When Kellie Jones Wanted To Study Black Art History, The Field Didn’t Exist. So She Created It Herself.

You mention in your interview with the MacArthur Foundation that you grew up surrounded by diverse and underrepresented artists. Can you talk a little about the environment in which you were raised and the role art played?

I grew up on the Lower East Side, what’s now called the East Village. My parents were both poets — my father, the late Amiri Baraka, and my mother, Hettie Jones. I’ve been around art and culture my whole life.

I went to The High School of Music and Art, what’s now LaGuardia. One of the things about going to school in New York City ― it’s a very diverse place. I was surrounded by very creative people, but while studying art history, I noticed nobody in the books I was reading represented the people in the class. 

Do you have a particular memory of a moment or experience when it hit you that something was very messed up? 

I do remember being struck by the fact that the only people of color in textbooks at that time ― which was in the ‘70s, but maybe it’s still pretty much the same ― were very ancient. They were Egyptians, they were Mayans. They were not living people now. No Latinos, African-Americans, etc.

Now we know in the contemporary art world, these people have taken the art world by storm — we have Wangechi Mutu, Lorna Simpson, David Hammons, so many more. These people are everywhere in current discussions about art. Things have changed. I hope the textbooks catch up.

Were there specific mentors who guided you or artists who inspired you to become more interested in the field? 

Al Loving, Jack Whitten, Howardena Pindell, William T. Williams. These were all people I grew up around. As I grew older and got into museums, Lowery Stokes Sims, who was president of the Studio Museum and a curator at The Met. 

But as for the field, there was no such thing. When I was in college, I created my own major, interdisciplinary between African-American studies, art and Latin-American studies. I invented that for myself. Then I went back and got a PhD and started teaching that in a classroom. We have been making this field a discipline, all of us now teaching these things in the academy. Certainly that wasn’t the case in the ‘70s.