Last week I got one of the best rejections ever. At first I had the usual feeling of a fist to my gut followed by the enveloping dark cloud of disappointment and despair. This feeling is familiar to all people who work in creative fields. We have put our hearts and souls into a project and have taken the risk of wanting to share it with the world. To survive this cloud and get to the other side, the usual advice is to always have another application, audition, or submission on the horizon to pin your hopes on. That’s good advice and I follow it.
I’m embarrassed to admit how many places have said no thank you to I Am My White Ancestors. My latest perspective is that even if the show hasn’t traveled as much as I want so far, hundreds of gallery directors and exhibit committees, fellowship and grant panels have now seen the images and proposal. It’s like a virtual traveling exhibit that creates a context for people to talk about it.
But back to that fantastic rejection. The great thing is that they thoughtfully explained why, and when I inquired after more detail, they explained more. The committee evidently spent quite awhile discussing it, which by itself is gratifying. I felt respected as an artist with a serious project.
In the end there were two reasons they decided to pass on it. First, though the project would certainly create conversation, they thought the portraits were satirical. This was news to me since I am nothing if not serious, especially about understanding and adopting these personas. But art affects people in unpredictable ways.
I can also understand that for people living and growing up in the deep south, having a northerner insinuate, even indirectly, how racist, stupid, backward, etc. they are would not go well. It might harken back to the Civil War and its aftermath when families lost their property and “country” to the North. I thought the fact that I claim South Carolina heritage would give me a pass. I guess not.
Second, since they are a university located in the deep south with a diverse student body, they thought my project would not be the best way to focus on racism. I tend to agree with this. This artwork is primarily for white people to use for their awareness and process. Evidently I didn’t do enough research about the school.
It’s tempting to think, well, I must be just too far ahead and eventually schools and galleries will realize the importance of my project. I recently learned about the work of artist Paul Drucker, who work was rejected for years because the content was uncomfortable. (slavery, incarceration, among others) After viewing his Ted talk and listening to a radio interview, I believe that he was never in much doubt about the quality or importance of his work. He was more concerned with doing the best and most well researched work he could. He has now received many awards and grants and opportunities to share his work. It is helpful to me to know about people like him. I am among company.