How do you see those who are different from you?
Exotic? Barbaric? Servile? Magnificent?
As the nation remembers Dr. Martin Luther King’s fight for black equality, Rollins College unveils a new exhibit that uses art to spark a conversation about racial perceptions.
“The Black Figure in the European Imagination” is an achievement of Rollins’ Cornell Museum of Fine Arts: it was curated at the college, brings seldom-seen works from around the country to the Winter Park School, and generated a catalog on glossy paper that will grab national attention. Warning.
But organizers are equally proud of the social relevance of ‘The Black Figure’ and two companion exhibits, as headlines scream of white cops shooting black men and the nation grapples with a divisive presidential election. often the differences between Americans rather than the similarities.
âThe diversity in the United States and the different experiences with different races need to be understood,â said Julian Chambliss, a Rollins history professor who oversaw âAfroFantastic,â one of the affiliate exhibits. “Art becomes a means of navigating the big questions.”
He cites the controversy surrounding the Black Lives Movement as an example of how the country remains divided.
“The world moved to a place where it was like, ‘Whoa,'” Chambliss said. “It’s a different landscape now.”
This landscape includes the 24-hour media cycle, the ability to digitally manipulate images, and the proliferation of fake news. All of these factors influence perceptions today â but in 19th century Europe, paintings fulfilled this role. For better or for worse, the works of white artists have helped shape the public image of black people.
“That’s what we’re trying to get across, that these are perceptions,” said Susan H. Libby, co-curator of “The Black Figure,” Rollins art history professor. “We don’t always realize how powerful visual representations are.”
A Sudanese nobleman, a Moroccan dancer, a Haitian woman and an African queen are among the characters featured in the show, also curated by Adrienne L. Childs of Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.
“I think a lot of the pieces are really striking,” Chambliss said. “They reflect an evolution in the European spirit.”
The intentions of the artists are not always clear: in one work, an African woman’s breast is exposed, typical of a Roman sculpture.
“Is this trying to highlight her as a classic figure â or show a lack of decorum?” said Libby. “Perceptions can be complicated. They don’t have to be one thing or another.”
What one viewer sees as artistic license another might find condescending.
“I would hate for people to think we’re promoting demeaning imagery, but it’s a talking point,” Libby said. “It’s not going to let people think that the issue of race and perception is settled nicely.”
“The Black Figure” is the latest exhibit created by Cornell, as opposed to “packaged” exhibits borrowed from other institutions. Original exhibits, such as a recent retrospective on Italian painter Francesco de Mura, have boosted the museum’s reputation.
A sign of Cornell’s growing prestige: David Bindman, an internationally renowned art historian and specialist in artistic representations of black people, wrote the introduction to the catalog âThe Black Figureâ.
“He’s a star,” Libby said.
The two complementary exhibits add context to “The Black Figure”. “Reframing the Picture, Reclaiming the Past” gives contemporary artists the opportunity to refute earlier works.
âThey pick up on the stereotypical, exotic, demeaning images of European works,â Libby said. “They are reclaiming how black people have been portrayed.”
Chambliss’ “AfroFantastic” was curated by his students into a course on the imagination and futuristic visions of black people over the past few centuries. In conjunction with “The Black Figure”, it delves into identity and how others see us.
Things to do
A look at entertainment and sporting events in Orlando and Central Florida.
âA multicultural lens like this emphasizes the values ââeveryone brings,â Chambliss said. “Until a society can celebrate the many colors of the rainbow, it will fundamentally fail.”
“The black figure in the European imagination”
â¢What: Art exhibition, with two affiliated exhibitions
â¢Or: Cornell Fine Arts Museum at Rollins College, 1000 Holt Ave., Winter Park
â¢When: 10am-4pm Tuesday to Friday; 12pm-5pm Saturday-Sunday; until May 14 (affiliated exhibitions close on April 2)
â¢In line: rollins.edu/cfam