What is a soul worth? Do I have to answer that?

Monet Noelle Marshall's face with the text "Buy My Soul and Call It Art"

Not a question I thought I would be contemplating on a Saturday afternoon in downtown Durham

But I was. And it was uncomfortable.

After nearly an hour of witnessing, absorbing, and engaging with the performers of Buy My Soul And Call It Art inside the Living Arts Collective, I found myself sitting across from Monét Noelle Marshall – the installation’s creator and director. With her hands gently folded on the table in front of her, she asked me a simple question: “What is my art worth to you today?”

Monet Noelle Marshall's face with the text "Buy My Soul and Call It Art"

I like to believe that I’ve developed a stronger ability to identify and name systems of oppression and racism. I’m grateful for thought-leaders like Monét to remind this privileged cisgender white woman (me) that, in fact, I’m far from being “woke.” Scene after scene throughout the show revealed the complex web of entertainment, art, media — even the nonprofit sector — and how the white dominant culture co-opts black artists, ideas, and identities. Sometimes covertly. And sometimes in plain sight.

In the opening portion, we witnessed a young Black man performing through dance in an enclosed space; the walls were see-through yet not penetrable. There were slots, like mail slots in doors, on walls adjacent to this box (containment, confinement). And we were each given paper money to spend during our time in the exhibit. So, one person walked forward and slipped some of their paper money into one of the slots. The goal: giving a tip to the performer. A few more folks walked up and put their paper money into one of the two slots — I ended up making the choice to do that too.

But, none of the paper money ended up in this performer’s space. He looked around for it then up at us, How could the dollar bills not be there? We were then led to the other side of the installment to see two white young nonprofit professionals in their own containers, the floors littered with paper money. Yet, they complained bitterly about how the lack of funds meant fewer resources for them to distribute to the “inner city kids” — programs would have to be cut. What could they do with a donation of just $35?

Gut-punch times a 1,000 for me at this moment.

I cannot do Monét’s work justice with my words; and I don’t want to overshare in hope that she will be able to bring this powerful work to more places in the Triangle and beyond.

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Grateful to all of these talented arists and performers who made this exhibit happen

It is too easy to go through this world and accept what is at face value, especially in regards to the elements of our culture. Art, music, theater, dance, film, writing. Who has the power, in these worlds, to be seen and heard? Who is rewarded? Who is praised and acknowledged? Last year’s #OscarsSoWhite was, in my recent memory, one of the first times many people started to pay attention to the, as Indy Week writer Kevin J. Rowsey II coins, the “problematic relationship between black art and the arts and entertainment industry.” 

It can’t stop with outrage at one awards show. This is an on-going battle to control and disseminate media and seek financial gain, fame, notoriety. But don’t think that there’s nothing we can do to change this. Absolutely we can. It requires us to be intentional and do the work to use our resources in ways that support diverse, equitable, and inclusive cultural outlets.

I am committing to seeking out and supporting spaces that not only promote the work of black artists but center black artistry. I am committed to actively reading more written works by people of color; spending my money to support black and brown musicians, painters, illustrators, songwriters, filmmakers — whatever medium I elect to consume. This show also re-ignited my flame to tackle the problematic elements of the nonprofit sector. Yes, that will most certainly be a future blog post.

Earlier this year, I shared my quest to become a more mindful consumer. This is another avenue for me and for you to walk. I certainly get to benefit from the talent, hardwork, and skills of black artists.

The question is: do they get to benefit from my consumption? Or does that funnel back to those in power, those who hold the purse strings?

Here is additional coverage of Monèt Noelle Marshall & Buy My Soul and Call It Art

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