LOS ANGELES — It’s a familiar experience for anyone who has had to be the only person of color in a room: the uncomfortable silence around issues of race or the pressure to represent a monolithic identity that doesn’t exist. Over the summer, a group of artists invited the public to talk critically and humorously about race, art, and survival in a context where they could not only vent frustrations but also share resources and build community as people of color.
The series of discussions, organized by a collective called Michelada Think Tank (MTT), took place as part of a residency at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE), where visitors sipped beers (or the beer cocktail that’s part of the collective’s name) and swapped stories and ideas about creating more race, gender, and class parity in the art world.
Members of MTT plan to compile their findings and resources to publish an “Artist’s Survival Guide,” which they hope will become an indispensable primer for people of color looking to enter the art world. Among the book’s contents will be a dictionary of “art speak,” rules of engagement, advice on grant writing and portfolio submission, reading lists for decolonial studies and critical race discourse, and a directory of free or cheap resources and people of color–friendly institutions.
I spoke with four members of MTT about their collective’s origins, the conversations they witnessed over the summer, and the possibility of creating radical work as artists of color.
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Abe Ahn: How did you found MTT? What experiences led you to form the collective?
Shefali Mistry: We all came out of the Public Practice graduate program at Otis. As students of color in a cohort that was surprisingly diverse, we all connected over some of the issues we were facing in the program.
Mario Mesquita: As undergrad students, we had similar experiences, whether that was trying to find a community that we might fit into or organizing for communities that we came from. That was definitely a commonality we all held and the reasons we gravitated toward the Public Practice program.
Carol Zou: I was just talking to a friend about the guilt that upwardly mobile people of color have. All of us with an MFA right now are upwardly mobile, but you find yourself in this contradictory position of being in a situation of power that is not where you come from or what you agree with. This is alienating for me in terms of doing work in grassroots communities but also working with institutions in which people of color are still marginalized.
AA: One of the questions asked by MTT was “Are we so busy surviving that we forget to be radical?” Must an artist create explicitly political work to be “radical”?
Noé Gaytán: What does it mean to be political or radical? Those are difficult things to take on. A lot of people like to think they’re being radical. It comes back to what Carol was saying about power dynamics. If you’re in a position where you’re still thinking about survival, it’s difficult to be aware of what “radical” really means.
AA: There’s been enormous turnout for MTT events. Why do you think people were so eager to have these conversations? Why has it taken so long to have these discussions?
SM: These conversations have been happening for a long time, but there’s still so much that needs to happen. Some days it feels like it’s getting worse. One of the reasons I wanted to be a part of [MTT] was because I had been part of another cohort that was not having these conversations at all. No one wanted to talk about it and everyone was uncomfortable. I found myself craving real conversation around these issues, and that’s probably happening to a lot of other people. Younger people are starting to consider these things for the first time. There was a huge range of ages and backgrounds [at the MTT events]. That’s what makes it a nice space.
CZ: I agree with Shefali that these conversations aren’t new, but the attention on socially engaged or community-based artwork is. With this attention, there’s also a lot of criticism about the ways in which institutions work with communities of color. It’s a new spin on an existing topic.
Read the full interview...
Image: Michelada Think Tank