want to make that investment because they like my work, they like what I’m talking about, they resonate with it.

Courtesy of Desiree Vaniecia.

This has motivated me to do the bigger pieces that I had inside of my head, to get these big ideas out that I’ve been really wanting to do. Now I’m just like, no, I need to just go ahead and put it out there, because, you know, it’s needed for me and it’s needed for my community, and it’s just another voice to shed a light on what goes on in our community and what goes on in our households.

I’ve been really lucky. I will admit that I have. I just started back painting in 2016 and, from there, I feel like I’ve always had an opportunity to show my work, whether it be at Cedars Union, or getting a grant through the city of Dallas. But I have friends who have been grinding for 10 years, and they’re amazing artists. They’re known throughout the nation and, like, Dallas’ art scene won’t even pick them up, won’t even acknowledge them.

That’s really a shame because there’s a lot of great artists in Dallas. There’s a great community of artists being built in Dallas. It’s kind of like we’ve been told since art school that you should be represented by a gallery. You know, you haven’t made it until this museum acknowledges you–but they won’t acknowledge people of color. Like, they’ll acknowledge one or two and say that’s diversified for the year.

I would like that part to change because we have such a good pool of artists to pull from.

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