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Art AND: Angela N. Carroll

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Angela N. Carroll is writing history. The Maryland native went to graduate school in California for digital arts and new media (with a focus on experimental cinema and animation) and now teaches film and moving images courses at Stevenson University, but lately Carroll has devoted herself to writing about contemporary Black artists. Carroll has modeled her career after David Driskell, the artist/scholar who felt a charge to contextualize and write into history his Black contemporaries in the 1970s. Like Driskell, Carroll acknowledges the complicated feelings that come with putting on hold one’s studio practice to focus on writing about someone else’s. Animation is not a diverse field and she wants to get back to it, but there is a lot she wants to accomplish with her writing, too.

For Carroll—a regular contributor to BmoreArt—contemporary writing about Black artists has to move past tokenism. She explains that inclusion “can’t be about a checked list of diversity.” Pushing for more than representation presents a major challenge because art history, as it has been recorded, “is primarily the history of white men. The contemporary moment tells us that everyone’s contributions are important, but as a result of [this historical imbalance] there are deep fissures in the way we understand one another,” Carroll says. “The way we understand artist history is through these white geniuses, but what is Picasso without the African artisans” his work was based on? The central question that Carroll returns to frequently is, “The world is Brown and getting Browner… how do we have an inclusive history?”

It’s important to Carroll to write about this region and the underrecognized Black artists that call it home. In her work writing for national and regional publications such as Hyperallergic, Black Art in America, Sugarcane Magazine, Arts.Black, Umber, CUE Art Foundation, as well as a variety of galleries and museums, Carroll explains that she is “trying to offer my little sliver into the canon, that is hyperlocal and very specific to the DMV. I think that’s another kind of siloing—if you don’t maintain residence in so-called metropolises like New York and Los Angeles, it’s like you don’t matter.” Currently, her primary project is making sure that older Black artists are recognized, especially those she feels have been forgotten because they did not follow the accepted career path of visual artists: get degree, maybe teach, sell your work in a gallery. 

An example of this erasure is the career of 83-year-old sculptor, printmaker, and designer Valerie Maynard, whose work has been collected and celebrated by the likes of Stevie Wonder and the late Toni Morrison. “She is history. We have to document and get the vast knowledge that she has or it will be lost,” Carroll says of Maynard. “She has been obscured because she chose not to go the traditional route” and work with a gallery. When Maynard was establishing her career in the 1960s, Carroll says, “Money stayed within the Black community. They didn’t depend on white money to succeed. These artists were successful in their communities, but outside of it people don’t know who they are. Black people have always thrived in the bubble we are put in.” She mentions that Black figuration is a result of a similar partitioning, with many contemporary Black artists being told, “they should ‘do what you know.’ Romare Bearden started out as an abstract artist but got told, ‘do figuration.’ The racism in that! David Driskell was told similarly. They were told, ‘That’s not for you.’”

“It’s ageism that ‘genius’ is young. That ‘genius’ is white is racism. That ‘genius’ is male is steeped in patriarchy and chauvinism. All of us have the responsibility of correcting those ‘isms’ and leveling the playing field.”
Angela N. Carroll

Carroll sees where the bubble has broken, but also how much work there is still to do in establishing the legacies of older artists and women artists. She points to the recent record-breaking auction successes of Kerry James Marshall and Mark Bradford as a point of optimism. “Hopefully that continues. The canon has purposely left out certain creatives and we’re trying to rectify that. Let’s not see this moment as a trend. But it’s also significant that these people are men.” 

For Carroll, it is time to get to work. “It’s ageism that ‘genius’ is young. That ‘genius’ is white is racism. That ‘genius’ is male is steeped in patriarchy and chauvinism,” she says. “All of us have the responsibility of correcting those ‘isms’ and leveling the playing field.” Carroll is a member of the 2020 Saul Zaents Innovation Fund cohort and is working on a documentary series about postwar and contemporary African American artists who are significant but remain somewhat obscure. As Carroll told BmoreArt last month, “The goal is that by visualizing their work and stories we can revise the art historical canon that has ignored their contributions.”

One barrier to doing the canon correction work that she wants to do is being fairly compensated for it. “I work for a lot of publications all over the country and they’re all on the same vibe: I wish I could hire you full time, I wish I could pay you more.” 

There’s also the weight of responsibility and accountability, which too often falls on people of color. “It isn’t enough to have one Black staff writer and expect that one writer to write about all the Black stuff that is happening. It isn’t enough to have one Black faculty and expect that one person to support all the students of color, because there is an erasure there and it’s annoying,” she says. “It de-intellectualizes the work and pushes it all on that one person of color. It pushes the responsibility away from the white community…. We have to go into the weeds of what is causing these issues and do the work to solve them.” 

In terms of her own career path, Carroll says, “I am not interested in writing for a publication that is too afraid to stand up for what is happening right now. The goal is do work that I care about and do it well and be paid well for it. The goal is to be free.”

SUBJECT: Angela N. Carroll, 36
PLACE: Charles Village
WEARING: Gold sweater, headwrap from Everyone’s Place, and blue jeans. Accessories from Flourish Boutique/The GreenHouse Juice Cafe

Angela N. Carroll

Suzy Kopf: What is the most important book (or books) you’ve read or are reading?

Angela N. Carroll: I tend to read a few books at a time. Unless the book is really amazing, then it gets my full attention. Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi is an amazing work. The story is set in another world where the ruling dynasty has oppressed communities who descend from people with supernatural abilities. The dynasty’s fear of those communities and the tactics the dynasty employs to pacify those communities mirrors real-world racialized, gendered, and economic disparities. The narrative is disturbingly relatable and offers a cautionary tale about the ways fear can be used to manipulate a nation’s citizenry. Another book that I return to often is In the Wake by Dr. Christina Sharpe. In graduate school you learn to associate theory with white European men—Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, Freud with occasional mentions of Spivak—or Davis in narrow contexts of contemporary abolition movements, or hooks or Lorde in dialogues about Black womanist or queer considerations. Sharpe’s work is so extraordinary, so brilliant and cunning in its adoption of maritime language to unpack the violence and perpetual traumas of African diasporic communities, beginning with the transatlantic slave trade and into the contemporary moment: policing, the prison-industrial complex, housing disparities (redlining), or medical apartheid (the Tuskegee experiment, Henrietta Lacks, J. Marion Sims’ gynecological experiments on Black women).   

How has family impacted your life and career choices? 

We are all amalgamations of our families, chosen or blood. I am who I am because of who my parents are. The books that lined their book shelves informed my understanding of self, my political consciousness, my identity and recognition of Black aesthetics. My parents were strict and devout in their faith so my time was spent at church, or at home reading or listening to my father’s vinyl collection. My father was a jazz musician. My mother taught English for a time. My uncles were visual artists. My aunts and grandmother were healers and ministers/practitioners. My sister potty trained me by reading to me and with me, so I learned how to read at a very young age. I read Toni Morrison, Alex Haley, Haki Madhubuti, Sonia Sanchez, James Baldwin, John Henrik Clarke and so many others in elementary and middle school and discussed what I read with my parents. That engagement with profound literary works by preeminent figures in the Black Arts Movement gave me a strong sense of self, the powerful legacy I descend from, and the importance of articulating an unabashed pride in histories that include the contributions of African Americans, indigenous communities, and marginalized populations who would otherwise be ignored or omitted from history. The work to correct that omission remains a primary source of inspiration for all of the initiatives I engage with. 

Your background is in animation and film and you have an MFA in Digital Arts and New Media from the University of California at Santa Cruz. How did you get started writing? 

I’ve always written. The language of film, animation, and literature have been the primary ways that I have learned how to navigate the world. I imagine that this is true for many introverts; we tend to learn through observation, an engagement with the world that occurs at a distance, on our own terms, and is somewhat curated to maintain whatever boundaries we need to feel safe, balanced, etc. I engage with film, animation, and writing interchangeably as a way to, first and foremost, discover the ways that I articulate my experiences, but also—and predominantly over the last few years—as a way to relay the experiences of others who have been silenced or ignored. 

Who do you admire? Why? If it is someone you know personally, do you think they know they’re a role model to you and would they be surprised?

I am inspired by passionate people who are diligent in the work that they feel they have been called to do/create/birth into the world. I admire grit, drive, and the tenacity of persistence. I admire geniuses who don’t see themselves as geniuses, but the things they produce prove their power and impact. I admire honesty, integrity, humor, and everyday real folks who will tell you if you have a booger in your nose or a stain on your shirt. I am inspired by so many creatives in Baltimore and the DMV at large. I am overwhelmed and grateful to bear witness to the creativity and accomplishments of our communities. 

Angela N. Carroll

Do you have any advice for other writers? 

Be really clear about who you are and what you want to contribute, be really clear about what you have to say. If it’s so heady that people can’t relate to it, it loses significance. Also, read a lot! If you’re a Black writer writing about Black work, there is a rupture where you have to make certain decisions because Black language has a rhythm and nuance. If an editor is not familiar with Black aesthetics, then people end up presuming a deintellectualization of the work. They edit out the nuance and in the past I would allow that. Be clear about your stylistic choices for the audience you are trying to speak to. Zora Neale Hurston was heavily criticized for using Black speak. We have to appreciate the stories that people are bringing to the table. And don’t fuck with any publications that don’t respect that.

What mundane thing do you hope you’re remembered for? 

Optimism. I think being optimistic is underappreciated, especially now where social media makes us super critical of each other. The nihilism that is embedded into those networks conditions us to applaud idealized representations and harshly criticize things that we believe don’t stand up to those ideals. Optimism isn’t utopian, I think it’s about empathy. 

We spoke about a number of underrecognized contemporary Black artists local to the DMV. Is there anyone in particular you believe should be a household name that isn’t yet? Where can people see their work now?

Ed Love was a contemporary sculptor and professor at Howard University. His work utilized discarded scrap metal to create gigantic anthropomorphic figures, many of which were inspired by ancient origin myths. He passed away in 1999, but Kravets/Wehby, a notable gallery in New York, and a few other institutions are beginning to take note of his extraordinary and prolific body of work. Love’s style is reminiscent of Brancusi, but it is more engaged with global narratives and considerations about divinity, humanity, and Black aesthetics. Love deserves a retrospective. 

What’s the best local restaurant and what is your go-to order? 

Nailah’s Kitchen is an amazing Senegalese restaurant. The grilled salmon is delicious. Add a side of alloco (fried plantains) and some mangue (mango/pineapple juice) or gigembre (ginger/pineapple juice) and I’m happy. 

We touched a little bit on politics and I think I have seen you identify as an artist-activist. Do you believe all art is political and if so, what do you say to artists who claim their work is without a political position?
I identify as an artist-archivist, but because my work is tied to the decolonization of art institutions, it is seen as a political act. I do not consider myself to be an activist. I know activists. I have struggled alongside activists. I understand the labor and sacrifice of activism. I am a disruptor. Some may argue that disruption is a form of activism. I have not thought about my work in that way. I believe that all art is inherently imbued with the passive or active politics of the artist who created the work. We are all subject to socialization, the myriad influences from birth to the present that inform our sense of self, world view, and decision making. I am always curious and skeptical when I hear artists say that they or the works they create are apolitical. It triggers questions for me about why they are hesitant to stand in a position, but it also evokes understanding about how easily an artist can be typecast once they make a certain proclamation. Humans are dynamic, our perspectives are ever-evolving. Folks should feel free to express themselves as they need to. We can only hope they do so with some criticality and understanding of context and history, so that the work can engage people in revelatory ways. I am excited and inspired by works that are interested in creating dialogues. Dialogues are political. Dialogues dig into our individual biases and force us to consider why we believe what we believe. I truly respect artists who are brave enough to do that work, to present subjects that force viewers to assess the realities of the world and our implication in the creation of those realities. 

The nihilism that is embedded into [social media] networks conditions us to applaud idealized representations and harshly criticize things that we believe don’t stand up to those ideals. Optimism isn’t utopian, I think it's about empathy. 
Angela N. Carroll

Whose work would you want in your home or to wear on your body? Specific piece?

If I had a larger space with more windows and lots of natural light I would purchase one of Rashid Johnson’s installations and place it at the center of my home. There is something magnificent about the power of assemblage, the juxtaposition of seemingly disparate cultural objects, when they are placed into one tremendous arrangement. A work like “Plateaus” (2014), a huge installation that includes house plants, grow lamps, radios, huge mounds of shea butter, rugs, and books, is subtle in its appreciation and resounding love of Black cultural traditions. The installation is an homage to the mundane attributes of expertly curated domestic interiors in Black homes. Like Mickalene Thomas, Johnson’s aesthetic is boldly unapologetic about its exploration of Black aesthetics to produce large-scale, awe-inspiring contemporary works.  

If you had unlimited funding and time, describe the show you’d curate.

It would be a continuation of the project I am currently working on: to review, exhibit, and archive the works of contemporary African American artists who are based in the DMV. I would expand the project to other regions across the country and in the south. Artists outside of major art metropolises rarely receive the recognition they deserve as contemporary artists. My project would correct that by offering a curatorial series at major art institutions that encouraged dialogue with and collection of those artists. 

What are the last three emojis you used?

Fire, laughing smile face with tears, crown 

Do you have a typical day or not right now? Do you wish you had a routine if you don’t or do you thrive on change? 

Cue Rihanna: Work, work, work, work, work. Yoga. Work out. Talk to myself out loud. Work, work work work work [laughs]. I read an interview with Toni Morrison where she discussed the importance of creating rituals around your writing. Someone asked her if she had a ritual and at first she did not think that she had one. Later she realized that her ritual was simple but efficient: She woke up before the sun rose, made a cup of coffee, watched the sun come up and wrote until lunch. I look forward to the day I can have a more simplified ritual. Right now it’s all about the grind with occasional breaks for acts of self care.

Does your astrological sign match your personality? Is astrology just silly?

I am probably a stereotypical Sagittarius [laughs]. Cerebral and tuned in to different spiritual traditions and self care. I read a lot. I enjoy freedom and time with myself. Most of my other Sags are more extroverted though. I think astrology can be silly, but for real practitioners, folks who truly study the ways planetary alignments relate to human potential, astrology can be a powerful and insightful tool for self discovery, reflection, and planning.  

Angela N. Carroll

Is there a show you’ve seen in the last five years that you are still thinking about? Why do you think that is?

Back in 2014, the David C. Driskell Center presented the retrospective, Heroes Gone But Not Forgotten – The Art of Charles White. Nearly 50 drawings, prints and paintings that White produced from the 1930s into the 1970s covered every wall of the small gallery. White’s use of line and the bold way he articulated the anatomy of his sitters—everyday African Americans in the midwest with strong hands, broad shoulders, a direct gaze, and heads held high—have always inspired me. To see so many of his works in one space left a lasting impression for me about the impact that Black joy has. I am in my mid-30s now, still relatively young, but it is amazing how rare it has been, in my lifetime, to see reverent depictions of African or Black communities in galleries or major museums. The surge of appreciation and exhibition of Black and African contemporary artists has just occurred consistently in the last five years. White’s struggle to find support for the figurations he depicted that countered stereotypes and dehumanizing representations of Black life is a humbling reminder about the work that still needs to be done to push galleries and museums towards more inclusive collection and exhibition practices.  

What would your teenage self think of you today?

I think young Ang would be proud of the woman I have become. I never imagined life past 30—like, I literally could not envision what my life would be past 30 when I was a teenager. Thirty felt ancient, too distant to be resolved in any concrete way. We put a lot of pressure on younger folks to see the whole picture before they can see who they are and what gifts they have to share with the world. I had friends who didn’t live to see 20, let alone 30. I am grateful to be here, inspired by the present and excited about the future. 

Did you have a formative and/or terrible first job? What was it?

My first job was amazing! It was at an amusement park in Prince George’s County. It was easy and fun and we always got to ride the roller coasters as many times as we wanted and got discounts or hookups on food and candy. 

What have you learned recently that kind-of blew your mind?

I’m really interested in the research that is happening with CRISPR [technology currently being developed to edit DNA sequences] right now. I remember watching Gattaca, a trippy sci-fi film about a ruling class of genetically altered humans, as a teenager and wondering if that could ever happen in my lifetime. Turns out it’s possible, and that “designer babies,” or babies whose DNA has been edited to not just remove disease, but also potentially increase intelligence, athleticism, or gain other advantages, is already being explored. That realization triggers many questions for me about how notions of class and hierarchy will shift in the future, about who will control access to those technologies or how capital and class could be linked less to tender and more to genetic enhancements. American capitalism has always been tied to bodies, the literal commodification of human bodies, Black bodies, so I am curious to see how that template evolves or erodes as technologies like CRISPR become more common.

Photos by Justin Tsucalas

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