Beauty in Search of a Resting Place

By Michael French

Black man up close, glasses, smiling, stack of pencils in jean jacket pocket.
Photo by Simone Finney
[ID: Man with deep brown skin, up close and wearing black glasses, in a jean jacket, is in the middle of the frame in a sunny room with shiny wood floor. He has a stack of pencils in jacket pocket and there’s a line of crumpled paper on the floor behind him.]

Does an artist have a responsibility to anything or anyone other than their whim?

The recognizing, capturing, and sainting of beauty is what separates human beings from beasts. In all honesty, I doubt this statement is true, but it sounds true, or at least true enough. This brings us to that fundamental, yet vexing question of what is ‘Beauty’? Hell if I know. Hell if anyone I trust knows.

But unless gibberish is your preferred form of communication, where else can we begin a conversation on beauty than with ‘why are you beautiful?’

The one thing I know for absolute sure and without even a shred of doubt, is that those witless Europeans behind slavery and colonialism, whose air of invincibility (better known as ‘power’) gave their Eurocentric ideas of beauty a certain divine vigor (better known as ‘truth’) have a lot to be accused of. When you take even a cursory glance at our world today and see what it holds dear when it comes to beauty, the blood-stained fingerprints of those thirsty Europeans are everywhere. Here’s the thing, the ‘Beauty’ I’m interested in has nothing to do with statues of naked men by the Greeks, or aquiline noses, or the perversity of a white Jesus, or powdered wigs, or eminent artists from the Renaissance, or the three-movement structure of a concerto, or fake beauty spots on TikTok, or anything to do with runways at fashion houses or airports. The ‘Beauty’ I’m concerned with is the one that every artist I know, and probably every artist I don’t know, made them want to become an artist in the first place. It’s the one that gives you reason to pause, to make you wonder, to make you ponder, that lets you believe in the idea of God, scrambles your senses, and has humanity at the very core of its existence.

Ridiculous as this sounds, and I must admit I feel a little queasy at my confidence, I believe that every artist, no matter what culture or tribe they come from, became an artist because they discovered something that spoke to the good in them, the humanity in them. Of course, if that discovery arrives when you’re eighteen years old, or, if you’re really unlucky, six years old, humanity’s the last thing you can imagine your unconsciousness wanting to talk about. But that’s okay, that’s okay. If you’re too young to realize what happened without your consent, your only responsibility is to keep on keeping on with your drawings in crayon, your songs on your toy piano, or your scribbled stories about dolphins and boats and a universe of glittery stars.

The moment of truth will return and the path which knows which way to go will show itself soon enough.

Around about here, with this very sentence, in fact, if I’m to be fair to you, dear reader, I should take my untethered, abstract idea of humanity and shape it into something concrete, something you can actually see. But fuck that!

Go write your own damn article if you want a vision of fairness! Naw, I’m only clowning around with you. But why would anyone need a concrete version of humanity when their unconsciousness already knows what it is? It would be a lonely and desolate place indeed if our instinct for humanity was not a song we all shared. Fortunately, the person standing next to you at the bus stop also has the same knowing, just as the person watching their laundry go round and round at a laundrette, just as the person buying and selling a slice of the future on Wall Street. We all have the same knowing. We all have the same knowledge.

My moment on the road to Damascus came while sitting next to my extremely self-contained Father on the dumpy yellow couch in our cramped, but lovable flat in Brixton, south-east London. Father was watching the drama “Angels are so Few” by Dennis Potter on the British television series, “Play for Today.”

I’m sure all I knew was that it was about an angel named Michael, which was, thankfully, all I needed to know to keep watching. But what I couldn’t have foreseen was that this story about an angel that arrives on the doorstep of a bored housewife, would knock me off my feet and I would keep on falling for the next ten years. Eventually my feet touched the ground again and my falling stopped, but only after I had directed my first play, Barrie O’Keefe’s “Killing Time.” That was it, that moment on the couch was my introduction to humanity and the rest of my life.

So, to that end, an artist, any artist, once bitten by their hidden humanity, sets off on their adventure with a packed lunch and a dreamy desire to add their voice to the cultural conversation. Or put another, less poetic way, a dreamy desire to make the world a better place. In my experience, and the experience of every artist I know and probably every artist I don’t know, that desire is fuel enough to create countless paintings, and countless books, and countless songs, and countless dances, and countless photographs, and countless creations that don’t have a definition. It’s an adventure fueled by the personal. But don’t be fooled by the etiquette of that word ‘humanity.’ When pushed to stand its ground by dictators or fascism or rampant intolerance, humanity thinks highly enough of itself to respond with bared teeth and revolution, which might be hard to believe at this precise moment in time, but you can see it throughout history.

For years, all I had to do was have an inspiration by whim from the good in me and that was enough. For myself, that is, it was enough for myself to simply have a whim and follow it. And then I moved to New York City from London. And then in 1999 Amadou Diallo had 41 bullets fired at his body from point-blank range, and sometime during that same year I started to listen to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” which I had heard a million times before, but hadn’t truly listened to. To be honest, my return to “What’s Going On?”  wasn’t consciously to do with the Diallo murder, but unconsciously…. ?

And then, as if to relieve myself of any hesitation, I saw David Bowie at the Roseland Ballroom and had a night of pure, unrestrained, ecstasy. In the larger scheme of things, I don’t know why this rock concert has anything to do with anything, but it does, it really does.

I had lived through the butchering of Stephen Lawrence, the steel-capped boots of the National Front marauding the streets, the rocks and fires of the Brixton riots, the rebellion of the Notting Hill Carnival. But there was something about the Diallo murder, about being in America, about being on the verge of the 21st century that made it hit differently. Not long after that hail of Police bullets rang through the air, and I wish I could remember exactly when, I felt a Divine Elbow thrust itself into my ribs with real intent. The Divine Elbow said, ‘Wake Up! You’re not just an artist, you’re a Black artist, and that should mean something.’ And for the first time in my life, it did. So, here’s the thing. I was always a Black artist, obviously, but the unspooling of my faith in natural justice left me naked and shorn of all feathers, save for the fact that I now had a new coat of responsibility, and it was a coat weighted to the bone with history. From that time onward, as best as I could, I tried to correct, or at least challenge a past narrative that marooned the Black experience in the corner of the room. You could see it in what I wrote about, the plays I directed, the events I attended, where I spent my time, where I spent my business, how I let myself be.

That was how it was for close to twelve years and I’m proud of that time, but then fatigue set in. It’s an ugly truth that I don’t always want to admit, but slowly and surely I found myself exhausted from doing what I knew had to be done, by what I knew was my responsibility. To change a past narrative about the Black experience was to constantly wade again and again and again in the struggle of the Black experience, and bit by bit, day by day, month after month, year upon year, it eventually used me up. I remember thinking when no one was looking, ‘Is it okay if I create something that’s just beautiful? Something that doesn’t have anything to do with correcting a narrative? Something that doesn’t have anything to do with the meaning of history? Something that doesn’t have anything to do with anyone or anything but me and mine?’ Then I heard the painter Amy Sherald speak on the purpose of her work: “Public Blackness has been codified to be something that’s always attached to resistance, which limits our humanity and the ways in which we can imagine ourselves existing. There has to be some relief from the battle or we can never evolve as a people. I often say that my paintings are a ‘resting place,’ a place where Black people can see a reflection of themselves that’s not in resistance or contention. It’s just a Black person being a person.”

All at once, as if laid at my feet on a velvet cushion, I was given a landing and a new responsibility: Art as a ‘resting place.’


When the good people at In Dance asked me if I was interested in writing something for the upcoming edition, I told them that I wanted to write about the responsibility of an artist, particularly the responsibility of a Black artist.

I was put in touch with two vanguards of art as an agent of change. The glorious writer, director, and human rights advocate Ellen Sebastian Chang, whose work includes “Your Place Is No Longer With Us,” “A Hole in Space (Oakland Redux)” with Maya Gurantz, and “House/Full of Blackwomen” with Deep Waters Dance Theater. And the wondrous composer, bassist, bandleader, and educator Marcus Shelby, whose works include “Harriet Tubman,” “Beyond the Blues: A Prison Oratoria,” and “Soul of a Movement: Meditations on Martin Luther King Jr.” He is currently composing music for “The People’s Palace,” a site-specific performance installation with Zaccho Dance Theatre.

There’s nothing like being in conversation with brilliant minds.


A B&W headshot of an older woman of color with a long braid over her shoulder gazing directly at the viewer with a slight smile.
Photo by Grace Marie Cecile Toleque
[ID: Black and white headshot of an older woman of color with eyebrows slightly raised, a hint of a smile gazing directly at the viewer, and with a long salt and pepper braid over her right shoulder. She is wearing a knit beanie, dark-rimmed glasses, a black top and a geometrically patterned shiny choker.]

Michael French: So, Ellen, here’s why I wanted to talk with you. For some time now, I’ve found myself on projects – some of which I’ve created myself (!) where the overriding aim is to correct a past narrative about Black folk or the Black experience. And trust me, I know the good that’s in there, how important it is to address those things, but sometimes, sometimes I just want to create something that’s beautiful and not have it be a correction to anything.

Ellen Sebastian Chang: I hear you.

MF: Sometimes I want beauty to be my only responsibility.

ESC: I always want to create and pay homage to what I’m in love with. I’ll use this as an example. So, the very first show that I ever wrote and directed, which was called “Your Place Is No Longer With Us,” was an homage to someone I love profoundly, my muse, which was my grandmother…It was my grandmother that I learned the importance of responsibility and obligation from. They’re both words that are really testy in modern, western, mindsets. Especially the American mindset.

MF: Especially in my mindset, to be honest with you.

ESC: When I’ve done Human Rights work we talk about Helen Fine’s ‘Universe of Obligation.’ Every time we try to teach that in relation to Human Rights, Oh My God! People hear that word ‘Obligation,’ and I’m talking about queer folks, people of color, and there’s something about that word that just pisses people off!

MF: You can put me in that group.

ESC: That’s right. Because what it sounds like is that you’re not free, you’re not liberated to do as you wish. And I go, we’re obligated all the time! Breathing oxygen is an obligation to maintain life — would it not behoove us to be responsible towards clear air in an effort to maintain healthy life? We can’t escape some form of obligation and responsibility. We can create an illusion that ‘I’m doing me, this is about me, I’m living my best life,’ and all that. But I go, your best life is still in a relationship, an interdependency with everything and every being around you.

MF: Okay. So, for you, you have an obligation, but it’s only to things you love.

ESC: That’s right.

MF: And you say that you’re fooling yourself if you think you can live a life as an artist, any color artist, without an obligation to something.

ESC: Yes.

MF: I get that, but…. and I’m going to twist this around a bit… But Black and Brown people, the minute we step out our door we’re always — As the painter Amy Sherald would say, we’re always in ‘contention.’ Sometimes it’s with the people on the street, sometimes it’s with feeling like you’re always being observed, sometimes it’s with keeping the right distance so the person in front of you feels safe, sometimes it’s with history itself, and it’s fucking exhausting!

ESC: Believe me, I’ve been feeling that myself.

MF: And so, lately, I’ve been asking myself, where do Black people get to rest?! Again, Amy Sherald talks about creating work that’s a ‘resting place’ for Black people. Do you feel that responsibility in any way?

ESC: I’ve had the privilege to rest. I think it really began with the shutdown of the pandemic, to re-think how –- because I too was getting exhausted of always responding to the narrative of “white” history. For me, it was, Oh My God! I don’t want to see another ‘slave narrative’ ever again in my life! And it’s not because I don’t think that narrative is important to learn and understand. Many of those narrative stories are written or produced for white people or people that have been willfully ignorant the past four hundred years. So, yes, if someone wants to take that on, to continually educate the white mindset, no problem. But for myself, I had to ask, ‘what am I curious about, what interests me,’ and in trusting what interests me — be it science fiction or rural landscapes…. What’s the relationship between birds and African history? What’s the relationship between honey and certain African cultures? That’s what interests me and I just want to go down those rabbit holes and ask questions. I’m going to quote Chinua Achebe because one thing he said is, “Our art is based on morality.” The earth Goddess among the Igbo people is also the Goddess of morality. So, in our aesthetic, you cannot run away from morality. Morality is basic to the nature of art.

MF: That is such an interesting way to put it.

ESC: And then I have to follow that up with a quote from Nietzsche, he says, and I LOVE THIS, “If you crush a cockroach, you’re a hero, but if you crush a butterfly, you’re a villain.” Morals have aesthetic criteria.

MF: Wow! Wow! Wow!

ESC: So, that, in relationship with Chinua Achebe, reminds me that beauty has always been something that comes with a kind of moralism, okay? And why we feel so angry and frustrated is because we think, ‘fucking white men! They can just decide that they’re going to do something and just do it for the sake of doing it,’ but that is a lie!

MF: WHAT!!!!?

ESC: The reason I say that it’s a lie is because what the white patriarchy is doing is leading with their moral authority. They’re the ones that create these notions that say a cockroach has no value therefore it should be wiped out. Notice the language of othering and devaluing humans by calling them insects, vermin or animals. White supremacist patriarchal mindsets have been the gatekeepers and standard holders to decide, ‘what is craft and what is art, what has worth and what doesn’t.’ Who gets to decide what beauty is and why!? We are talking about it openly now, these are exciting times of change.


Four days later, with Ellen’s words still echoing around my nervous system, I had a Zoom chat with Marcus Shelby and rewound the inquiry to the beginning.

Black man with dreadlocks and mustache wearing a black and blue floral patterned blouse hands folded over an upright bass.
Photo by Bethanie Hines
[ID: Black middle-aged man with dreadlocks and thin mustache and nose piercing wearing a black and blue Victorian-style patterned blouse sits with his hands folded over an upright bass.]
Michael French: I just want to give you the big picture of why I wanted to talk with you…

Marcus Shelby: Okay.

MF: It’s about the idea of Black artists and the ‘responsibility’ we can feel to correct the past with our work. Just looking at the titles of some of your work. I mean, you’ve made a very clear statement as to where you’re coming from…. 

MS: Absolutely! There’s no question I feel that responsibility! ‘Cus I’ve had the opportunity to check the work of people like Nina Simone and Charles Mingus, and that’s what they were all about. Nina Simone said, and I’m paraphrasing, but she talked about the duty of the artist. It’s the artist’s duty to speak on what’s going on around them. I mean, that’s one philosophy, but I buy into it one hundred percent! And it can be grueling to put yourself where the action is. I did a piece on Harriet Tubman where I went to where she was born, to where she passed away — three years of incredible research, and just putting myself in all those places was really valuable to getting an understanding of her and the times and what they went through. I did the same thing with the Civil Rights piece I wrote. I went down south, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas. I put myself in places where you can see a slave block right there — I wanted to see the Civil Rights movement on a local level and find the stories that don’t make it into the history books.

MF: But let me step in a little bit on that, which is… So, you’re saying that you feel a duty to go into the African American experience from the angle of politics and social justice, and that the corrective narrative framework that I’m reacting to is not something that tires or exhausts you. In fact it’s something that nourishes you.

MS: Most times I don’t know anything about a subject beyond surface knowledge, and so for me, if I’m going to have something to say artistically about it, I need to learn as much as possible. Sometimes, like method acting, you become what you’re acting. And there’s a selfish part to this, because I want to gain more knowledge about a subject, get more meat on my bones.

I mean, I did a piece on the prison industrial complex…. As an artist, what am I supposed to do? Just sit by and act like it’s not happening? No, that’s not what Charles Mingus would have done! Look, I want to be the best artist I can be, but my aim is to see myself in the light of Mingus, Nina Simone, Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln. These are towering figures in history, a level that I’ll never achieve, but if you use your work to highlight what’s happening around you it’s often gonna be about injustice.

MF: So being an activist and an artist are one and the same thing to you?

MS: Oooo, that’s a tough one. I don’t know how to answer that right now, but I know that my impulse is to show up for my community. I mean, the last thing I did that had to do with “activism,” was organize a bunch of musicians to raise money for MECA, which is a Middle East children’s alliance that helps send money to kids and families in Palestine.

MF: I knew talking to you wasn’t going to be easy because there are some artists that remind you of all that you can do as an artist, whether you choose to or not, and you’re one of them! Like this thing for MECCA, it’s not somewhere I would go, quite honestly, but I love the fact that you said ‘I want to do this, I want to contribute.’

MS: Well, again I ask myself, what would Nina and all those be doing right now? I mean, Gaza is such a loaded topic right now and some folks may not agree with what I’m doing, but —

MF: So be it.

MS: So be it.

MF: I understand the duty that you feel, the muses that you have and their influence on you, I get that. But to be Black is political, whether we want it to be or not, I mean, that’s what we’ve been turned into because of history, and my version of being a Black person has never been easy going, y’know what I mean? There’s always some kind of tension when I’m in public, and that’s the tiring part. Amy Sherald, the painter, talks about a ‘resting place’ and puts it so much better than I will, but do you ever want to create something that doesn’t take from Black people in tension? If you’re going to talk about Harriet Tubman, there’s a tension there. MLK, there’s a tension there.

MS: Well, yes, is the short answer to that. That’s why I started reading a bunch of Octavia Butler books. Because I looked up and I thought, man, everything I’ve involved myself with has to do with history and it felt like maybe I was limiting my possibilities. And I have done things outside of the ‘movement’ pieces, but they’ve all been about Black culture.

MF: I understand that.

MS: I did something about the Black experience during the pandemic.

MF: You did?

MS: Yeah, but thinking about it, it was still to do with struggle because it dealt with the protests, the expansion of homelessness in the Tenderloin, so it was still along the same lines, but…. I like that idea of a ‘resting place.’ I’m also horribly behind on so many things about our struggle.

MF: Hahahahahaha!

MS: Trust me, I’m not into the ‘struggle’ fetish.

MF: That’s such an important phrase you just used.

MS: I mean, look how long it’s taken film to reflect the diversity of the Black experience outside of “Roots” and the “Color Purple!” All great stuff, but — Y’see, I don’t think stories that are centered on our struggle are absent of beauty. I mean, that’s the definition of the Blues, triumph and tragedy side by side, and the human condition cannot exist without both things being represented. That’s how it is, isn’t it?


resting place

Word forms: resting places plural


A resting place is a place where you can stay and rest, usually for a short period of time.

The area was an important resting place for many types of migrant birds.


I’ve always seen creative expression as a spiritual act, as creativity is something you receive, something that comes to you, rather than something you need to search for. And no matter how it shows itself, how it manifests, it takes an extraordinary amount of faith to take something from the safety of within and put it out into the world for everyone to inspect. In the ‘Booming Declarations’ dept of my soul, I still believe that the artist is the slayer of autocratic dragons, defender of the bold and the beautiful, the messenger that gives life meaning. Artists give us a lot to be thankful for. Viva Le Artist!

This article appeared in the Spring 2024 issue of In Dance.

Michael French is a director, writer, actor, and inventor of brilliant things, originally from London, England. In an ideal world he would live in Morocco, have another place in Barcelona, spend three months of the year in Ghana, and have a cabin in the woods of Bath, England, where he would go to write every winter. He would meditate every day, practice Tai Chi three times a week, eat Indian food every Sunday, and be fit enough to run a marathon if he suddenly feels so inspired. Mr. French is currently still trying to finish his first collection of short stories entitled, 'BABBLE.'