The recent resurgence of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has proven that racism is not solely confined to the streets. Its systemic influence pervades all institutions — including artistic ones.
Several artists have found that the galleries they sell to on commission are unwilling to accept BLM-themed art out of fear of diminishing customer interest, thus prioritizing business over the racial justice movement.
Bruce Carlton (B.C.) Nowlin, a renowned artist and New Mexico local, has been painting since high school and has utilized his Southwestern roots to produce vibrant, culturally significant artwork. Nowlin’s work has never had issues selling — indeed, it has appealed to celebrity circles and album covers for decades — but a recent painting of his has been met with a ringing silence from collectors.
In response to increasing documentation of police brutality, Nowlin painted a portrait with Georgle Floyd — a Black man murdered by police officers in May — in mind with the words “Free at Last” adorning his likeness. The artwork has yet to be featured in a single gallery.
Nowlin said while his friends and family are indignant at the snub, he harbors no bad sentiment and remains unsurprised by the lack of response. He noted an irony that exists within the artistic realm: Artists are encouraged to render their work “...passionate and sexy and wild. But you don’t touch racial issues, because galleries don’t want to lose clients due to the slant of one artist.”
Nowlin said the lack of response towards his painting has reminded him of racism’s inherent economic potency within all businesses.
“The system is money, I’ve come to realize,” he said. “Economic pressure is a hatchet hanging over the heads of fairly liberated people. Some galleries just don’t want to lose the racist’s dollar.”
Yet it appears that with every disappointment comes a ray of hope. Santa Fe’s Manitou Galleries requested that Nowlin compose a statement denouncing racism that they then posted to their wall.
The statement chronicles Nowlin’s jarring introduction to violent racial prejudice — his high school classmates’ gleeful reactions to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s murder — and concludes that racism is “the most evil component of our complex, shared history,” while asking that such brutality be “driven into the darkest recesses of our great country’s consciousness” by voting and speaking up.
Manitou Galleries director Cyndi Hall said she specifically requested Nowlin’s writing because she knows him both professionally and personally and has been privy to his literary talent.
“We as an art gallery have a responsibility to our artists and clients and collectors to express what an artist is feeling, regardless of what side of the coin they are,” Hall said. “I knew Nowlin would be able to express a reaction to the current state of uncertainty in a way that none of the rest of us could articulate.”
Hall said while it isn’t the aim of the gallery to be political, she feels that it is her role to demonstrate an honest expression of where artists are in their careers, especially because “art heals.”
“Nowlin is a lovely human being, and he has deep connections with the people he meets and his experiences in this world,” Hall said.
Nowlin plans to reach even beyond a public statement to further his own fight for racial justice. He said he plans to garner a community of artists and showcase their similarly ignored art in a national gallery of their own, and he hopes the Black community will be willing to take the lead on this idea.
Nowlin said that although the power of artists’ voices are not as strong as they could be, “We do have one. We could gather artists from all around the country to advance the dialogue.”
He said he still recalls the Civil Rights movement of the 60s, and while the tide has taken too long to shift in the United States, he has never seen such unity before underpinning the Black Lives Matter mission.
“I see all the colors out on the street, which has lifted my spirits greatly and given me a lot of hope in the movement,” Nowlin said. “My heart is so touched.”
Beatrice Nisoli is a senior reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @BeatriceNisoli