African-American artists ‘REMIX’ culture, identity in new exhibit

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Pop singer Beyoncé and English band Coldplay’s music collaboration “Hymn for A Weekend” recently has become the center of discussion of what it means to capitalize on cultural norms.

Images of children painted blue like the Hindu god Vishnu, floating gurus and Beyoncé dressed up like an Indian woman clash alongside lyrics about “getting drunk and high.”

The music video has been called a “fetishized Indian fantasy” and has been singled out by some observers as the most recent example of what has come to be known as “appropriation.”

“That’s the root of appropriation — you don’t attempt to understand the culture, you’re not apart of the culture, and you borrow elements of it to suit your needs without this investment and understanding,” said Jonell Logan, independent curator and consultant on REMIX.

That is not what the Columbia Museum of Art’s newest exhibit “REMIX: Themes and Variations in African-American Art” is about. It’s billed as an exhibit that repurposes past imagery, objects and art to fit into a narrative that reflects the experiences, politics and culture of black people.

“You’re taking something you’re familiar with. You’re not completely deconstructing the notion of what it’s about, but transforming it, rewrapping it so that it can actually speak to issues or ideas that are important to you,” Logan said.

REMIX is three things, according to Logan. It reinterprets subjects, imagery and themes from other works; it reclaims and re-presents stereotypes and symbols; and it repurposes objects.

The larger subjects of racism, feminism, politics and identity are illustrated through the lens of African-American artists and how they respond to the world around them.

There’s Fahamu Pecou’s work “Rock. Well (Radiant, Pop, Champ) (after Norman Rockwell’s Triple Self Portrait)” that uses Rockwell’s famous self-portrait to highlight Pecou’s heroes, inspirations and style.

Pecou’s self-portrait is contemporary and replaces Rockwell’s idols, Van Goh and Rembrandt, with boxer Muhammad Ali, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol. A gold championship belt flanks the canvas in his painting

Colin Quashie uses humor and something most people are familiar with — Monopoly — to rethink the concept of the Southern plantation through a popular American game.

“What he does is try to reclaim the board and actually make these clear references to the history of slavery and its continued presence,” Logan said. “And highlights the fact that this was all about money-making. People were commodities.”

Aunt Jemima is used several times in the exhibit by different artists. Logan said she represented the “Mammy” character who kept the children of the house and the slaves in line and represented a confidante in old lore.

Though played by the very real Nancy Green, a storyteller and cook who eventually made a fortune off selling pancakes to become an anti-poverty activist, Aunt Jemima portrays the ideal domestic, according to Logan.

Quashie replaces Aunt Jemima on the box of pancakes with a photo of Oprah to represent how the television personality, and other black figureheads, have shaped who society deems safe, Logan said.

“We read her books because they’re on her book list, We drink her tea, we’re now losing weight with Oprah. Her favorite things are our favorite things,” Logan said. “Quashie kind of plays on that. She has become, in his opinion, the face to replace Aunt Jemima.”

Quashie also puts Tiger Woods in place of the Cream of Wheat Man, while Colin Powell becomes the Uncle Ben figure on the box in the same art piece.

The exhibit is not just limited to paintings. Works include mixed media, sculptures and photography.

North-Carolina based artist Juan Logan’s sculpture depicts white-painted lawn jockeys with a penny on their forehead and a ring in their hand that has dollar bill shaped like a bow tie affixed to it.

He said the money represents the ideals of freedom from George Washington and Abraham Lincoln contrasted with the realities of African-American life, as well as the whitewashing of the history of the lawn jockey, which in the past was often a depiction of a black man.

“I’ve played with the lawn jockey over the years because it has so many varied meanings,” he said. “Everybody was talking about freedom but not for him. The lawn jockey wishes he was free.”

Juan Logan, who is the husband of curator Jonell Logan, said he uses his art to pose questions subtly that should push the viewer to examine his work closely in order to decipher it’s greater meaning.

“I’m not trying to give you everything. It requires you to take the time to look to actually see what’s taking place,” he said. “That’s why when it’s been said we all look alike, it’s because you aren’t really looking.”

“Downtown Goddess” by Willie Cole uses shoes to recreate an African-inspired statue that is then cast in bronze, in an effort to create a contrast between traditional art and everyday objects.

The piece does not represent art from the whole African diaspora, nor does it represent the collective views of black America, Jonell Logan said.

“This show is not a black thing. Black people are talking about their experience, but it is not limited to just that,” she said. “We talk about this larger cultural experience because we are so much a part of that. We are that.”

The 45-work show already has garnered national accolades. REMIX has picked up grants from the Henry Luce Foundation, Elizabeth Firestone Graham Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.

“We actually are the first museum in America to explore this theme that African-American artists have taken their inspiration from images and stories and styles of the past and remade them into their very own with their own unique perspective,” said Karen Brosius, executive director of the Columbia Museum of Art.

Jonell Logan said the beauty of REMIX is that it busted through the presumed Eurocentric perspective to open up conversations on how people see themselves beyond what society deems as “other.”

“I think this show is about a lot of things, but one of them is about empowerment,” she said. “Because it’s something that is freeing to be able to tell your story and insert yourself in a space that has excluded you historically.”