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LOOKING FORWARD, LOOKING BLACK

 

On view through Sept. 8, 2002, the Dayton Art Institute's special exhibition LOOKING FORWARD, LOOKING BLACK illustrates how American artists have confronted the image of the African American in the United States and the social and political issues surrounding their representation.

Since 1820, American society has promoted the image of African Americans in stereotypical forms such as loyal Toms, carefree Sambos, faithful Mammies, grinning Coons, savage Brutes, and wide-eyed Pickaninnies.  These images have permeated our culture through cartoons, films, songs, advertisements, television shows, and even on household artifacts.

During the Civil Rights Movement and throughout the 1970s, African American artists and activists challenged the validity of these images by creating African American imagery representative and relevant to their community.  Within the past 15 years, a new generation of artists have revisited many of the old stereotypes first introduced to American society in the 19th century within their art.

This thought-provoking and challenging exhibition reflects upon how various cultures and generations have chosen to represent the black body over the century. LOOKING FORWARD, LOOKING BLACK examines what it feels like to be in the black body as well as how that body appears -- and looks forward to a different picture of the diasporic black peoples being formed in the new millennium.

Included in the exhibition are racist ephemera created between 1880 and 1950, Black Power artwork from the 1960s and 1970s, as well as contemporary works based on historical antecedents.  Exhibiting artists include Cedric Adams, Elizabeth Catlett, Jeff Donaldson, Charles White, Michael Ray Charles, Renee Cox, Robert Colescott, Lyle Ashton Harris, Beverly McIver and Kara Walker.  The work in the show is a reaction to and exploration of the African American image during slavery and its legacy, through struggle for emancipation and civil rights, and as it exists within the sometimes hidden, vestiges of racism today.

Sponsored by Fifth Third Bank, the W.A. Chryst Fund and the Gretchen W. "Jinx" Fensel Fund of The Dayton Foundation, this exhibition was organized by Jo Anna Isaak, an independent curator.  Among the 75 works included are several on loan from local artist Willis "Bing" Davis, Drs. John and Barbara Fleming, and the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center in Wilberforce, Ohio.  The Dayton Art Institute's expanded version of LOOKING FORWARD, LOOKING BLACK was organized by its Assistant Curator of American Art, Tuliza Fleming. These added loans provide a richer context for the show and offer greater learning opportunities for the viewer.

One of the more powerful works in this exhibition is Renee Cox's The Liberation of Lady J and U.B.  This in-your-face image posits the artist as a superhero who frees Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben from their racist stereotypes. Transformed into young, lithe, sexual beings, the mythological constructs of the faithful grinning servant Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima have been deconstructed and replaced with Cox's conception of Lady J. and U.B.

Calvin Burnett created the portrait, Fannie Lou Hamer, as a tribute to her career as a civil rights activist.  He included the snarling police dog to symbolize the threatening forces of injustice as well as Hamer's tenacious struggle for civil rights.

Beverly McIver began her career as a clown. She painted herself white and donned a blonde wig to hide her ethnicity. She later decided to paint her face black-likening herself to the 19th century African American minstrels who performed in blackface in an ironic imitation of white minstrelsy. McIver's self-portraits of herself in blackface represents her attempt to exorcise her personal demons surrounding the issues of race, identity and stereotype.  Four works by McIver are in the exhibition including Me and Renee, Sad Clown, Loving in Black and White #4 and Loving in Black and White #5.

LOOKING FORWARD, LOOKING BLACK is an exhibition through which we both examine our past and more importantly, determine the way we will relate to one another in the future.

 

WALL PANEL TEXT FROM THE EXHIBITION:

 

RACISM, STEREOTYPE AND AMERICAN MEMORY

Although racism had existed in America since the founding of the nation, the extreme proliferation of racist imagery did not occur until after the Civil War, when racist ideology shifted from a basis in slavery to one grounded in the perception of racial inferiority. This new type of racism, referred to by historians as "the first white backlash," was effectively spread throughout the nation by the mass marketing of manufactured goods.

Beginning in the 1880s, in response to the rapid urbanization of the nation, manufacturers and advertisers were pressured into competing for their customers attention and loyalty.  One method employed to garner attention was to both arouse humor and provide the consumer with a sense of racial superiority through old plantation images of loyal and happy black servants just waiting to do the master's (now the consumer's) bidding.

Stereotypical images of African Americans thus became popular advertising hooks for consumer products, aimed primarily at the white working class. In addition, many objects were produced as tourist souvenirs or household items.  They were often made out of paper, chalkware, lead and other metals, ceramics, and later, plastics.  Little attention was given to detail: it was the stereotype that the manufacturers were after.  African Americans, male and female, were portrayed as very dark, generally bug-eyed, nappy-headed, childlike, stupid, lazy, deferential, and happy. This condition of perpetual happiness, generally indicated by a broad toothy grin, was an important component of stereotypical imagery for. It implied that African Americans were content to be subservient to whites.

By producing household objects and advertisements that clearly depicted African Americans as inferior, manufacturers and consumers were giving a physical reality to America's prevailing racist ideology.

 

THE ART OF THE BLACK POWER MOVEMENT

And let 1966 be the year that we decided that we would develop our own culture...that we would be proud of being black people...that we would no longer accept the use of the word Negro...that we would become mature and we would regard ourselves as BLACK MEN...BLACK MEN IN AMERICA!  (Floyd McKissick, CORE, Mississippi, 1966)

For many African Americans, the liberation of African countries from colonial oppression, the rise of cultural and political nationalism, and the shift from non-violent activism in favor of a militant stance in the Civil Rights struggle signaled an end of the old regime of white political, economic, and social dominance and the beginning of a new American revolution. In response to these events many African American artists felt an urgent need to collectively create art that was intentionally political as well as reflective of a black national aesthetic.  During a period when Abstraction and Minimalism were the standard, African American artists reintroduced Social Realism into the American art scene.  Using the term "Black" as a political identifier, African American artists created a new art movement that addressed societal issues, deconstructed and/or appropriated stereotypes to divorce them of their power, and redefined the image of the African American in art.

Black Arts Movement historian Floyd Thomas wrote, "Some Black artists of the period embraced a new 'third world' concept in art.  Their primary objective was to be relevant, not aesthetically pleasing.  These artists were not motivated or influenced by critics outside their community. Disdaining the 'art establishment,' they sought to communicate directly with their brothers and sisters on the street and in the neighborhood. They sought to inspire Black unity, dignity, and respect as necessary steps in a long march toward social, economic and political goals."

 

AFRICAN AMERICAN IDENTITY IN A POSTMODERN ERA

During the 1980s, following the Civil Rights Movement, the United States entered an era of political and social conservatism.  During this period, many Americans believed that the economic and political gains made by racial minorities during the 1950s and 1960s had effectively resolved the racial problems generated by 450 years of slavery, racism, and social inequity.  This ideology was manifested in the growing number of calls for a colorblind society where no special significance, rights, or privileges would be attached to one's race. As indicated by the recent civil unrest in Cincinnati, Ohio, this new political and social conservative, based upon a race-neutral society, has yet to be realized as problems with race and racism continue to plague our society.

Like the artists from the Black Power Movement, the artists in this section of the exhibition have confronted the subjects of race, stereotype, and identity through their art. Unlike their predecessors however, who sought to define blackness through art, these artists question meaning and relevance of racial identity in contemporary society.  Through the processes of appropriation (when a negative image or idea is borrowed, and rendered harmless by placing it in a different context) and deconstruction (the rejection of universal truths and binary oppositions), these artists have examined the complex social, political, and racial components that formulate specific identities in our culture.  In doing so they have expanded our definition of race and identity through assorted irreverent, provocative, bawdy, and controversial images.

 

Images pending.

 

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