A recent study of 18 major American museums found that 85 percent of art in their collections is by White artists, and 87 percent by men. That makes it nearly impossible for people of color to walk into a major institution and find artwork that represents them. Married couple Raymond Wyatt and Shauna Benoit aren’t curators by trade, but this dilemma inspired them to put together their first exhibition, Our Faces, Our Voices, at the Fort Worth Community Art Center.
The show features self-portraits by 15 local artists, aiming to inspire people of all ages, but especially children, who don’t typically see themselves reflected or represented in the halls of galleries and museums.
“We were discussing how when we were growing up, we never saw people that looked like us within museums,” says Wyatt. “You go on field trips in high school, and elementary school. or middle school, you always kind of felt left out and felt out of place, like you didn’t belong there.”
Having followed the local arts community for some time, Wyatt and Benoit decided to reach out to some of their favorite artists around town to gauge interest. They were pleasantly surprised when more than a dozen established artists agreed to contribute self-portraits, including Jeremy Biggers, Riley Holloway, Amanda Jackson, JD Moore, Abi Salami, Stephen Zhang, James Zamora, and Jerry Lynn, among others.
“We were very surprised that they took a leap of faith with two people that are outsiders. We’re not from the art world or art industry. We just did something that felt very personal to us,” Wyatt says.
The portraits range from traditional oil paintings to videos to watercolor, each representing the artists’ individual styles and preferences. Each piece is accompanied by the artist’s personal statement, words that express the artists’ experiences as people of color and explain how they’ve chosen to depict themselves.
To drive home the idea behind Our Faces, Our Voices, the curators included a special area where children (or any gallery visitors) can create their own self-portrait to hang on the walls.
“It’s really important that kids get a chance to see people like themselves, and to not feel left out, and then they can act as the artist as well,” says Wyatt.
Denton-based painter Madelyn Sneed-Grays decided to participate for the same reasons that Wyatt and Benoit decided to organize the exhibit: She wants the next generation to have a different experience with art viewing than she did growing up.
“I didn’t really see myself in significant works. I think that’s important because, at a younger age, it kind of lets you know what you can’t do, or what the norm is. That changes the way you think about what you should do in your life and what you should be included in,” she says. “It’s also one of the reasons why I’m doing art full time–because I don’t really see myself included a lot in the arts industry. I want to be that example to other women of color, young girls, so that they can know they can do exactly what I’m doing.”
Sneed-Grays’ self-portrait shows her mastery of realism, something she credits to years of feeling like she had something to prove.
“Growing up, I was understanding of the fact that, because I am Black, I have to work a little bit harder. My parents brought me up saying, you need to give your best at everything, not just the things that you are interested in, but everything in general … That set the way for me being a perfectionist. It was like a curse, but I feel like it was also a blessing in disguise because it paved the way for how I work today.”
Many of the artists, including Sneed-Grays, don’t typically paint self-portraits.
“It’s really cool to be able to see how we interpret ourselves, especially as Black and Brown people,” says Ari Brielle. The artist’s practice is centered around Black femininity, identity, and safety, but turning herself into the subject was out of the ordinary. Her self-portrait is more about shared experiences.
“[I’d been] thinking about how we as Black people, specifically Black women, how we present in the world often causes us a lot of harm. When you think about all of the stereotypes that are placed on Black women, whether it be the jezebel, or the mammy, or just hyper sexual, or strong, or whatever it is, and how those stereotypes can often lead our bad experiences,” she says.
Inspired by the solemn beauty of recent vigils for George Floyd and others, Brielle decided she wanted to include altar imagery, like flowers and candles, in the portrait.
“I want to juxtapose that imagery with this figure who was posed in a sort of sensual or sexual way–juxtaposing that with death, and how others perceive us, and how it affects our experience.”
Brielle says she hopes that the painting can spark a dialogue among viewers and inspire them to question why these images are being presented together.
For other artists in the show, the self-portraits froze moments in time that can’t be touched by society’s prejudices. Painter JD Moore chose to depict himself as he was falling in love with his now-partner, Amanda, “a narrative that exists on an island far away from the woes of societal injustice,” as the artist statement describes.
Some, like those by Desiree Vaniecia and Armando Sebastian, simply reflect on artist’s sense of identity and how they came to be the person that they are. Renowned watercolorist Stephen Zhang made his first self-portrait for the exhibition, and it prompted him to continue this self-reflection.
“It made me ask questions I normally would not. However, as I finished the painting, I was not sure if I had answered the questions. Therefore, more self-portraits may happen in the future,” he wrote.
Our Faces, Our Voices is on view at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center through November 7. The center is open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.