Fearless: An Interview with Malcolm Peacock

Categories black history, interviews

work by Malcolm Peacock

featured photo by Maxwell Runko

object photos by Christian Gregory

Malcolm Peacock, a senior in the VCU Painting and Printmaking department, uses his work to create a space for discourse about the experiences of black citizens in response to contemporary events. I met with Malcolm to discuss his art, his experiences, and his perspective on issues that black individuals and artists are facing currently.

MEGAN GOLDFARB: Your work is, in my opinion, a poignant reflection on black identity. Could you talk about your objectives with some of your pieces and how you’ve seen those objectives coming across in responses to your work?

MALCOLM PEACOCK: I’ve been writing about this a lot actually lately, because it’s important to know what your intentions and motivations are. I am always trying to make a comment about a current racial climate—current events and my current standing—but that is not void of past experiences, because that current state is completely comprised of past events. I am always intending to comment on black news, and I want to contribute to the conversation of the future of black history. At the same time I have a really large interest in confronting what has been and still is one of the biggest forces in my world which is whiteness, which is essentially privilege. It’s what white supremacy embodies, is whiteness. So confronting that and figuring out ways to counter that in order for myself and others around me to live in a more productive environment- it’s about contributing a part of myself for an overall improved climate. It’s not that I think that my art is going to serve a purpose of widespread transformative change in the world, it’s the idea of contribution; the idea of me as a black person, someone who would have been even more limited in the ability to contribute a few years ago. We are in a state now where I have some freedoms, and I have to take advantage of them in order to add a valuable contribution. I mean, I’m not necessarily trying to change the entire world with what I’m doing.

MG: You’re carving out a space for discourse.

MP: Exactly. I created a space for thought. When it leaves the room it is out of my control and each person is going to come away from the piece differently. If somebody comes away with even more hatred or bigotry, it’s not our responsibility to change that. But it creates a space for dialogue that leaves it up to some form of development in our culture.

MG: How would you define the role of a Black Artist compared to other artists?

MP: Black artists get a lot of heat from people who are outside of that community saying that black artists have to make work about their identity, but I think that existing as a black person in the arts is actually a statement in itself, because it’s not an area where we’ve always been welcomed or always represented. So I don’t know if they have a specific role. The overarching role is that, as black people we have an opportunity to contribute to history and black history and people have their own autonomy for whatever way they choose to do that.

MG: Can you talk about the exhibition you held recently, Black Inventors Hall of Fame?

This exhibition incorporated several objects that we use today, which were invented by black individuals. Peacock reasserts the origins of these objects, upholding their inventors through a process of wrapping the objects in braided hair, a material that he sees as a leading identifier for many black people in the United States. Peacock had spent several months making the pieces; which included a lawn mower, a mini refrigerator, and a water gun, among several others. Each piece is accompanied by text that explains the object’s inventor and history. For the final exhibition, Peacock displayed these objects between two houses (a reference to the Underground Railroad), spaces which he also made into in-home hair salons.

MP: For Black Inventors Hall of Fame, the idea of putting all the work together for the first time started in March of 2015, but when the exhibition was supposed to happen I got sick, so it got postponed without a set date. In between I traveled, and I had some shitty experiences when I traveled because I’m black, but it gave me more time to think about environment. The point of having the show in a salon was about environment- making the bridge between the labor force in the United States that is so oppressive of black people and the oppressive art system, and showing how those are similar. Putting those in the same space, I think created an understanding and appreciation for underappreciated work by people who are underappreciated. I was thinking how I could create this element of tension, and I realized that I needed to alter the way that people could enter the space of the exhibition. I thought about being in school, and at VCU we’ve been talking a lot about under-representation, and I thought, okay, I’m going to have an art show where the majority of the people are black, which doesn’t happen. In order to do this I’m going to have to dictate the number of black people that would be present.

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It was the first time in a show setting that I was thinking about how this work would be perceived outside of school, and who gets to see this show- because who can see shows, normally? Like who does the VMFA really advertise for? So I made two Facebook pages: one for people who are black, one for people who are not black (which in itself is an exact opposite turn, because normally people say white or not white, which is an awful way of speaking about people because it completely homogenizes people who are of color). In order for a white person or anyone who was not black to get into the show, they had to be present with a black individual. Leading up to the show I really wondered who was going to come because the Facebook pages are always misleading. And then I thought to myself, this might be an all black show, or a show with like 5 white people there. I don’t believe in doing anything if you already know what is going to happen.

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It was really successful, and it taught me a lot about navigating white dominated spaces and understanding that white fragility is so real and I had to come to terms with the fact that certain people aren’t going to come. Seeing the people who did come, and the people who stepped up really showed an appreciation for my identity and the appreciation of the identity of the makers and for people who are present and not present. It showed appreciation for black people in general, and that was the point of the show- to honor these identities and the work that these people do. There were a lot of black people crying that night, and it was so touching to know that the work—this rule—people felt that they were being honored, whether their names were spoken out loud or not.

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MG: How long have you been dealing with issues of black identity in your work? How has it developed from its starting point?

MP: Explaining backstory and my background coming into art is important to how I came into exploring that area of work, which is a huge, broad area. I came into art really naturally; I was mesmerized by image-making. I have so many charged experiences that revolve around my race that I wasn’t addressing for so long. Art was a way for me to channel energy from those experiences—that may have been negative or transformative energy—and I could fuel that into my artmaking. In high school, my experiences were so bad that I was still hiding them. I was actually making work in opposition of them. I didn’t know anything about power. Looking back on it, I was literally helpless; I was a product of consumerism and public education. But there came a point when I felt like I was neglecting reality, and neglecting myself and sort of depriving myself of honesty; being honest with myself just developed tremendously over time, but in the beginning being honest with myself meant me feeling the need to address these issues in my life and of other people of similar identity to me.

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I remember I made a painting early on in art school—it was not a good painting but I did something that was conceptually interesting—I took one object, zoomed in on it, and made this massive scene out of this object, this candlestick on a candleholder. It was a roller derby scene of black women, but that candlestick was just a pillar and around the pillar said ‘The Ivy League’—cool idea, awful painting. There were roller derby women circling around it—half of them are wearing a red “S” and half are wearing a green “D” for Dartmouth vs Stanford. It was so poorly painted that nobody talked about it being black women who aren’t really in roller derby in an Ivy League. I’m thinking about intersections of race, education, the privilege in roller derby (but with no clue what I’m doing; the women look white because I’m such a bad painter.) But honestly that painting wasn’t good because I didn’t want to be forward—I thought it was bad to be forward in your art. I wanted to be ambiguous because I thought that was what contemporary art embodied, but I kind of thought that was a staple.

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I think what charged my work further was looking at myself in context of racial climate—that’s always what I’m doing- but when the man who killed Mike Brown was not indicted, I was so stunned because I was coming into awareness of who I was. I was in the context of dealing with issues in this community where there are encounters with police, and I was seeing this boy who was not 18, unarmed, and hearing of multiple publicized cases in the country like this. I’d never seen this treatment happen to people who weren’t black. I think the killing of Mike Brown- I don’t know him, but I’m very familiar with who he was because his experiences and mine are similar. We’re young black people living in a place that is not far removed from the Civil Rights Movement. That event took my interest in being honest to another level. I never think of who my intended audience is because it doesn’t have to be specific; my issues are important period. I wouldn’t be making the work if I thought only black people needed to see it.

“I think honesty is a big part of my work, and fearlessness—trying to understand that power is within oneself. I can choose to remove myself from any situation, I can make choices to combat, and to not combat. I do have my own personal autonomy, but for some people that comes with way more baggage than other people.”

MG: You and I have talked a lot about how black artists are not equally represented in the artistic community. How do you think that development is going in both the VCU community and in the greater artistic community? Do you think it’s getting to a point where it’s not just a niche, but a universal part of the art world?

MP: It’s still really a movement that the art world is going through. You know, I don’t know if my work is going to be sought after in 10 years or if it’s just going to be something that art administrators use as models of inclusion. Once they have that, and show that inclusion, will they still seek after it?

If we’re looking at representation in the school, you know it’s really tough because Richmond is such a racially charged place, and part of it is in denial. The idea of universities and higher education is for some people an innovative thing- every year there’s new programs, new money, new grants—we always associate a university being progressive. With VCU being in the capital city of Virginia, it gives off the idea that this is a place that is representing people of all identities, especially in the arts, which isn’t actually the case. The school is lacking in faculty of color, specifically in black faculty. The school is lacking in a truly diverse group of students. In my undergraduate studies I’ve only had class with the same group of three black people. As far as representation goes, there’s still so much work to do and it’s in a stagnant place. Once the university is really starting to work on recruitment of people of color, rather than just relying on the numbers that we’re getting from Northern Virginia students, then I think we’ll be making some steps toward better representation. And then if we’re looking at the students’ work itself, I don’t think the work can be fully recognized or understood if it’s about identity or politics unless there’s more diverse faculty. If there’s nobody in the room to speak to a similar experience or similar emotion or similar feelings, then it’s going to be hard for black students to feel that they are welcome or know that their time is being spent in a worthwhile manner and that they’re progressing in their careers.

Looking outside of VCU… so Artsy put out an article about contemporary black art that’s going on right now. They talk about the pressures that are felt by artists of color, and then they look at things that people are kind of not paying as much attention to, which is not just about what people are making the work but what people are showing the work. The museum and gallery collectors and curators are not a diverse group of people, but as that group becomes more diverse, then there will be more black people being shown in these settings and we’ll start hearing more than just the top names getting recognition. There is a trend aspect to it right now and in the next few years it will be about really establishing ourselves in contemporary art. This may be a wave, and we’re not sure where we’re situated within history. I think that if emerging black artists are inspiring others to continue to make, then the idea of this being a trend will hopefully cease, it won’t have to just be a ‘thing’ anymore and will become a real part of not just black art but just art as well, with artists of color existing in the top levels of making and getting their work shown.

In order for it to not be a trend, there also has to be expansion in programs that get black kids into art at a high level. If not, there aren’t going to be any black children growing up to become artists. One of the reasons there aren’t a lot of black artists is because a lot of black people don’t know that art is a career. On media we see a really generic definition of what a career is. I told my parents when I was three that I was going to be an artist. If we don’t know that’s possible then we are never going to pursue it.

MG: Do you have any advice for artists of color in this community? For white artists?

MP: The young white community in the arts needs to take some responsibility for what is often a lack of knowledge. A lot of people need to stop relying on people of color who have already been traumatized to explain traumatic events to them. That’s really broad, but people need to learn to be more aware. There’s Google, there’s Wikipedia, do some reading, ask questions, and also be mindful of the way that you are presenting questions. If you’re tense about subjects revolving around race, think of a social issue that you’re more comfortable talking about and put that social issue in place of race. If you’re thinking about something or asking something and you’re not sure if it’s offensive, one thing you can do is think, “If I was talking about a different social issue and I asked this question, would this be seen as offensive?” And if so, then maybe you should try to alter the way you are presenting material or asking somebody to explain material to you. I’ve thought about that a lot recently.

“For black artists: whatever you’re doing, if you’re not making work about blackness or identity specifically, whether you are or not, you have to be really fearless in what you’re making. If you’re not believing in what you’re making, you have to at least believe in your power to make. Don’t let anyone deprive you of your ability to be an artist.”

You can quit but don’t let anybody make you quit. You are in control of these situations; do not back down from your content or your medium, and be unapologetic in your making, because that’s what everyone else has the privilege of – making freely and openly. Like my friend Ha Tran said, you have to “access your power.”

MG: Who are some of your biggest inspirations?

MP: There’s this artist who runs a blog—Kim Drews. From what I know of the Kim Drews blog, it’s like an exploration of black contemporary art. Obviously there were already virtual formats for that, but she added one and it’s really large. It hits a lot of different areas and a lot of different people. It’s widespread and wholistic, because it’s showing emerging people who aren’t really well known. Tokenizing is really wrong because there are black people making work about being black and there are black people making work that aren’t about that, and then there’s everything in between, and she gets so much of it.

I’ve also just been so obsessed with Malcolm X, thank God I was named after him. There’s this idea of compromise, and when you’re black you have to do a lot of compromising, and it’s really awful and it’s true. In a way you have to ignore all of the problems, or choose which of them to deal with, and I wonder, when can I just have no judgements made about me before I open my mouth, when can I just get everything on an equal level? But the truth is, noone is going to liberate you except yourself. Right now, it’s not happening, you know? I think about Malcolm X so much because he didn’t believe in compromise, he said, “I’m going to fight for these things and do it whatever way I want to, because, I can.” He made his own power. He didn’t wait for someone to do something for him, he did it himself.

Oh, and Bree Newsome. Bree Newsome removed the Confederate flag from the state capital. She’s someone very similar to Malcolm X; she’s using revolutionary radicalism. Basically, it’s the idea that if a poor person can’t do what you’re doing, then it’s not revolutionary—because it’s still using privilege and capitalism. So for example I love the Beyonce performance and it’s an important movement—but it’s not a revolution because she’s using a platform of a lot of power.

MG: Do you have any sort of trajectory after school?

MP: Right after I get out, I’m going to move to a bigger city. Wherever I move, I plan to continue working actively in populations for people with disabilities, and creating a greater amount of access of the arts for those people. Along with making work those are two things that I know I will be doing right after I get out of school. I’m interested in curatorial studies and navigating spaces that are curated, which means so much in a broad sense, but I do want to start being able to have a say in who is being shown in these spaces through actual work and through my own work. I want to be close to a contemporary art space so I can continue relationships and establish new ones. I definitely want to work with young people of color, getting them more involved in the arts at a young age; really as early as possible. Art’s not going to be everyone’s career, but it’s so important that young black children grow up knowing that they have possibilities, and that they’re not going to be boxed into becoming what they see in media.

 

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