We're pleased to share this powerful personal essay by artist Kestin Cornwall that gives more insight into his work overall and specifically, to his painting "Mansa Musa With Cleopatra."
I create art to document change and to ask questions. I try to approach my work as a visual thinker and aim to think critically. Media has often distorted representations of Black and Brown males; how we speak, love, and live. The North American media industry is the largest in the world, and therefore has a huge effect on how the world views minorities, specifically Black and Brown males. This large consumption of media affects the public’s attitudes towards Black and Brown men. These preconceived notions and perceptions of us have directly affected the treatment of Black and Brown men within the justice system. It also affects self-realization and individual development, punitive laws, and police practices that in the end affect and change our communities and how we all interact within them.
While creating the image titled "Mansa Musa With Cleopatra", I wanted to take into account how some will see love and affection in this image, while others will see aggression, consciously or subconsciously, admittingly or not. I wanted to ask questions about love, biases, perceived ideas and views and how the media and history are often written from a eurocentric perspective. This one-sided perspective views Black and Brown, as well as men from other groups, differently and in many ways unjustly, while simultaneously claiming to push equality. It's also selective with who is included in documented mainstream history and who is left out. All this while also underrepresenting specifically Black men but Black people in general as well as other minority groups. Why do we all know who Isaac Newton is but many don't know of Musa al-Khwarizmi or Brahmagupta?
Thinking back to this, I remember growing up, and how my family would be fearful of how the world would see me when I left the house. They would run down a list of things to do and not do in case of an unwarranted interaction with a police officer, fearing that I would be viewed as a threat. My mother grew up in the '60s in Detroit. She has brothers, she's seen the news, she has had racism affect her life in North America, and she knew to warn me based on her past experiences. I remember spending time with my white friends who did not have this fear. White families instructed their kids to demand a badge number by police and had no fear of how police would incorrectly identify and interact with their sons. They felt protected by the police.
The lack of balanced representation and the pre-decided view of Black men and other groups has led to many issues. Tamir Rice was a 12-year old African-American boy. Tamir was shot in Cleveland by Timothy Loehmann, a 26-year-old white police officer. Loehmann shot the 12-year-old boy on site. This is just one example of bad policing with clear biases, and an officer behaving over aggressively, ending in a loss of a very valuable life.
My grandfather paid taxes, was respected, and worked legally in North America. My dad worked his whole life and paid taxes in Canada, sometimes three jobs just to feed us. My other grandfather is the descendent of southern slaves, who built North America, and were abused and neglected by the country they so dearly loved. Even after the government promised in 1865 that those freed would be paid land and provided the ability to work that land, the same tools white Americans had been given for 100’s of years, this was never actually given to Black Americans. If we use the game Monopoly as an example, white America has been playing for days. Black people were forced to stand the whole time at gunpoint in the doorway to this room and just moments ago had the opportunity to sit down and play at the table.
A close friend, who is white, asked me years ago, when we were 24 or so, what I saw for my future by 30. I remember his face when I told him I was expecting to be dead by now. I just want to make it out. Out to me at the time was a better life than what we had there, and opportunity. At the time I was watching what family members in Detroit were experiencing. I was seeing men like me being mistreated. I had been in altercations and been called racial slurs. I was seeing how Canada treated Indigenous people and Black people. My teachers had shown us the video of the Rodney King beating and I’d seen the misrepresentation and disparity in arrest shown on camera on shows like “Cops”. I was targeted by the police as a teenager at a party in high school. I’ve always kept my grades up, I’ve always been respectful, I’ve never wanted to fight unless it was self-defense. But now, having time to analyze some aspects of the past, I realize these interactions and survival mindsets have had an effect not just on me, but on our culture, on our society, on our communities, and on our countries.
I think society is desensitized to Black and Brown pain and death, due to the media bias, including shows like “Cops”. I want to humanize our women and our men while uniquely representing them. There are many types of Blackness. As Black men we love, as Black men we protect our women, we kiss babies, we enjoy the greenery of a garden, we care, we create. As far as numbers, studies show that as Black men, we are more likely to play with our children at home and do homework with our children in our homes. We are powerful, we are strong, some of us are built like Michael B. Jordan and LeBron James. We’re also calm, cerebral, and kind-hearted like John Lewis and Barack Obama. The Black Effect.