How to understand Black art across the diaspora

Giving Back:
An Interview with
Charity Gates


Giving Back: An Interview with Charity Gates 

Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law alumna Charity Gates ‘20 sat down with the ISE-DA team to discuss how her interest in the arts blossomed. While in Law school, she has interned at Louis Vuitton, Christie’s, and has written articles focused on the repatriation of African art. She discusses this, the importance of involvement, and the work of figures such as Antwaun Sargent in our interview. On Tuesday, September 29th at 6:30 pm, she will be moderating a conversation with songwriter and music mogul Kaseem Dean a.ka. Swizz Beatz. Register for your free ticket here. 

Tell me a bit about yourself, and how you became interested in art.

I was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia. I've pretty much spent my entire life in Georgia until college. During college, I was able to live abroad and do other things outside of Georgia. I feel like just growing up in a city [Atlanta] that is so culturally diverse and also has so much culture inspired me in terms of art and visual culture. I always gravitated towards the creative, even though I didn't really know what my position was [in visual arts]. I never really considered myself an artist, but I appreciate art. The initial connection I had to the art world was through museums because, as a child, I was so interested in history. Oftentimes, museums had artwork, and even if it was mostly cultural artifacts, they seemed like art to me, though it wasn't the standard definition of art, per se. I think historical museums kind of led me to the art world. Also, I had an interest in magazines, and editorial publications, which included a lot of visual art and photography. I was pulled in by visual culture, generally, either through institutions like museums or publications. More recently, I have become even more interested in art made by Black artists, internationally as well as domestically.

How did you decide to take this interest into the law field?

Ironically, it's connected to the editorial, publishing, and magazine space. I always wanted to be a magazine editor. My parents said “Oh, you should probably go to law school first. That will get you into the fashion industry in a high-powered position.” I internalized that advice and went into law. When I started to look at how fashion and the law were related, it led me to intellectual property law. The field of intellectual property is all about creativity and innovation, and how to protect it. In college, I had my “black awakening”, I guess you could call it. I started thinking more about culture and how black people create so much culture that it gets so quickly appropriated into mainstream, white American culture. Since I started learning more about intellectual property and the intersecting issues involved in cultural appropriation, I was thought “Oh, wow, like, there are actual laws that protect people against someone copying their works or exploiting certain slogans or phrases. If only more people knew about or understood intellectual property law as a protective mechanism, perhaps works would not be appropriated as quickly as they are.” Having this initial intellectual curiosity around cultural appropriation in college really invigorated my ambition for going into the legal field and connecting that to the art world.

You have a very extensive background in art from your editorial experience, your personal experience and interest in works from Black perspectives. With your legal background, what are your thoughts on the Whitney Museum buying on-sale works from the See in Black collective?

Honestly, I haven't read all the details surrounding controversy, but from my surface-level knowledge of it, it's kind of indicative of American culture. Some big white institution purchases creative pieces produced by black artists, and they don't pay fair market value for them, like they probably would for white artists under similar circumstances. It’s not surprising to me, but I think in this current moment, it’s kind of an even bigger slap in the face­. To observe that a major institution will support a movement on the one hand, and then do the complete opposite of what that movement is trying to advocate for by appropriating work and not paying the full value for them. It’s a lack of care and respect by the institution. I don't think they should be able to throw up their hands and say, “we didn't know” or “we were trying to support artists, black artists, by putting their work in collections.” I think there's a bigger statement that can be made. This cannot be the only way to include black artists in your collection. Those aren’t the circumstances in which work should be acquired.

“Practice” by Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi (@thenjiwe_niki_nkosi), The Dean Collection 

This highlights what a lot of black artists and Black people have been promoting in terms of Black ownership of arts. I know that you're interviewing Kasseem Dean (Swizz Beatz) next week.  What are your thoughts on his collection, what he's doing, and are there any other people that you identify who are doing similar things?

The Dean Collection is extremely important because Mr. Dean focuses on collecting from living artists. Essentially, he says is the purpose of the collection reflects the old cultural saying of giving people their flowers while they're still alive. And I think that's important, because as he has said, we're always collecting from dead artists instead of invigorating the artists’ careers while they're alive. They're not able to reap the benefits of their work until somebody discovers them maybe 20 years after they're dead. I also appreciate that he advocates for this thing called resale royalties, which is very controversial in the art world. In every other industry it is standard practice. He equated it to the music industry when an artist creates music and has copyright protection over their work, they can exploit the licensing of those songs, tunes, or beats they make an as an artist. [In the art industry}, whenever artists create work, they only get proceeds based on that first sale. When the work is sold, again, on the secondary market, they don't receive proceeds from that sale, unless there's a collector like Kasseem Dean to give a percentage of that sale back to the artist. I really appreciate his advocacy of really trying to support artists, and I think it’s because he’s an artist himself. He has advocated for auction houses to a place where a person who's buying the word can check off whether they want to give the artist a percentage of the sale. Or the seller can do so as well. I think that's important.

Other people that are doing similar work are people like Kimberly Drew, who used to be the Social Media Manager at the Met. She did amazing work highlighting underrepresented artists, usually black artists, to a world that does not pay attention to them. In her digital role, she was instrumental in showing this world to people who don't have access to the “art world.”  The “art world” is relative, depending on who you are talking to. [Kimberly Drew] opened it up to the masses, arguing that everybody should have access to art, it is not just the domain of rich people or people with a certain status. And then I would say another person who is inspirational in the art world would be Antwaun Sargent, who is just an incredible mind. I just love his writing, the way he talks about artists - with such passion and care. He really truly believes in them and works to see them succeed. He advocates a lot for Black artists as well.  Similar to Kassem Dean, he advocates for living artists, especially young up-and-coming artists by exhibiting them in shows like The Art of the New Black Vanguard.

Adut Akech by Addy Campbell

That exhibit was amazing and even published a book as well.  Things like that are important. And people like them are important because they have this stature to elevate other people. They are using their privilege to allow other people the privilege of being recognized. That’s what's important. Also, people like you, highlighting all these artists on ISE-DA. Artists I would have never discovered without having access to the internet, being able to view their works so easily. The way that you curate them is amazing.

Thank you, I appreciate that. More on your experience in art and law. You and the people you mentioned that you mentioned are focused on giving back. On that subject, I know that you recently created a law note that focuses on the recreation of African art. Could you speak more about that?

Yeah, I'm excited. I have two different articles coming out. One is being published through the academic journal I was on in law school. That was about the legal ramifications of repatriation and restitution. I focused specifically on West African art, but you could say African art generally. The article also kind of problematizes what art means in the context of cultural property because a lot of times, those artifacts were for utilitarian purposes. They weren't used as what we perceive “art” to be. There are different legal obstacles that are involved with repatriation and restitution. That's getting published soon. I'm not exactly sure the date, but hopefully this fall. The second one is about the relationship between that conversation about repatriation/restitution and de-accessioning. Basically, analyzing how museums are even able to remove items from their collection. What is getting in the way of allowing that process to happen? With museum policies generally, there are rules against repatriating and the restitution of art. It is not a simple solution nor is it clear, there are a lot of nuances. So, those two articles approach the conversation from two different sides of the legal conversation around repatriation and restitution.

On the topic of deaccessioning, I know in France there is a national law that prevents them from to deaccessioning art. I think it's very interesting that a lot of these laws against repatriation were made after the works were looted.

Exactly. It was a reinforcement mechanism. When you’re the conqueror, you decide the history and the laws. “Technically” you are the legal owner, because most African nations themselves weren't even in existence as we know them today. So, who do you give the objects to? Who can claim ownership? The Nigerians have a claim that is just as strong as in Benin, for instance. It is such a nuanced argument on such a complicated issue. But the moral side of it is that they should be returning these objects to where they came from. To the communities. The legal argument is a lot more complicated.

The Igbo Statues. Courtesy and ©: Christie's Images LTD, 2020

In the report created by Sarr and Savoy, they were advocating for definitive restitution. How likely do you think that that is going to happen, especially now that we're seeing a lot of corporations or museums trying to confront their own racist histories in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement and the push for black liberation this summer?

Honestly, that kind of what inspired the second piece about the deaccessioning. Museums are 
reexamining their collections and trying to reckon with the fact that they have such deep colonial histories, especially Western museums and institutions. Honestly, I think, similar to what the Whitney Museum did, they're kind of giving lip service. It remains to be seen how many objects will be given back. I think this has started a new generation of people wanting to engage in these discussions. The bigger question is how are we going to include people from the African continent in this conversation, in addition to the people at Western institutions that are holding these objects. These objects have been removed from their source community for so long, that the histories are somewhat disconnected. They don't serve the same purpose as they would in modern times. To be able to return them back to the community, we have to facilitate a dialogue with the community about the objects themselves and their present function.  Western institutions especially need to, I think, invest more in African cultural institutions in a reparations sort of way, because a lot was stolen. It’s not enough just to send objects back. Western institutions need to fund this process of repatriation and lay the foundations so that the objects can still be maintained. I heard that in the case of some German museums, the historical practice was to use arsenic to preserve the objects. If museums with these objects were to send back an object poisoned with arsenic to an African country, they would literally be sending poison back. It’s important to engage in a conversation about what was done to these objects when they left their source communities and how to further care for them if they are returned. I don't think we've even reached a point where we can even say that, okay, this is what's going to happen. The solutions aren't clear. It seems like we're still in the planning stage on that.

How do you think that people not in the art or law field can get involved in things like supporting the movements for restitution and repatriation?

Good question. Honestly, the internet is boundless and has a lot of answers.
Especially now. A lot of art-focused programs are being untethered from their normal institutions and are put online for free. People have access to these things and should engage with them, like Instagram lives and there is more access to changemakers in the industry. I think the important thing also is to remove the elitism around art itself and return it back to the people. Art is of the people and culture is of the people.

Charity Gates

September 22, 2020

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