San Francisco Chronicle
Black History Month Artist Profile

By Kenneth Baker
Published: February 17, 2006

For Black History Month, Datebook has interviewed 20 Bay Area African American artists about their creative processes, influences and goals. The profiles will run Monday through Friday this month.

Many people who know Arnold Kemp's name probably still associate him with Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, where he served as an exhibition curator for a decade after the institution's founding in 1993.

But Kemp, 37, recently added an MFA from Stanford to his undergraduate degrees in art and English from Tufts University and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. His inclusion in "Freestyle," a widely noticed 2001 show at the Studio Museum in Harlem, brought Kemp to the attention of New York critics and collectors. He sees himself moving to New York soon.

Kemp has made work on racial themes, most famously a series of photographic self-portraits in which he wears Klan hoods - which he calls "masks" - adorned with African textile patterns.

Q: You've recently turned to making what look like abstract paintings. Why?

A: It seemed that no matter what I made, people would always put it in this box, this idea they have of what kind of work black artists should make. So I said, "Since they say it's 'black art' anyway, I'll just make black paintings."

The painting the Studio Museum in Harlem bought is called "Black Block." The dimensions of the block that's in the painting correspond to the dimensions of a coffin. It's sort of a memorial to my mother, who died a few years ago. But thinking of the title, it could also mean a black voting bloc. The image itself could even be an auction block. So, thinking about language, I came up with these ways of getting into painting after doing more conceptual, photo-based works.

Q: Do you care whether people know that you're an African American artist when they look at your paintings?

A: With the paintings it's not so important because I'm just trying to make good paintings. I guess it matters to me if African American viewers know, because I might inspire a younger artist or some new idea of thinking about our culture. I think that's what artists should be doing, trying to bring new ideas into the culture, not just new objects.

Q: What about the humor in the "masks?"

A: I would say that's a Bay Area influence. ... People laugh because they don't know what other reaction to have. But there's a serious part of that project that's just about masking. We all put on masks when we deal with each other.

Q: Have you ever shown the "masks" as works in themselves?

A: No, I've never shown them as objects. People always ask me that, but I haven't wanted to because not everyone sees them as humorous. Some people get really upset by them.

(You can view the external source for this interview here)

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