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Talk About the work 

On the eve of the National Black Arts Festival, artists see a changing landscape in Atlanta

Dressed in a white tank top that reveals a spider tattoo the size of a playing card on the soft underside of her arm, and fingering a half-smoked cigarette, artist Torkwase Dyson is spending a Friday afternoon in her bright live/work studio on John Wesley Dobbs Avenue. The studio sits in a downtown where symbols of failure, like a nearby methadone clinic, rub shoulders with Atlanta's proud signposts of upward mobility, like the constant din of construction that has become the city's symphony.

Dyson has been on leave from her post-grad Brooklyn reality as an adjunct art professor at Spelman College for the past year-and-a-half. The Chicago native and graduate of the prestigious Yale MFA program has shown her multimedia work at Castleberry Hill's Ty Stokes Gallery and joined a collective of experimentation-minded black artists.

Her tenure in Atlanta has given her a unique outsider-meets-insider take on the city. She talks about "the cars and the music and the chains and the money and the different malls," captured in her digital prints of a sky raining a pollution of Hummers, diamonds and other icons of excessive Atlanta bling.

Dyson is an enthusiastic advocate for the variety and flux of Atlanta -- hip-hop, street culture, the great regional artists, the potential for experimentation -- but when you ask her about the status of black artists in the city, the issue of their representation in local galleries and presence in exhibitions, Dyson grows obviously uncomfortable. Like other black artists in Atlanta, she's polite and responsive, though you get the sense there are a million other things she'd rather talk about.

And it's not that Dyson doesn't want to talk about the National Black Arts Festival.

"Every underrepresented people on the planet needs some sort of canon, to affirm ... and expand itself," acknowledges the 32-year-old.

But artists like Dyson are generally too busy making work to navel-gaze and ponder the State of Black Artists in the Atlanta.

From its founding in 1988 to its present incarnation, the National Black Arts Festival -- which runs July 14-23 -- has spotlighted African-American creativity through a variety of visual arts exhibitions. (The programming also includes theater, film and dance.)

This year's festival includes noteworthy visual art exhibitions devoted to African design at the Museum of Design Atlanta, issues of segregation and integration in South Africa and the American South at Wertz Contemporary, and Dyson's own work featured in a smart, diverse group exhibition focused on a cadre of black conceptual artists, the Carbonist School at Eyedrum.

But it's clear that only viewing her work through the prism of color can be problematic.

So the question of race hangs awkwardly in the air, uncomfortable to ask, maybe even more awkward to answer.

"I'm not crazy," observes Dyson. "I know there's a divide. I know there's racism and segregation and all those sorts of things. But there are a lot of other things that are going on."

Dyson is part of a cadre of younger black artists in the city, including Radcliffe Bailey, Kojo Griffin, Eric Mack, Sheila Pree Bright, Kevin Sipp, Michi and many others who have their work seen outside of Atlanta and have shaped the city's art scene.

Dyson has her own list: Fahamu Pecou, Charles Nelson, Marcia Jones, Cinqué Hicks.

Artists like Nelson are testament to the benefits of having the NBAF in Atlanta: The festival inspired Sam Romo to create a show featuring Nelson and New York performance artist Kalup Linzy at his Castleberry Hill gallery.

Atlanta, says Nelson, is a far better city than the one he came to in 1995.

"There's definitely more artists getting more exposure and getting seen in the mainstream art world. When I first got here, it was basically Radcliffe [Bailey]," he says, referring to the nationally exhibited, Atlanta-based artist.

"Part of the reason why I feel like I have the freedom to create the work that I do is because I'm in Atlanta. There is a strong community of black artists here consciously doing different types of work."

There is, Nelson says, "the freedom to deal with or not deal with race as a specific subject matter as you see fit."

But as Nelson spreads out his watercolors on the floor of Romo Gallery and cues up his video on the eve of his exhibition's debut, he is as concerned as Dyson about the perception of his work.

He wants to be able to make work about race -- or not explicitly about race -- without always being reduced to the category of "black artist."

"I never wanted to be pigeonholed as one particular type of artist," he says. "I'm black. We got that part. "Now," he emphasizes, "let's look at the work."

In her studio, days later, Dyson echoes his sentiments almost word for word.

"Most black scholars talk about [how] race does matter," says Dyson, but, she is quick to qualify, "it's not the only thing that matters."

Black artists are perhaps even more vigilant than other artists about protecting their work from ghettoization and the marginalization that it brings.

Because when you start putting people into one defined category, your eyes can often cloud over the complexities and nuances of life: the issues of class and geography, gender and economics.

Photographer Sheila Pree Bright not only bristles at the pigeonholing -- "That word. Black art. What is it?" -- her work is founded on enlarging an understanding of issues like class and color that some people just can't look past stereotypes to see.

Pree Bright recently was awarded the 2006 Santa Fe Prize for Photography for "Suburbia," her highly nuanced, complex take on middle- and upper-middle-class black homes, where every essentialist notion of what black "is" tends to crumble.

But when she has shown the work outside of Atlanta, to curators, magazine editors and book publishers, she has often been stung by some of their responses.

"One guy, he was a white guy and he came up in the era of the Civil Rights Movement," Pree Bright recalls.

"He said, 'You do not have enough signifiers for me to know that this is a black home.' I said to him, 'What is it you want to see?'"

Blackness is not so conveniently defined, these artists say -- in their work or in their lives.

Though Atlanta artists, gallery owners and curators acknowledge that there are still issues of race to overcome, they are also quick to point out that the 2006 NBAF occurs in a very changed Atlanta.

"When it comes to the alternative arts spaces and contemporary spaces ... I think it's very healthy in regards to African-American art," says Hammonds House curator and artist Kevin Sipp, who has lived in the city for 18 years.

Jason Wertz, owner of Wertz Contemporary, which is dedicated to artists of the African diaspora, says black artists don't get enough exposure and aren't supported enough by collectors. But, he adds, "The market has grown. Particularly with contemporary art, people's attention has been caught by some of the larger shows in larger cities and artists like Kojo Griffin and Radcliffe Bailey and Sheila Pree continue to get attention as well."

Atlanta, it seems, has made some progress in tangible ways. Last year, the High Museum hired Michael D. Harris, its first consulting curator of African-American art. Also, contemporary galleries -- most prominently Brian Holcombe's Saltworks -- often have mixed up African-American, Latino and Asian artists with abandon, refusing to call attention to their race as the sole defining feature of their art-making.

Dyson and her peers clearly appreciate the opportunity the NBAF provides, to celebrate marginalized art and artists. But mostly, they just want to keep doing the only thing artists can do to change the world: invent, experiment, make their work, operate outside of boundaries.

"Me and my friends, we don't talk about Black History Month," Dyson says. "We don't talk about being 'black artists.' What we talk about is issues in our work."

For more information about National Black Arts Festival programming, visit www.nbaf.org.

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