If you build it, they will come: Black cultural preservation

Over the next few months, Dr. Nashid Madyun, executive director of Florida Humanities since May 2021, will explore how art and humanities merge in our lives and speak to and for us.

BY DR. NASHID MADYUN, Florida Humanities Executive Director

If you build it, they will come. Such a risky proposition for the cultural preservationist, as it is often the case that the subject matter presented is new, accompanied by interpretation, or simply embraces an aesthetic that by nature will charm or challenge its audience.

Nevertheless, the preservationist endeavors to create a gallery, museum, or cultural center that is intended to address that very paradox. With the case of Black cultural preservation, there is a confluence of consciousness to contend with; unfortunately, this can be a less than seamless triptych climb.

Black cultural preservation is an overbroad attempt to label a genre. Is it domestic or African diasporic? The definition of culture begs for a consistent system of beliefs, customs, relativism, and language. Is there such a system that defines Black cultural preservation? And lastly, our triptych image encounters the vast mediums of expression, from literature to art, its appreciation, and tries to connect it with ethnicity, while that very segment of American society has argued for measures of equity and integration.

Yet, we purchased the painting anyway. A Saturday afternoon in the Warehouse Arts District in St. Pete found you captivated by a mixed media work that not only hinted at Romare Bearden, the famed multitalented product of the Great Migration that never forgot the American South. But this painting spoke to a jazzy energy you have in you, like the work of Archibald Motley, the Chicago Renaissance champion of Black life and living.

The problem is that you did not readily know these pioneers. The work simply spoke to your soul, and you only learned over time about the parallels to the early 20th-century rise of the Black middle class. As a matter of fact, once you became aware of the significant movements of African-American visual culture, you became intrigued and wished you had purchased two works that Saturday afternoon.

Engaging an audience in tandem with curating an understanding and appreciation, specifically for a minority serving sector, means that the appeal also needs to attract the remaining 87 percent of the population or risk some measure of peril.

The Tampa Bay Museum of Art recently opened an exhibition of Carrie Mae Weems and Dawoud Bey. Their combined list of major museum exhibitions ranges from the Whitney, the Guggenheim, Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, to the Milwaukee Art Museum, to name but a few.

If you present it, they will come?

While both born in 1953, contemporaries in thought, time, and medium, they also present a clear measure of dual consciousness of West and East coast influences. We can’t simply say two Black photographers.

The topics of each collection shared are certainly of the Black experience in America, but it is a clear case of parallel lives and aperture. There is a balance between the life we live and cry to sustain, mid-century Black America at the kitchen table, versus the life we fought to open, the life we dreamed our children would have, and the scenes of a trail along the Underground Railroad or a hidden Hush Arbor.

The museum took the opportunity of this opening to share its remarkable collection of Purvis Young originals, another worthy discussion. A visit worth your lens, but a visit worth much more. What happens when they build it, and no one visits?

Over the next few months, let’s explore how art and humanities merge in our lives and speak to and for us.

Dr. Nashid Madyun has served as the executive director of Florida Humanities since May 2021, bringing two decades of experience as a historian, museum professional and educator to the second-largest humanities council in the country.

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