The Black Lunch Table (BLT) is an oral-history archiving project, which was first staged in 2005 and is an ongoing collaboration with New York-based artist, Heather Hart. The BLT’s primary aim is the production of discursive sites, wherein cultural producers engage in dialogue on a variety of critical issues. BLT mobilizes a democratic rewriting of contemporary cultural history by animating discourse around and among the people living it.
Organized around literal and metaphorical lunch tables, Black Lunch Table takes the lunchroom phenomenon as its starting point. Our roundtable sessions provide both physical space and allotted time for interdisciplinary and intergenerational discussions, bringing together a diversity of community members and fostering candid conversations. The Wikipedia edit-a-thons we stage mobilize a collective authoring of a specific set of articles pertaining to the lives and works of black artists.
Each roundtable’s dialogue will be documented on our online archive. The archive structure will enable web visitors to search this dynamic database using a variety of metadata tags. The BLT archive is significant in that it will provide a unique collection of primary source material relevant to the work of academics, cultural producers, researchers, and emerging artists, internationally–presenting contemporary cultural history as it is recounted.
The Black Lunch Table (BLT) is an ongoing collaboration between Jina Valentine and Heather Hart, first staged in 2005 at the preeminent artist residency Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. Organized around literal and metaphorical lunch tables, BLT has sought to democratize the writing of contemporary art history by animating discourse among the people living it. We are augmenting the dominant narratives of contemporary art with the testimonies of living, working, artists of the African Diaspora. Our primary aim is the production of discursive sites, wherein cultural producers of color engage in critical dialogue with one another on topics directly affecting our global community. Providing a space to discuss critical issues strengthens the bonds within our nebulous community and validates shared concerns through exchange.
The BLT’s first iteration was detailed in our recent essay for the 2012 Skowhegan Journal:
The impetus for [the Black Lunch Table] event was [their] wonderment over the lack of any such table at Skowhegan’s daily group lunches. Together [Heather Hart & Jina Valentine] decided whom they should invite to sit with them for one particular afternoon lunch [...] At the table, they discussed issues of Being Black in the art world, issues of otherness in general, their individual relationships with actual and metaphorical Black lunch tables in grade school and higher education… and of course the irony of having these discussions at an invitation only all-Black lunch table. The hyper-classification, by way of self-segregation, of Skowhegan’s Black residents functioned to both create a forum for topics discussed informally at other occasions, and highlight the fact that no such grouping of like-skinned people had naturally occurred [at the residency] thus far.
The significance of the black lunch tables in elementary, middle, high school, and university lunchrooms is specific to those who choose to participate in its formation, and those whom it necessarily excludes. Their existence within otherwise public spaces marks the self segregation, residual of our country’s history in legal segregation, as well as the persistent and lingering forms of voluntary segregation. We sit together because we share common backgrounds, face common challenges, and because we have a vested interest in our communal well-being. We also sit together because there is an expectation, both internally from the group, and externally from those excluded, and from whom we perhaps have felt excluded. As conspicuously othered people, both artists have participated in the black lunch table phenomenon at various times in our lives, and self-consciously chose to sit or not to sit with our like-skinned classmates or colleagues. In the art world, and in other professional and academic circles, such self-segregating exists in varying degrees of external visibility, and with varying degrees of endorsement from its constituents. The Black Lunch Table, taking the lunchroom phenomenon as its starting point, seeks to reify the visibility of connections and dialogue that exists between contemporary artists of color.
BLT events are audio-recorded and transcribed in order to further authenticate both the community and its voices. All recordings will be housed in an online archive which will be searchable by topic, artist, and location; our site will also provide links to information about each participant and institution. Our two-part project format of event and archive activates discourse between artists, researchers, historians and art institutions both online and in person and the dual-format of performance and archive addresses the disparity we feel exists between the ephemeral, first-person experience of an artwork and the documentation of it.
Ultimately, we endeavor to create an online site which mirrors the activity and creativity present in sites where Blackness and art are performed. By generating a dialogue among Black artists in partnership with institutions of record, we are highlighting contingencies in the artworld already in play. Writing the record has become everyone’s charge.
The Black Lunch Table (BLT) is an ongoing collaboration between artist and UNC Assistant Professor of Art Jina Valentine and New York-based, media and social-practice artist, Heather Hart. First staged in 2005 at the preeminent artist residency Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, this project augments the dominant history of contemporary art with the testimonies of living, working, African American artists. Our primary aim is the production of discursive sites, wherein cultural producers of color engage in critical dialogue with one another on topics directly affecting our community. Organized as literal and metaphorical lunch tables, BLT has sought to democratize the writing of contemporary art history by animating discourse around and among the people living it.
The Black Lunch Table : Black Lives Matter (BLT:BLM) session was conceived of as a response to the deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner (as well as the other recent police involved shootings of unarmed black men), the lack of indictment for officers involved in both cases, and how they draw much needed attention to the problems of police brutality and increased militarization of police and state-sponsored violence both in our community and nationally. Using the idea of the lunch table as a discursive site where social connections are made, social hierarchies revealed, and power dynamics are played out, BLT:BLM hopes to make visible the divisions and connections that exist within our community, while also laying out new productive relationships to continue the movement for dismantling institutional racism.
The BLT:BLM roundtable discussion intends to catalyze community dialogue specifically in regards to the movements and climate that has been amplified by the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases. We record the conversations at each table which will be added to our online oral history archive. As an act of radical archiving, we the people are writing the record. Our series of lunch table discussions--bringing together artists, activists, academics, high school and university students, politicians, and local community members representing various constituencies--allow for candid conversations to take place amongst a diversity of people invested in these issues.
At base, the BLT intends to provide space for discussion of issues directly affecting contemporary black artists. Although this event is similar to our BLT Artist Roundtable series, it differs in several important aspects. Chief among these is that BLT Artist Roundtables primarily address issues unique to the world of contemporary art. Black artists are always also engaged in a less rarefied set of social, political, and economic concerns. Op-ed essays, videos, and rants addressing police brutality pervade social media outlets, particularly among those spaces populated by artists of color. The BLT:BLM roundtable discussions address issues affecting historically disenfranchised populations more broadly. It is absolutely critical to provide both physical space and allotted time for interdisciplinary, intergenerational, interracial discussion of these matters. Opening the forum to all interested members of a community, representing a variety of backgrounds and professions, has inspired new thinking around these issues by cross-pollinating discourse, and intends to cultivate ongoing dialogue amongst local communities.
ABOUT THE ARTISTS
Based in Brooklyn, NY, Heather Hart was an artist in residence at Joan Mitchell Center, McColl Center of Art + Innovation, Bemis Center for Art, LMCC Workspace, Skowhegan, Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop, Santa Fe Art Institute, Fine Arts Work Center and at the Whitney ISP. She is interested in creating site-specific liminal spaces for personal reclamation, in questioning dominant narratives and proposing alternatives to them. Hart received grants from Joan Mitchell Foundation, Harpo Foundation, Jerome Foundation and a fellowship from NYFA. Her work has been included in a variety of publications and exhibited worldwide including at Socrates Sculpture Park, Seattle Art Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park, Studio Museum in Harlem, ICA Philadelphia, Art in General, The Drawing Center, PS1 MoMA, Museum of Arts and Craft in Itami, Portland Art Center and the Brooklyn Museum. She studied at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, Princeton University in New Jersey and received her MFA from Rutgers University.
Jina Valentine was born in Pennsylvania and is currently based in North Carolina. Her interdisciplinary practice is informed by the intuitive strategies of American folk artists and traditional craft techniques, and interweaves histories latent within found texts, objects, narratives, and spaces. She has exhibited at venues including The Drawing Center, The Studio Museum in Harlem, the CUE Foundation, the Elizabeth Foundation, the DiRosa Preserve, Southern Exposure, Marlborough Gallery. She has participated in residencies at the Atlantic Center for the Arts, Women’s Studio Workshop, Sculpture Space, the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, the Santa Fe Art Institute, and the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris. She was in residence last year at the Joan Mitchell Center in New Orleans, Banff Centre in Alberta, and Frans Masereel Centrum in Belgium. She is a 2016 recipient of the North Carolina Arts Council Grant, a Creative Capital Emerging Genres Grant, and a UNC Institute for Arts and Humanities fellowship. Jina received her BFA from Carnegie Mellon University and her MFA from Stanford University.
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