Creating in a crisis

Despite all odds against them, Black artists, Indigenous artists and artists of color continue to create during the pandemic through innovation and grants.

I used to dance in a studio covered in mirrors and marley flooring, rehearsing for the next dance film or the next show. Now I dance in my living room with a floor length mirror. I miss feeling the bubbling energy of my dance community.

I remember the day I met one of the most inspiring members of our eclectic group, James MahKween. It was on March 5, when I ordered an Uber pool. MahKween and his friend, who were celebrating each other’s blossoming careers, joined me as additional riders in the pool. We began chatting in the car, and realized both MahKween and I were dancers. We exchanged contact information. Such a social exchange seems like a distant memory now.

The pandemic took gigs away from dance artists like MahKween and I. I had three shows lined up before Mayor Eric Garcetti told all but “essential” workers to shelter in place.

Like many other dancers, I had to take things into my own hands to create work for myself.

MahKween likewise used this at-home time to create. He didn’t want the pandemic to get in the way of dancing and moving.

“I’m a person who believes in changing the narrative in my favor,” he said, “so it’s like even if I can’t go into a dance studio to dance, the world is my dance studio.

“I mean I’ll dance in the grass if we can just get it out.”

Creating With Caution and Innovation

Since the beginning of the stay-at-home order in Los Angeles in March, MahKween has worked on online dance showcases, virtual dance classes, various fashion commissions and his social media presence and brand. He describes himself as a “renaissance man” who is skilled in multiple art forms that he mixes as part of his steady flow of work.

When I spoke with him by phone recently he was working on a new showcase called “Cat Call,” which uses narratives, poetry, music and dance to share true stories of gender-based microaggressions, sexual harassment and abuse. He is working with a group of women who are developing ways to share the accounts featured in the show. He records and accumulates honest conversation shared among the women involved in the project. For MahKween, the experience is broadening his own understanding of the impact that art and storytelling can have.

These are “just women having conversations with other women and then now [I’m] trying to figure out how to make that work,” he said.

The rehearsals for the project have been in person but with plenty of precautions in place. Rehearsals are typically in large, ventilated studios or rooms.

“I’m not about to not have contact dance, so we have to be extra smart with how we move, wearing face masks and gloves and all that,” MahKween said.

The restrictions of artistic creation during a pandemic changed the way many visual and performing artists approach their work. Instead of working with others and following multiple precautions, the performance and sculpture artists Kiki Jia Qi Zhen put her/his family to work.

Zhen lives in a six-person household in Chicago consisting of her, her parents and her three younger siblings. In early March she received an email from the Chicago Art Department, where she interned, saying that they were closing the museum because of COVID-19. Both she and her father lost their jobs. She turned to innovative ways to create and sell art with a small budget and little physical space.

“My siblings are a big part of my art-making really,” she said. “In a joking way, they’re like my little minions. For some of my document work, I would put on my costumes or whatnot, and my sister would be behind the cameras taking those photos.”

She turned to photography and Instagram to display and promote her work with the documentation her siblings helped capture. She learned about different grants that could help fund projects and help with living expenses. She navigated different Instagram pages and social media groups for artists to build up financial and emotional support, with other artists she met during her career or online.

Once COVID-19 began to keep people in their homes, nonprofit organizations and grants for the arts started to pop up. These grants developed out of pre-existing organizations or out of new ones that emerged at the beginning of quarantine. Many catered to Black artists, Indigenous artists and artists of color. Their goals are to uplift these BIPOC artists who face more than just a health pandemic, but also a racial one, acknowledging the support needed for minority communities.

Creating With Grants

MahKween recently posted on Instagram about the Arts and Culture Leaders of Color Emergency Fund, which offers $200 microgrants to raise awareness about the opportunities available for artists to get financial support. He believes these grants are important to artists because they don’t rely on a biweekly check like other professions. They rely on grants, sales and contract work. No matter how big or small the grant, funding of any kind can help bring an artist’s vision to life.

“Even if you have to go to the dollar store, it’s better than not having anything,” he said.

Arts Administrators of Color, a nonprofit organization, organized the Arts and Culture Leaders of Color Emergency Fund at the beginning of the pandemic in the U.S. and has since collected more than $80,665 in donations and contributions from its gofundme, according to the group’s most recent website update. It has distributed 275 grants to some of more than 11,000 applicants since March 13 when the fund launched.

These statistics support the need for funding and aid for such artists, especially considering their community is disproportionately affected by COVID-19.

Nationwide, Black people are dying from the coronavirus at 2.5 times the rate of white people, according to recent COVID Tracking Project data. The same study found that Indigenous and Latinx people have died at 1.3 times the rate of white people. This data is constantly changing as it gets updated twice a week.

As of May 2019, there were an estimated 9,690 dance artists employed in the U.S., according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That number looks different today.

Ninety-five percent of artists of all disciplines reported that they lost income due to COVID-19, according to a survey by Americans for the Arts conducted April 8-21. More than six in 10 artists reported becoming fully unemployed because of the pandemic.

The small shoe brand and arts collective that goes by the name ILYSM started its own grant called ILYSM4ARTISTS at the beginning of COVID-19 shutdowns in New York. Company founder Alice Wang said by email that she witnessed the economic impact firsthand and wanted to provide relief to artists with microgrants of $500.

“A lot of our friends work in retail, hospitality and nightlife, and they were the first to lose their sources of income,” she said. “We know what it’s like to live paycheck to paycheck, and we wanted to do what we could in the moment.”

For artists, especially BIPOC, grants and funds, no matter the size, can go a long way.

Corey Pemberton, a glassblower and painter, was one of the first artists to receive such a microgrant just as quarantine took away a source of his income at LA Glass Center where he was a glassblower and instructor.

“We had to shut down our studio and I was not able to teach classes anymore or make my own work in the studio,” he said.

Pemberton also lost possible income when multiple exhibitions of his were cancelled. He received the $500 ILYSM grant just in time for rent.

It seems easy: Apply for a grant and problem solved. Maria Lourdes, another ILYSM grant winner, said that although you apply, the award isn’t guaranteed.

Lourdes’ paintings investigate the imperfections of human beauty, desexualizing women and their bodies. To create this work, she has to buy supplies like canvas and paint, which can be costly.

“It’s really been hard,” she said. “There’s not a lot of opportunities, and once you apply for something there’s no guarantee that you’ll be chosen for it, so that’s what I’ve had to learn. I’ve failed a lot, I’ve applied for a lot of things, and you know it’s like a hit or miss.”

She notes that the art world in the United States is predominantly white, which she attributes to the advantages white artists have in their career.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, the unemployment rate from February to April 2020 for the Black community is 2.5 percentage points higher than white workers.

Giving support to artists like Lourdes doesn’t just help the artist, it leads to the creation of art. Artists of color typically don’t have the same level of funding as their white counterparts, Lourdes said.

“We don’t get that kind of freedom to make art the way that we want to because of the fact that we are economically disadvantaged,” she said. “Grants are kind of a way to show the face of the work, not the face of the artists, and (you) get that awarded not just because you know somebody ... [Grants are] more open to everybody and people of color.”

White artists enter their professional world with advantages. Society is more likely to respect their work and them because of their skin color. Artists of different races and ethnicities don’t enjoy the same advantages. Grants that focus on providing aid for artists of color support those who have to work much harder than their white counterparts in the industry.

Jenna Elizabeth, ILYSM’s artist in residence and filmmaker, explained in an email that these racial barriers are “archaic, biased infrastructures” that she and ILYSM are seeking to overcome through the grant and recent programs.

“This pandemic highlighted the disparities that were already on the forefront of the arts community. COVID disproportionately affects the BIPOC community,” she said. “The overwhelming need for BIPOC curators is essential not only for artists, but society at large. Whose voices are getting amplified, and who is directing a larger historical narrative for the nation?”

Creating Despite Everything

Legendary Father Omari Wiles of the House of Oricci in the ballroom and voguing community continues to create and work through the pandemic. He explained that mutual support among artists was crucial to surviving the early stages of the pandemic.

“I see the communities coming together,” Wiles said. “I see dancers reposting other people’s videos, posting their flyers. I’m seeing people are playing with TikTok and doing challenges to keep spirits up.”

At the time, Wiles had just started teaching vogue via Skype with the House of Oricci. He earned income from the donations from students for a class. He continues to teach online as well as work on various projects, including Beyoncé‘s visual album “Black is King,” as a cast member. In addition to his own projects, he promotes other artists via social media to help uplift the community.

Support via social media has been a tremendous help to artists of many mediums, as well as organizations looking to uplift the voices of ethnically and racially diverse artists.

Pemberton started a nonprofit organization called Crafting the Future before people began sheltering in place or socially distancing. The organization raised funds to pay the tuition for young artists of color to attend renowned craft schools across the nation. The outpouring of support that followed the Black Lives Matter protests upscaled the work of his year-old nonprofit, allowing it to provide opportunities for far more BIPOC artists.

“Before the protests began we had, I think, 200 members and maybe like a thousand dollars raised,” he said. “That figure shifted dramatically. Here we are just a couple months later and we have over 2,000 members and have raised over $120,000 and are forming new partnerships every day.”

Despite the pandemic, a growing social movement born from tragedy and oppression is helping to empower artists.

Zhen, the sculptor, saw the pandemic coming in January after hearing about the spreading virus from her relatives in China. She and her family took precautions early, but that came with discrimination laced in racism.

She has faced discrimination and oppression because of her Chinese identity since the beginning of the pandemic. According to a report by the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council (A3PCON), a coalition of community-based organizations that advocates for the rights of the Asian and Pacific Islander American community in the greater Los Angeles area, there were over 650 incidents of coronavirus discrimination against Asian Americans. This includes verbal and physical harassment. Although this report covers the Los Angeles area, discrimination against the Asian community occured in many parts of the U.S.

“It’s kind of this very intense moment, especially from the government and having the president to say ‘Chinese virus’ or ‘kung fu virus,’ with what’s going on,” she said.

She turned the discrimination into art, taking information from news articles connecting the origins of the virus to bats and creating art around the animal and the stigma.

Lauryn Levette, a student at the Rhode Island School of Design, turned to art to share Black joy in contrast to the recent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many other Black Americans.

“It’s made me want to create another reality where Black folks don’t have to worry about these hardships and oppression, having to also deal with the horror of what could happen if you walk outside one day and always for it to be on your mind when you get home that night,” she said “I always try to think about the joy and the little things that we see everyday that just don’t really exist anywhere else.”

Creating as a mindset

MahKween pushes forward in a similar way. Even under difficult conditions, he focuses on the positive. He calls this, “changing the narrative.” Although things may be difficult, he focuses on what he can control and makes the most out of it.

“Whatever you’re doing right now in the midst of this storm, chalk to the pavement, using your narrative to be expressive, to release something to create a new life for yourself,” MahKween said. “Don’t hold on to that weight. That’s not necessary. Let it out how it needs to be let out in your creative pursuits, even if it’s cooking.”

What pushes him forward is focusing on the positive and providing an outlet for himself and others to express whatever feelings are boiling. This has always been his mentality.

When MahKween handed me his business card in the Uber more than 100 days ago, he smiled and jumped for joy, saying these connections are meant to be. He pointed out that even in an Uber, there are opportunities that will make your day. You just have to let that happiness and possibility in.

More recently, he told me: “There’s so much in this world right now that it’s hard to even push out all this trauma that’s happening from the murders, from Latin[x] people to Black people, to the pandemic itself, to the election.”

“There’s a lot of distractions and we need to find a way to take back control and that is within the arts. That’s your conversation. That is full of communication. That is your narrative.”