It is often unspoken, the expectations, but deafening in their reception. This is the way you’re “supposed” to be, the world screams, why are you not?
The response of young artists Angelica Dalzon and Kyra Husbands is: because they do not have to be. Demanding their individuality, the two seniors currently pursuing their BFA at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) have co-curated an exhibition titled “The Way We See Us”, an artistic pushback against burdensome expectations placed on them because of their race. The multidisciplinary works, all by undergraduate students at SVA, are on display at the school’s 26th Street Chelsea Gallery until February 21, to coincide with Black History Month events nationwide.
“In politics, daily life and in art, Black people have been restrained to the position of being a statistic, a monolith and a symbol for something greater than we asked to be,” their statement reads. “Having this weight to bear and being expected to carry this load into our art practice is a responsibility that does not give us as Black artists the opportunity or room to be individuals.”
They are on a quest to reclaim that individuality, however – each as an artist and as a person.
“I am an individual who just happens to be Black,” Dalzon said, sharing some of the pressures she felt growing up in suburban New Jersey because she “didn’t act a certain way” that people felt Black people should. And over the years, she recalls noticing in the media that many times other groups were speaking about the Black experience in America, and that the “narrative was often skewed.”
It was frustrating for her to witness, she said, knowing that many Black artists, for example, have things to say in their work that didn’t necessarily pertain to their Blackness. “It is just them saying ‘this is me as a person, this is how I live my life. I don’t think I need to ask people how I should lead my life’.”
“Put in a Box”
As the current president of the Black Student Union at SVA, she found similar-minded peers among the school’s approximately four to five percent Black population.
The echo was “I am tired of being put in a box. I can only be myself,” she said.
Co-curator Kyra Husbands is one of those peers. Growing up in Beacon, just north of the City, she spent a childhood immersed in the arts – years of ballet, museum trips and exposure to different mediums in an artistic family. She says it has always been a dream of hers to curate a show for Black artists, to showcase their work – in whatever the form that is – “whatever story they want to tell, not necessarily tied to something traumatic.”
“The Way We See Us” has been several years in the making, if only as a concept, sparked by Dalzon’s desire to create a space free from the “immense responsibility” of always having “to speak up for our people” as well as Husbands’ wish to invite Black artists to showcase whatever they choose, and a group of fellow undergraduate artists wanting to participate in the experience. In addition to Dalzon and Husbands, the show includes works by Fatou Ridgrid, Tatiana Tift, Cyle Warner, Marques Deloney and Islen Milien.
Husbands says that while the pieces she contributed to the show are intimate and beautiful paintings of family members that she enjoyed doing, it has taken her almost the four years of college to realize “I don’t have to make art about my Blackness,” she said. She said she took a risk with her most recent works that are now more abstract “removing the very obvious thing that she is Black, giving another perspective.”
She added that even in making art with other Black people, it doesn’t mean they are going to be on the same page.
“There are some people who think that doing a political work, that’s the best work; and some people think that the work that is most beautiful, that’s the best work – I think there is room for all of us to just have a place at the table and be respectful of that,” she said.
While Dalzon is happy about finally having the opportunity to do a show, she believes there is a bigger conversation beyond the exhibit.
“I’m hoping that the next generation of Black kids will be ‘Oh, there is not just one way I have to be? I don’t have to be what they show on TV?’” she said. They can just be themselves – individuals.