Saturday is Fall Gallery Night in Fort Worth, with dozens of exhibition spaces, galleries and museums open across the city. KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports, one group show in a funky former warehouse on the city’s Southside aims to do more than just show off some new artworks.
Lauren Cross is one of the African-American artists in Cultural Affairs, a one-night-only gallery exhibition from Fort Works Art. Cross joins a deliberately diverse mix of sculptors, painters and photographers, sound artists and spoken-word artists — there’s even graphic artist Joonbug, and he’s from Dallas. It’s an inclusive, multi-genre, specifically multi-racial showcase.
Upstairs in her house in southwest Fort Worth, Cross’s little studio is piled high with the brown-paper grocery bags she often uses in her art — painting them, drawing on them, cutting them up: “I’ve been working on brown paper bags for quite a long time,” she says, pulling out one large work made from half-a-dozen bags. She declares it’s headed soon for a show in San Antonio.
Cross’s paper-bag artworks can be appreciated without regard to any specific African-American content. Yet the brown paper bag is notorious in black history. Cross is somewhat light-skinned herself and growing up, she often heard she was light-skinned but not that light-skinned. So she was curious about the metric. Who did the measuring?
“And that’s when I learned about the paper bag test,” she says. The paper bag test was once a disputed piece of African-American folklore which has since been proven to be very real. Decades ago, black fraternities, night clubs and house parties would often use a grocery bag as an admissions test. Some even hung one on the entrance door: Only those women whose skin was lighter than this can gain entrance.
The practice was particularly widespread in New Orleans, where skin color gradations were an indicator of class and heritage between French creoles and other blacks. But it’s been shown to have been followed elsewhere — even at HBCU’s, historically black colleges and universities. Author Alice Walker gave the term “colorism” to such prejudice. It’s not discrimination between races; it’s discrimination within a race based on a single criteria: skin color.
This, Cross decided, was something both personal and historical — well worth using in her art. Hence, her paper bag artworks, where an issue of race is camouflaged in plain sight. And as Cross learned in her research, the history of rejecting dark-skinned black women is a living history. In his 1996 book, The Future of Race, author Henry Louis Gates Jr., recalls encountering it at Yale. A 2003 news story reported some three percent of all discrimination complaints the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission receives each year are based on “colorism.”
“In the last five years, there have been instances where at a club or a party, a brown paper bag was used to say, ‘light-skinned women only,'” Cross says.
And then this past June, actor Viola Davis denounced the practice of excluding dark-skinned women from leading roles in TV and film. In Hollywood, she said, “the paper bag test is still very much alive and kicking.”
Lauren Cross’s good friend Letitia Huckaby also uses a mundane material for her art, a material with a personal, historical resonance. Huckaby began as a documentary photographer; she’s married to celebrated quilt-maker and painter Sedric Huckaby. And she began incorporating fabric into her own artworks as well, a particular fabric. In the show, Cultural Affairs, she has a color lithograph of her daughter, Halle Lujah – printed on a flour sack (below, left).
“My mom grew up on a farm in Louisiana,” says Huckaby, “and the only thing they bought from the store was sugar. Everything else they grew or they killed it. And she used to tell me about how they would even take those sacks and make clothes out of them.”
Huckaby has taken photos of a convent of black nuns in New Orleans as well as old slave quarters in Greenwood, Mississippi that, to her surprise, African-American families were still living in. So Huckaby views her art as taking the overlooked, the cast-off, the neglected and giving it renewed value as art. Huckaby herself is represented by the Liliana Bloch Gallery in Dallas. So she sees the show Cultural Affairs as a way of drawing attention to how minority artists are represented and not represented in North Texas.
“I’ll use Houston as an example – so it’s maybe not as tender to discuss,” she adds with a laugh. “There are a lot of internationally known artists in Houston who cannot get representation in Houston. These are artists, they do big shows in New York. But the galleries feel it’s more relevant to bring someone in from outside of the area to represent minority art.”
“And you’re saying,” I ask her, “that a similar situation applies here?”
Painter Lauren Childs is the co-founder of Fort Works Art, a kind of “satellite gallery,” she says, not quite a pop-up gallery yet, but an occasional presenter of shows. And she says one reason for Fort Works Art’s exhibition, Cultural Affairs, is precisely that – to help change the local art scene.
“Most of the galleries are still somewhat segregated as far as what you see,” she says. “And so we want Fort Worth to have all that kind of diversity brought together in one area” — that area being the Southside, where she sees more collective, creative energy. She and partner J. W. Wilson came across a former storage warehouse connected to the back of the Supreme Golf Warehouse Apartments on South Calhoun and slowly helped convert it to the Tilt Room, a gallery space next door to the Shipping & Receiving Bar.
“That place is magical,” Childs says of the room and all that’s happened there already. A makeshift studio was sent up for soul singer-songwriter Leon Bridges to record his acclaimed first album, Coming Home. (The album photographer, Erin Margaret Allison Rambo, will have work in Cultural Affairs — below.)
But surely, multi-racial exhibitions have been presented for Fort Worth Gallery Night before this? Whether they have or not, says Lauren Cross, when seen in a wider context, the participants in Cultural Affairs are simply joining the national conversation about race in America — the conversation that has been dialed up, way up, the past two years.
And that, she says, is “one of those conversations that, at this particular time in our history, we can’t do it enough.”