An ArtHop controversy that was resolved Thursday morning in favor of the artist demonstrated the power of social media. It also reflected the skittishness with which people can react when confronted with issues of race, which makes the visual arts no different than other institutions at this time in this country.
Kezia Vershelle Harrell, who studies painting at the San Francisco Art Institute, was booked a month ago to exhibit a series she titled “I Hate White People But I Loves You: The Search For Her Blackness” at Broadway Studios. According to Harrell’s artist’s statement, the show explores Joy Degruy-Leary’s theory of Post-traumatic Slave Syndrome, which discusses the transgenerational trauma of African-American chattel slave descendants.
The show’s curator, Peter Valdez, who rented space at Broadway Studios, sent Harrell a text Wednesday saying: “Hey I’m not feeling the title of your show. Can you please change it thank you.”
Harrell said no, she would not change the title, and that she felt disrespected as an artist. Valdez responded that he was canceling her show and would be finding another artist to replace her.
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Harrell turned to Facebook to spread news about the decision. The local Dulce UpFront artist collective was a catalyst in harnessing public opinion, Harrell says. At one point members of Broadway Studios weighed in, explaining that the views expressed were those of a tenant and not the studio as a whole.
On Facebook, Tom Matott on Wednesday night blasted the curator’s decision: “Not enough pictures of vineyards and sunsets? Not enough sketches of tattooed hipsters gazing at their shoes? Maybe she threatens the sensitive taste of Fresno’s art scene by addressing a topic that goes beyond the skill of someone’s brush stroke or photographic eye. ”
Disappointed in Fresno’s thin skin this evening.
Tom Matott in reaction to curator initially canceling Kezia Vershelle Harrell’s show
At one point an alternative location for the show was found at the Fresno Soap Co.
But before noon Thursday, Valdez had relented. When reached by The Bee on Facebook and asked about the controversy and why he asked for the title to be changed, he replied: “Sorry I’m busy setting up for the show right now. Everything has been worked out with Kezia and she will still be showing at my space.”
The title will remain intact.
By 4 p.m. Thursday, Valdez had posted an item on the show on his Facebook page.
In the series of paintings, according to Harrell’s artist’s statement, she uses “an overtly racialized and hyper-sexualized Raggedy Ann Doll as a conceptual pinnacle” and critiques the perception of “the Black body, through the theatrical lens of Blackface performance and pickaninny memorabilia.”
Harrell, who says that Valdez knew the title of the show from the time the exhibit was engaged, says the subject of race can be a hard pill to swallow.
“It makes people’s skin crawl because it is a reality of America. Racism is the fabric of this country. I think he didn’t want to offend any ‘precious’ white people who visit Broadway Studios for ArtHop night. But the truth of the matter is that a lot of white people from Fresno are totally blind to racism and they need to see works that addresses it hands on.”