Diversity In Art

“When we get into conversations about how diversity is actually used and implemented, it’s often used and implemented…to not have to name white supremacy or patriarchy or sexism as a system. When we talk about systems, we talk about power. Diversity is something that can be used to mask the fact that power isn’t changing at all.”

Darryl Ratcliff

The following conversation is a transcribed episode of my Instagram TV and Zoom conversation series, Black Box Conversations. The series, which I moderate, aims to create safe spaces where People of Color can hold meaningful conversations centered around their human experiences. In our conversations, my guests and I explore topics that aren’t comfortably discussed within the Black Community, such as anxiety/depression, PTSS (post-traumatic slave syndrome), and spirituality. Each guest leaves the space with a renewed sense of healing and centeredness. 

An extension of my interactive installation project, Black Box Experience, the Conversation series developed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic as a way to continue fostering relationships while also staying socially distanced. In this episode, I had a chance to speak with Dallas-based artist Darryl Ratcliff about diversity in art. I had heard of Darryl and the amazing work he was doing around Dallas but had never formally met him until this conversation. I was pleasantly surprised to hear that he was also aware of the work I was doing in the Oak Cliff/Bishop Arts area. We discussed different things that came up for us when various institutions began their diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives over the summer of 2020 as a response to the killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Black Box Conversations flyer with Darryl Ratcliff 
Michelada Think Tank Poster for Otis College of Art and Design (2015)
Diversity is for White People  Art(Con)spiracy art auction (2015)

Kiara: Hello everyone, my name is Walls and this is the Black Box Conversation series. The Black Box Conversation series aims to create a safe space where POC can hold meaningful conversations centered around their human experience. Today, we will be speaking with Daryl Ratcliff about diversity in art. I’m really excited to be talking about this topic with you. I’m gonna turn it over to you.

Darryl: Well, first of all, thank you so much for having me on Black Box. And thank you for the work that you’re doing and creating the space for these important conversations to happen. And thank you for inviting me to have a conversation with you on a topic that’s near and dear to my heart and to my practice. I’m Darryl Ratcliff. I am an artist based in Dallas, Texas, a city built on stolen land, built by stolen labor, namely the land of the Capo and Wichita. I am an artist and a poet. With my co-founder Fred Villanueva, I am co-founder of a Black lab space called Ash Studios that has existed near Frazier Park, South Dallas, since 2012. I’ve worked with over 1,000 creatives of color in Dallas, and have had over 35,000 people from our community in our space. I’m also the co-founder of Creating Our Future and Michelada Think Tank, which works on equity around the country. And last, but certainly not least, co-founder of Gossypium Investments, with my amazing co-founder Maya Crawford. Gossypium is an old Latin word that means cotton. And we chose the name for our company to really reflect our shared heritage as enslaved people. And also Beam in Dallas, which was once the largest import for cotton in the country. And so my work and practice is very broad. It covers a lot of names, a lot of things dealing with cultural equity, dealing with structures, dealing with taking very small gestures, and seeing if they can scale. You know, the themes are hosting brunches—shout out to Dallas Mimosa Club. And Margarita Think Tanks, and kind of seeing how you can gather people and actually change policies and structures, which I’ve been very grateful for, and that helped your and my careers.

Kiara: Thank you so much for sharing everything, that was awesome. Our topic today is diversity in art. So we have a different type of introduction. I’m going to let Darryl introduce it.

Darryl: Yeah. So there’s an essay that I really like, called Sick Woman Theory by Johanna Hedva, which was written I believe in 2016. It is a piece of writing that very much changed my life and packed up my life quite a deal. I encourage folks to check it out…it is online, I think in Mask Magazine, you can find it. There’s so much that they were accomplishing in a six part essay as a queer person, a colored, disabled person. In the first part, they’re reflecting on protests, thinking about the 2014 Black Lives Matter protests, what does it mean to protest when we physically can’t be in the street, and how the concept of bodies in the street as protests will always make it visible. Those that can’t are some of the most marginalized folks. Then it transitioned into this really interesting conversation about the author’s personal illnesses, both physical and mental. For me, the last two parts actually get into what the Sick Woman Theory is, the idea of womanhood in a very kind of expansive way, also acknowledging the limitations of the term. Then thinking about care and thinking about how you build communities that care, and specifically how capitalism makes care and sickness temporary. And they reflect on how for folks who live in systems of oppression, those systems make them sick and in a way that isn’t normally recognized. Interesting enough, you see more and more national health organizations recognizing racism as a real disease that’s a community health issue. They’re also recognizing how these traumas affect our body. It really helped shift me into thinking way more deeply about care, diversity, equity and what follows through building systems of care. So I was like, Okay, talking about the Sick Woman Theory will be interesting and perhaps not the standard way to start off the conversation that, you know, a lot of us have had.

Kiara: Oh, for sure. When I read the text, I was like, Wow, I just gained a lot more perspective. And to be honest, prior to reading the text, I wasn’t in that framework of thinking, like how the Sick Woman Theory could relate to the Black Lives Matter movement. I didn’t make that correlation, you know. After reading the text, I gained a different perspective. But I definitely agree. So the first question is, how would you describe diversity in art?

Darryl: It was interesting when I saw that question. The first thing my mind went to was some work that Michelada Think Tank did, I think in 2015, and it was a little poster print out that read “Diversify it for White People.” And I actually made a painting for an art charity fundraiser, where I had a little stick figure, and then painted the words that diversity was for white people, which I don’t think was what they were looking for in their charity auction. But so I think that’s where I want to start—with that answer for the question, what is diversity? Diversity is for white people. What I mean by that is that yes, on one hand, there is a real definition of diversity. People with differing beliefs, backgrounds, cultures, religions, ethnicities, on and on and on. And that’s clearly beautiful, wonderful, lovely. However, when we get into conversations about how diversity is actually used and implemented, it’s often used and implemented as a way to shield from white supremacy. As a way to not have to name white supremacy or patriarchy or sexism as a system. When we talk about systems, we talk about power. Diversity is something that can be used to mask the fact that power isn’t changing at all. You can be super diverse, and still have white people making all the decisions. So you have no change and power. You can have a Black or brown face, even as a leader of an organization, but still have a mostly white board of all rich white people. And once again, you may be diverse, but that doesn’t mean that you’re anti-racist, it doesn’t mean that there’s been any meaningful shift in power.

Kiara: Oh, sure. I definitely agree with that. I find it interesting…I feel like with the most recent protests, a lot of different institutions and organizations have implemented different DEI [Diversity Equity Inclusivity] initiatives. I see that as being reactive, and not necessarily proactive. I can tell that most of these things are happening out of fear, to be honest, because they’re afraid of getting any type of backlash associated with that. They weren’t necessarily doing those things before the recent protests; they weren’t doing them at all, really.

Darryl: How did you feel when you saw all the art or some of the art organizations putting Black Lives Matter statements out this summer?

Kiara: Honestly, I was just like, “Okay… anyways,” you know? It was crazy because I saw some institutions and you go to their website, and it’s like, right at the top, right. It’s like, a quote or a statement. I’m just saying this doesn’t feel authentic. This is the first time I’ve ever seen you guys address anything at this point, you know what I’m saying? I feel like this with Instagram, too. There were a lot of different initiatives and it just felt like advertisement. People are just acting out of fear. It’s like they were thinking, “I’m just going to post this just so people don’t think that, you know, I might be racist,” but it’s like, you can’t just post something and make one statement, and not put the work in continually. And if you don’t truly feel equity within your spirit, or you don’t feel like you want to take on that type of role in your organization, it’s never going to give you the type of results that you’re seeking by doing that, or by subscribing to that. Does that make sense?

Darryl: That makes total sense. It is nice to hear some things echoed. My friends and I were kind of joking when those statements started coming out…we’d be like, “Oh, Black Lives Matter…I guess.”

Kiara: Yeah.

Darryl: The feel is like, “I guess,” because I don’t believe you when you say that. You also bring up fear and I’m really interested in what folks and institutions are afraid of. Because on one level they’re afraid of being accused of being racist. But then on another level, I feel like they’re afraid of losing power and giving up power and I’ve been also thinking a lot about the apology, how the work is never perfect…how I refer to myself as a person who tries but not a person who is perfect, nor will ever be perfect, as well as continuously dismantling all the systems that I represent that need to be dismantled, mainly patriarchy, mainly sexism. Just coming from a place of intersectionality…I will always be a work in progress therefore I will always fuck up. What are these people so afraid of, Kiara? What are they afraid of?

Kiara: They’re real scared. I think two things are going on here. I feel like it’s fear, but it’s also a little bit of fear of white guilt, you know? Sort of like the aftereffects of that. When you’re in a position of power it’s really hard to hold yourself accountable for something like that. I feel most recently, more white people are getting held accountable as in like, losing jobs, losing endorsements, losing friends… it’s a whole thing. It is kind of like a no tolerance policy that I feel. Sometimes it’s there, sometimes it’s not. But I feel like, as far as art institutions go, they’re already built on not being inclusive. Just the idea of an art institution, like a museum, is exclusive. The people that go into museums, I feel like it’s a different type of vibe, it’s not welcoming for all different types of communities. That is based on what type of collections they hold in that space, or what type of talks they hold in that space, or what type of artists they’re choosing to display. 

Darryl: Yeah, I’m happy that you brought up things like the museum and those institutions because I think a lot about them and how they function. I would argue that, by and large, arts institutions, function in a way that they were built, which is to preserve white supremacy, to be the cultural expression of a set of values made by their creators, who were capitalists, who were plunderers, who often and to this day make their fortunes off of human suffering and exploitation. The art world serves to basically take dirty money and make it clean. You do a ton of bad things, or maybe your family doesn’t tell you at the end, or maybe you didn’t do it but your family did it, you know? But you sponsor a window in the Museum, get your name out there and now it’s like, no one’s going to remember, the public won’t remember the dirty deeds. They’ll be like, Oh, what a lovely philanthropist Kiara is, I mean, look at this park that they built. I’m based in Dallas; for those less familiar with Dallas, there’s a park called Klyde Warren Park. Most people love the Klyde Warren Park; it is a nice park. I like the Klyde Warren Park. But the Klyde Warren Park is named after the son of Kelsey Warren. Kelsey Warren is the CEO of Energy Transfer Partners. Energy Transfer Partners built the Dakota Access Pipeline. People don’t know what the whole movement was about, and that it originated in Dallas. People in Dallas won’t know that this person is making their money by an attempt to uproot Indigenous lands and sovereignty as well as employees, and commit environmental genocide. They’ll be like, What a swell guy who built this park for us. Right? And his kid—because kids don’t know what their parents do most of the time growing up—like this is mom and dad—so for that kid, Klyde, it was like, Dad built a park in my name. And there’s a myth. Art institutions, a lot of cultural institutions, nonprofits, philanthropy, they serve to preserve the myth of white generosity, white philanthropy, privilege, while preserving all the power and thinking around that as well as masking all the crime.

Kiara: Trifling. 

Darryl: No one likes to get to the scene of the crime…this is what I’ve learned. 

Kiara: No for sure, they’re not ready for the truth. The second question is— I want to make sure that I’m pronouncing her last name right.

Darryl: Oh, uh, wrong human. A little known fact, I actually grew up with a pretty strong speech impediment. So I’m like, I don’t know how to pronounce words. This is amazing that I’ve come this far.

Kiara: You know what’s crazy? I had a speech impediment growing up.

Darryl: Did you do any speech therapy? 

Kiara Walls: I did. I did speech therapy when I was in elementary school. I didn’t realize that’s what it was because my mom would just tell me like, “Oh, you’re going to your fun class.” I was like, Okay.

Darryl: Well that’s very nice. My parents just told me it was speech therapy.

Kiara: No, my mom didn’t tell me until much later.

Darryl: My parents were like, “We gotta stop these kids from calling you D-d-d-darryl”. 

Kiara: Oh my gosh. Well, look we made it out.

Darryl: I know it might be a microaggression that you call me articulate, but I also work for it so thank you.

Kiara: Period. My next question is, so Hedva described the Sick Woman Theory in this way: “The body and mind are sensitive and reactive to regimes of oppression, particularly our current regime of neoliberal white supremacists, imperial capitalists, cis hetero patriarchy.”  What role do you think the art world plays in this theory? Is the art world subscribing to this notion or actively seeking out ways to promote repositioning?

Darryl: Yeah, I don’t know. I mean, so first, I feel like it’s important to acknowledge there’s multiple art worlds. And I think a lot in this conversation refers to the more traditional Eurocentric art world that does monopolize most of the resources and power, and in the context of the United States and Europe, for sure. But there’s still other art worlds that I think it’s important to acknowledge. There’s folks who are organizing for good, there’s smaller independent teams. There’s People of Color, Black-led groups or folks who are working really hard to dismantle some of these systems. And I think it’s always important to acknowledge that, because sometimes I feel like the efforts of those who are trying to make something good happen don’t get acknowledged enough. Just before coming here, scrolling on Instagram, I saw that Black Futures Fund had just opened their application and just like, oh wow, look at a beautiful model of Black people raising money trying to help other Black people, and create these new system resources and support. So that side of the art world I think embraces the systems of care that are also present in Sick Woman Theory. However, the Eurocentric art world does not. Because as said earlier, it perpetuates… it exists to preserve live systems. It really just blew my mind. When I truly realized that most of the art in a museum was from white people. And a museum is a place that says, This is what’s important. Good for everyone who has had the privilege of going to a museum, or accessing a museum, but you get bussed on your school trip once a year, you look around, and all the important things are white. What is that doing? I love the words that Hedva uses, because they’re very specific words, very specific meaning, like that imperialism part—we don’t often talk, even in this kind of context, about race, about imperialism, about even some of the privileges that we don’t like to admit we have as Black people in the context of the United States, but that in some ways, there is a benefit from living in an imperialist country, that Black brothers and sisters who don’t live in imperialist countries don’t have access to. I appreciate the specificity because it lets you have a more nuanced conversation. 

However, I also feel like you lose some of the story and the plainness of knowing and being exposed to more diverse work—for example, women are half of the population but like maybe 4% of the museum. Though 2% of the museum is Black people. Wow. Like, you know, that’s wild, that is wild. And these places say that they serve a public. Anyway, it gets me a little fired up. So no, I don’t think the art world cares. One more thing, I think about my brothers and sisters who are trying to create change from within. I’m a person who is privileged enough to often float in and out of that space. Sometimes the end space just kicks me out. Get the fuck out of here, Darryl. How those spaces treat people who are actually trying to change the system, right from the inside, is trash. They treat those people like trash, like they treat the world for the most part—not always, there’s thankfully some exceptions. And thankfully, in some institutions it’s getting better. But when you talk to a Black or brown curator at a major institution, when you talk to the person in charge of education, and you talk about the battles they have to fight inside the institution, with boards, with directors, with people in marketing and communications, with development—there are often stories of being constantly questioned, of being overworked and underpaid, and the value of that every turn. There’s a way in which the art world chews up cultural workers of color. I would also argue the art world chews up most artists of color as well. That’s something I’m personally concerned about, in this moment where, quote unquote, Blacks— it’s trendy, or trending. I am worried about, you know, some of these young artists, younger artists, newer artists, like what happens to them? Five years from now, if the art world does what it has historically done, this isn’t the first time that Black has been trendy. Which is go back to this bullshit, and, you know, not care, just discard and dispose. 

Kiara: That definitely resonates with me for sure. There were a lot of different things that you touched on just now. But I really appreciate your naming of how difficult it is to have POCs as a part of larger institutions that are trying to make changes from the inside out. I think what we see a lot of is like, okay, this person is hired as the head curator, like how you mentioned or like, this person is hired as whatever in the education department, and it looks good, it feels good to have that person in that position. But I know, I’m myself questioning, what does that actually entail on a day to day basis? Like, how do they feel stepping into that role? And also, how do they deal with…I don’t want to say, pressure, but I would moreso say like, how do they deal with the fatigue of always having to be “on” in that space? Because I feel like being hired as a Person of Color in those types of positions, you don’t have the luxury of relaxing. I mean, I don’t want to say relaxing, either. But I would think that it would always feel like you have to do more, or even though you’re already in this position, you still have to prove yourself every single day. You know, and what does that do to your spirit? Like, what does that do to your mental health? Are there supports for that within that space? Because really, it’s about retaining the person too— it’s really easy to hire a Person of Color, but I think there should also be other things set in place to help support them while they’re doing their work. 

Darryl: I totally agree. I was smiling when you said it’s really easy to hire a person of color. I was like, I don’t know, it’s amazing…People of Color go missing when institutions need to hire sometimes. Institutions tell me they can’t find any they don’t know, they can’t find any qualified People of Color, they can’t find qualified artists of color. It’s kind of like they just disappear…it’s magic. The other thing about that kind of system of care, there’s also the fatigue of having a counterpart in your institution who is white, and they’re getting paid $35,000 more than you and you’re doing more work than they are. And you know that and you’re like, what the hell? Then you get upset at your institution about that. Then it’s like, Oh, well you know, we tried to work with one of y’all and they weren’t a good team player. Yes, all that to say is there are not proper systems of care.

Kiara: I agree. Okay, so this is also a question about one of the quotes from the essay: “The sick woman is told that, to this society, her care, even her survival, does not matter.” What connections can be made between the Black Lives Matter movement and the Sick Woman Theory? And you touched on this earlier when you were describing the essay. Can you elaborate on that?

Darryl: Sure. I would say, for me, it’s a question of, who do we center? One of the most beautiful things, and one of the reasons why the Black Lives Matter movement has been successful, is that it’s a movement that has centered and been led by queer Black women. And I think that critique of the civil rights movement is a valid one. And at its core, I feel like this Sick Woman Theory encourages us to center who has the least visible amount of power, or who the current systems of oppression attempt to disempower the most. I also think that there’s an intersectionality there that is interesting, because I think sometimes when you look at the history of activism, unfortunately some more traditional organizing spaces, as well as live spaces, have not always been spaces of care. And there hasn’t been a centering of care, which, you know, burns people out. In many ways, there’s a lot of overlap between the Sick Women Theory and the strategies that folks who are involved in the Black Lives Matter movement, and the defense of Black lives, are using to create and be more mindful than some of their predecessors, on the importance of care. So that was one thing. And then the other thing that’s really interesting for me is once again thinking about the different ways that people can support movements. People sometimes can’t physically get to a protest, but you know, in a time of COVID and pandemic, for people who are higher risk, which is a lot of Black and brown people, you might be risking your life going to a protest, or you have to work because we’re in a capitalist system. You can’t go to the protests, because it’s at three on a Saturday and you’re working a double shift in the service industry job. What is the role for those folks? I don’t know, I’ll just speak for myself. I haven’t always been as thoughtful about who can’t be in the room. I think Sick Woman Theory encourages us to be more thoughtful about that.

Kiara: I didn’t have that perception before but after reading this text, I was mind blown. I’m like, whoa, I’m glad that she wrote this essay. And I definitely think that everyone should read it. Because I do feel too many times, there are people who are excluded without you even really knowing unless you have someone close to you who may have a disability, or someone that has something else going on, so you become more aware of these dynamics. Unless it’s kind of in front of you, you’re not really noticing it, you know what I’m saying? Especially with all the protests and everything happening, too. But I also like that you mentioned creating just a place for care. When I first read that, the first thing that popped into my mind was like, Oh, a safe space. I feel like those two things are different, though. Because I feel like care is actively caring for someone, like checking in on them, or just being empathetic, there’s emotions tied to it. And a safe space is moreso like, naming it as a safe space. But it’s always not-safe. Because, you know, we can name a space as being safe, but unless we’re actually doing the work to make it safe, it’s just, you know, it’s not really that safe. You know what I mean?

You can read Sick Woman Theory by Johanna Hedva here.

Kiara Walls is a teaching visual artist originally from LA but now stationed in Dallas, Texas. Her work is centered around increasing awareness of the need and demand for reparations to repair the injuries inflicted on the African American community. This interpretation is seen through many forms including drawings, sculptures and video installations.

Darryl Ratcliff is an artist and poet based in Dallas, Texas whose work engages communities and mobilizes social issues. Ratcliff is the cofounder of Ash Studios, Creating Our Future, and Michelada Think Tank. His cultural projects have taken place at Carnegie Mellon University, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, California Institute of the Arts, Nasher Sculpture Center, San Diego Art Institute, Cue Art Foundation (NYC), New Arts Center (Boston), and Japanese Cultural Center (L.A.). Ratcliff is an arts writer who regularly contributes to The Dallas Morning News and D Magazine.

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