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Scene in America Explores Black Male Identity through Contempora

Scene in America Explores Black Male Identity through Contemporary Art

November 02, 2008

The groundbreaking exhibition Scene in America: A Contemporary Look at the Black Male Image explores how artists address race and identity when using images of Black males in their work.

On view at the Mint Museum of Art from April 19 to November 2, 2008, the exhibition features works from the collections of The Mint Museum, the Van Every/Smith Gallery of Davidson College, and private collectors and artists.

“Scene in America undoubtedly marks an important cultural event for Charlotte and the region,” said Dr. Jae Emerling, Assistant Professor of Art at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.  “By addressing the ways in which Black males have been represented in contemporary art, the exhibition offers viewers the opportunity to contemplate a series of complex issues ranging from the continued effects of racial stereotypes to the importance of extended families in the African American experience.” 

The exhibition investigates shifts in power—from usurpation to attainment—found in contemporary portrayals of black masculinity. The South’s painful past of persecution and stereotyping is a recurring topic explored by the exhibition’s artists. Conversely, images of activism, family and community, and a positive and resilient identity hint at overcoming the societal obstacles left by the legacy of slavery.

Elizabeth Catlett invokes these positive attributes in her loving sculpture Family, while her lithograph To Marry portrays a couple sharing a kiss over the contradictory image of a lynched man, suggesting that the memory of past brutalities is present even in moments of intimacy. Similarly, Benjamin “Old Folks” Davis’ woodwork, Black Men Pledge Unity, shows that activism in great numbers can overcome many barriers. 

Other works in the exhibit provide positive alternatives to past stereotypes. Chuck Close’s Lyle, a portrait of contemporary artist Lyle Ashton Harris, is created from many colors and forms, perhaps suggesting the complexity and beauty of Harris’s identity. Tommie Robinson incorporates an image of Charlotte’s Public Library into the background of his portrait titled Product, suggesting that one can achieve a positive self-identity through education, achievement and embracing an African heritage.

Many contemporary artists have found the history and persistence of racial stereotypes to be a compelling source of subject matter for their work. Robert Mapplethorpe’s Untitled #1, portrays model Ken Moody as physically beautiful: an object of desire striking a classical pose. Mapplethorpe acknowledges the stereotype of the black male as a physically powerful being, and seems to celebrate this quality rather than casting him as a figure to be feared.  Photographer Larry Fink’s Black Hand, Checkered Rump depicts a black man with a white female companion at a high society function, and asks viewers to consider his or her own views on mixed-race relationships and the cultural bias that often accompanies them.   

Other prominent artists featured in Scene in America include Hale Woodruff, Romare Bearden, Camille Billops, Samella Lewis, John Hairston, Jr., Antoine “RAW” Williams, Juan Logan, Willie Little and John Biggers. 

“This is not simply a show about race; rather, it is a promising example of how art instigates discussions, raises questions, and forms communities of viewers,” said Emerling. “With this exhibition, The Mint Museum has taken another important step in promoting not only contemporary art, but cultural diversity as well.”

The exhibition was curated by Kimberly Thomas under the direction of Carla Hanzal, curator of Contemporary Art. Curatorial and library staff have created a blog linked to the Museum’s Web site to encourage dialogue about this exhibition and the important themes it investigates.

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