Friday, December 27, 2019

Fine Art Friday: Robert Colescott

Robert Colescott, Eat Dem Taters, on display at the
Contemporary Art Center in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Hey there! A while back I shared a really special project I was involved in at work, Arts and Accessibility: Robert Colescott at CAC.

I had the amazing opportunity to write detailed descriptions of ten artworks from "Art and Race Matters: the Career of Robert Colescott," an exhibit which opened in September, kicking off the 2019-2020 exhibition season at the Contemporary Art Center (CAC) in downtown Cincinnati. This exhibit consists of 85 works Colescott created over his 53-year career. 

The descriptions I wrote were narrated and recorded by a couple of coworkers who work in audio. I loved this chance to work closely with these passionate, highly skilled people, who also happen to be a lot of fun to work with!

The resulting audio recordings, along with recordings of all of the exhibit wall-text, was loaded onto mp3-players. These mp3-players and some hard-copy braille booklets were made available for any blind or visually-impaired (BVI) visitors at CAC.

Next month (January 2020) the exhibit and BVI-accessible materials will be traveling to Portland, OR, followed by a few other cities around the US. I love the fact that our hard work will benefit blind people across the country!

Now, as promised, I want to share a little more about Robert Colescott and his art. 

Robert Colescott, 1919. Acrylic on Canvas, 1980. 
191If you haven’t heard of him, rest easy. I hadn’t either. 

I think it's safe to say most people are familiar with just a few of the very most famous artists in history: Leonardo da Vinci, Vincent van Gogh, Michelangelo, Pablo Picasso.

If you go to the occasional art museum, you may also be familiar with Edgar Degas, Georgia O'Keefe, Jackson Pollock, Frida Kahlo, Paul Cezanne, Rembrandt van Rijn, Claude Monet, Salvador Dali, or Andy Warhol.

Compared to these names, Robert Colescott is an unknown. But take a look at the New York City arts scene in the 1970s and '80s, and you might find his name cropping up a bit more. 

Colescott was an African-American artist from California. He passed away in 2009, at the age of 83. His best-known works are Eat Dem Taters and George Washington Carver Cross the Delaware, both of which are new renditions of earlier famous paintings by other artists (Vincent van Gogh and Emanuel Leutze, respectively).

Robert Colescott, Eat Dem Taters. Acrylic on Canvas, 1975. 

Eat Dem Taters was my first solo stab at describing. It is based on The Potato Eaters by van Gogh, but in the place of impoverished Dutch coal miners, Colescott painted stereotypical "happy darkies." This is classic Colescott: taking a familiar image and filling it with imagery that strikes discomfort, pain, and horror over appalling subjects like racism. 

I'll be honest: at first, I was not a fan. I didn't like his style and I didn't like his subject matter. 

I'm still not a major fan of his style, and that's okay. I can appreciate the skill, effort, and care his painting required, without loving the technique. But now that I understand his work better, the common subject matter, and the manner with which he presents it, has grown near and dear to my heart. Colescott's combination of frank humor and gut-wrenching imagery is a one-two punch that has become mesmerizing to me.
Robert Colescott, George Washington Carve Crossing the Delaware. Acrylic
on canvas, 1975. 

No one likes looking at things that make them feel uncomfortable or guilty. And for many people, racist imagery is extremely uncomfortable. As it should be! No one should feel comfortable looking at something that demeans others! 

It’s horrifying that the blackface and "happy darky" imagery he used is from real cartoons, made by people who look like me. 

Even more appalling is seeing these images larger-than-life on ten-foot canvases, in garish colors and exaggerated poses. 

As an African-American man, Colescott made it his mission to create satirical, racially-charged paintings to create discomfort. He painted these things to force people to think about race, sex, inequality, discrimination, systemic racism, and what these things are doing to individuals, communities, and the world at large. He wanted to spark conversations, spark emotions, and most importantly, spark fires under the seats of those untouched by racism.

Cesar Cruz, Mexican poet and human rights activist famously said, “art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” 

Robert Colescott, Colored T.V. Acrylic on canvas, 1977.  
Colescott's work is disturbing for everyone, no matter their race, sex, age; whether they're comfortable or uncomfortable. The comfort of Colescott's art lies in the opportunity for open and heartfelt communication. 

A month or so after the exhibit opened, I toured the exhibit with a group from work. We were a large group, some 15-20 individuals, and a mix of blind, visually impaired, and sighted. 

It was amazing to experience this exhibit with my BVI coworkers, listening to descriptions before discussing how we felt about each work. Several of those in our group were also people of color, and it was truly special to hear these people share how they felt about the art and the painful history behind each piece. 

One painting that struck a major chord is called Listening to Amos and Andy. This painting is based on the old radio show Amos and Andy, a comedy about two black men from Atlanta who move to Chicago for a fresh start in life. It follows their friendship, struggles, and the development of their taxi company. 

Sounds perfectly nice until you learn that the show was created, written, and performed by two white men. 

From there, things go straight down-hill. After looking at (and listening to a description of) Colescott's painting, we listened to a clip from the radio show. Just a few minutes long, the clip was exactly what we all expected: 4 minutes of racist stereotyping, delivered by two white men using "black voices." 

Robert Colescott, Listening to Amos and Andy. Acrylic on Canvas, 1982. 
This painting led to a great discussion about representation and racism in the media. For BVI individuals, the issue of representation hits home because blind actors are few and far between. Most blind characters are played by sighted actors. And for those in our group who were African-American, this painting was especially jarring. 

The first time I heard of Colescott was when I was tasked with describing his art. Being a white woman working in a style of writing entirely new to me, I was suddenly extremely aware of my phrasing in these descriptions. Every time I pulled up one of the curator's hi-res photographs, I found myself battling both white guilt and the fear that I might mishandle any of the subject matter. 

Robert Colescott, Le Demoiselles d'Alamaba: Vestidas. Acrylic on
Canvas, 1985.
Looking at Colescott’s art with my black coworkers was awkward at first, but discussing it together also eased my mind. 

We acknowledged together that the subject matter was disturbing and offensive for all of us, that these paintings brought to mind worldviews, art, and events that we all desperately wish had never happened. We experienced a wide range of emotions together, and some of us even cried together as we looked at these paintings. 

It would be foolish and naïve for me to say that I’ve never made a racially-based judgement or decision. I’m aware that I grew up benefiting, and continue to benefit, from a society filled with systemic racism. 

I fervently wish that weren’t true, but pretending it doesn’t exist is a mistake white people have been making throughout history. Racism is everywhere, from the justice system to the arts, and the only way to make things right is to acknowledge the harm done and then to do better. 

It was good to see these emotionally-charged paintings in person, and to discuss as a group how bad things were in the past, how much society has changed, and how far we still have to go before everyone can truly be equal. It's a long way, but each step is another step away from a long history that must never be repeated.

As both a year and a decade come to an end, it's only natural to take a look at where we are as individuals and as a society. It's a time of examining our values, habits, and growth across the years and decades. What did we look like ten years ago, when Robert Colescott passed away? What did we look like 100 years ago, on the verge of the Roaring '20s? What might we look like ten years from now, in 2029, or 100 years from now? 

The arts demonstrate society's values and habits, and upholding work like Colescott's is necessary for us to continue growing together. 


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