The Art of Darkness

Paintings of racist images have made UH alumnus Michael Ray Charles a star in the art world. Some say his Sambos and pickaninnies have a healing power. But others claim all they do is hurt.

The MFA's Alvia Wardlaw is among those who collect such objects, explaining her interest in such racist icons by saying "it's an effort to go through the stereotype. It's an effort to embrace black people. You want to give them a good home." But Wardlaw doesn't extend the affection she feels for her mammy salt and pepper shakers to Charles's work. Mammy, she say, is clearly a relic from the past; Charles's work is not. And one thing about giving collectibles "a good home," as Wardlaw puts it, is that it keeps them out of the public eye. The Blaffer show, on the other hand, places Charles's images squarely in view. "What does this say to the general public when they see those images?" Wardlaw asks.

She raises the question while going through a carousel of slides from the Blaffer exhibit, viewing them on a small screen in her office, shaking her head slowly. When she sees one piece, a cutout paper doll whose accessories include a gun, a hairpick, a necktie and a chicken, she sucks in her cheeks as if someone had told a tasteless joke and it would be equally tasteless to smile. And indeed, Charles's brand of humor often feels like a test for witchcraft: Laugh, and you're guilty. Don't laugh, and you're guilty. Wardlaw sighs instead. "This becomes, after a while, a one-note song. Okay, I get it. I really do. The redundancy of it is deadly."

Wardlaw's criticism -- that Charles's work focuses on proving the obvious fact that racism exists -- is one often leveled at the artist. But a few of the pieces in the Blaffer show, pieces Wardlaw hadn't seen, are more positive, though they still depict stereotypes. One such work is an electoral poster exhorting the viewer to vote for Aunt Jemima for president; another shows a mammy in Wonder Woman garb. "Michael is not a one-trick pony," Bacigalupi says. "The project has a goal, to critique a racist culture. But he uses a variety of means. Every great artist has a grand theme."

Though several people say they've heard HISD Special Projects Director Ellena Stone Huckaby, one of the city's most prominent African-American arts supporters, denounce the Charles exhibit, in an interview, the first thing she volunteers is that she's a personal fan of his work (though she makes it clear she thinks he's hit on a marketable formula). The majority of Charles's paintings fit right in with her own collection of memorabilia, she says, which she has been accumulating since "long before it was fashionable," and which she used to educate her children about their history.

"[Some of Charles's work] really energizes me," says Huckaby. "It reminds me of the strength and talent that black people have, to have risen from that level of degradation." But Huckaby has her limits: Norman Rockwellian mammies and circus-announcement minstrels are okay, but when Charles created a collectible of his own, a plate sold to raise funds for the Blaffer, Huckaby drew the line.

"I said I would not buy the plate," she says, remembering her comments at a Municipal Arts Commission dinner shortly after she received an invitation to order the work last fall. "For sure."

On The Side Dish, as the plate is titled, a dark-skinned man-creature in a pointy hat crouches on a circus animal pedestal, hands and tongue in a begging position, tail curling behind. "Alive and well" reads one text bubble. "The Greatest Blow on Earth," reads another. The image on the plate, which the Chronicle pertly called "a dish of pop culture," caused a minor stir and was one of the things cited in a brief letter from an African-American member of the Blaffer board who resigned earlier this year. That board member, Rogers Whitmire, also wrote that he disapproved of the Blaffer's programming. He failed to return calls from the Press.

If Huckaby feels energized by Charles's use of stereotypes, what was different about this one? "I thought monster and I thought Satan," she says. "I feel great about me. I feel great about me. And I wouldn't struggle to pay for this."

But as an educator who has long incorporated the arts in her work, Huckaby says she has another, graver concern about the Michael Ray Charles exhibit: "It has the potential of affecting a young child's self-esteem." Despite the Blaffer's lengthy educational packet, she says, there's no way to ensure that children will be prepared enough to see the show in context. "My children were privileged," she says of their prolonged exposure to historical stereotypes. "In a sense, they were anesthetized, immune to the pain that a child who is not prepared can walk in and receive."

Huckaby's concerns are repeated more forcefully by artist Elizabeth Catlett. "I think he's continuing the racism," Catlett says, then adds before abruptly discontinuing a phone call, "If any black children see it, they will be irreparably harmed. I'd rather not talk about it, okay?"

Texas Southern University student Janice McCloud Cumbess is one of the docents who will give children tours of the show. When she first saw The Side Dish, she says, she was "ready to boycott," fearing the exhibit would simply become "a big circus." But in many ways, Cumbess is Charles's ideal viewer, one who was willing to engage with what she saw. Her discomfort prompted her to do research on the artist and the black memorabilia on which he draws, and she concluded that the work reflects self-hatred as well as a reality about black life today. "I'm a little bit calmer now because in a sense I understand what he's trying to do," Cumbess says. "You have to really understand history to understand his work, or the image just takes over."

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