AN INTERVIEW WITH ARTIST AND ACTIVIST AMANDA D. KING
Amanda D. King, artist, activist, and a recent recipient of a SPACES Urgent Art Fund award, took the time to speak to CAN about her life, art, and commitment to the advancement of Black leadership in the art world and the fight against anti-Black racism within arts and culture. King studied art history at Bryn Mawr and graduated from CWRU Law School in 2017—and while she doesn’t practice law, she uses her legal scholarship in unconventional ways, chiefly as part of her artistic activism. She co-founded Shooting Without Bullets in 2016, aimed at accelerating movement toward antiracism by eliminating systemic barriers that prevent young Black and Brown artists from thriving in the arts and society. Earlier this year, when the controversy surrounding the cancellation of Shaun Leonardo’s exhibition at moCa occurred, King raised concerns about both the ethics of appropriating images of police brutality within visual culture and the institution’s unwillingness to address institutional racism within the museum. She strongly believes that arts and culture play a key role in the nuanced and complex fight against racism, and is one of the local leaders forging a path forward.
How did your childhood shape who you are today?
My exposure to arts and culture, Pan-Africanism, and Black liberation theology as a youth shaped my viewpoints on life. When I was twelve, I attended an exhibition of lynching photos at the Andy Warhol Museum. Witnessing the racial terror within those photos, my parents’ visceral response (a combination of agony and deference) to the work as they moved through the gallery and the non-Black patrons gazing at the brutalized Black body in silence was a very strange and terrifying experience. It felt morally wrong to passively look at the pain of others when they did not consent to our gaze and have the license to walk away without action. I believed we owe them more for their suffering. I did not know how to articulate this feeling. This was in 2001. Since then Black death has been commodified and normalized in the art world, media, and popular culture to the point where we are all desensitized to it. This has created a collective apathy that I believe we must actively resist. Since studying art history, working with community to increase accountability for crimes against Black citizens, and developing my artistic practice, I urge us to actively commit to caring for the dead and the mourning—the people in those lynching photos, the people who have died at the hands of police—whose last moments are broadcast across media and mounted on gallery walls. Without this care we are further inflicting violence on them and harming ourselves in the process. I find this unacceptable.
What are your inspirations? What gives your work context?
I love the story of Sojourner Truth. I relish in her depth and complexity. She was truly an artist activist. Her quote “I Sell the Shadow to Support the Substance” still gives me chills every time I recite it. As a formerly enslaved person, she used photographic portraiture to take back her personhood and then sold those photos/cartes-de-visites to fund abolitionist efforts. I am in awe of her ability to reclaim her narrative and mobilize society in the face of what seemed like insurmountable injustice and oppression.
The culture maker wields incredible power when our art is used as a catalyst for social transformation. My awareness and understanding of this grows daily.
Tell us more about Shooting Without Bullets and how the organization has evolved since it was founded in 2016?
Shooting Without Bullets is co-led by myself (Creative Director) and Kelsi Carter (Impact Director). We use cultural production, artistic development and education for young artists ages 13 to 21, as well as activism and advocacy, to model an alternative arts ecosystem that accelerates the movement Black and Brown Communities need to thrive. As a facet of this work, we operate a creative agency and production company that produces socially-engaged art for clients and collaborators in Cleveland and beyond. Our creative agency is a key piece of Shooting Without Bullets’ evolution. We know, from both experience and research, that education alone is not enough to eliminate barriers for Black and Brown youth. We are also aware of the limitations of funding for antiracist work. Our vision is for the creative agency and production company to act as a social enterprise, funding our art and advocacy while also providing young Black and Brown artists with experiential learning opportunities in preparation for participation in the creative economy. We look forward to a busy fall that includes exhibiting in the Artist Archives of the Western Reserve’s Bridges and Barriers group show and the unveiling of a series of public artworks.
What solo projects are you working on right now?
I am embracing my role as cultural producer in this moment and allowing my activism to flow through my creative output. I received the SPACES Urgent Arts award for My GOD is Antiracist, a multi-layered, multimedia meditation on GOD as the embodiment of antiracism. My process interweaves photography, text, video and installation with Black liberation theology, Black church aesthetics, and recollections of Sunday service to invoke the viewer to perform antiracism as a spiritual practice.
How are you feeling at this moment six months into the pandemic and the next wave of the global uprising of the Black Lives Matter Movement?
I am feeling a wealth of emotions that I am still processing. I have no idea what society will look like in the future, but I am ready for substantive change and for others to join the antiracist movement. I am glad that we are ending an era of colorblindness and respectability politics and entering an era of what feels like revolution. It’s time to demolish the old guard and build anew. I want to be an integral part of the redesign of society and to work with young artists to be architects of a pro-Black future. I believe with enough support, resources and opportunity we can achieve this and I am actively looking for ways to build stronger relationships within the local arts ecosystem and Cleveland at large to ensure this happens.
Still, I am weary of the lightning speed desire of non-Black cultural institutions and orgs to work with Black artists. Don’t get me wrong—I invite the opportunity, but only when it feels genuine and like longevity is the end goal. What is apparent to me now is the harm of creating busy work for Black artists to further agendas that don’t center on our needs. How can we create when we are invited to the table, asked to cook, serve and then clean up? All the responsibility on us ultimately devalues our talent. I will remain skeptical until we are treated equitably and fully compensated for our brilliance.
Do you feel a certain level of responsibility to others as an artist/thought leader?
I feel a lot of responsibility as an arts and thought leader and much of that is ethical. I believe in an ethic of care and accountability. I feel a responsibility to counter anti-Black influences and create positive representations of Blackness. Sometimes I want to create simply because I have a desire to. As an artist I am protective of my right to expression, but still vigilant about its impact on others, especially Black people. I value art, but I also value my community. When the two seem at odds—I won’t put objects before people. I don’t just want to make work about social justice. I want to engage in social justice. My engagement in social justice starts with centering on the most affected in both my activism and artistic practice.
What are some of the threats to being creator and disruptor?
One threat is feeling an immense amount of pressure to set the tone and to be the example. Naturally, I am more open to public scrutiny and have to be accountable to more people. I know that when I speak out there are consequences that affect my practice and organization, but I must continue to speak out if I want to create the change I know we are all capable of creating.
What would you like your legacy to be?
I want autonomy for me and my people. Progress still needs to be made in order for these things to be achievable.
My ability to achieve self-determination is inextricably linked to my commitment to achieving Black liberation in my lifetime. Influencing antiracist movements will be a central part of my legacy. I believe that we are all deserving of profound love and care and am actively seeking to actualize this in both the arts and society.
Amanda D. King can be reached on Instagram: @iadking