Listen: African American artists on the Twin Cities' arts scene

Is life better for an African American artist today living in the Twin Cities than it was twenty or thirty years ago?

MPR’s Marianne Combs discussed this question with musician Douglas Ewart, painter Tacoumba Aiken, spoken word artist Louis Alemayehu, writer Carolyn Holbrook, storyteller Beverly Cottman and artist Seitu Jones. She asked them to share their thoughts on how the Twin Cities arts scene has changed, for good and for bad, and to talk about the particular challenges they face today.


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TOM WEBER: This is The Daily Circuit. I'm Tom Weber.

MARIANNE COMBS: And I'm Marianne Combs. I had a question recently, is life better for an African-American artist today living in the Twin Cities than, say, 20, 30 years ago? It just came to mind. And I had the pleasure of sitting down with a group of Black artists who've all spent much of their careers here in the Twin Cities.

And I have to say, there were some pretty powerful energy and talent in the room once we were all assembled. There was musician Douglas Ewart, painter Tacoumba Aiken, spoken word artist Louis Alemayehu, writer Carolyn Holbrook, storyteller Beverly Cottman, and artist Seitu Jones.

And I asked them to share their thoughts on how the Twin Cities arts scene has changed for good and for bad and to talk about the particular challenges they face today. Now, Seitu Jones offered a compelling look back at the role of African-American artists in Minnesota. He says he can trace his own family's history here back to 1879.

SEITU JONES: Minnesota has always had this Black presence. And then it's had this Black creative presence as a part of it. And so there have been artists that have come through here for over the last 100 years that this place has spawned that have gone on to really change the world in different ways.

SPEAKER: Gordon Parks.

SEITU JONES: Yeah, Gordon Parks, Oscar Pettiford. I mean, all of these folks that made these big contributions. And Douglas talked about how the community has changed. The community has grown through immigration from folks from East Africa, from West Africa, refugees from Mississippi and from Detroit, all of these Rust Belt cities that have come and added to the mix. And so this community really has grown.

And it's really exciting to be a part of this community now. I mean, Tacoumba talked about our time at the African-American Cultural Center. 40 years ago, at that time, there were still folks around that were part of the Harlem Renaissance. While we were a part of the Black Arts Movement, there were still folks around that were part of the Harlem Renaissance who we could draw from. Those were our elders. And now, we have this--

And one of the things you heard from all these folks, and it's kind of good coming in at the last, is like this tremendous sense of responsibility that we all have to continue to change and to serve as-- and I got to scrunch up my face-- as elders, and passing on information, culture, and knowledge to the folks that come behind us.

This community has been very good to all of us and has been really good to me. It's been really supportive. There hasn't been a time in my artistic career when I've had to work at McDonald's. I've had some hard jobs, but I've been able to do that as an artist pretty much.

And I've been able to receive awards and fellowships and support in different ways. And so now, it is our responsibility to do that to really help support the next generation that comes on behind us. So that line that started back in the 1870s can continue on and on and on.

Now, where it really hasn't changed is in the cultural institutions of the day. There are new galleries here and there are some cultural institutions that have been around for a hundreds years that still really fundamentally haven't changed. There still ain't no Jackie Robinson that's come in as director or as president or CEO of any one of those large cultural institutions.

And while we've seen folks come and go at some of these institutions, we can still count on in just on one hand the number of African-American curators that have been at Walker Art Center, the number of Black folks that have served as artistic directors of the Minnesota Orchestra, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, or even heading a section there. That is far and few between. And that still needs to be changed and still needs to change.

And so that's where we still have to draw this line in the sand and say that we must push those organizations in different ways to respond. When I mentioned Jackie Robinson, I mean, that really helped change baseball. And there hasn't been anybody like that across the country yet in one of those-- in MoMA or--

SPEAKER: Museum of Contemporary art.

SEITU JONES: Yeah, exactly. In Art Institute of Chicago. I mean, it really hasn't happened. And that really defies the fact that Black folks have made such tremendous contributions to culture. I mean, every time there's been a big shift in innovation and culture and popular culture here, you can point to the Black line there somewhere.

MARIANNE COMBS: That was artist Seitu Jones. Joining him at the table was Carolyn Holbrook, the creator of SASE, the Write Place, a center dedicated to making the literary arts accessible to a diverse community. Holbrook says that while many organizations focus on the training needs of people of color coming to work for them, they often fail to realize that they themselves also need training.

CAROLYN HOLBROOK: It's been my experience and with friends that I talk with as well that when we are hired for some of those positions, we're not really accepted. And what I mean by that is that we're expected to come in and become a part of the culture or learn to be white or whatever. When we have a different idea that is very, very real to us, it's often met with criticism or just flatly rejected.

Going back to when I was hired to be the program director at a large arts organization back in the '80s-- Lord, I've lost track of time. I was there for five years. It was just really amazing to me that on their list of individuals who had been weekend mentors or judges for contests or whatever, none of those amazing individuals had ever been brought in as featured writers.

So know I just basically started my own little guerrilla campaign to bring them in. And every single time, I brought someone in like people with big names that are household names to us like Quincy Troupe, like Sandra Cisneros even before she-- it was like I was met with this amazing resistance. And I was accused of bringing the programming down.

And then when I talk with others today who have been in similar positions, those positions haven't lasted very long largely for the same reasons. And so I feel like the mentoring isn't just for us. It's for you as well. You need to be-- first of all to learn that the way that we think, act, do things is not wrong. It's us. But basically, I know that I did and probably several others too just decided, well, heck, if it ain't out there for me, I'm just going to have to build it.

SPEAKER: Exactly.


CAROLYN HOLBROOK: And so I did. And the spoken word community and the community of musicians and poets the people that we're mentoring now have that same mindset. It's like, hey, you know what? The grants aren't out there like they used to be or whatever. There are some, but we want to be artists and we're going to do it.

MARIANNE COMBS: That was Carolyn Holbrook. Spoken word artist and performer Louis Alamayehu has spent much of his career immersed in the Black Arts Movement both in Chicago and in the Twin Cities. He adds that for many African-Americans, art is about more than a piece of music or a painting on the wall. It's about how you live in the world and engage with the community.

LOUIS ALAMAYEHU: When I came back to the Twin Cities, I was really trying to help the community realize that our art was not a matter of creating commodities but we were creating music, dance, paintings in order to lift up our consciousness and build community so that we could be stronger, functional people who could vision together a future that held all of us.

So I don't think there is an interest now to fund that kind of art because I think we are really pushing the boundaries and telling truths that mainstream folks did not want to hear. But the reality is that if we go back to our cultural root, we don't have the paradigm of art the way the Western world does. We don't put a price on it.

It's just there everywhere, on the chair you're sitting in, on the wall, in the spoon you eat with. And all that's connected to an understanding of spirit. So it's like two totally different paradigms. And we're in this very-- it's an environment that's really crazy making because you're trying to negotiate maybe living in multiple worlds. And I think we've gotten very good at that. But it takes a lot of energy.

SPEAKER: It does.

SPEAKER: It does.

MARIANNE COMBS: That was spoken word artist Louis Alamayehu. The conversation, as you could tell, did not stop there. If you'd like to hear more of the discussion, you can find it online at MPR's arts and culture blog, State of the Art.


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