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Maynard Eaton: Who decides what is acceptable public art in Kokomo?

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ART— Artist Tahjmaray Niema’s - Rejected Artist Alley Painting

A public art piece can often be controversial. Whether a particular artwork is provocative or profane can often be a fine and discerning line. It can also be prejudiced, depending on who is making the call, argues Black female artist Tahjmaray Niema, whose nude rendering of a voluptuous African-American woman was surreptitiously rejected for inclusion in September’s First Friday lineup of talent, now on display in Kokomo’s Artist Alley.

“Anybody who’s watched me grow as an artist knows I’ve always painted my women nude – ALWAYS,” emphasizes the Kokomo native who was invited to submit and freely showcase her work. In her Facebook post, Niema reveals she was later told the only way she could participate is if “she covered the breast and pelvic area, because it isn’t appropriate for a public space” although “no email, application or contract states that nudity is not allowed.”

She calls her unjust treatment cultural racism. “You walk the streets, enter banks, museums, libraries and even in school textbooks, you will see white women draped in a cloth with her breast out and it is considered ‘art’,” Niema vents, “but let it be a Black woman and it’s ‘inappropriate’ or ‘distasteful’.”

Jerry Paul agrees. He is the designer and creative force behind America’s first Women’s Legacy Memorial in downtown Kokomo, who is aghast about the angst over a woman’s nipple. “This committee is not allowed to be narrow-minded,” Paul argues passionately during a recent meeting of the Kokomo Arts Coalition. “This committee should have a liberal mindset. I want to see stuff that is different. We should want as much diversity as possible. I want public art in Kokomo that makes you think.”

That is exactly what the Kokomo Public Art Action Coalition is doing – thinking extensively about all facets of public art as an advisory group for Mayor Tyler Moore. “I want us to be seen as advocates,” says Susan Alexander, Kokomo’s de facto arts doyenne and manager of downtown initiatives at the Greater Kokomo Economic Development Alliance. “We’ve crafted a draft, but there are no rules or guiding principles at all right now.”

That yet approved working document by the Arts Coalition does say, “while free artistic expression must be encouraged, consideration must also be given to the appropriateness of artworks of local community standards and values.” That suggests that Niema’s nude painting, and others of that ilk, could continue to be rejected!

J.C. Barnett III, a self-taught portrait artist and IU Kokomo’s Black Student Center director, is currently the council’s only African-American voice.

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“I have a tremendous appreciation for that piece, it’s beautiful!” Barnett opines. “Her portrayal of the female figure in its most natural form was masterfully done. I love my city, however, I am not naïve. We are very much a conservative community and works of art such as the piece the young lady had taken down, I can see where that could have presented an issue for the organization running the event. There has never been any policy in place to defend such a work. That is why I’m happy to be a small part of a group of people looking to bring diversity to the table. Seeking to gain a more diverse perspective of what beautiful, quality art looks like. Making decisions to accept art that otherwise may not have been acceptable before. Sort of a microcosm to some of our society’s issues. I’m for seeking justice in every aspect of life. As an artist, I’m working for that young lady’s freedom of expression in this community.”

That said, Barnett is confident that the ad hoc Public Arts Coalition - which is co-captained by Alexander and Cheryl Sullivan, president of the Kokomo Art Association - are genuinely seeking solutions and racially righteous results much like he is.

“I believe the carefully assembled team of brilliant minds who are artists themselves, led by Susan Alexander, will expand the art community in such a manner as to improve the aesthetic quality of the city, and allow art enthusiasts to find Kokomo as a place to live and not simply to pass through,” Barnett believes. “There are some strong personalities in the room, and there are times where heads will butt up against one another.”

“We want Kokomo to become branded as an arts and culture destination, and no longer just a drive by,” proclaims Sullivan. “We’re working very hard to be successful in making Kokomo an attraction for new residents and visitors.”

Robin Williams, an Arts Coalition member, believes the Niema nude painting controversy could be a catalyst for cultural change in Kokomo. Williams, a veteran arts administrator and curator for the last 35 years, is no stranger to the process of creating a public art policy. In 2007, as inaugural director of the Garfield Park Arts Center, the first municipally governed arts center for the City of Indianapolis, Williams was charged with researching similar art centers around the country to establish a curatorial policy.

“This was not an easy process,” said Williams. “It was imperative to research a variety of public policies and best practices before we established our own. Most of all, a public art policy should be fair and balanced for the artists. Art reflects the human experience; therefore, we must consider that a diverse range of expressions should be reflected in our own community public art presentations. To allow anything less than this, to literally ‘police art’, would be a grave mistake on the part of the coalition and the city.”

Maynard Eaton of Kokomo is an eight-time Emmy Award-winning news reporter and national communications director for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).