The Norman Rockwell Museum hosts ‘Imprinted: Illustrating Race’

  • During WWII, the Tuskegee Airmen had to fight two battles, against Nazi Germany and against racism at home. Serving as escorts to bomber pilots in Europe during WWII, they performed exemplary service. “Flyer of the 332nd” 2012 © Chris Hopkins. All rights reserved. COURTESY OF ROCKWELL MUSEUM

  • Following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, artist Kadir Nelson created this image for the June 22, 2020 cover of “The New Yorker.” “Say Their Names” Collection of the artist and THE JKBN GROUP. © 2020 Kadir Nelson COURTESY OF ROCKWELL MUSEUM

  • One of Rudy Gutierrez’s paintings for the 2012 Gary Golio book “Spirit Seeker: John Coltrane’s Musical Journey” (Clarion Books). The saxophonist was a breakthrough musician of the 20th century and played with Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis, among others. “John Coltrane: Spirit Flight” Collection of the artist © Rudy Gutierrez. All rights reserved. COURTESY OF ROCKWELL MUSEUM

  • Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” was directly opposed to the institution of slavery and was considered to be the best-selling book of the 19th century. It was illustrated by Hammatt Billings and in later editions the main character was portrayed as much older. (University of Delaware Special Collections) COURTESY OF ROCKWELL MUSEUM

For The Recorder
Published: 8/11/2022 10:21:45 AM

“It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.” Author James Baldwin (1924 – 1987)

An ambitious, comprehensive view of the African-American odyssey in art, advertising and memorabilia continues through Oct. 30 at Stockbridge’s Norman Rockwell Museum. The exhibit “Imprinted: Illustrating Race,” was created by the museum’s chief curator Stephanie Plunkett and University of Delaware Professor of Visual Communications Robyn Phillips-Pendleton. The show, featuring some 300 images and more than 90 artists, is complemented with an eponymous 200-page, full-color companion catalogue (NRM Publishing; $75).

A white man’s country

A recent press reception began in a gallery exhibiting Civil War era illustrations dovetailed with images from the Reconstruction Period. The illustrator Harvey Dunn, for a 1912 magazine story, captures a dark, smoky battlefield scene. A Black servant dutifully carries the body of his enslaver. As a juxtaposition, nearby there’s an unnerving drawing by political muckraker Thomas Nast.

“Illustration being as strong as it is, and being saturated with it over a number of years,” Phillips-Pendleton said, “we see it, but we don’t see it.”

The San Diego-based marketing firm Yankelovich notes that the average American views from 4,000 to 10,000 advertising images daily, from cereal boxes and car logos to whatever the Kardashians are up to. Much of the barrage becomes subconscious.

“I followed the images in my research,” she added, “and it led me to my hometown.”

The professor and artist was raised in Hampton, Virginia, where in 1619 some two dozen Africans, from what is now Angola, were offloaded, becoming America’s first slaves. In time the slave trade became Virginia’s most lucrative industry.

Phillips-Pendleton noted that, previous to the Civil War, Blacks were illustrated realistically. Following the war, their features were often wildly exaggerated and cartoonish for a simple reason.

“Propaganda,” she said.

A display of trading cards, advertisements for goods, is a revelation of demeaning Black stereotypes from boys gorging on watermelon to clownish depictions of adults.

Incensed that the Democratic Party convention slogan of 1868 was “This is a White Man’s Country,” progressive illustrator Thomas Nast ravaged the notion. He caricatures a drunken Irishman, a vote-buying capitalist and a Confederate veteran in celebration. Held to the ground by their feet is a veteran Black Union soldier.

Phillips-Pendleton explained that the Emancipation often meant that former slaves became sharecroppers in an often corrupt system which did little to improve their lot.

Most southern states also passed “Black Codes” legalizing segregation and preventing African-Americans from voting, while also restricting their travel. Referred to as “Jim Crow” laws, the slang derives from a Minstrel show character originated by blackface actor Thomas Rice. Such demeaning entertainments, exhibiting Blacks as both slow in wit and motion, were the most popular form of entertainment in America, replaced by Vaudeville in the early 20th century.

In this gallery you find that former slave Nancy Green, the first “living” advertising trademark, toured the country promoting Aunt Jemima pancake mix. An activist, she co-founded a Chicago Baptist church and was a spokeswoman for the impoverished.

Two years ago a viral TikTok video, joining the voices that declared the Jemima symbol as racist, may have caused the parent company Pepsi Co. to rename the mix. The company has also pledged $400 million in a five-year program to support Black businesses and communities.

“The Great Migration”

Following Reconstruction an increasing number of Blacks moved north seeking jobs. Many settled in the formerly white borough of Harlem and there the most influential movement in African-American history was born.

The Harlem Renaissance, beginning shortly after World War I and continuing through the early 1930s, was a golden age and the borough became the largest Black community in the nation.

“Half a million freed slaves traveled to the north and with that came writers and illustrators and musicians, ” Cherene Sherrard-Johnson said as we entered another gallery. She’s the chair of the English Department at Pomona College and is among several writers who contributed to the exhibit catalogue .

“(The Renaissance) brought about a new identity for Black people,” she said. “It took a whole different form of pride and advancement.”

She mentioned Alain Locke, the first African-American to be awarded a Rhodes scholarship and who is considered to be the “godfather” of the movement.

“Locke wanted to open everyone’s eyes to the advancement of a whole people,” she noted.

It was a heady time, buttressed by such periodicals as “The Outlook,” “The Crisis” and “Fire!” which informed readers of a New Age.

Nightlife in Harlem was without equal with trumpeter Louis Armstrong, pianist Duke Ellington and dancer Josephine Baker among the highlights. A whimsical 1932 nightclub map of Harlem details the dancing waiters of Smith’s Paradise and Club Hot-Cha, where “nothing happens before 2 a.m.” On the street two “Marahuana” cigarettes could be bought for a rock bottom 25 cents and the “Lindy Hop” was the cat’s pajamas at the Savoy.

The East

Curators Plunkett and Phillips-Pendleton cast a wide net. There are posters and periodicals relating to the short-lived 1960s Black Panther Party. The organization, begun in Oakland, California grew out of protests of police violence towards African-Americans. It later developed into a Marxist revolutionary group opposed to the mainstream idea of integration and non-violence.

In New York, the artist Jim “Seitu” Dyson was a founding member of the Black Power group “The East.” The Army veteran was considered to be the most significant artist of that movement. The East ran businesses and also founded a school.

Jim’s younger sister DK was among the attendees viewing the exhibit displaying her brother’s illustrations.

“There was a lot of violence and a lot of drug use with returning Vietnam vets,” she recalled. DK explained that her brother campaigned against this and would escort school children through tough neighborhoods. At six feet three inches tall and with a mastery of martial arts, he was a commanding presence. In his final years he set up a security firm to protect low-income housing sites.

Dyson was killed at age 50 while attempting to break up a fight.

DK said that her brother believed “to be a revolutionary, you not only need love, but you need strength.”

Modern artists

Among the exhibit’s unforgettable paintings are those by Chris Hopkins and Rudy Gutierrez. Hopkins, who early in his career had created art for such films as “Return of the Jedi,” was given carte blanche approval by the Air Force for an arts project. Among his choices was to portray the Tuskegee Airmen of the World War II 332nd Fighter Group.

The artist explained that a 1925 War College Report on Blacks concluded that they were only fit for military duty as “cooks or janitors. That changed when Eleanor Roosevelt said ‘No! That is not the case.’”

The Army Air Corps refused to train African-Americans as pilots, but following a lawsuit, they received expert instruction at Tuskegee University. They were ace fliers and their story is among the most inspiring of that war.

Gutierrez’s work can be found virtually anywhere, from postage stamps and record albums to children’s books. His images from the book “Spirit Seeker: John Coltrane’s Musical Journey” (Clarion Books; 48 pgs. $18) are melodious abstractions of the saxophonist. The illustrations can also be found in the 2016 documentary “Chasing Trane.”

“The goal is always to uplift and inspire,” the artist said. “I have to speak for people who do not have that voice or are underrepresented.”

There are many more surprises within these galleries, among them an entire room dedicated to the brilliant works of Kadir Nelson. Ten years ago he wowed viewers at the Eric Carle Museum with images from his Caldecott Award book “We Are The Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball” (Little, Brown; 96 pgs. $18.99).

In concluding remarks about Imprinted, Phillips-Pendleton said “I hope that people who see this show think about the history of this country and how illustrators have documented it … good or bad.”

“Imprinted: Illustrating Race” and Kadir Nelson’s “In Our Lifetime: Paintings From The Pandemic” continue through Oct.30. Museum hours: Thursday through Tuesday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Wednesdays. Admission: Adults, $20; students. w/ID. $10; Ages 18 and under, free.


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