Tuesday, February 22, 2011
Charles White at N'Namdi Gallery
Charles White, Shaping of Black America
N’Namdi Gallery - March 5th
The first thing you notice about these iconic images of American black people is that none of them are angry. Contemplative, intelligent, determined: yes all of those qualities are magnificently expressed, but none of these characters, whether ordinary workers or famous liberators, seem angry about the world of injustice and humiliation into which they were born.
The next thing you notice is that the only thing about them that is African are the features of their faces. They could just as well be Mexican, or Chinese, or Turkish, rendered as they were in the international style of social realism, that leans so heavily on European painting from Giotto to Michelangelo.
Which is especially surprising since this work was done in 1974, at the height of the Black Power movement that inspired so many young African American artists of that era, especially the Africobra artists here in Chicago, to explore African themes, colors, and designs.
But the painter of these images was Charles Wilbert White (1918-1979) and they were done for the publisher of Ebony Magazine, John H. Johnson (1918-2005) who, like White, also grew up in poverty on Chicago’s south side and rose to prominence by virtue of hard work, imagination, and dedication to the destiny of his people.
Originally, this series of 12 paintings was intended to illustrate each chapter of “The Shaping of Black America” , written by Lerone Bennett, the long-time editor of Ebony Magazine. But the small images that appear in the book give no idea of the painstaking craftsmanship that is apparent in the 31”x 39” originals.
Done in monochrome oil on board, they have the feeling of watercolor on paper, with a carefulness that expresses the tenacity, dignity, self-reliance, and sensitivity of the cultural ideals being represented, as well as the mature character of the artist himself at the age of 56.
The social idealism found in his earlier work at the Art Institute (like “Harvest Talk”, 1953) has turned inward to become more personal.
There’s not a lot of joy in these severe monochrome images that seem to painfully emerge from discarded, crumpled brown wrapping paper. But this was intended to be a history lesson, not an aesthetic banquet, and aren’t most of the lessons from history grim ones?