Nov 17 2014

Poet Republik: Sesshu Foster

Go visit a museum and tell me what you see, who is represented? Who is represented disproportionately? Or, better yet, go to any museum of your choice via the internet and count how many artists of color are represented. Below is a poetic “review” by Sesshu Foster which he wrote after a visit to the U.C. L. A. Hammer Museum in Los Angeles with his mother.

review of “made in l.a.” at the ucla hammer museum

it’s okay that the artists are all white, even the nonwhite artists (2?) are kind of white

it’s okay that the curators are all white, it’s

okay that the l.a. reflected in this show is like the l.a. in robert altman’s “shortcuts” which is a strange all-white l.a.

(in charlton heston’s “omega man,” (1971) i think the head vampire or whatever they were who was menacing the ‘real’ last human beings on earth, that is the humans who were not vampires or whatever (all white, except maybe the black woman hipster with her militant afro) was black)

let’s not go into “planet of the apes” at this juncture, but in the apartheid imagination of the future white people are in peril, isolated with jutting jaw of manifest destiny determination like charlton heston with his guns and his alzheimer’s

it’s okay that the curators at the ucla hammer museum think that ‘minorities’ are best represented by white queer artists (that shows diversity like on “star trek” the aliens are white people who wear prosthetic make-up or paint their skin blue or green—that’s a kind of diversity)

it’s okay that the white artists who are queer artists don’t have anything to do with POC (people of color)

it’s okay in the little museum labels where the curators note the background, issues and ideas in the artist’s work, that none of it referenced POC even when it mentioned “highest rates of incarceration in the world in spite of having only 5% of the worlds population” (it’s okay not to mention that blacks and latinos make up 60% of the incarcerated even though they are 30% of the american people)

it’s okay

it’s all right, like when i sat in one day in marilyn robinson’s mfa writing class at the university of iowa and she shared her course reading list which was all white except for one book by the only black writer and only POC in creative writing at U of I, and she asked did anyone have any remarks or suggestions, and i said, apart from the one, the reading list isn’t very diverse, it’s all white

robinson didn’t answer, she just smiled and white students (maybe i was the only nonwhite in the room) said, “it’s a very diverse list, already” and “yes, for example, look at all the women writers” and “and kafka,” one added

and robinson just smiled

and i left

that’s all right

it’s okay

that was in 1994, 20 years ago

it’s okay 20 years later to walk through the ucla hammer museum through an all white show

when i was a kid i thought maybe american apartheid would slowly change

and now we have a black president who does everything white presidents do

he does everything just like them, all his policies are the same—he’s like colin powell

and in the 1990s i felt like things could change, maybe

but now i see white thinking’s not changing and this exhibit and the exhibits at every other museum in the city show this, but

it’s all right because the ucla hammer museum curated and hosted “now dig this! art and black los angeles 1960 – 1980” which exhibited from october 2011 to january 2012

so it’s okay, because “black los angeles” had its day

it had the one exhibit

it has black history month every year

it had wanda coleman (in those days)

so it’s okay that all the official museums in l.a. show white art all the time

it’s okay because you can go to the “california african american museum” if you want to see art by POC or you can drive to long beach to the museum of latin american art, or the l.a. county museum of art probably has one or two frida kahlos or diego riveras and some great precolombian ceramics

so it’s okay

if the all the other museums like lacma and moca and etc. show white art at all times

asco had it’s one lacma show “asco: the elite of the obscure, a retrospective 1972 – 1987” on exhibition from sept. 2011 to december 2011, so it’s okay

they had that one

one is good, now we can go back to our regularly scheduled programming

like after a public service announcement

it’s okay that the apartheid imagination remains in place and is not disrupted

thank you

that reassurance is like walking on a broken toe

By: Sesshu Foster


33 Responses to Poet Republik: Sesshu Foster
  1. M Rodriguez says:

    I never took the time to evaluate the artists background and whether or not they were white or people of color. After reading this poem I think back to museums I have visited and looked up several of the artists that were on exhibit and all but one were white. It really does make me wish that there were more acknowledgement of artists of color.

    • G.Rico says:

      I have always seen it and experienced it! This poem confirms a lot of my experiences as a minority. In museums that I have been in, I have not seen many artist as David Alfaro Siquieros, Frida, or Rivera. I mainly see artist that are white. Minorities are hardly expose or identified. I have encountered this type of segregation in classrooms here in the Monterey area. I have been discourage to continue my education, to write, or even bother to earn any degrees because I was told I had a long way because of being a Mexican, that I was not going to be able to have as much success as a white person. It is very upsetting that we still have discrimination and have people that have thoughts of racism against color and race.

  2. C.Ortiz says:

    I found this to be true, at least, in the museums I’ve visited. I think part of it is that not minorities aren’t always given the opportunity to have an exhibit. I think that needs to be done to encourage and support all artists.

  3. B. Amestoy says:

    I do understand the frustration of the author with the “non diverse” readings and art that have been shown to him. I experience something similar during the holidays. Everyone (well, more like 90 percent of the population) knows what Christmas is, they know (mostly) the story, the traditions, old Saint Nick. But not as many people know of what Chanukkah really is? Not as many as Christmas. What about people who know what Ramadan is? Eid? Even less. Chanukkah is celebrated by people of many ethnic backgrounds, so is Christmas, so why is it one is more obscured than the other?
    I honestly don’t understand much of the complaint in this poem, as it is not a problem of ethnicity, it is a problem of ignorance. The books for the class could have been the best books that the teacher saw to teach the class. The art in the museums could just be what is best for that particular exhibit. What I am more upset about is the fact that there isn’t respect for the art shown by the author, only for the artist.
    What is worse; being ignorant to beauty because you disapprove of the color? Or be ignorant of color because you disapprove of the beauty?

    • A Mercado says:

      This brought me back to when my sister and I were in a restaurant in Oregon. We had been seated for a half hour and not received service. When we looked around the only people in there were white. We felt for the first time that color did matter.

    • CHernandez says:

      This poem is definitely moving and reminds me of all the instances that minorities are under-represented in the media; whether that is television, shows, museums, etc. It feels to me that minorities were under-represented until now. More than ever I see a change where they (the media) might be trying a little harder to try to create films or shows that are more “diverse”. It seems that in America, the culture is that of predominantly white, but I do see change in the way the people of color are making an impact in the country. I like how he mentions Obama; Obama is filled with complexities and is not only driven by his own will but also appointed by those around him to continue such policies that affect the country and people of color.

  4. E. Hernandez says:

    I had no idea that POC were not being represented in museums. I had no idea this was an issue. This is truly sad. I think art is art, and the race or ethnicity of the author shouldn’t be something to get in the way of them displaying it in an exhibit, art show, or museum. I would think the public eye would like appreciate some diversity not only in the art itself but in the circle of artists who make the art. Wouldn’t this boost sales or maybe the possibilities of exchanging ideas and meeting new people? This is very disappointing that this has been going on for so long. This is sad that in order for the POC art to be displayed there has to be a separate museum or function just for that particular reason. They can’t just be combined? I don’t understand the big deal. I personally think some of the best artists are from POC.

  5. J Bonilla says:

    I am currently doing a research paper on how the media does not portray minorities. I have been reading many similar articles and it is very true. Minorities are poorly represented by society. Many wonderful people are discriminated against in certain areas of a city for not coming from their shade of liking. Some only add diverse pieces to not have questions of racism asked. We need better representation. Many great individuals are being denied the spotlight for not looking the part. I’m not saying that who makes it isn’t great but if they were at their primes and these diverse individuals both were to compete in a non-biased competition I know the diverse individual would be good competition.

  6. K.F says:

    Unfortunately “racial discrimination” exists in every field. People understand the people who have similarities and values. And people misjudge people who have different backgrounds and culture. it is a very deeply historical and modern issue. How can we make it better? Talk.Bring the sensitive topic on the tables, just like Mr. Sesshu Foster. Let people know how we feel. It will be take a long time, and need extra special efforts. Without any endeavors, how can we solve the problems?

  7. A. Haro says:

    I came from a high school which was for the majority Hispanics, mainly Mexicans. There was a time when someone was shot in the baseball field in the back, and of course the news came flocking to our school. What bothers me is that whenever we did something to help the community, for example, do a can food drive and collect more cans than we have ever done so, the news reporters were never to be seen. It seems as if the media only chooses to represent people of color in the instances of crime and mistakes.

  8. S. Tetreault says:

    After looking at some museum websites, it was surprising to me to find that minority groups are even poorly represented when it comes to their art. One would think that the people who work in an industry that is supposedly so open-minded, that people of all walks of life would be accepted and supported by them. I also find the idea of Black History Month to also be ridiculous because, as Foster stated, it makes it seem alright to just ignore it for the rest of the year since those people of color already had their recognition. It’s as if they think that one month makes up for all of the discrimination that they have previously faced. It reminds me of Morgan Freeman’s response to a question on 60 Minutes asking his thoughts on Black History Month. Here is the URL to that interview.

  9. A. Zarate says:

    This poem was informative in a way that it made me think back to the paintings, sculptures, and art in general that I’ve seen and made me wonder whether the images represented the artist’s culture or another race. I enjoy art very much and with seeing art you see an artist’s imagination, inspiration and creativity. Art will not always correlate with everything or be accepted by everyone, but great art will always be acknowledged.

  10. L Ramirez says:

    I had never really thought about how people of color are not really presented in museums because I had only visited some in Mexico. Not until I went to one in San Francisco is when I realized there were only white artists represented. Its sad to see there is racial discrimination. I believe POC are also creative and artistic but its sad to see society is still discriminating and shielding itself from a possibility of great art.

  11. Maria says:

    I found this very interesting. It was something I had never thought about. I remember in Spanish class talking about the Diego Rivera murals in San Francisco and my professor seemed really excited when she spoke about it. As if it was something rare and after reading this I realized that she was talking about the murals the way she was, with so much enthusiasm because it is rare for people of color to be represented in the Art industry here in the states. After 20 years it has not changes a lot and that is really sad. They should be equally represented every day of the year not just one day. or a month or for a certain amount of time, the whole year just like any other white artist.

  12. C Rendon says:

    I do not go to museum that often anymore mainly because I did notice this misrepresentation of painters of color. I can recollect a time when I was searching in San Francisco for replicas of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo’s paintings. I searched and searched but unfortunately I did not find one. These two are probably the most profound artists in the 20th century, and I hardly saw any of their works in one of the biggest cities in California. However, I noticed that we don’t need a museum to see painters and artists showcase the art of misrepresented. Some of the most famous murals are not in the museums but they are rather outside where ever one can walk by and see their beauty, no price tag because they are priceless. Why do we need a museum to represent cultures, when artist have other means of presenting art to the world. No disrespect but I say let the whites keep the museums, artists of color got the whole world to use as their canvas. Artist can connect with people in so many different ways with the help of the internet and social media. Overall, I do agree with the idea that museums do misrepresent other cultures but I think that should not disable an artist of color from doing what they love and present their work another way.

  13. M Cobb says:

    Without reading this article I would not know about that white artist are more recognized than people of color. I think famous artists come in all kinds of colors and nationalities but sadly these are mostly not presented in exhibits at museums. The good point is that this article mentions about the black history month and Hispanic heritage month.

  14. Miriam Medrano says:

    I can’t believe the teacher and the students thought that was one diverse reading list, the nerve, and to make matters worse I think it was sexist of them to integrate and claim female writers in that list as part of that diversity as if women were more than enough the minority they needed. Sometimes I think people themselves aren’t aware of their racism. I like how he tied politics into this as well; I’ve always felt like Obama might be bound to follow a certain line because he has white eyes hawking him from all 360 degree angles making sure he stays in line as to not disrupt the social hierarchy and go too out of way to help minorities because it’s not something most in upper management can conveniently afford.

  15. S. Monteagudo says:

    It never fails to amaze me how no matter how many years go by, things like this keep happening. It’s absurd that people of color aren’t represented the way whites are even in art. I’d never stopped to think about who was represented and who wasn’t, so this was very eye opening.

  16. A. Guerrero says:

    I found this poem very interesting. I never thought to look at the artist’s race or ethnicity. Everything was the same to me but when I look back on the museums that I have visited in the past I find myself realizing that everything is the same. The artist whose work is displayed in the museum has the same color as the rest of the artist. The minorities work are hardly there displayed where every can see.

  17. k garcilazo says:

    I don’t think any of these things are ok.
    For example, having all art in L.A. resumes to be white is not necessarily a good thing for the reason being that diversity calls for verity and individualized prospective. A person artist or writer of a certain ethnicity will most likely view life a different way compared to a person of a different cultural background or ethnicity. That being said not all members of the same ethnicity will have the same outlook thoughts or ideas for everyone sees things differently. Being able to see the different art and styles of art of all different ethnicity and culture is something beautiful and unique. Alter all who doesn’t like seeing things through a new or different prospective, it’s what makes our understanding expand.

  18. k.garcilazo says:

    The poem reminded me of the Tv shows I would watch when I was growing up. Most of the characters where all white. At that age I was too young to wonder why they were all white or why they did not have any characters that reminded me of my culture. However, living in Salinas I have never really felt that there was only a single representation of one ethnicity. That being said I don’t agree with everything being showed in the art museums to be representing only one group or ethnicity. For one reason, we live in a cultural melting pot of ethnicities that all bring different ideas, prospective and creativity to museums. Also, I truly believe we expand our minds and understanding by seeing things through another person’s eyes. This being said if everyone is the same how can any verity or new be presented to others.

  19. L. Manriquez says:

    In World War II, thousands of men took technical training to be photographers. After the war, they used their military training in civilian photography. That is how the discrimination for many women to become photographers in the United States started. For example, in a video I watched, Imogen Cunningham, whose photographs are in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, talks about the discrimination she experienced as a female photographer in her early career. Cunningham found that many people didn’t take her seriously and didn’t believe she could be a professional photographer in a field dominated by men.

  20. L Ortiz says:

    The poem brought me back to my world cultures history class. The lecture was on Africa, and we were studying its culture. As an example the professor put the Tarzan movie. The professor put the Tarzan movie to show us how white people put down people of color. By making Tarzan a white character that is able to control the jungle put people of color down, and made them seem inferior, because they live in Africa and they can’t control the jungle. All this is amazing, because you don’t really know what are the intentions of something until you analyze things critically.

  21. J G says:

    Sadly racism still exist in many places. By reading this poem I remembered of a movie were there was a restaurant where only white people were allowed to enter. In this movie there was a black man who thought that by being famous he was going to be able to go into the restaurant so he start to sing and he became famous between his community. I remembered that one time he tried to enter to the restaurant, but the manager didn’t allow him. So in that moment he knew that it didn’t matter if he was famous or not, he was still a black person.

  22. Mdaza says:

    First time I heard the acronym POC referring to people of color and it’s not okay, but is very accurate and discrete as we should say WT (white people). Museums show what the audience want to see. It also depends on where the museum is located. As an example The MET (Metropolitan Museum of New York). The MET is one of favorite’s museum, I go as much as I can, the central area with the European Sculptures is perfect to sit and spend the whole afternoon. The museum is located is the most affluent part and touristic part of the city. Their aim is to target people therefore, they will no exhibit local or heritage exhibitions all the time. They want to show the best of the best, the “distinctive” artists of all times. Unfortunately most of them (artists) are white therefore majority, over the sector and artwork.

  23. L. Rodriguez says:

    A person’s ethnicity should not keep them from their art to be displayed at s museum. Everyone that has talented art to show should be given the chance for their art to be displayed. To be honest when I go to a museum I look forward to look at interesting art. I do not pay attention to the background of the artist. I like to get lost in interesting art. I could be looking at a Hispanic, Caucasian, African American, or any other ethnicity art and ill be more interested in their talent than to what color they are.

  24. C.Ruano says:

    I have visited several museums back in high school and I could not agree more with Foster. A majority of the art was by white artists or were white in the paintings. Racial representation is such an important thing to have and it acknowledges that there IS a Black or Latino and there is nothing wrong with it. Its culture may be different from white culture;however, it’s not bad just because its different. Minority art is just as beautiful as white art and it needs to be represented all year round. Not just in temporary exhibits or in black history month (the shortest month of the year).

  25. Thanks for your thoughtful commentary and reflections. Keep the discussion moving!

  26. VAbungan says:

    I have visited multiple museums in the past, and I have noticed a lack of displayed art work created by POC except when the piece is in a museum dedicated to Black, Asian, Latino, etc. arts. I didn’t physically have the chance to visit a museum within the past week, but I decided to look at a museum’s website to see their artists. The website I went to belonged to SFMOMA. San Francisco is a large, urban, multicultural city. There’s a “Little Mexico, a “Japan Town”, etc., so I expected to see more diversity in the art work. Yes, there were POC in the museum’s list, but on any random page of that list, there is only about 1-2 out of 30. I’d also like to add that this disparity between the representation of white people and POC are evident in other forms of media, such as in modeling or in TV. For example, I recently read an article involving a black, female model. She was told that she couldn’t be a model because they already had another black model. To me, this screams, “I only need one black person on my runway to prove I’m not racist.” Frustratingly, I see this mindset still ingrained in much of American society.

  27. j.fry says:

    I enjoyed reading this poem. It’s really an eye opener to the fact that POC aren’t held as highly as artists, or a lot of things for that matter, as white people are. It shouldn’t matter what a person’s skin color is to be known as a great artists. Everyone has something to say whether it be through an art piece or spoken. Just because someone’s skin color is different from yours means that you should be held on a higher pedestal.

  28. CM says:

    I never really notice misrepresented of color people in museums art until I read this article. I believe art shouldn’t matter what race you come from as long as your the art speaks to the public on how extraordinary their art is. If museums are only representing white people in their art to show the public then we haven’t came far from changing racism. Museums should be showing different artists that want to show ethnicities all over the world and not only allow some artists who are white to show their work.

  29. C. Cano says:

    I applaud the author for standing up and walking out of his college class when the professor said the reading list was diverse just because they add one author who is colored. Something that has always interested me but frustrated me at the same time is that i’ve met several white people who dislike color people but are the same ones saying that they are to pale and white and wish they could be darker if not black.

  30. see also this article:

    “The only way to prevent that is to name oppression for what it is; to speak truth to power. If a group is dominated by whites, men, and other privileged classes, don’t let that be reduced to a diversity issue.”

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