Breaking Down Walls In Baltimore’s Art Community

ArtPart’heid: One Year Later

Review by Tessa Wiseman

A little over a year ago, eight women gathered around a table at Joe Squared on North Avenue. But it wasn’t your average pizza party. These women were making plans for addressing white supremacy in Baltimore’s art community, and beyond. Three were white, three were African American, one was Asian, and another was Indian. Putting their heads together, they envisioned what would become an event entitled Art-Part’heid, attended by upwards of 300 artists and art supporters from all over the city. The event lasted four hours, and put a critical lens to race and segregation within the arts community.

Sheila Gaskins, who was in the movement from its pizza parlor days, said of that event, “We did not sugarcoat. We used all kinds of cuss words” in describing perspectives on the art scene in Baltimore. During that first Art-Part’heid event, everyone in attendance made an action plan for how they would contribute to breaking down discriminatory practices and attitudes in the art world.

One year later, ArtPart’heid, and the discussions that were started there live on. Wednesday, Gaskins and fellow artist and activist Valeska Populoh hosted the first ArtPart’heid anniversary at MICA Place, located in the heart of East Baltimore. Together, the two led activities and discussions on race, white privilege, and discrepancies in power.

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The walkway leading to MICA Place.

At first, some might deem the two women unlikely friends. Gaskins is in her fifties, and wears a headband and bifocals. Populoh is no older than 35, with a tussled bun of red hair atop her head, a jean button-up shirt, and boots that undoubtedly had no trouble facing last month’s blizzard. Despite their phenotypical differences, Gaskins and Populoh worked together seamlessly to facilitate discussions and head up activities during the Art-Part’heid anniversary.

The room for the event was nondescript, I located it on my first try simply because it was the only door that was slightly cracked open. The space was bright with a positive feel, boasting artwork and word maps, akin to an elementary school art room. When about twenty people of all ages had trickled in, we were all told to move our chairs into a large circle and introduce ourselves. Gaskins then read a traditional welcome that lasted approximately three minutes and included things such as “Welcome right-handers, left-handers, and ambidextrous folk. Welcome foodies, welcome pet lovers. Welcome unemployed, welcome underemployed, welcome overemployed.” When she finished, the room felt warmer, thick with inclusivity.

The next twenty minutes were spent playing a game called “Get On the Bus.” Basically, if what Populoh said applied to an individual, he/she was expected to stand up, and then sit back down until the next prompt. These included prompts such as “Get on the bus if you were raised West of the Mississippi” and “Get on the bus if most of the assisting staff at your school or work is of color.” Most people in the room rose for the latter. As a side note to the activity, Gaskins took the time to recognize the more obvious groups of people that were not represented at the event, namely black males.

Following this “warm up”, three words were put on a large white sheet of paper at the front of the room: Power, White Privilege, and Gatekeeper. In typical word association fashion, we went around the room and said the words and phrases we think of when pondering each term. A MICA student did a visual interpretation of gatekeeper after another student asked for a definition. Standing in the center of the room, he warmly welcomed an invisible individual into his side of an invisible wall, and subsequently denied access to the next individual.

This activity opened avenues of discussion centered on power relations, and where we have access to resources and opportunities. For many of us, it was our schools and workplaces. Populoh announced that she has access to a photocopier and printer, two things that many aspiring artists, or many individuals outside of the arts community for that matter, do not have at their fingertips.

The night ended with a discussion of what a world with arts equity would look like. One woman, who had been contributing to the discussion all evening while simultaneously doodling a picture that I couldn’t replicate in my wildest dreams, said that this would look like fairness. Fairness, she said, is something she has gotten a taste of in an elective class at her school where she is “finally not the token Latino person.” The guy with the whale sweatshirt said arts equity would look like “integration. And developing systems that maintain equality.” He got some nods and affirming grunts in response.

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MICA Place is open to the public, providing social and educational programs to residents and students.

Though I arrived at this event expecting two hours of over-my-head art speak, I got something quite different. I discussed and listened to perspectives on race relations in America, heard proposals for a more equitable Baltimore, and felt welcomed by a group of cool Baltimore artists, left-handedness and all.

The ArtPart’heid celebration was part of MICA’s Power Speaker Series.

Tessa Wiseman is a Baltimore-based writer from Tampa, FL.

 

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