Blackface: A Reclamation of Beauty, Power, and Narrative

April 20 – June 15, 2019

Exhibition Essay – Black Face: It Ain’t About the Cork  by Halima Taha, author of Collecting African American Art: Works on Paper and Canvas

Black Face: It Ain’t About the Cork

Currently ‘blackface’ has been used to describe a white adult performing a nauseatingly racist caricature of a black person; to a pair of pre-teen girls who never heard the word ‘minstrelsy’ when experimenting with costume makeup at a sleep over– yet ‘blackfaced’ faces continue to be unsettling.   Since the 19th century a montage of caricaturized images of black and brown faces, from movies, books, cartoons and posters have been ever present in the memories of all American children.

Images of the coon, mammy, buck, sambo, pick-a-ninny and blackface characters, portrayed in subservient roles and mocking caricatures include images from Aunt Jemima at breakfast, to the1930’s Little Rascals, Shirley Temple in The Littlest Rebel, Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd in blackface on Saturday morning TV; to Uncle Ben staring from the cupboard– all reinforced the demeaning representations of African Americans created to promote American white supremacy.  The promotion of this ideal perpetuates the systemic suppression and suffocation of the black being. For many African Americans these images of themselves evoke an arc of emotions including: anger, sadness confusion, hurt–invisibility and shame.

In 1830 Thomas Dartmouth Rice known as the “Father of Minstrelsy” developed a character named Jim Crow after watching enslaved Africans and their descendants reenacting African storytelling traditions that included folktales about tricksters, usually in the form of animals.   A Yoruba tale about a crow named Jim was a favorite story that helped people to cope with enslavement. Thomas Darmouth Rice burnt cork to blacken his face and renamed the story’s character ‘Jim Crow’. He embellished quick dance moves, exaggerated African American vernacular and buffoonish behavior. He ‘racialized’ song and dance simultaneous to propelling his theatrical career.  Since then, these images and characters have become central to American entertainment.

Confounded, despite America’s historic civil rights advances, inclusive of the nation electing Barack Obama as the first African American two term President, American society continues to be plagued by racist symbols such as ‘blackface’ and other ethnic stereotyping.   The specific characteristics that define minstrelsy are skewed behaviors which include exotica, primitivism absurdity irreverence and recklessness. Music scholar Jon W. Finson further distills minstrelsy as being ‘carnivalesque ‘and longing for an ideal rural paradise’.  This paradise inverts societal norms and has given writers and performers license to deviate from the wholesome messages of rich cultural traditions, and act as propaganda to pervert Black culture.

The primary issue with the  ‘blackface’ stereotype, is how these derogatory images are relied upon over generations, where white people think it is okay and black people continue to see themselves through the lens of racist propaganda designed for a befuddled white America to enjoy the illusion of white privilege and superiority. Examples of contemporary comfort with derogatory images of black people include racially charged items politely marketed as Black Memorabilia:‘ Jolly Nigger’ banks to Mammy kitchenware continue to be manufactured and sold, and not sold exclusively to white people, but also to an increasing population of black people who collect this ‘imposed upon cultural history’.  For some, the need to preserve even the most contemptible examples of American culture is to take control of relics from the Middle Passage, colonialism, the Civil War, reconstruction, Jim Crow, two world wars, the depression and the civil rights movement. For others, they collect to be reminded of how white America perceives them – no matter how high you climb the corporate ladder, there are many Americans who still see you as  ‘that nigga’, ‘that jiggaboo’ and ‘that coon’.

Recently Megyn Kelly, former NBC news anchor, advocated that “it is okay to paint your face black, so long as it is for Halloween’ and when Governor Ralph Northam’s Virginia medical school yearbook resurfaced depicting two costumed men, one wearing blackface and the other wearing a Ku Klux Klan outfit, he admitted that he ‘knows how difficult it is to remove shoe polish” off his face.  This sadly shows how entrenched these disparaging images are and they continue to be woven into the fabric of American social life to the point they are perceived as acceptable.

Perhaps the most insidious reflection of how ‘cool’ blackface can make some white people feel, is Jimmy Fallon impersonating Chris Rock in blackface; Jimmy Kimmel impersonating Karl Malone and Oprah Winfrey in blackface; and SNL’s Fred Armisen impersonating President Obama in blackface.  The fact that blackface emerged as an early form of vaudevillian comedy does not give popular comedians a pass for not distinguishing the difference between ‘blackface’ and impersonation under the guise of comedy. And let’s not talk about white actors stealing work from black actors, like Micheal Gambon did in 1990 playing Shakespeare’s Othello in  ‘blackface’ conveniently in an obscure seaside theatre in England – good old Dumbledore. Do middle aged white actors really need to steal work from black actors when there is a history of brilliance in Ira Aldridge, Paul Robeson, Paul Harris, Eamon Walker and Wayne T. Carr playing Othello, with the eloquence of Shakespeare’s language? Clearly, as America’s longest running form of popular entertainment, minstrelsy captures the story of American racism that reduces individuals to ethnically defined stereotypes.  How cool is that?

The mental pendulum swings from contemporary contexts, to the ghost of blackface past.  Most people of African descent throughout the world want to rid themselves and their families from the mask of a degrading history.  

Blackface: A Reclamation of Beauty, Power and Narrative attempts to assert the beauty of the black body while affirming its power against societal norms, mores and contextual histories.   Curators, Myrtis Bedolla and Jessica Stafford Davis offer a ‘counter narrative to the racist archetypes that evolved from the 18th century minstrelsy, and its negative stereotyping of African Americans that prevail today’ through the work of   Tawny Chatmon, Alfred Conteh, Jerrell Gibbs, Jas Knight, Arnie Smith, Felandus Thames, and filmmaker Karina Smith.  Together they examine portraiture and identity, conscious of the history of ‘blackface’, choosing to reference it or deliberately disregard it.

Collectively, these artists are self –taught, academically trained, male, female, emerging, and mid career. One is a photographer, five are painters, one is a filmmaker and another a multimedia artist.  The geographical perspectives are national, international, west coast, east coast, southern, northern, Midwestern, single, married and parental. These disparate perspectives reinforce that black people are not a monolithic group with the same worldview and certainly not artists with the same aesthetic or message. Collectively they are committed to making strong visual statements that challenge, and engage diverse audiences to pause, reflect and consider black identity and beauty through the prism of their narratives:

Tawny Chatman’s work celebrates the beauty of black childhood, maternal relationships and familial bonds.   Her repositioning of Black faces is directly inspired by Western influences she saw in museums while she was raised on three continents.  She has a particular interest in 15th -19th century portraiture with an aesthetic focus on Vienna Secession and Pre -Raphaelite periods.   The captivating aesthetic behind her portraiture is gleaned from digitally manipulating her subjects and combining paint, gilding and digital collage.  In the tradition of James Vanderzee’s early 20th century Harlem portraits, she shares his commitment to ‘portraying the subject in the best possible light’, excluding stereotypes. Chatman’s use of portraiture reaffirms un joie de vivre for infinite possibilities in a world full of adventure and mystery.   In the words of Walt Disney, “ You can design and create, and build the most wonderful place in the world. But it takes people to make the dream a reality.” Chatmon’s work does exactly that.


Alfred Conteh’s work captures the allure, strength, and authenticity within Georgia’s urban landscape where Black people are often overlooked, misjudged and forgotten.  This is due to the focus on the relatively recent growth in black wealth and celebrity in Atlanta. His work seizes the psycho-emotional tension of being disenfranchised by a socio-political infrastructure where opportunities are lacking or hard working people are still struggling to make ends meet.  Conteh reimagines portraiture with images that reflect the human spirit through dignity that is captured by the natural gestures of his subjects. He integrates the immediacy of photography as sketches and a range of painting processes to create imagery that speaks of citizenship within a country that often discounts working class communities. Influenced by the work of Charles White, Barclay Hendricks, Elizabeth Catlett and Charles Biggers, Conteh’s focus on the culture of Blackness in America through portraiture is an impetus for ongoing discourse about what is happening across the country. His portraits capture a range of introspective emotion and symbolically address the physicality of the climate in which black lives exist.  Symbolically the deterioration of self, within nature and the unforgiving infrastructure that nurtures inequity and injustice is painted with texture to reflect the layers of experience, fortitude and resilience as metaphors for the human condition. As the most photographed man in the 19th century, Frederick Douglass used portraiture to further his antislavery political agenda to show the variation of forms in black subjectivity, while displaying black specificity. In an era defined by the emergence of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the stagnated wages of working class citizens and the increased impatience with mass incarceration, Conteh has  embraced Douglass’ understanding that ‘American citizenship has long been a project of vision and justice’ through his paintings.

Jerrell Gibbs’ stylistic approach to his subjects embraces gestural paint strokes reminiscent of Alice Neal, Henry Taylor and John Sonsini.  These are evident in his focus on contrast and light or an illusion of a movement which is dictated by the subject of the painting. Thematically he captures the innocence of black youth and the comfort of intimacy among family and friends. He wants candid views from the perspective of the participant as witness. From this vantage point the viewer discerns the warmth, joy and affirmation of black culture. There is a conscious effort to avoid predictable clichés about the black family and leisure or portray black people as actors.  Primary to this reasoning is the awareness that black people in America often linguistically and socially code switch because of the devaluation of black cultural norms and mores. Consequently, Gibbs paints black people being comfortable with themselves in everyday scenes like the beach, a backyard gathering, and a family barbeque. This allows black people to see the beauty in themselves and others to see something contrary to negative depictions of black leisure or family as ugly, lazy, or unentitled to enjoy themselves after working hard.  Gibbs uses photography to capture a story telling moment similar to reportage photography or documenting referential gestures to paint a universal black family inspired by his own.

Arvie Smith’s work addresses the thinking behind the history of oppression and visual stereotypes of black people by depicting colorful and lyrical imagery that includes minstrel symbolism.  His intention is to transform social consciousness within the historical contexts in which black caricatures were considered kitsch, taboo and politically incorrect. Mindful that today they hang on the walls of major museums and first-rate galleries, he paints to incite difficult discourse about power injustices and marginalized members of society.  Smith’s work maintains images of caricatures to acknowledge that they are here to stay and like Robert Colescott, Smith paints in a satirical genre with exuberant, comical and bitter reflections on the misperception of African Americans with regard to race and sex in America. To this end, James Baldwin aptly states, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

Jas Knight’s work focuses on the transcendent experience that a painting can evoke based on the integration of music and art in his painting practice. For Knight there is no difference between the composition in painting or music.  He likens the process to a fugue, which is a contrapuntal compositional technique in two or more voices built on a subject that is introduced at the beginning and recurs frequently in the course of the composition. As Knight paints meticulous portraits and scenes of everyday life his approach to tonality, color and line, is similar to the way a composer like Johann Sebastian Bach uses pitch.  For Knight, fugue translates literally into ‘what it is’. For him the painting is a work of art with no social or political implication within the painting. The viewer’s focus is to be mesmerized by the beauty of the painting itself. Consequently there is no hyperbole about being black in Knight’s work. Unique to Knight is his purist approach to portraiture with live models for as many as 100 hours over a period of weeks.  His traditionalist practice is defined by a linear aesthetic pedigree within the history of painting from its inception to the present. His stylistic influences include the Dutch masters, in particular Vermeer, by elevating the mundane with light, and the measured studio practice of British painter Evan Uglow. He draws comparable inspiration from the work of Henry Ossawa Tanner and Charles Ethan Porter who were the only two black painters working within in a purist genre in the early part of the 20th century.

Felandus Thames’ pop aesthetic examines the definition of blackness within the western construct of race in America.  Thames work transforms prosaic racism through a Duchampian handling of its everydayness. He uses readymade objects, combined with text to create fragmented and repetitive forms to address postcolonial blackness as a ‘ mined’ cultural signifier.  Influenced by early surrealist Hans Belmer’s twisted, disjointed manikins of “Dolls” about the traumas of World War I, Thames thinks about how black identity, slavery and generational post traumatic slave syndrome #PTSS, distorts the psyche of black people. Building on this idea, he incorporates philosopher Graham Harmon’s view that  “we don’t’ think about the tool until it becomes dysfunctional” as it correlates to black people. In his My Only Sin is My Skin made from hairbrushes Thames integrates this philosophy of object ontology to his practice.  The hairbrushes represent currency in the prison industrial complex. Brushes communicate familiarity within black barbershop culture, which is about power, politics and news, also known as shoptalk.  Conversely, Thames work about Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, examines race as performance. Thomas’s face is made from hair beads representing black pixels to symbolize black currency, while referencing the history of the bead as ornamentation and an international symbol of legal tender.  Thames presents Clarence Thomas’ face as an example of black currency performing in the character of whiteness. This is a nod to a prevalent view among white audiences during the era of the Harlem Renaissance, that when a black person wears a mask, they have nothing to fear. For example, when Bert Williams of Williams & Walker, the first black minstrel group, took the stage his popularity was based on white audiences being able only to accept him as a minstrel because he hid his blackness. Thames work forestalls any intellectual closure because of layered nuances about culture that questions and pushes beyond traditional notions of black identity and being.

Karina Griffith’s film Crude Procession highlights European fetishism for Black culture. She uses a Dadaesque style to contrast the stark imagery of  ‘the procession’, to create a distance between the revelers and the observer. By utilizing soft focus imagery there is a surreal quality reminiscent of the impressionist styles of Monet and Seurat.  Filmed in Germany, she documents a bacchanalian celebration of Europeans clad in various costumes. Pick up shots of musicians playing danceable music, intensified by exuberant intoxication, show participants wearing large Afros, pitch black painted faces, grass skirts and proudly displaying palm tree earrings as they smile for the camera’s acknowledgement of their ‘authenticity’. Others are covered in black body paint, dancing with shell and bead necklaces, African headdresses and ritual masks accentuated with leopard fabrics and animal horns. Griffith interjects idyllic small town scenes to reference Northern Germany’s Brandenberg-Prussia slave trade that abruptly ended in 1700 because the English and French chose to stop buying slaves from Germany. Griffith cuts to shipping containers in industrial lots referencing cargo, juxtaposed to the presence of African immigrants benignly participating in the parade to assimilate into the culture of their new home. By highlighting the faces of Africans late in the revelry, Griffith magnifies the separation between the reality of the African’s experiences and the reveler’s portrayal of them.  Her work grapples with how to fit into a culture that does not see or respect your history beyond the limitation of their gross interpretation about where you come from and who you are? Griffith expands the scope of the impact of the transatlantic slave trade on the psyche of black people and Eurocentric perceptions that perpetuate disrespectful and derogatory interpretations of culture everywhere.

When we examine the human experience through art – context demands attention to the message and history.  Conceptual artist and MacArthur Recipient Fred Wilson states: “When race enters the picture the context can get particularly charged. I once had to stop a well-meaning European curator from putting one of my photographs of a mammy cookie jar on the cover of an exhibition catalogue.  This group show of the works of black artists, ‘Postcards from Black America’, was to travel around Europe. My photograph was mural-sized; the scales as well as the image itself were meant to convey sadness and heroism. Reducing it to the size of the catalogue and emblazoning the title of the exhibition across it would have re-inscribed the stereotype I hated, negating the complexity I had hoped to reveal.  When my photos and sculptures of mammy and pappy salt shakers and cookie jars are displayed individually, either in non-thematic museum exhibitions or in collectors’ homes, they take on institutional and individual perspectives, including racist viewpoints. Viewers often assume that since the museum staff or collector is white, the artist is as well, and work that is about a struggle to understand one’s own identity in the face of a racist world can become an unambiguously racist statement. As in Pygmalion, the transformation has concealed its roots.”

There is a Ghanaian proverb from the Ew-mina people that ‘until the lion has his or her own storyteller, the hunter will always have the best part of the story’. Black Faces: A Reclamation of Beauty, Power, and Narrative subverts and lessons the power of the iconographic mockery of  ‘blackface’ that has misrepresented generations of patriotism, hard work and value of Americans of African descent.

Halima Taha, author of Collecting African American Art: Works on Paper and Canvas


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