By JENNIFER RABIN
On the wall opposite the entrance to Upfor, Andy Warhol’s “Marilyn” screen print smiles at you, her blue-shadowed eyes smoldering under the perfect arch of her eyebrows. She is the immediate center of attention, as she was in life, and it is disorienting to be confronted by an icon of white culture in an exhibition titled The Soul of Black Art: A Collector’s View.
Portland-based art collector John Goodwin guest curated the show, commingling pieces from his and Michael-Jay Robinson’s own collection with pieces borrowed from other collectors, alongside for-sale works by contemporary artists of color. His formidable task was to assemble an exhibition that would illustrate how depictions of African-Americans have changed over the last hundred years.
We are unaccustomed to being confronted by a chronological visual timeline of representation, so being in the gallery feels both hurtful and hopeful, as we reckon with both the slow march of racism and of progress.
On the adjacent wall from Marilyn, separated by a corner that feels more like a dividing line, hangs Warhol’s “Mammy,” a Southern black female archetype from the late 19th century. The subject’s bright red lips complement her headscarf, a sartorial custom adopted in response to a law in 18th century Louisiana that banned women of color from wearing their hair in public.
Unlike Marilyn’s Barbie-pink complexion, forced into stark relief by the print’s bright blue background, Mammy’s face disappears into a matte black background, her features apparent only in outline.
The juxtaposition of these two Warhol screen prints provides a visual representation of a racial dynamic that has been set into the fabric of our culture for centuries. Marilyn, beaming front and center, becomes the subject of the conversation between the two pieces, while Mammy, off to the side, is cast as the object. (The beauty of the arrangement is that after you’ve meandered through the show and are working your way back to the beginning, it is Mammy who is in front of you and Marilyn who becomes the supporting character.)
Background details about the two works drive home the reality of where we place our value as a culture: made with diamond dust and issued as an edition of 200, the Mammy print is inherently more valuable, from a materials and edition-size perspective, than the Marilyn print, which was printed as a larger edition of 250 without so much as a sprinkle of a girl’s best friend. Even so, the most recent auction results show that the Mammy print is worth 80 percent less than the Marilyn print.
In this way, each piece in the show is its own history lesson, offering layers of insight and a deeper understanding of the racial landscape of our country, should the viewer choose to investigate. With close to 40 wall-hung works and numerous pieces of historical ephemera—a “Jolly Nigger” bank, a black lawn jockey, and multiple Mammy figurines—the show is a lot to take in. But even the reason for having so many works gives us pause to examine certain things that we often take for granted: “We have so few black art exhibitions,” says Goodwin, “that I thought ‘I need to include as many as I can while I have the opportunity to do so.’”
The exhibition’s strength is in the discrete moments it creates, a result of the collaboration between Goodwin and Theo Downes-Le Guin, the gallery’s principal and owner.
A pair of black-and-white photographs by the artist Zig Jackson, the first contemporary Native-American photographer represented in the collection of the Library of Congress, provides such a moment. “Homage to Three, Philadelphia, MS” features a deserted park-like setting with a memorial plaque in the foreground, commemorating the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers in Mississippi who were attempting to register African-American voters. In “Homage to Emmitt Till, Mooney, MS,” a decrepit roofless building stands in silent ruin, marking the place where Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American boy, allegedly whistled at a white woman in 1955. For this action Till was kidnapped, tortured, and beaten to death. Till’s murderers, two white men, were acquitted by an all-white jury that deliberated for less than an hour. Unable to be tried again for their crime, the pair later gave a full confession to Look magazine. (The title of the photograph refers to Emmett Till and the town is Money, Mississippi. The reason for the spelling change is unclear.)
In a quiet, gut-wrenching gesture that links the photos, Jackson hangs a traditional feathered headdress at each location, memorializing the lives lost and offering a show of solidarity between two marginalized people.
Another powerful moment is a grouping of four photographs, two above and two below, that Goodwin intended for us to view in clockwise chronological order. The top two black-and-white photos, “Tenant Farmer’s Children, One With Rickets, Wadesboro, NC” (1938) and “Negroes Waiting to be Paid for Picking Cotton, Mileston, MS” (1939), both by Marion Post Wolcott, give us a glimpse at life in the Jim Crow South. The third photo, another black-and-white Wolcott image from 1939-40, depicts an elderly black man in silhouette climbing the stairs to get to the colored entrance for the movies, bypassing the White Men Only door on the first floor. To its left hangs another image of a black man in silhouette climbing a steep set of stairs: President Obama boarding Air Force one, captured by Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times photographer Damon Winter. The photos are hung so that the two men are climbing toward each other, one man’s ascent making way for the other’s.
Speaking about the lives of these two men, Goodwin says, “That person [the subject of the earlier photo] has validity because he did what he needed to do to make this other person [Obama] possible. It makes you realize that everybody is important. And the little things you do make a difference in the world and make things work better, and you don’t even realize that you’re doing it.”
These moments of incremental change are sometimes lost to history, and Goodwin succeeds at highlighting them by showing us how much ground we’ve covered. Exhibitions like this one are important at a time when we are struggling to talk about race in this country. Art has a leg up on other means of discourse because it challenges our perspectives in a way that makes viewers feel included in the conversation. Art gives us the ability to face things that are difficult and uncomfortable, and to talk about them, even if the first conversation happens quietly with ourselves.