An Unfortunately Political Post About the Importance of Non-Political Art

Warning: I circumlocute. (And I don’t mind it – or the fact that I just used a word which doesn’t officially exist – at all.)

Before we begin, let me establish that what I am not saying is that political art is not important. In fact, I am as capable of writing a whole post either about why it is so important, or even insisting that all art is political anyway – but that’s not what I feel the need to do right at this moment. Despite this introduction, I know from first-hand experience that human beings on the internet will roast whomever they want to roast no matter how legit, clear or how many the disclaimers are. I’mma keep writing tho’.

Now, I believe we’re all smart enough to barb that “political” implies far more than anything strictly governmental. It is with this broader connotation of “political” in mind that I am writing this post.

I know quite a number of people who seem unable to get particularly excited about any matters – especially creative matters – that do not, at least at surface level, have much to do with, for instance, the oppression of Black people in America, or political corruption in Africa, or fetishization, or patriarchy, or homophobia or, or, or…. So when it comes to art that seems to just want to exist because it can, art that although may contain some of these extremely relevant themes, does not necessarily make commentary on them their explicit focus, such people would rather just move on and try to find something more politically “relevant” to engage with. I genuinely believe that excessive display of this behavior/mindset is retrogressive. Now I’m going to go Jesus on you and give you a parable.

Once upon a time, there was a man who really wanted to be a landscape artist, to paint a variety of gorgeous mountains, rivers, deserts, and forests around the world. But one day, while in the paint shop purchasing numerous bottles of paint, the vendor told him, “I hope you know your paintings will never sell. Not with all this blue that you’re buying.”

The painter asked the vendor why not, and the vendor explained, “Because you’re wrong, as are all you landscape artists. The sky isn’t blue, never has been blue and never will be blue. It is only ever and will only ever be yellow.”

The painter got incredibly upset at the vendor and the two got into a heated argument. The vendor never acquiesced, though, and resorted to throwing insult after insult at the painter, who also refused for a long time to leave the matter alone, grab his paint and go. Hours later, the painter finally left the store.

Too upset to go home to his studio just yet, he sought the listening ear of his fellow citizens on his way back, seeking to vent to anyone. He stopped in a bakery and tried to garner sympathy for the ordeal he’d just been through. However, to his surprise, after listening to the painter for a minute, the baker responded, “But of course, the vendor was right. Who in this world ever heard of a blue sky?”

The painter was dumbfounded, but when he moved on, the haberdasher too took the side of the vendor. So did the grocer, the seamstress and the carpenter. It was past midnight when the painter returned home, despairing and wondering when the world had gone mad. But presently, the despair and confusion were replaced with a determined anger. He decided he was going to prove once and for all that the sky was indeed blue. So, he painted. He spent all night and all morning painting a blue sky.

Then, in the afternoon, with his latest canvas, he left his studio and went into town, and showed his beautiful sky to everyone he could find. Many people, however, were confused.

“What is it?” they would ask.

“Why, it’s a sky,” he would respond.

“But why is it blue?” they would criticize. “Skies are any color but blue!”

Consequently, this painter, for twenty years, painted blue sky after blue sky after blue sky. Rarely did he paint anything other than a blue sky. He became like a broken record, continuing to paint blue skies as the rest of the world moved on. At every exhibition and exposition, his messages were nearly identical. By the time he gave up the task, retired and put his paintbrushes down permanently, this man who had once wanted to be a world-famous landscape painter had never, even once, exhibited a single canvas of a whole landscape.

 

This Toni Morrison quote expresses what I want to say particularly with respect to racism:

“The function, the very serious function of racism, is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language, so you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly, so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Someone says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing.” – Toni Morrison.

Distraction. Miso-whatever is distraction, whatever-phobia is distraction, discrimination is distraction. It’s all distraction.

As if you couldn’t adequately include blue skies in several pictures of wholesome landscapes. Why let yourself be reduced? By the time my hypothetical painter dies, the only legacy he’s left is a one-dimensional representation of nothing but the same thing, when he had the opportunity to be so much more, even without ever compromising his conviction that skies could indeed be blue.

White authors write about any topic they like and get away with it. But heaven help the African-American who wants to make art about anything except Blackness, the African writer who wants to tell stories of anything other than colonialism, war or governmental corruption. Please, please, ma yɛn dwen. Let us think. The white people don’t have to waste years proving their existence is valid. They write whatever they like because their legitimacy to be is taken for granted – as everyone’s legitimacy to be should be. So, you see, the irony of the matter is that, as long as we keep predominantly responding to the dominant powers’ insistence that everyone else isn’t legit, we’re going to waste our whole lives saying, “We’re legit!” instead of legitimately living. Distraction.

I still think the best way to fight the distraction, oppression and reduction is to just be the complete human beings that we are. Being, oo. Not constantly talking about being, or talking about why it’s so important to talk about being, or throwing hands about people who keep suffocating being – but actually fighting the suffocation by continuing to be. To be. To be!

I recently watched, and thoroughly enjoyed a movie by France-exiled Vietnamese filmmaker, Tran Anh Hung, called “The Scent of Green Papayas.” It was about a house girl’s journey from poverty to pregnancy. It was a quiet, sensual and intimate movie. The circumstance of this girl’s living condition was, of course, the Vietnamese war. But the story was about her, this single human being, who wasn’t a soldier, wasn’t politically involved, wasn’t being chased down. Just being a house girl. And this movie made me as happy as the filmmaker’s response to a question he was asked in an interview. It’s not that I like that movie so much for what it was not. I liked it because what it was was beautiful. The movie was just being, and so were the characters. Here’s what Tran Anh Hung said:

“At first I thought, well, I can’t not talk about the war […]. I could have included certain things like news on the radio, a neighbor whose son is doing his military service […]. It did occur to me, but all this had nothing to do with the poem I wished to create. I was just not capable of having such external historical details enter into the poetic whole of my effort.” -Tran Anh Hung.

Let’s return to my painter parable. There’s at least one major problem with it: in real life, there might have been a super-huge number of people who would have been encouraging this painter to stay stuck on repeat, lying to him that he’s doing the Lord’s work by painting blue sky after blue sky. Not knowing, they themselves are being enemies of progress. Distraction and reduction. Danger of a single story. Speaking of the dangers of a single story, let’s talk about how our contribution to single story culture is related to the person who recently popularized the phrase.

I could rant about the pigeonholing of African writers – although nothing I can say will be more eloquent than Taiye Selasi’s words in what is still my favorite article on the internet.

As I write this, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has three novels out. Her first is my favorite: Purple Hibiscus. It’s also her least popular.  This used to confuse me and make me upset, but now that I think about it, the way the system is set up, it makes all the sense in the world. I don’t like the way the system is set up; I just understand the way it works a little more now. Her second novel is my least favorite, though it’s a good book and I’ve read it twice: Half of a Yellow Sun. I’m not speaking in this paragraph of how well I believe each novel was written; I’m speaking of the stories that appeal to me the most. I like stories, and the story of Purple Hibiscus happens to be the Adichie story I like the most.

To this day, I still believe that the commercialization of Half of a Yellow Sun is reliant on the fact that it heavily involves the Biafran War. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it is about the war – I think it is a love story – but I don’t believe it’s the love part of the novel that was its selling point in the commercial world. See, Those People love it when Africans be writing ’bout wars. Goodness knows why. But what I suspect is that to Them, anybody can write a love story – but don’t Africans have more important tragedies to be worrying about than love, anyway? Or, to put it in disrobed, Akotowian phrasing, “Aren’t Africans too busy being reduced to only tiny aspects of existence to be displaying themselves as complex, multifaceted, wholesome humans?”

“Can we really not imagine that the African novelist writes for love: love of craft, love of subject? Do we really believe that she is not an artist but an anthropologist, not a storyteller but a native informant?” – Taiye Selasi

Sometimes, I get sad because I feel like many of us don’t know how to simply let stories be stories when we’re dealing with any kind of product from creators we consider to be of historically or presently marginalized/oppressed identities. We always want them to do something, to challenge something, critique something, be representative of something – and not just any somethings, but the somethings we believe they should be doing, challenging, critiquing or representing – furthermore, not just anyhow, but explicitly; not like incorporating blue skies into our landscapes naturally, but making the blue skies take over nearly all of the canvas. Otherwise, the stories are not “relevant” to our societies. Ma yɛn dwen.

I believe many Africans I know dislike Americanah or find it inadequate because they came in not expecting to find a story about a Nigerian woman and a Nigerian man. They came in expecting the novel to do something political, like represent a nation, or a continent, or themselves, or to critique a nation, an oppressor, or someone else they don’t like, to do something other than tell you what Ifemelu and Obinze said, thought, did and felt. How can you be complaining that you don’t see yourself in the story or how it’s relevant to you, as if you hired Ms. Adichie to pseudonymously write your biography? Why is it so important for you to see yourself in Ifemelu? You live your real life, she lives her fictional one. But you’re too distracted by what you want one single character to represent for you, to properly lose yourself in a story that simply wants to self-identify as a story, or a character that simply wants to be herself or himself, a single character, not a template. Complaints that involve judgment about what kind of demographic an author’s audience is, or judgment of a character’s cultural relatability are in a completely different league from complaints such as “The story was boring,” or “The story was not well-told.” At least with the latter kind, you’ve paid attention to the story instead of being distracted by politics, reducing the art, reducing the author and reducing your mind.

I repeat: we fight distraction and reduction not just by talking about being, but by being. May we find the grace and the sense to let creators of various kinds be, and to let their creations be, and to realize that we are strengthening ourselves by being – and this, in the long run, is probably going to infuriate our oppressors more than nearly anything else we could do.

“People keep asking me to write about what I do (diversity, African scifi, powerful female characters, etc). I’d rather DO what I do.” – Nnedi Okorafor

Yasss, tell dem, sis!

We know we’ve made progress with being when the things we create aren’t seen as particularly extraordinary, earth-shattering novelties. Further expanded in a previous blog post (Stating the Obvious, I Think), and I stand by it.

Because of the nature of this post and how drenched it is in irony, I hope this is something that I won’t have to keep saying throughout my life. But the way the world is set up, I’m probably going to have to. Enough times to get sick of it. But even as I do that, I refuse to let it distract or reduce me. I have stories to write. I can’t waste my whole life trying to convince the world that skies can be blue. Ain’t gotta try to prove the truth everyday – although sometimes, the apologetics really dey hia. Moretimes, though, all I have to do is incorporate the truth without compromise. I am not a politician, I am not an academic, I am not a person who wants to spend my whole life critiquing, teaching or commenting on content. My personal responsibility as a creator is making content. Hell, I am the content. Selah.

-Akotowaa

9 thoughts on “An Unfortunately Political Post About the Importance of Non-Political Art

  1. Sooo many people need to read what you’ve said here and reflect on it. Political art is important but when it arrogantly tries to snuff out all other art, it becomes stifling to all artists – black, white, female, etc. It’s bad enough that whites are discouraged from creatively identifying with black characters and black history in their works, but even tougher on historically oppressed groups, who are straitjacketed into not only political art but political art that expresses a predetermined theme based on their demographic identity. We need to leave at least some space for art that expresses our shared humanity. When you mentioned Toni Morrison, I thought of my favorite book, Song of Solomon. Its greatness lies in how it expresses the spiritual quest of all humanity using the local values of African-American culture. At least one artist knows how to celebrate her own culture as an expression of, not a replacement for, our shared humanness.

      1. I liked it for many reasons — for one I thought she found her own voice better here than in Beloved — but your angle of West African oral history really adds a new dimension for me! Gary

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