Here’s a question I wish I’d asked first: Why are so many artworks untitled? I mean, you have to call it something besides ‘the thing taking up space on my wall/ at a museum/ in front of the office.’
There are good historical reasons to call a piece “Untitled.” But for my work, they’re essential. Here are three reasons I’m pretty sure I’ll never, ever, ever choose not to title my work.
1. Titles help tell my stories.
I’m a bookworm from way back, and I find certain words and phrases help me explore visual stories. So a title is a clue I follow to figure out and explain the ideas I want to express. A title is an entry point into the story for the viewer as well, but one that leaves enough room for you to add your own narrative details. And if you’re a person who likes to get the interpretation “right,” well… how does “Untitled” help you figure that out?
2. Titles help me tell ‘scary’ stories.
It takes careful handling to tell certain stories. I explore complex topics like identity, vulnerability and anxiety. Most people can relate — until they see black bodies experiencing these moments. Then suddenly “certain viewers” have a hard time imagining themselves inside the narrative. Yeah, it’s a thing. I know my work will not connect with some people because I center blackness in my art. Why would I make it even harder to connect by taking away the title?
3. Titles define who we are — and that’s a good thing.
A title’s just a name for the artwork — but people will pay millions for naming rights. That power was why my grandfather used one name for work, and another name at home. Never mind that he was a master plumber. In his day, black men were a lot more likely to be called “boy” (or worse) than their given names. It’s not that much different for an artist: If I don’t tell my story, other people will tell their story about me.
And that’s why I’m having a hard time deciding on a title for the altered book I’m working on right now. Names — and titles — have power, and I’m not willing to give that up.