The exhibit “Looking Forward/Looking Black” will be displayed from Dec. 7 through Feb. 1 at the YMI Cultural Center, 39 South Market St., Asheville, N.C. Works in the exhibit explore issues of racial stereotypes and ideas about what it means to be black. Jo Anna Isaak, professor of art, was the curator of the exhibit, which traveled nationally for three years and was recently in Baltimore.
Isaak will speak at the opening reception Dec. 13.
Isaak is a professor of art who received her Ph.D. from the University of Toronto and, before joining the HWS faculty in 1984, taught at a number of institutions, including Bryn Mawr and Washington College. She is the author of The Revolutionary Power of Women's Laughter. Articles of hers have been published in the anthologies Art and Feminism and Feminism-Art-Theory: An Anthology 1968-2000.
The Nov. 29 Asheville Citizen-Times, Asheville, N.C., announced the exhibit as well.
The press release from the YMI Cultural Center:
Looking Forward, Looking Black opens at the YMI Cultural Center after three years of national touring. This exhibit boldly confronts the reclamation of racial stereotypes in the works of several highly visible black artists. Curator Jo Anna Isaak notes, “The black body has been everywhere in evidence in painting, film, photography—even cookie jars and lawn ornaments—and at the same time been rendered invisible.” She continues, “In the process of re-seeing what was intended to go unnoticed, these artists are engaged in undoing a whole system of denial and, at the same time, reconstructing and reclaiming images of selfhood on their own terms.” The work in the show is a reaction to and exploration of the African American image during slavery and its legacy, the struggle for emancipation and civil rights and the latent images of racism today.
Guest artist 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 represent her attempt to exorcise her personal demons surrounding the issues of race, identity and stereotype.
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.
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.
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.”
During the era of political and social conservatism of the 1980s, following the Civil Rights Movement, 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 a growing number of calls for a colorblind society where no special significance, rights or privileges would be attached to one's race.
The artists included in Looking Forward, Looking Black question meaning and relevance of racial identity in contemporary society. Through the process of appropriation (when a negative image 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.
The YMI Cultural Center is proud to take a step forward in the community encouraging an ongoing open forum for current and future issues and related programs.
Supporting events will include several films and open panel discussions throughout the exhibition schedule. These are intended to encourage talk about misconceptions in popular culture regarding African American identity and culture. They will also examine some of the artwork and statements in this provocative exhibit. A schedule will soon be available.
The YMI Cultural Center, Inc. is funded in part by The Asheville Area Arts Council with funds from the Grassroots Arts Program of The North Carolina Arts Council, a state agency and The City of Asheville Department of Parks and Recreation.
This exhibit is also funded in part by The Diana Gayle Wortham Fund, UNC-Asheville, Kimberly-Clark and the Asheville Citizen-Times.