The Visionary Vernacular Language of Black Outsider Artists
Outsider art is usually considered any creative work produced outside the mainstream art world, outside the context of galleries, museums, dealers and art journals. These artists are typically people who are poor, Black and have had little or no formal training in art. Since I teach literature and writing at an art college where people spend a great deal of money, energy and time improving their knowledge, skills and processes in art-making. I am naturally curious about outsider artists, wondering what voice they can "bring to table" so to speak with the educated or "elite" artists like those among whom I work. My first "knock-your-socks-off-this-is-the-real-thing" outsider art experience occurred in the mid 1990's when I happened upon The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly at the Smithsonian Institute, a monumental installation made by an African American visionary, James Hampton. What I felt emanating from the room can at best be hinted at through metaphor or symbol, but cannot itself be said. Then at an Outsider Art Fair in Atlanta, I came across four outsider Black artists with work in the Smithsonian, who were hawking their "wares" on the streets. There was very little to no fan fare in the local papers, and not many visitors to the exhibit. Though honored by our nation, the “outsiders” are no better off than iterant workers. While the recognition of cultural hegemony was staring me in the face, what interested me more immediately were their messages, their individual stories. It was as though they each felt they heard from God, and because they were all working in a visionary mode, I wanted to know, and want to tell, what they have to say. What does their art say about their relations with their fellow humans, and with their communities?
Keywords: Outsider Art, Visionary Art, Cultural Hegemony, Working Class Art, Art in a Cultural Democracy
Dr. Alison Watkins
Faculty, Liberal Arts Department, Ringling School of Art and Design