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Black Radical Imagination

Clara I. Díaz, Tiera Lee, Andrea Lewis, Anthony Reid, et al

A group of six people on Zoom

The group talks over Zoom. 

By Clara I. Díaz, Tiera Lee, Andrea Lewis, Anthony Reid, Alexandra M. Thomas, Amiri Tulloch

The Black Radical Imagination, a reference to Robin D.G. Kelly’s book Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination (Beacon Press, 2003), is boundless— intimately tethered to our collective, revolutionary consciousness. We define the Black Radical Imagination as a revolutionary process of thinking otherwise using Black diasporic critique to articulate a vision for a different world. For us, every trip to the museum is an exercise in thinking otherwise. Our imaginations use decolonialized modes of knowing to construct and enrich our life’s work as we expand and reshape the feasibility of reality. We draw on community, relationships, work, and self as we explore who and what we are.

The language we speak, clothes we wear, food we eat, and the air we breathe carry the afterlives and ongoing plunder of global oppression. We see elements of colonialist pedagogy, structures, and expectations existing even in Black- and brown-led institutions because it is difficult to design institutional spaces with a philosophy untouched by racial capitalism. To survive fruitfully, and for us to begin carving space for a Black Radical Imagination, it is paramount that we unlearn the normative ways of thinking that plague the art world and manifest in our museum spaces. This includes the hyper-commercialization of art under late capitalism, the belief that museums hold knowledge that disseminates to an unenlightened public, and focusing on social justice as a matter of diverse representation in leadership as opposed to a fundamental structural overhaul.

Who are we indebted to? From where do we derive our theories? Where do we begin as individuals imagining this space? Our perspectives are birthed from liberation movements, as Black feminists, working-class people, radical queers, anarchists, activists, artists, art lovers, and dreamers. Imagination is political terrain, as is the question of who museums are for. Taken together, we can ask: how could Black Radical Imagination interrupt, recircuit, and motivate a museum’s purpose and audience?

The Black Radical Imagination answers with a profound affirmation—a booming YES—when we ask “What if…?” of museums. Consider: museums as 24/7 free public spaces, the commons, where anyone and everyone can eat, study, drink, breathe, play, and learn. A building to stay warm in during the winter and cool off in the summer. Somewhere to grab a free meal while exploring art and visual culture. What if we—the people—voted on museum boards and dictated how funding is used to support a thriving arts and culture community? We love art but also understand that art is best enjoyed if accessible to all. In our current day, it is not enough for a museum to merely display art; it must grapple, resolve, and provide services. Many will claim that this is unrealistic. We say: realism is a subjective idea and often determined by colonial ideologies. The United States museum industry is a market with fifteen billion dollars; the money is there and we can reroute how it is spent.

We insist upon new models of programming that engage our communities in transparent and substantial ways, offering the platform and opportunities to facilitate collective change and discourse. This might look like members from the public dictating what they want to see and do at their local museum as opposed to decision making solely by curators, museum boards, and those with enough wealth to influence the process. The museums are not the benevolent hand reaching out to the populace. Rather, they are the nuclei of great potential for social exchange and transformation. Museums can very well be the public squares in which the diffusion of culture and the representation of collective thought might be exhibited in full grandeur and opulence, meekness and vulnerability. We must encourage these institutions to increase their efforts to encompass and invite a more ambitious scope of humanity to participate and further enrich this cultural exchange. We must do away with the monolithic perspective of who museums are fashioned for and start to think about who they exclude. We must think about what can be done to collectively/cooperatively meet marginalized populations. This means examining our own meritocratic privileges while simultaneously unpacking the ways social class manifests in these spaces.

Coming from the perspective of anxiety and ancestral trauma, and the different ways this trauma may affect us, the Black Radical Imagination should allocate spaces and time to heal. When we give each other space to be open and heal, more work can keep occurring. Being vulnerable is a radical act in a world where we are forced to act like machines. If we translate that vulnerability and openness to museum and art spaces, we can allow for bigger creativity to occur. Evolving to be museum spaces in which we want to exist, we are unlearning the figments of colonialist strategies that intend to limit insurgency and foster anxiety. We refuse to engage in scarcity and the culture of pessimism toward each other. Finding new ways to cultivate our Black Radical Imaginations with and for each other is essential work. What do museums look, feel, smell, and taste like if we think and build from a Black Radical Imagination? We hope our words can energize further contemplation and action for those, like us, who are brave enough to speculate and manifest a more radical museum world.