Amidst controversy and hate, Appalachian artists continue to showcase the region’s diversity through their work. In September 2020, East Tennessee State University showcased, “Black Diaspora: From Africa to Appalachia to Affrilachia.” The central goal of the exhibit was to celebrate Black Appalachian artists.
During the gallery panel on race, education and social justice, a white nationalist group posed as journalists. The group used this opportunity to voice their distaste for the exhibit and even accuse some of the artists and curators of being racist. Data from the Anti-Defamation League revealed in 2018 alone, white supremacists' propaganda efforts increased by 182%.
Although this infiltration of the panel was both unwarranted and unnecessary, it provokes an interesting question about art and representation. Karlota I. Contreras-Koterbay, gallery director and curator for the Slocumb Galleries and Tipton Gallery, believes it is imperative to create a conversation around diversity in Johnson City.
Over the last few years, ETSU has hosted several galleries that explore diversity in America and in Appalachia specifically.
“We try to focus on visibility of Latin Americans, African Americans, Native Americans, you know, the hyphenated Americans that are not always getting the attention and the recognition,” said Contreras-Koterbay. “This year, we did the mixed American.”
After the 2000 census, the Appalachian Regional Commission released a report detailing the demographic and socioeconomic changes that took place in Appalachia between 1990 and 2000.
“The number of minority Appalachians increased nearly 50 percent to 2.8 million from 1990 to 2000, boosting minorities’ share of the region’s total population to 22.9 million,” the report stated.
Since 2000, those numbers have continued to rise, but the representation of diversity within Appalachian borders has remained stagnant. To combat the Appalachian stereotype, many artists of color have turned to their medium to express their own experiences and identities in the region.
“For the last 30 years, we have been trying to bring awareness of the diversity that is found within Appalachia,” said Ricardo Nazario-Colon, Chief Diversity Officer at Western Carolina University and Co-Founder of The Affrilachian Poets. “Which is something that you often don’t hear much about outside of the region.”
Nazario-Colon, a New York native, moved to the region for college and quickly planted roots in its rich soil. While pursuing his undergraduate degree at the University of Kentucky, he became involved with a group of students and faculty members who were advocating for the representation of the diverse groups of people who reside in Appalachia. They call themselves the Affrilachia Poets.
“There's always a focus on the Scotch-Irish heritage, and that's almost synonymous with being Appalachian,” said Nazario-Colon. “So part of what we've been doing as poets is trying to disrupt the narrative. Being Appalachian is more than just being Scotch-Irish, but it's all of these other people.”
Nazario-Colon was one of the many artists featured in the Black Diaspora show at the Tipton St Gallery. Throughout his time writing and creating art that discusses diversity within the region, he has faced some backlash and controversy. He sees this as a simple reality of discussing potentially controversial topics.
There is a level of confidence an artist must have to create work that provokes thought and raises awareness. Jason Flack, a Johnson City-based artist, faces various issues head-on through his work. From sexuality to race, racism, inner thoughts, allegories, fables and so much more.
His work in the Black Diaspora gallery, both beautiful and haunting, grabbed the attention of many viewers. Amongst these viewers was the hate group that attempted to make waves in their peaceful representation of the black experience in America and Appalachia. One of his paintings, loosely based on stories told by his great grandmother, is now an award-winning piece.
“Black Nanny shows a real tired lady, very weary. She's making that face when you’ve just kind of had enough. Like somebody cut in front of you or stepped on your toe, and she's holding a peaceful sleeping white baby, said Flack. “There are these stories that get lost in history, where these black ladies are taking care of these babies. Then when they turn 18, they’re using racial slurs. I had to make something out of that.”
The issue of misrepresentation and diversity is an important subject to be discussed in Appalachia. Through painting, poetry, woodworking and curating, Contreras-Koterbay, Flack and Nazario-Colon are doing so. That is the power of art, it gives the creator the ability to communicate an idea through creative expression. Then, it is up to the consumer to decipher.
Art holds the ability to set sparks to the cotton sheets of willful ignorance, and it can also broaden the world's view on critical issues. Without it, too many voices would be left unheard, and too many stories would be left untold.