A couple days back we wrote about Kezia Harrell, a San Francisco art student whose exhibit, “I Hate White People But I Loves You” sparked controversy and news coverage. Today we speak with Harrell about what her art means and why she bypassed political correctness to make a statement.
BGLH: Were you scared to title your series as you did? Were you thinking of all of the attention it could attract?
Kezia Harrell: I rarely think about fear in actually conceptualizing my art but when I began to focus on titling this body of work, I was fearful. The fear I had was that I would conceal what I want to say because what I wanted to say would make White people uncomfortable. So, as I was in the finishing stages of one of my 10 foot drawings that is actually titled “I Hate White People But I Loves You,” I began listening to Dr. Joy Leary-Degruy’s speech about Post-traumatic Slave Syndrome & cognitive dissonance.
At one moment I realized my fear was a form of cognitive dissonance. My fear of concealing my voice for the comfort of my oppressor is cognitive dissonance. I understood at that moment that my work is not subtle and neither should my text be. Self-loathing is not subtle.
“I Hate White People But I Loves You,” is a narrative. It is a narrative that my African ancestors lived all throughout the African Diaspora. It is a narrative that was not documented but continues to this day. It is about our mentality. If you have natural hair, and you are a dark skinned Black woman, perhaps it is about one of your relatives denying your beauty because you refuse to resort to a relaxer? It is the inherited self-hatred in the African-American psyche.
The title itself has infinite meanings but it mainly has nothing to do with white people. It has to do with self-perception and desire as a Black person in a White world. Like I said, it’s deeper than “hating white people,” because if the title were “I Hate Myself But I Love White People,” it would be exactly the same as “I Hate White People But I Loves You.”
BGLH: How did you feel when the art gallery declined to house your exhibit?
K: There was an ultimatum, which was: Change the title or I will not showcase your work. At the time I was annoyed because instead of wasting my time preparing to exhibit my art, I could have been working on this painting that I was struggling with. Everything was done last minute so I dedicated most of my time preparing and surfacing my ideas. I think the worst part about it was that this curator invited me to show, then after I sent him photos of my work and artist description, he said he would curate my work for a fee. At that moment I knew that the gallery was feeling indifferent about showing my work.
BGLH: How did this story make it to the news? And were you surprised at the publicity around it?
KH: I have a personal Facebook page that I use to communicate with my family members and people who support me. When I received the message that they were replacing me with another artist because I would not change the title, I wanted to share with Facebook an example of why I never took an interest in showing my art in Fresno’s Art Hop. It’s one thing to be in a vulnerable position with art but to be denied is kind of a disappointing thing. In many ways my art is personal but also relative. It is my truth but many others as well. That matters to me, so I could never imagine putting on a front to make Massa’ feel good.
Once I shared that post, I began to receive many responses and shares from people I had never met before. Many of them were social justice activists from the Dulce UpFront Collective (www.dulceupfront.org). I felt an amazing brush of validation that day, I am extremely grateful to have made those connections. I have tunnel vision when I am creating my work, it is all I focus on and when it is done, it is typically critiqued by my colleagues who are predominantly white. So I have always wondered if it would speak the same values to people of color. Because of the Fresno community’s support, my art show was put on at Broadway Studios as planned.
BGLH: Did you receive any hate mail/correspondence around this?
KH: No, I have not received any direct hate mail. During my gallery show, I exchanged enlightening conversations about Black womanism, Black bodies in art history and how systemic racism impacts the lives of African-Americans. I also received lots of praise of my work (who doesn’t love praise?). That experience was beautiful.
When I am in the process of creating my work, I anticipate those conversations. That kind of correspondence matters to me more than any hate mail. This November I will be showcased at the Diego Rivera Gallery alongside 3 unique woman artists. During our exhibition there will be space for similar conversation. I believe dialogue, knowledge, and acceptance is a grand step towards healing.
BGLH: There are people who will say, “Well what if there was an exhibit called, “I Hate Black People But I Loves You?”” What would you say to that?
K: I noticed many of the people trying to validate “reverse-racism” either were upper to middle-classed White women, White men with confederate flag profile pictures, or Black people defending White people in some strange obsessive way. I don’t expect everyone to understand my point of view because for many people, the instinct is defend Whiteness. Defending white supremacy is something so deeply indoctrinated in their psyche that it is almost unrecognizable to them.
I think many white people take my art personally because I am directly talking about race now, I am directly talking about the rape and genocide of Black men, women, children, and trans people in American society and American history. I cannot sugarcoat how our children are born in a world that hates them, no matter their beauty and potential. I think they are guilty that, that bit of history also belongs to their heritage as well. I also believe that they are fearful that Black consciousness is being spread because in some way they will be held accountable as people benefitting from the demise of the African.
I do not ever entertain “reverse-racism,” because it is imaginary. It denies my family and I from healing and reclaiming our African heritage. I want to be clear that what I hate is this European way of perceiving myself, and my people. Discovering our heritage, accepting our Blackness, and claiming our space can change white supremacy. That is what I mean.
BGLH: As a Black woman I resonate with your point of view, of having to negotiate Black womanhood in a culture that is unkind to us. What brought you to producing this body of work? What in your life experience inspired you to do this?
KH: I come from a strong family-oriented background; there are more Black women in my family than there are Black men, so my experience is heavily impacted by how Black kinship has a reliance on the Black woman. An important part of creating my work begins with the dialogue I have with my family members. Whenever I have an idea or a piece I am working on, I speak with them first, I ask them questions about their experiences and any texts they could refer me to.
My mother actually introduced me to Raggedy Ann & Andy coloring books when I was in middle school. I can remember coming home from school to color and I found a page that my older brother tagged on. He wrote something obnoxious in a thought-bubble on a page where Andy is playing baseball with Ann. I think that was the first time I began conceptualizing the Raggedy Ann & Andy coloring books. Many of the pages were no longer “innocent” to me. Many of the pages had a particular perversion to them and a lot of racist undertones around the history of slavery and blackface. Over time I grew a fascination with them and how subtly racist the characters themselves are. Essentially they are slave dolls, or pickaninny dolls in white face. I guess I realized that once I start coloring them with the brown crayon. The way I go about my work is that I will rummage through hundreds of Raggedy Ann & Andy coloring page and reappropriate the motifs provided in the activity book, whether it is a performance, large-scale drawing, sculpture, or painting.
BGLH: How long does it take you to complete pieces?
KH: It varies depending on how ambitious the piece is. I can whip out a 10ft drawing in one sitting. I typically paint in realism so that takes months for me to complete. Photography, video, and performance, takes about 1 month for me to begin because I spend a lot of time researching and casting models. I work in many different fields of art making, currently I am developing actually racialized & sexualized Raggedy Ann & Andy dolls, which will be showcased at the Diego Rivera Galley in San Francisco, California this November.
BGLH: Was it therapeutic for you to do this artwork? Did it bring about any internal resolution?
KH: Absolutely. I find the large-scale drawings with sumi ink and crayon are the most therapeutic. I think the therapy around coloring Black bodies in white spaces contributes to my healing. Many of my drawings are not fully colored, I think strategically about what needs to be colored in, for conceptual purposes. One of my favorite experiences is having children question why I have not colored the entire page. I think it disturbed them that the pieces are completed “finished” though the entire page is not colored in.
BGLH: What kind of dialogue do you want to come from your work?
KH: I always hope that my art could create more questions than answers. I think that is the best start to a conversation. It would be ideal if we could bring all of our questions to one place and search for the answer together. I think a big problem is that many people are afraid to ask questions about topics like racism, sexism and xenophobia.
BGLH: We’re at an interesting place in American culture right now – what concerns you most about American culture as it relate to Black womanhood, and what gives you the most hope?
KH: Hmm. That is a really loaded question because Black womanhood is often brushed off in society. That worries me.
To read more about how blackface influenced the origins of Raggedy Ann, click here.