Essay: Artist Shinique Smith on Standing With Grace and Dignity

 

 

 

Like Charlottesville, VA before it, Baltimore became a geographical symbol of America’s racial divisions when Donald Trump hatefully called it a “rodent-infested mess” in 2019. It was one of the fuses that was lit that led to the explosion of protests in Minneapolis following the murder of George Floyd—and so many others—which then ignited similar protests across the continents.

The Baltimore Museum of Art has also become a symbol—a cultural one—of the struggles for justice and equality in America that seem to move forward only to get pushed back again. It has enacted a bravely ideological policy to acquire works only by women for the entire calendar year of 2020. And it has steadfastly supported the work of artists of color. One such work, Shinique Smith’s Grace Stands Beside (which is on exhibit through August 9, though the museum remains closed for now), is as powerful and relevant as it is possible to be at such a time as this. She has described it as representing, “a complex state of being that Black people and others who have endured tragic prejudice have embodied to survive and to rise beyond.”

Smith, now living and working in Los Angeles, was born in Baltimore in 1971. After a stint in the film industry (she launched an African American film festival in Seattle), she went on to earn a Master of Fine Arts degree from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2003. She soon gained wide acclaim for her visceral, spiritually-imbued sculptural creations, exhibiting everywhere from New York to Miami, Venice to Paris. Her work is now held in the permanent collections at the Brooklyn Museum, Denver Art Museum, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The Museum of Fine Arts Boston, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, amongst others.

She kindly accepted BlackBook‘s invitation to elucidate the title Grace Stands Beside within the context of this historic moment in America.

 

Grace Stand Beside Us All

 

Grace Stands Beside…me please, always and now…
…after bearing witness to willful murder and feeling the reverberations of that breathless moment—within protests and in the sad and angered eyes of strangers, who I feel akin to, through shared similar experiences of horror, disappointment and helplessness. A moment that vibrates with the possibility for radical change and with an awareness that George or Breonna could have been someone I knew or loved or me.
How does anyone process? One emotes, reflects and transcends as one can. This is a learned and practiced exercise employed often. And, inevitably flashes of memories resurface from my dungeon of racist encounters. ‘Central Park Amy’ triggered my memory of that one time over 20 years ago when I was a young woman working as a freelance production assistant and the only Black crew member on a semi-popular 90’s thriller starring a now famous blonde actress who was the same age as me at the time.
My main job was to wrangle and transport the talent, and for over a month we had worked together, this actress and I, in a very friendly and easy manner. Until one day when she arrived late with shopping bags from a spontaneous spree, making her and her fellow lead actors late to set (for which I was being blamed). I briefly and jokingly chastised her for her shoppingwhich was not out of step with the rapport she and I had developed, then we all jumped into the van and I drove them to set.
Her expression changed and the whole way there she was quiet. When we arrived, everyone rushed to hair and makeup. The next thing I knew one of the producers called me over because I had been accused of threatening this actress. She had told them that I was ‘aggressive’, and she did not feel ‘safe’ around me. Her words hurt me and gave the producer reason to reassign me, and the bigoted assistant director leave to harass me all night by mocking my name over the walkie talkie. I tried to speak with her, but she wouldn’t even look me in the eye.
This was a production I had worked on for months during pre-production and production and built connections which may have taken me to the next job; and her wounded pride convinced her it was okay to fabricate this lie and besmirch my reputation. In the mix of it all (grace stood beside me)—I remained professional even though I wanted to cry from the shock and hurt. I stood poised with my name being mangled over the radio—fighting tears and rising above what I knew was racist behavior—not a threat to my life but to my livelihood and my reputation. This was one of many encounters from 1st grade to the present that have sought to hinder me. There are countless stories like this with mild to much more damaging effects for Black people—many tears have fallen and choked down for later expression.
Some may perceive that when Black people cry, that we are always crying (which if it were true would be justified, because there aren’t enough collective tears to relieve the pain we’ve endured). When Black people protest in response to a horrendous loss of innocent life at the hands of those who have the duty to protect us, we are identified as destructive, violent and enraged (though if we were truly savage this entire country would have been burned down long ago); and if Black people stand with dignity in the midst of tragedy, though we feel every wicked glance, we are perceived as though nothing bothers us—as though we are unshakeable (and in the end we are just that, unshakeable).
We are human beings that over centuries have endured more than many humans could bear and continue to do so because GRACE is in our DNA. Demonstrating Grace is an evolved state of being—some may call it having spiritual resolve, wherein we strive to transform personal and public tragedies, losses, slights, and ‘Amy Cooper’ type gestures that have happened daily throughout our lives, into positive energy for our own individual and collective survival.
Our Grace vibrates kindness, strength, wisdom, generosity to All and it shines in our Creative Expressions. Grace glows from within us. Grace shines through our eyes and through our skin and that Grace radiates—contributing incredible light and gifts to the whole of the world. And I imagine that it is this Grace that may be most intimidating to those who have sought to dim our light. It must truly be vexing that our light shines even brighter despite the assaults waged against us.
Sincerely, I hope with the Grace which resides within me, that one day, all will respect the warmth and joy of our light and our lives. Until then may Grace Stand Beside Us All.
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