Foreword by Keshia Turley, curatorial assistant at SMoCA
When we first began Museum Musings it was with the intent to share the thoughts, emotions, and work of artist’s during COVID-19 and post-pandemic. All of us were so fundamentally changed by the pandemic and what it meant to our personal lives, our broader community, and beyond that, our country. We thought that COVID-19 was going to be our biggest challenge. Right up until the rifts in our country—for whom many were never affected by and had been convinced our country was healed of—were thrust bleeding and pulsing into the forefront of our consciousness.
Antoinette Cauley being on my immediate list of artists I wanted to participate from the inception of our blog was a given. Not only is she someone I admire on a personal level, I connect to her work deeply as a Black woman. I’ve had my own ways of coping with the emotions stirred up in me through the Black Lives Matter movement; the anger, the frustration, the resentment, and the bone-weary exhaustion, to name a few. One form of therapy was to call on friends who were feeling what I was feeling and just . . . talk. When I approached Antoinette to write for SMoCA’s blog it was through one of those check-ins. I introduced to her the concept behind Museum Musings, said we would welcome anything or nothing at all, and left it at that. About a week ago she asked if we could share a blog post she had already written about an upcoming project. In reading through her post I felt an immediate sense that, yes, this indeed needed to be shared. I asked Antoinette if I could take excerpts from her original post in the hopes that in sharing a link to her blog, readers will take the initiative to visit and support her work and her endeavors.
Dear Mr. Baldwin
by Antoinette Cauley
When I first sat down to write this blog I really struggled with what I was going to say and how I was going to say it. I felt this immense pressure to write something that would be awe-inspiring, strong, and powerful. This is one of the most important projects of my career thus far and so the weight on my shoulders has been heavy. But . . . I realized that I just need to tell my story in the most authentic way possible as I always do. You can take from it what you need and feel free to leave behind what you don’t.
A couple of months ago I received a phone call from my friend Jason Harvey. This was around the time of the nationwide protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the police. I had been feeling (like so many Black Americans) overwhelmed, anxiety-ridden, and, oh so exhausted. It was all so much to process. On top of the hurt and heightened emotions, I unexpectedly found myself fighting to not become tokenized.
Individuals and companies began to reach out to me (and so many other of my Black artist friends) left and right for an array of things centered around the protests. Things like (Black Lives Matter) murals, collaborations, and so much more. I, however, was not interested in becoming anyone’s token Black artist. I didn’t want to be the reason they could capitalize on the current Black Lives Matter movement or be used to soothe their own newfound guilt. I have been fighting too hard and for too long to allow my work to be reduced down to that.
For years I have been pushing for Black representation through my artwork. I felt that so many of these people suddenly popping up as a result of the protests were missing some very important points. Just by existing, I am a threat to white supremacy. Just by existing, I am a threat to all who contribute to the oppression of people of color in America. Just by existing, I am a part of the change we as a people need. I and so many others like me have been fighting for change with our respective gifts long before America seemed to wake from a color-blind slumber.
So, when I picked up the phone the day Jason called me, I had a feeling we were both experiencing similar frustration. I honestly had no idea the magnitude of the journey we would embark upon after only a 20 minute phone call.
During our call, Jason explained to me that just the day before he was standing across from a building he owns on Central and Roosevelt (that has a giant painting of Teddy Roosevelt on the side) passing out water bottles at the protests in Phoenix. And like so many Black Americans he had felt this overwhelming need to do something. Something more.
Jason had experienced a multitude of racism growing up in Prescott, AZ, and was now in a position to create an impact within the Black community and beyond. He told me that he was looking up at his building with this looping thought of “I have an opportunity to make some real change here and I have to do something about it.” He then called me.
Initially, Jason told me that he wanted me to create a painting (potentially of Martin Luther King) to then plaster nine stories high on the north side of the building for the entire city to see. This was it. For the first time since the protests began someone, who I knew and trusted, had come to me with a heartfelt and sincere opportunity to empower the Black community and inspire all who reside within the city.
One of the best things I had the opportunity to experience on a trip to Paris last year, was a one-on-one tour with Le Paris Noir. Le Paris Noir is a Black Parisian history tour that breaks down the history of Black French citizens, monuments, politics, and so much more. During the tour, my tour guide, Kevi, asked me if I had heard of James Baldwin. I had in fact heard his name but I was not familiar with who he actually was. He proceeded to teach me about Mr. Baldwin and about his travels to Paris in the ’40s to escape racism in America.
I have a vibrant memory of saying to Kevi, “I cannot believe we were never taught about him in school. But I can believe it.” Leaving incredibly inspired, I researched Mr. Baldwin and immediately fell in love with his passion and words. I read his books and watched countless videos of him speaking on the plight of the American Negro. I could feel his tiredness. I could relate to it. I understood the desire to run away to another country where I would feel safer and “free.”
Thinking back on that tour making James Baldwin the subject of our project just . . . made sense. James Baldwin, an author, civil rights activist, and a queer Black man embodies so many of us and could reach so many communities. Through his legacy, we could speak to the city and beyond. Through his memory, we could create something powerful and give little Black boys and girls a nine-story tall mirror in which they could see the larger than life possibilities waiting for them on the road ahead.
As I type this, I am holding back tears. I know I am a vessel for a greater message and my art is my voice. It is a complete honor to have worked on this project with Jason and to collectively do something that was true to who we are and what we stand for. This painting has been scanned and blown up to be plastered nine stories high at Ten-O-One, the building on the corner of Central and Roosevelt. This will be the largest piece of (Black) art by a Black artist in downtown Phoenix, and, man, does that feel long overdue.
Statistically, I shouldn’t be here. Statistically, I should not have been able to hop on that plane, travel to Paris alone, and learn about James Baldwin. Statistically, I should not be thriving in the fine arts industry. Statistically, my life should look opposite to what it looks like now. But I chose to write my own story. And now, so many other young Black artists in Phoenix won’t have to become a statistic either. They will have the representation and an example. Both things I so desperately craved as a young artist. This is how you make change. Change comes by empowering those around you. Change happens by providing platforms to the unheard to scream to the world. Change happens when you give the unheard an opportunity to be seen in a light that exposes their truest and most beautiful self.
I have said this before and I will say it again—
To my fellow artists of color, young, old, and everything in between, keep making noise. Keep pushing and fighting. Most of all, keep taking up space even when you were not given a seat at the table.
Dear Mr. Baldwin,
No piece I could have ever created could capture the full essence and power of who you were. Your light will forever illuminate the paths of Black Americans through the words you so graciously left us. As I one day soon embark on my own journey overseas to find a more peaceful home to make the work that is important to me, I will keep you and your words in my heart. Thank you for finding me in Paris all those months ago on that freezing Parisian morning and thank you for gracing the world with your presence. My only hope is that I made you proud.
To read more of Antoinette Cauley’s writing and learn more about her work, click here.
Take a moment to read other entries from our Museum Musings series.