They pop up occasionally on PBS's Antiques Roadshow: little figurines and toys that someone dug out of an attic. The objects depict African-Americans as wide-grinning servants and watermelon-hugging simpletons. The appraiser names his price; a smile whooshes across the face of the finder; and maybe you feel a little nauseated. While some find historical and cultural value in these objects, others consider this racist imagery worthy of total eradication. "These objects carry a lot of history," says David Levinthal, a photographer known for his explorations of controversial subjects. "Some people look at them and think they are important to discuss, while others find them so horrific that they think they shouldn't be shown."
Levinthal is obviously in the former category. His photographic series "Blackface," on view at the Menil Collection, is both repellent and beautiful. A grinning Aunt Jemima figurine looks serene, while ceramic children eating watermelons seem cherubic. The subjects of the images were made to perpetuate a racist stereotype, but Levinthal photographs them as if they were icons. Each figurine is shot against a black background so that lightness emerges from the characters, as if illuminated by a single light in a dark attic. The contrast feels more dramatic than if Levinthal had chosen to emphasize their outlines. It's an ambiguous statement, since the collection feels neither provocative nor exalted. No doubt it will evoke strong emotions and dialogue.
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