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Yes museums can be cultural spaces for POC, but only if they’re already dead
Illustration: Gustavo Reyes

Over the past few months, I’ve had the opportunity to attend several events in the Bay Area that placed culture in focus. I will only highlight two days of events, as they draw a nice parallel around the several other events I attended. In December I attended a tour at the de Young Museum and the 36th annual Encuentro del Canto Popular hosted by Acción Latina. In February, I went to the Tribal Art and Textile Show at Fort Mason and another event hosted by Acción Latina as part of the bimonthly Calle 24 Paseo Artístico art stroll.

Sterilized Rooms and Celebration of Culture

At the de Young museum, I was part of a guided tour of “Revelations: Art from the African-American South.” Pieces in the exhibit address the issues of racism, oppression, and slavery. Powerful. Women and men from a small region of this country, founded on the land of the Indigenous and built upon the backs of Africans, are being recognized for their artistic abilities. Many of the artists were “discovered” by an art patron after they placed their works on their porches, and they were later given exposure in galleries and museums, but something about the whole set-up didn’t feel right to me. This is a museum that also houses artifacts from Africa and the Americas, appropriation of a colonial past.

Later in the day after the museum visit, I attended Encuentro 36. One of the themes that lifetime San Francisco activist and rapper Equipto stated was that we need to create our own spaces to celebrate culture. With the ongoing imposition brought by gentrification, people of color need to continue to manifest their expressions of culture in their own spaces. Encuentro and Acción Latina have functioned in this way for anyone that has been in attendance—beyond cultural spaces they are familial spaces.

So then, where are voices of people of color permitted to exist? The answer seems to be either in their own spaces or in museums designed by the colonizers. Yes, the presence of African-American art from the South brings visibility to the works (we heard stories about descendants of the artists feeling deep appreciation for the visibility), but historical voices of people of color are celebrated in sterile rooms long after they’ve gone, not in larger society while they are alive. Contemporary people of color need to have their own spaces, especially when they are not profitable for corporatists.

Artifacts for Sale

In early February, I purchased tickets to the Tribal Arts and Textiles show at Fort Mason. I anticipated contemporary works being exhibited by the original artists and perhaps a few older works being shown off. While there were some contemporary works, the majority of art being shown off were artifacts from museum-style galleries. But the artifacts weren’t just being shown off, they were being sold. For thousands of dollars. By White men, predominantly from Belgium, the Netherlands, London, and New York.

Traditional African and Mesoamerican works were being sold by the colonizers to collectors who are the immediate benefactors of  White privilege. It took me several minutes after this realization to get my rage to a level at which I could function and enjoy the beauty of the works despite the space and manner in which they were being used—that is, used to perpetuate the tradition of colonial thievery.

Before my friend and I headed for the exit and a few persons of color began to show up, my friend had been the only Black person (other than a friendly security guard), and I had been the only Brown person in sight. I felt out of place even though my friend and I were around artifacts that belong, if not directly to our cultures, to cultures adjacent to ours.

Vibrant Cultural Expressions

Just as I did in December, I found reprieve at Acción Latina later that day. There was a Paseo Artístico on Calle 24 and Acción Latina was hosting Taller Bombalele drumming, singing, and dancing songs of resistance and celebration, as well as the Chulita Vinyl Club spinning old school jams. Once again, they provided a space for the experience of real, live culture.

I suppose I have written all this to say that, even though capitalistic society continues its attempts to place historical artifacts and voices of the oppressed in sterilized rooms—in their own spaces, the descendants of those voices are becoming louder, stronger, and more expressive.

Over the last couple months I witnessed the growing voices of persons of color at Encuentro 36, the Black Comix Art Festival, a discussion on the EZLN by a Yaqui elder, a Ruby Ibarra concert, the Native American Two-Spirit Pow Wow, watching undocu-movements on social media, and in several other settings. While artifacts created in the past are still being commodified, the spirit of the ancestors and the will toward liberation continue to grow.

Story by: John Carson