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Art & Voices Matter: Artistic suppression…myth or fact?

How do artists cope with strangulating environments that insidiously erase their right to express their subjectivities?

by Rosalyn D`MelloPublished on : May 03, 2021

I dived headlong into a Lauryn Hill rabbit hole soon after composing my column on Theaster Gates. At first, I was curious to explore the links between Black spirituality and ecstasy and the role of Black Gospel music in mediating journeys into jouissance. Naturally I re-watched Sister Act, but not the original in which the LA-based wannabe showgirl Delores Van Cartier (Whoopi Goldberg), in the guise of a nun named Sister Clarence, teaches a group of ageing, washed-out white nuns how to sing with soul. I mean I did watch the YouTube versions of all the hits from the film that made it so endearing, but plot-wise, I was more interested in re-viewing the 1993 sequel, Sister Act: Back in the Habit that had felt formative to my childhood. A now successful Delores is called in by Mother Superior who emotionally blackmails her into tutoring the music class of the school the nuns are managing in a primarily black district. Reprising her role as Sister Mary Clarence, Delores ends up motivating her bunch of insouciant teenagers into forming a choir.

03 mins watch Lauryn Hill is Rita, in Sister Act 2, who wants to be a singer, despite her mother’s active suppression of her musical career | STIRworld
Tanya Blount and Lauryn Hill in Sister Act 2, in a most tender scene, practicing ‘His Eye is On the Sparrow’ Video: Courtesy of Oobaby Muscal on YouTube

I had been in a choir from the age of maybe seven or eight and continued to sing regularly until I was 18. When Sister Act 2 was screened on TV in India, many of my neighbourhood friends and I feasted on it. It was such a ’90s film and it’s almost eerie to think of how we related to it despite the fact that it was set in a suburb in some part of America we didn’t know existed, and featured realities so different from our own. But really, for me, Sister Act 2 was so much to do with Lauryn Hill, who I wanted to be when I first heard her sing, and even more so as I began to be more exposed to the music she produced with The Fugees.

So, I re-watched Sister Act 2, fell in love all over again with the character played by Miss Hill, who decides to sing despite her mother’s protest at her pursuing a musical career, thanks to Sister Mary Clarence’s nurture. Then, I re-listened to that genius 2018 album by Amerigo Gazaway, The Miseducation of Eunice Waymon, a work of magic in which the producer puts Miss Hill in a fictional conversation with Miss Nina Simone. Back in 2016, Gazaway had been taken to task during a round table discussion. A fellow panelist, writer and professor, Zandria Robinson, asked him, ‘where’s your project celebrating women artists?’ Two years later, he released this humble, uplifting, magnanimous response. I spiralled further and began re-listening to Miss Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, and her remixes of her own music from the 90s to the 2000s to the present. I rediscovered the immensity of her ode to her son Zion, and eventually wept with Miss Hill when she broke down while performing solo with her guitar in front of an MTV Unplugged audience back in 2002, after which I spiralled headlong into researching more about Miss Hill and the challenges she faced in her career, and the grace with which she handled even a tax evasion prison sentence. The internet is filled with speculative pieces about why the 1975-born artist never released a second studio album. I have read all of them. And Google, having borne witness to my obsession, began to regularly include in my newsfeed, stories about her, which I devoured. Then, a few weeks ago, a piece was published in the Rolling Stones. It included an interview with Miss Hill, which felt precious exactly because she is so guarded about her public appearances.

In 2002, Lauryn Hill performed new material but was panned by white music critics for being too emotional. Towards the end of her song, ‘Peace of Mind’, Hill broke down. You can watch the video here.

In the interview, Miss Hill offers a fitting response to the eternally posed, frequently Googled question about her elusive next studio album. “The wild thing is no one from my label has ever called me and asked how can we help you make another album, ever... ever. Did I say ever? Ever!” she says. This felt shocking. Yet unsurprising. It made me think about what the world demands of artists without ever questioning whether it is complicit enough in nurturing the creativity to which it feels entitled. She proceeds to talk about how artist suppression is real. ‘I won’t go too much into it here, but where there should have been overwhelming support, there wasn’t any. I began touring because I needed the creative outlet, and to support myself and my family. People were more interested in breaking me or using me to battery-power whatever they had going than to support my creativity.”

04 mins watch Black Rage is a contemporary rendering of ‘My Favourite Things’ that darkly reflects Black dystopia | Future Vibes | YouTube| STIRworld
In 2014, Lauryn Hill released ‘Black Rage’ as a response to anti-black police brutality Video: Courtesy of Future Vibes | YouTube

As an art critic, not only have I experienced being suppressed, I have also witnessed it in action as I have been privy to conversations among collectors, gallery heads, and curators in which they voluntarily decide to promote which artists to promote at the expense of already marginalised others. I have seen how one kind of artistic practice is aggrandized while another (specifically those that in some way speak truth to power) are vilified. The insidiousness with which these violences are performed differ from censorship, whether self-directed or imposed. Within censorship there is still room to manoeuvre artistic agency. You are not actively discouraged from producing art, but have to wrestle with externally dictated norms that confine the range of expression. Suppression involves the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which artists are denied legitimacy through variating manners of gatekeeping. They could be publicly dismissed as crazy, unstable, menacing, or there are simply no takers for their work because it allegedly doesn’t appeal to broad-enough sensibilities. The fault is always portrayed as not belonging to the institution. The artist is often forced to internalise their shortcomings and is made to feel responsible for their exclusion. Any attempt made to critique the system is usually met with instant gaslighting. You are often led to believe that you are simply ‘imagining’ your non-belonging, even as the exclusion directly affects your livelihood and endangers your ability to sustain your practice.

Sangita Maity’s ongoing series focuses on the perils of rubber plantations, how the sky is lost to the forest, thus destroying eco-systems | Shrine Empire Gallery| STIRworld
Sangita Maity, Forest without the Sky II, Woodcut print, 23 x 14 in, edition 1 of 4, 2020 Image: Courtesy of Shrine Empire Gallery and the artist

Artistic suppression is an inherently oppressive set of consciously or incidentally performed actions that function under the guise of rejection. Suppression occurs when ‘hosting’ agencies actively alter the trajectory of artistic production by suggesting what can and cannot pass as works of art; or how an artist should or should not posture themselves so as to gain public attention, failing which the end result is some form of career suicide. The amusing and perhaps most deceitful thing about the global art world is its complicity in rejecting non-mainstream, non-white and non-cis-het discourses, then cashing in on what artists produced nonetheless, despite being forced to trade commercial success for precarious living, despite possibly even dying from the mental exhaustion of having to constantly self-validate. Additionally, the frequent absence of necessary and exigent safety and security nets play an overwhelming role in rewarding people with already existing privileges over those from marginalised spaces. Furthermore, those who embody privilege are offered the liberty of artistic agency whereby no subject is barred from their consideration, while those who represent powerlessness are condemned to only produce art that attests to their precarity and suffering. RadhaMUSPrime calls out many of these ironies in Poverty Porn. [No happy blacks in the plotlines, please/ But a crane shot of Big Momma crying on her knees / For her dead son, the b-ball star, who almost made it out / Sounds f*****-up enough to gain my film some capital.] In a 2016 interview, the then 101-year-old Cuban-born artist, Carmen Herrera, who only sold her first painting at the age of 89, touched upon some of hardships female artists had to endure in the mid-20th century, especially if their work was ‘so defiantly unfeminine’. She continued to paint, her interviewer, Simon Hattenstone, tells us, while the world continued to ignore her. When she once went to an avant garde gallery to ‘discuss her work’, as she was leaving, the owner, Rose Fried, called her back and explicitly told her she would never be given a show because she was a woman. “I felt as if someone had slapped me on the face. I felt for the first time what discrimination was. It’s a terrible thing. I just walked out,” she says.

Sangita Maity’s wood block print shows the devastating effects of over-zealous rubber plantations on indigenous lands | Shrine Empire Gallery| STIRworld
Sangita Maity, Alternative Landscape III, Wood block print on Paper, 11 x 9 in each (set of 6), Edition of 3, 2020 Image: Courtesy of Shrine Empire Gallery and the artist

While cyber stalking Lauryn Hill in order to arrive at a non-linear sense of her trajectory, I recorded, in her Wikipedia article, a brief, passing mention about Hill’s alleged hiatus in mid-2008, claims which her ex, Rohan Marley, disputed in an interview. “She writes music in the bathroom, on toilet paper, on the wall. She writes it in the mirror if the mirror smokes up. She writes constantly. This woman does not sleep.” I wondered about possible forms of resistance available to artists who suffer the weight of suppression, or who are allowed to produce, but conditionally, so as to cater to white or Brahmanical gazes, especially in a consumptive economy where art is understood as something the public feels entitled to consume; to feed upon without returning to the artist anything by way of nurture. Maybe it was in withholding from the world the corpus of her creativity that Miss Hill found agency; discovered a way of belonging to herself?

Sangita Maity draws public attention to the plight of indigenous people forced by governments and corporations to become complicit in the destruction of ancestral lands | Shrine Empire Gallery| STIRworld
Sangita Maity, They don't call themselves Farmers anymore, acrylic on canvas, 5 x 5 in, 12.7 x 12.7 cm each (set of 7), 2020 Image: Courtesy of Shrine Empire Gallery and the artist

I was intrigued to learn that Sister Act 2 bombed on the box office, thanks in perhaps no small measure to critical reviews written primarily by white men. Rewatching it I wondered if the biggest challenge for white male audiences was seeing so many black people in a film that was daring to be mainstream, embodying fleshed out characters with real-world aspirations, dreams, and conscious of the legacies that have informed their personhood. I found myself returning to a conversation I had last February in Kolkata, with the artist, Sangita Maity, who was showing me her then recent work based on her research into how indigenous communities in Orissa and Tripura had been robbed of their historic relationships with their own lands on account of aggressively promoted rubber cultivation. In Tripura rubber has been a mainstay as a source of employment, forcing those who relied on naturally occurring forest resources for sustenance and multi-crop farming to serve as labour on earth-destroying plantations. Maity had shared with me how rubber monocultures are among the most toxic because extensive plantations endanger host ecosystems and force indigenous people to rely on mine work for survival. Not only do rubber plantations erase forests and their diversity, they threaten the customs, traditions, and belief systems of people native to the colonised land, severing their inherited relationship with nature. I think of Maity’s series as a tender documentation of fragile lives, but also as a larger metaphor for the consequence of artistic suppression; what happens to our host planet when those in power enforce their will upon the agencies of those who have been responsible for creatively nurturing something discreetly fundamental to the future sustenance of our inter-twined lives.

Art & Voices Matter
Co-curated by Rahul Kumar and Dilpreet Bhullar, Art & Voices Matter is a STIR original series of interviews with global creative practitioners who bring to the core the issues of communities that may be seen at the periphery.

(Disclaimer: The views and opinion expressed here are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official position of STIR or its Editors.)

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