LOS ANGELES — It’s a familiar experience for anyone who has had to be the only person of color in a room: the uncomfortable silence around issues of race or the pressure to represent a monolithic identity that doesn’t exist. Over the summer, a group of artists invited the public to talk critically and humorously about race, art, and survival in a context where they could not only vent frustrations but also share resources and build community as people of color.
The series of discussions, organized by a collective called Michelada Think Tank (MTT), took place as part of a residency at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE), where visitors sipped beers (or the beer cocktail that’s part of the collective’s name) and swapped stories and ideas about creating more race, gender, and class parity in the art world.
Members of MTT plan to compile their findings and resources to publish an “Artist’s Survival Guide,” which they hope will become an indispensable primer for people of color looking to enter the art world. Among the book’s contents will be a dictionary of “art speak,” rules of engagement, advice on grant writing and portfolio submission, reading lists for decolonial studies and critical race discourse, and a directory of free or cheap resources and people of color–friendly institutions.
I spoke with four members of MTT about their collective’s origins, the conversations they witnessed over the summer, and the possibility of creating radical work as artists of color.
* * *
Abe Ahn: How did you found MTT? What experiences led you to form the collective?
Shefali Mistry: We all came out of the Public Practice graduate program at Otis. As students of color in a cohort that was surprisingly diverse, we all connected over some of the issues we were facing in the program.
Mario Mesquita: As undergrad students, we had similar experiences, whether that was trying to find a community that we might fit into or organizing for communities that we came from. That was definitely a commonality we all held and the reasons we gravitated toward the Public Practice program.
Carol Zou: I was just talking to a friend about the guilt that upwardly mobile people of color have. All of us with an MFA right now are upwardly mobile, but you find yourself in this contradictory position of being in a situation of power that is not where you come from or what you agree with. This is alienating for me in terms of doing work in grassroots communities but also working with institutions in which people of color are still marginalized.
AA: One of the questions asked by MTT was “Are we so busy surviving that we forget to be radical?” Must an artist create explicitly political work to be “radical”?
Noé Gaytán: What does it mean to be political or radical? Those are difficult things to take on. A lot of people like to think they’re being radical. It comes back to what Carol was saying about power dynamics. If you’re in a position where you’re still thinking about survival, it’s difficult to be aware of what “radical” really means.
AA: There’s been enormous turnout for MTT events. Why do you think people were so eager to have these conversations? Why has it taken so long to have these discussions?
SM: These conversations have been happening for a long time, but there’s still so much that needs to happen. Some days it feels like it’s getting worse. One of the reasons I wanted to be a part of [MTT] was because I had been part of another cohort that was not having these conversations at all. No one wanted to talk about it and everyone was uncomfortable. I found myself craving real conversation around these issues, and that’s probably happening to a lot of other people. Younger people are starting to consider these things for the first time. There was a huge range of ages and backgrounds [at the MTT events]. That’s what makes it a nice space.
CZ: I agree with Shefali that these conversations aren’t new, but the attention on socially engaged or community-based artwork is. With this attention, there’s also a lot of criticism about the ways in which institutions work with communities of color. It’s a new spin on an existing topic.
AA: Shefali, you mentioned that things have gotten worse. There are programs like the Getty multicultural internship that provide opportunities for students of color to be part of major arts institutions, but of course, they’re not enough. Is there any reason to be optimistic?
SM: Yeah, why not? I think of myself as an optimistic person. I’m somebody who’s been navigating institutions for a long time, so I enjoy the process of finding places where people like me can enter and start to break down the way things are. When I say things have gotten worse, I don’t mean worse than 50 years ago. In the last few years there’s been a huge pushback. The conversations I get most frustrated with are the ones by people claiming to not see color and absolutely refusing to talk about why these issues are still issues.
NG: We talk a lot about how few people of color there are in museums and institutions, but there’s increasing optimism around people being able to find other spaces where they can have these conversations. That’s a big part of what MTT does, bringing these people together. We want artists, educators, and activists to come and make connections.
AA: A discussion topic at one of the MTT events was how to redefine success, whether it’s defined as success in the market or acceptance into institutions. Do you think artists need to rethink what it means to be successful?
SM: If you’re looking to be validated by a white patriarchal capitalist system, you’re not going to be successful. There’s the potential to remove a lot of the pain from trying to get validation from that system. At that particular think tank, there was one person who said, “I came to the realization that I was okay with being poor and not having certain things; if I have a life that has art and people I love in it, that to me is success.”
CZ: I’m in Dallas right now, which gives me less optimism. [laughs] Here, a lot of perceptions of success are tied to the market, so a lot of strategies and opportunities in the arts scene are attached to wooing collector bases and figuring out who’s going to buy your work. This task of reframing success is important because once you separate the idea of success from market viability, a lot more interesting and politically important work can occur.
NG: This takes us back to the idea of radical practice, too. It’s one thing to make political work that exists within this market-oriented capitalist structure, but it’s another thing to create a successful radical artwork that is able to imagine something beyond that.
AA: A recent New Yorker profile of conceptual poet Ken Goldsmith recounts his retreat from the poetry world, much of it spurred by writing and protests by people of color. I found it interesting that the article ends with Goldsmith saying, “Sometimes I think I might be headed back to the art world … They still seem to like me there.” Do you think the art world has more of a problem with race than other fields?
NG: I don’t think so. There’s a bigger overarching shift that’s happening. You see it everywhere and you do see it in the art world. Like what happened in LA, Decolonizing the White Box is one example. You bring up poetry, but it’s the same thing with Nicki Minaj and Taylor Swift. It’s happening in pop culture, sci-fi, everywhere. It’s less about the medium and more about where we are as a society.
AA: What I find encouraging about MTT events is that there are a great number of like-minded people who are eager to change things. But beyond just creative-class networking, how should people move out of the art world and apply what they learn to the world at large?
SM: In one of the conversations at the final think tank — I brought this up in the context of showing up for a Black Lives Matter event — I said, “That old saying, you can’t fight City Hall? It’s just not true, and people who tell you that aren’t those who fought and lost. They’re telling you that because they don’t want you to fight.” People become apathetic because they’re told over and over again there’s no possibility for change. There’s a lot of being “Facebook political” and yelling at your TV and not actually organizing. That’s not true for everyone, but what I’m getting at is that people actually have to show up. It’s important to show up and get out there.
CZ: What Shefali said mirrors one of my big frustrations in the wake of Darren Wilson’s acquittal. I felt like the art community showed up in the streets for Occupy LA, but I did not feel it showed up at all for anti–police brutality work — the obvious distinction between them being race. When it comes to the issue of race, there’s either a silence in the art world or a reluctance to take that practice out to a grassroots or street presence.
AA: What else have you learned from moderating the think tanks?
MM: It’s been reiterated that these conversations are not new. People are upset that these conversations still have to happen. There’s frustration about still dealing with the same issues that an older generation was dealing with. What we are trying to do is find that middle ground where generations can speak to each other. That’s what sometimes gets forgotten in political organizing: to communicate with previous generations. Our events have allowed for some of that communication to happen. A lot of us have already gone through institutions and know how to walk the fine line to redirect resources to some of our projects. It’s about realizing the value and importance that we have within our own communities.
AA: For your last event, you invited artists, scholars, and activists to talk about their experiences. These guests included people like Simon Leung and Teka-Lark Fleming, who are older than this particular cohort, as well as Black Lives Matter organizer Shamell Bell. How did you come to invite them to speak?
SM: We did a giant brainstorm of artists and activists of color that we were interested in. We’re at least smart enough to know that we don’t know everything. While working on this people-of-color survival guide, it would be stupid of us not to look toward our elders, whatever “elder” means to you. As a group, we went through a list of people who were important and exciting to us, and then we all asked those people.
MM: That’s also a really important thing to remember, just asking. We don’t have to be afraid to ask, regardless of whatever reputation these people have or however famous they’ve become.
NG: Because many of them have their own strong personal connections to education and mentorship, they were all excited to be part of this conversation. There’s this idea of political art and political action. It’s exciting when they’re the same thing, so we wanted to bring people in who can speak to that.
CZ: It was important to have a range of experience. One of the critiques I have about the LA art world is that all the usual suspects come up when you ask people to talk about race. I definitely felt like the usual suspects were invited to represent during the first iteration of Chats About Change. All of these people are established and important mentors, but I also felt that it was a constellation of people who had not been not put together in this way before or who were not on certain people’s radars. I know for some people, it was their first time meeting Shamell. That’s weird to me, but I’m also not surprised.
AA: Now that MTT members are dispersed throughout the country, how do you continue this work? Have you thought of establishing chapters within your respective cities?
NG: The idea of chapters is interesting, because MTT is already kind of a second chapter of what [artist and curator] Darryl [Ratcliff] was doing in Dallas. This iteration of MTT for sure will continue and we’ll continue to work together, but what that will mean for the group as we move forward isn’t completely resolved.
SM: Darryl is starting to do something in Dallas, and Carol will be there on the ground with him. We trust each other to get the work done, be good representatives of MTT, and collaborate where we can. I’m sure it’s going to be harder as we start to branch out more, but right now we’re doing pretty good.
AA: Tell me about the book project and when we can expect to see it released. Are there ways people can help make it a reality much sooner?
NG: That’s what we’re trying to figure out. Where we’re at right now is that we want people to be involved. We don’t claim to be the experts or to have all the knowledge. It really is a group effort. That said, the issue of labor and compensation came up, so we’re working on a teaser publication while we try to get funding for a more complete publication. The teaser will be out in January. Follow us on Facebook and stay tuned for more.