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Artists’ eyes examine the breed then – and now

It’s her first day at an all-white public school in New Orleans. And on the wall behind her is a racial slur and a splashed tomato lying on the sidewalk after exploding right under that ugly word.

It’s raw. It’s true.

He lives here, part of a new exhibit here at the Rockwell Museum titled: “Imprinted: Illustrating Race,” which includes more than 150 works of art and artifacts from a number of artists exploring the harmful stereotypical images that have led to harmful perception. of the breed.

Includes Rockwell pieces like the one with that baby girl. It is called “The Problem We All Live With”, the 1964 oil on canvas work commissioned by Look magazine which is on display in the main gallery, part of a new examination of the role of published images in shaping attitudes towards race and culture.

The exhibition, on display until the end of October, is an interesting exhibit that traces the long and painful struggle for civil rights and equality in America.

It is an unshakable examination of an era where harmful racial stereotypes contributed to a harmful public perception of race, a social problem whose echoes can still be heard.

“You have a surprising idea of ​​the evolution of the black image in American culture,” Cherene Sherrard-Johnson, professor, scholar and essayist and national consultant for the exhibition, told me here the other day.

“Rockwell was an iconic illustrator and those images are very familiar to people in terms of how we imagine life and culture,” he said.

“So, part of this exhibit is the image of African Americans made by black artists and white artists and artists from different backgrounds, creating a similar visual grammar of what black life is like here.”

The exhibition is an ambitious effort that features illustrations by Hammatt Billings, George Cruikshank, and others.

An original illustration of the cream of wheat appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in 1920. “Imprinted: Illustrating Race” is an exhibit at the Normal Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge. Suzanne Kreiter / The Globe Staff

It includes historical advertising art that used racially stereotyped imagery for Cream of Wheat, Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben’s, and the work of illustrators who created respectful images that convey a sense of hope. A sense of cultural pride.

“For me there are no borders,” Rudy Gutierrez, illustrator and illustration professor at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where he has been teaching since 1990, told me. “There are no labels. Art lands in different places.

“So regardless of whether it appears on gallery walls, on a mural, on an album cover or in a magazine, the goal is always to uplift and inspire. I don’t make art for art necessarily. As a person of color, I feel a responsibility to speak for people who may not have that voice, who are underrepresented. ”

What is represented here is now unpainted. He is unshakable. The history of racial stereotypes is examined. The roots of harmful and provocative images are on display.

There are many examples of the pervasive effects of negative stereotypes. There are inspirational words from people like Langston Hughes, the poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, and journalist who was a leader of the Harlem Renaissance.

“Perhaps an artist’s mission is to interpret beauty for people, the beauty within oneself,” Hughes once said.

Robyn Phillips-Pendleton, the show’s guest curator, called the show a work of love that includes six Billings illustrations from the original novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe that vividly dramatized the experience of slavery.

“George Cruikshank, a British illustrator, was decorated for the British version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” he said. “He added the violence. He has added a lot of different things to the story. He took liberties with images that weren’t in the original abolitionist novel. ”

Chris Hopkins, an award-winning illustrator who has worked on several major films, produced a series on the Tuskegee Airmen as part of his work for the Northwest chapter of the Air Force Art program.

“It proved to a lot of these people that these guys are the same as everyone else,” Hopkins said. “They bleed anyway. They fight the same. They lose all the same. They win the same. And that’s what I think was so important to me in making the Tuskegee Airmen. ”

Now it’s all on display here in Stockbridge.

An American mosaic reconstructed by several hands over the years.

Hands like those of Stephanie Haboush Plunkett, chief curator and deputy director of the museum.

Hands like Hollis King, the museum’s illustrator and national advisor who designed the exhibition catalog even though his work on a film in California included a tight schedule and schedule.

“But this was a total joy because I kept telling myself: ‘I wish that when I was in art school, I had a book like this.’ You know I wish I could have seen a play like this, ” King said.

“Why why is it important? When you are chasing a dream, when you are doing something really difficult, when you see someone like you doing it, it strengthens you. It gives you hope.

“It gives you something to shoot for. And we haven’t had it for a long time. ”

Then he thanked his mentors who inspired him along the way.

“And so, we make art,” King said. “We tell stories. We create joy. We help people who are broken. And try to understand the world by making art.

“Art is our refuge. It is our beauty. And everyone’s story needs to be told to help revive American history. And I think that’s part of what this exhibit does. It takes the courage of good people to be a force in the world.

“We can all have a better world and a better future for our children.”

There is a glimpse of everything on display here at the museum named after a man who knew something about the power of the canvas.

The power of the pen, pencil and brush. And of American history.


Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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