Mutope Johnson, Jerry Jordan and Amber Sowards on "Justified Art!"
Three artists talk with us about the collaborative art show’s varied approach to race and humanity. (Above: "Mikal Pruitt, Bronzeville Poet Series," by Mutope Johnson.)
The Justified Art! show, running through May 31 in the Overture Center's downstairs gallery, and celebrated this Friday with a reception for Spring Gallery Night, asks us to weigh what led American society to its current tormented, but by no means new, confrontation with racial inequality. The show comprises more than 40 works from a variety of artists working in painting, photography, sculpture and mixed media. I recently talked with three of the artists about their contributions to the show.
Milwaukee painter Mutope Johnson's "Mikal Pruitt, Bronzeville Poet Series" is part of a series in which he explored the history of Milwaukee's historically black Bronzeville neighborhood in collaboration with poets, spoken-word artists, and MCs. Like many important black neighborhoods in major cities across the country, Bronzeville was effectively razed and bisected to make way for the Interstate highway system, and a towering section of I-43 looms in all the paintings in Johnson's series (see more of them at his website). The motif is a reminder of the insidious economic side of America's racial history—policies ranging from eminent domain to redlining that undermined minorities' efforts to build wealth and stable communities.
Tone Madison: How did the Bronzeville Poets Series of paintings happen?
Mutope Johnson: Bronzeville is a neighborhood in Milwaukee that was a home to African Americans back in the early 20th century. It was the one area that was probably the most culturally rich for African-Americans. And this area was essentially destroyed through eminent-domain policies. The thought was that if they built the freeway, it would make it more efficient for people to travel to and from downtown. As most global urbanizations go, it plowed right through Bronzeville, basically destroying the only significant culture that was present for African Americans in Milwaukee.
Tone Madison: And that happened in most major American cities when the Interstate system was being built.
Mutope Johnson: And that's what's common about most urbanization programs and global urbanization. It happens in cities across America and other parts of the world. Whenever the government decides, “OK, we want to build a park, we want to build a freeway, we want to put up a facility of some kind," the people who generally suffer the most are those who are marginalized. With that said, I was actually born and raised in Bronzeville, so I have a close attachment to that location. I started out really telling stories while I was in grad school, and once in a while in my writings, I would have snippets of my experience kind of make its way into the classroom. Some of my professors thought it was interesting for me to begin to talk about it. I didn't really want to make it as personal as it was becoming, and I had really more of an interest in the Harlem Renaissance at the time, which was probably the most significant time in America for African Americans expressing themselves through the arts. The more we talked back and forth, the professors and I and some of my classmates, it was apparent that I needed to find a way to perhaps marry [storytelling and art].
After a little resistance, I decided it was a good idea that maybe I could take Milwaukee and compare it to the Harlem Renaissance and to Chicago, which also has a Bronzeville, and make case studies and talk about what went right with some of the artistic movements and Chicago and perhaps what went wrong with Milwaukee and why we didn't have the same kind of documentation that took place in these other cities. The WPA was a really strong part of what happened in Chicago and New York, and unfortunately we didn't have the same kind of scholarship, with support from the WPA, that we did in these other cities. From there, the next part was, OK, how can I use art and address some of the issues that really impacted some of these movements and how that relationship compares to Milwaukee? I had a series of collaborations with poets, and my thought was that by collaborating with poets, who were the voice of Milwaukee, and a lot of the poets I collaborated with are from Bronzeville or have had experiences in Bronzeville, it made sense to me to make the poets the voice and even the face of Bronzeville in this series.
The freeway becomes a metaphor for the scale of urbanization. And there's quite a bit of iconography that's built into the painting so that the viewer can become associated with what's going on, and they can have these connectors as they begin to dissect the work or begin to get these visual clues.
Tone Madison: And in all these paintings, you not only have the poets' words and faces, but you show all of them in the act of delivering their work, with microphones and notebooks and so forth. What is it about that act and that moment that made it important for you to capture in the paintings?
Mutope Johnson: Now, keep in mind, the microphones also really are quick reads. They're a visual code—when the viewer sees it, normally, at a glance without having historical background on the paintings, or any of the poets themselves, you would think several different things. You would think perhaps, entertainer, performer, reciting from a notebook, and what is going on with that? So you begin to ask these questions. I wanted to make sure that there were some really connecting clues to the work just at a glance. The microphone also symbolizes giving that person a voice and a platform.
The fact of the matter is, a lot of these poets are very active, they publish their own work, a lot of them perform for a live audience on a regular basis, many are published writers, and so a lot of those clues really come through in the work for each one of them. Many times you'll see their family members weaved into the paintings, and objects—I ask them to bring me things that they care about. Part of it was to provide me with some of their poetry so that I could also read it and get a better feel for what they're trying to express in words. My poets are multi-generational, multi-ethnic, and I cover many of the artists themselves to kind of convey that people have a lot in common.
Tone Madison: Why did you choose to use the specific lines you did in the Mikal Pruitt painting?
Mutope Johnson: Will, Mikal is a very prolific writer, but he's also a hip-hop performer. That's really one stanza from an entire poem that he wrote. Those particular words resonated with me, because we get these stereotypes about African Americans, and more specifically African-American men, so that stanza becomes a billboard to that kind of stereotype—you know, “they're all thugs," and stuff. In some cases, some of those individuals who are misguided just don't have anyone to teach them, and that's essentially what that stanza represents.
Tone Madison: And in Madison, there's definitely also a stereotype people have about Milwaukee, and maybe some prejudices that get thrown around with that portrayal, so maybe this is a good one from the series to show in Madison.
Mutope Johnson: Well, you know, that's probably true. What's interesting to me is how that painting ended up in Madison to begin with. Part of it is, I believe, the vision the curators have, and the fact that they were thoughtful enough to consider what Rev. Alex Gee wrote in his op-ed to the citizens of Madison about how angry he was with all of the goings-on, the marginalized citizens and the racial inequality. There's several other things that I think Rev. Gee was pretty angry about. So for it to make its way into the art world and for the art world to get involved in wanting to contribute to the voice and having some opportunity for artists to weigh in on the conversation was really perfect for me. It's in line with using the power of the arts to sway public opinion. For this painting to end up in Madison is not really a surprise to me. It's just good timing. It's taking the concept of my art and really looking at providing a platform in real time.
Madison painter Jerry Jordan's “Just A Kid" feels like the centerpiece of the Justified Art! show, intentionally or not. The stately, somewhat ominous picture shows three young black kids in hoodies, speaking to the profiling that has figured into killings of unarmed black people by police and vigilantes, and reminding us how young many of the victims of these killings are. These facts resonate keenly with Jordan, who's a father himself—note that in our conversation, Jordan mentions that he actually has to worry about whether leaving the house in a hoodie will endanger his son. Just think for a second about how sad that is. Though there's a dignified portraiture to the painting, Jordan mostly painted it to exhort people to let kids, well, be kids.
Tone Madison: What is this title, “Just A Kid," evoking for you in the three figures in this painting?
Jerry Jordan: Well, it's all one person. My son Miles is the model for it. He's 16 now. The figure on the left represents the demonic figure. I didn't want to just spell it all out, I wanted to let people read into it on their own, but if you notice, he has the hoodie on with the DePaul Blue Demons, and his goatee is a little longer and pointed. That represents a demonic figure, because so many times African-American males, and just youth in general in our society, are represented as monsters, devils, somebody to be locked away. The figure on the right, he has a California Angels hoodie. The central figure is weighted down almost haunted with societal fears, perceptions and unrealistic expectations.
I know that his mother and I, we really want our son to be perfect so he doesn't get into any trouble or anything like that, and society in general wants him to be a perfect kid, an angel, a sainted figure, and that's not realistic. And I would say, he's just a kid, he's gonna make mistakes just like his white counterparts, and he should be allowed to make those mistakes without fear of being thrown out of school or locked up or killed.
Tone Madison: So it's really saying, give people the benefit of the doubt, some reasonable middle ground.
Jerry Jordan: Exactly,that's all I'm saying. Just give a kid the benefit of the doubt. If it's something serious, then yeah, you just do what you have to. But if it's just kids doing thing that kids did 20 or 30 years ago and just got a slap on the wrist, why are you locking them up and basically ruining their lives, or worse yet, killing them?
Tone Madison: How does the painting reflect your experiences as a father?
Jerry Jordan: It's the fear, the concern that his mother and I have when he leaves the house. It's the same thing that all parents tell their sons when they leave home in the morning—use common sense.
Tone Madison: The painting has kind of a stormy, gloomy atmosphere.
Jerry Jordan: I guess when I was painting it, I was thinking about all the things that were going on in the news and still are, I wanted to represent the things that kids are dealing with now. Kids are dealing with so many different things. It's optimistic, but at the same time, there is a lot going on, so I guess there is kind of an ominous feel to it.
Tone Madison: How did you want to approach the concept of racial profiling in this painting?
Jerry Jordan: Well, my son has a bunch of hoodies, like most teenagers. He loves his hoodies. It's hard getting him out of them. When the Trayvon Martin case came along, with the hoodie, his mother had real concerns about the hoodie. When Justified Art! was asking for submissions, that was one of the first things that jumped into my head, the image of the black male in the hoodie and the profiling that goes on with that.
Madison photographer Amber Sowards contributes several entries from her Other American Cowboy series to Justified Art!, The series challenges us to think about how we picture African Americans as part of “traditional American landscapes"—and of Madison. That several of the photos show black women in everyday scenes around Madison—standing on a frozen lake, walking a bike through a park, lounging with a cup of coffee—only highlights the unease and complacency with which we regard racial disparities here at home.
Tone Madison: In the artist's statement for your Other American Cowboy series, you talk about questioning how we picture African Americans in our ideas of the American landscape. What were the challenges of that approach, and how did it inform your choices as a photographer?
Amber Sowards: One of the biggest challenges was matching the subject matter with the environment and thinking about what implications are made by how and where I stage the subject.
Tone Madison: Are the photos in the show all taken in Madison? What did you hope to show people about the realities and perceptions of Madison and how it relates to its minority residents?
Amber Sowards: Most of the images are shot in Madison however some of shot in the South and Southwest of the country. Moving to Madison almost six years ago from Baltimore was somewhat of a culture shock. Living here is what really inspired me to create this series. I felt like an outsider often being the only person of color in many social groups and in workspaces. I found I was the victim of micro aggressions when applying for jobs or being waited on in stores. I remember once inquiring about a graphic design position and before the person even saw my resume they said this position requires a bachelor's degree but thank you anyway. I have my MFA but they didn't even take the time to look at my resume. After moving here I became extremely depressed. I could not find work for a very long time and found the way in which I viewed myself was changing. I was losing self-confidence and became uncertain of many things.
Tone Madison: What are you hoping people will take away from your photos in the show, and from the show as a whole?
Amber Sowards: I hope the series makes people think about how African Americans are viewed in this country and why and how those views came about. I want people to understand that when you are Black you are not seen as an individual and judged as such. Rather, you are a representative of the “group" you look like and there is a lot of pressure and stress that comes along with that. It's an added responsibility most white people know nothing about. In this series I want the subjects to be seen as individuals first, because we all should have that right.