Michael Ray Charles: When Racist Art Was Commercial Art

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In 1998 I published an article in Print about the artist, satirist and social critic Michael Ray Charles. It is appropriate that on this anniversary of Martin Luther King The Daily Heller republishes Charles’ words on how degrading stereotypes and negative racist imagery have impacted the American consciousness and conscience. And how as an African American he has co-opted and reclaimed caricatures that were an integral piece of American visual culture.

“What if the Jews never talked about the Holocaust?” writes Michael Ray Charles in the introduction to his catalog of paintings, Michael Ray Charles: An American Artist’s Work (The Art Museum of the University of Houston). This rhetorical question underscores an artistic exploration that delves deep into the history of commercial art stereotypes, which during the late 19th and early 20th centuries relegated African Americans to graphic ghettos comprised of Sambos, mammies, minstrels, and coons. Charles argues that the once ubiquitous existence of these characters are virtually unknown to blacks. He believes that graphic depictions of infantile, shiftless, and baffoonish black men and women are artifacts that shed needed light on the conflict the black people have in society today. As both a reminder and as a way to co-opt these negative portrayals, Charles, 31 years old, a painter and professor at the The University of Texas at Austin, recasts ugly stereotypes in huge, satiric paintings that challenge the language of institutional racism.

The messages he conveys through his art, however, are not always welcome. “A lot of Blacks don’t want to see images like mine; perhaps they bring up too much pain,” asserts Charles. “A lot of whites are embarrassed and feel ashamed by them. But out of sight, out of mind doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. It happened, and I feel it has not been dealt with.”

Charles is a strictly representational painter whose early work addressed political and social issues with homage to such 19th century commentators as Goya and Daumier, but without their rapier wit. However, with his most recent paintings of racial stereotypes found in vintage commercial art — which he began painting in 1993 and continue through his most recent exhibition at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery in New York — he uses wit and irony to attack both the racism of the past and present. His paintings are rendered in a primative style and he quotes vintage circus banners, vernacular signs, and folk paintings, a pastiche that underscores the fact that these disturbing images were once was America’s most popular art.

Critics have attacked the artist for resurrecting images that were long ago hidden from view, ignored by historians as a sad chapter in the continuum of a burgeoning nation. But Charles argues that the issues raised by these images continue to haunt society albeit through different, contemporary stereotypes of ganstas, rappers, even characters on black-oriented TV sitcoms. Subjugation through imagery is something that is never totally expunged, and Charles wants to make certain that people understand the power that these had over peoples’ perceptions.

As a child Charles may have seen the remnants of vintage imagery that was still around his native Louisiana, but he did not think much of them — then. “When I was in graduate school, however, a colleague of mine gave me a little Sambo figurine,” he relates. “At the time I was doing paintings about the American flag so I didn’t use [these stereotypes] initially — I didn’t think it was what I was searching for. However, since I began to use such images, I feel I will never view life in the same way. “

Through reprises of these dubious icons of “negro” America, Charles asserts that the roots of current stereotypes can be traced back to the history of disenfranchised blacks, but his art is also a form of self-exploration. “I want to know about these images — how they were used, why they were used, and when they are being used,” he says. “But there’s more to my work than just black face image or the clown caricature. I am deeply motivated by various forms of communication.” Common black stereotypes have changed from the poor shiftless, field-hand to mighty supermen atheletes earning million-dollar contracts and Charles’ visual archeology has helped him see how these vintage images are reconciled and revised. “I see images of the Black basketball player everywhere. I know it’s a hot fad, but I remember watching the Olympics when the first dream team was assembled, oh boy did America jump on the backs of those atheletes… But ultimately how does it effect the conditions of blacks,” he asks himself. And that is the rhetorical question present in all his work.

The mammy, particularly in the image of Aunt Jemima (who continues to grace the package of her namesake product) is one of the characters that Charles singles out for scrutiny. This is because in the history of stereotypes the desexualization of black people was deliberate, and the mammy — the caring, house servant who often raised the white man’s children — was the most desexualized of all. Charles portrays her in his work as kind of heroine. In a stunning parody of Norman Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter, Aunt Jemima sits regally to suggest her unacknowledged contributions to white and black America (the Saturday Evening Post never showed a black woman in an heroic light, if at all). At the same time his ironic portrayals of mammy are harsh critiques of her diminuation in mainstream popular art. Charles regards the way that mammies and other black types were portrayed in art was a wanton attempt to make them unthreatening to whites. “I think they had to remain child-like, overweight, lazy, and unintelligent,” he explains. “for whites to remind themselves of who they were.”

The minstrel show is another target. These musical entertainments, popular during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and comprised of whites putting on black face and cavorting on stage, were as well attended as the ethnic vaudeville shows. Minstrelry was the white’s attempt to mimmick and make fun of blacks, and a way of experiencing otherness at a safe distance. Some historians have argued that the essence of Black people was stolen. On the contrary, Charles insists that “it cannot be stolen.

The essence of blackness, for me is defined as being able to withstand, to evolve, to grow inspite of, to show one’s wounds, to wear one’s scars, and get right back up because there is nothing else left to do. “

One wonders how African American’s viewed themselves as a result of the national ad campaigns and comic sections that routinely used these stereotypes. Did the bombardment of these stereotypes have an indelible impact on self-esteem?. Charles believes that not only did the images influence blacks’ interpretations of themselves, “they continue to influence whites, Asian, European, African, and many other cultures’ perceptions of [American] Blacks and how they see themselves. These images are forever part of the vocabulary of what one should want and what one should not want. “

Yet given Charles’ best intentions to educate blacks and whites through exposure to these images and his commentaries about them he says th
at he has received mixed responses. “One woman onced asked me ‘How does it feel to be the Clarence Thomas of the Art World?’” he relates. “She believed that Clarence Thomas was a sellout and by association, giving me the same title she said that I was selling out, too.. She had a very limited perspective. I am an individual who happens to be black. The fact that I am black does not mean that I represent, or support, every black cause.” In fact, she is not alone in feeling that introducing these images, which took many generations to forget, does more harm that good. “Her comments initially bothered me,” continues Charles. “But ultimately I found it more humorous than anything. I don’t know, maybe she saw a part of herself in one of my paintings.” Nevertheless, Charles is disturbed that people cannot see the symbolic intent of his work, and only fixate on the surface meaning. “I had a journalist walk up to me and say, ‘So tell me about the Black woman in this painting.’ I responded by saying, that it’s not a Black woman; it’s an image that I use to refer to a Black woman. I don’t think she was able to separate the caricature image of a black person from the reality of knowing what a black person actually is.”

Through these paintings Charles is also attempting to understand when and if perceptions among whites towards blacks began to change for the better. “It’s evident that some white peoples’ perceptions about blacks have never changed,” he says about his conclusions. “This process of change has been a gradual thing that is consistently gaining and losing ground.”

One of the changes that have occured since the Black Power and Black is Beautiful consciousness raising days of the 1960s, is indeed the notions of ugliness and beauty. After one of Charles’ openings, a showing of paintings that included critiques of Little Black Sambo, the perennial children’s story (originally an East Indian folktale) of a little African boy’s travails with a tiger, he tells of an elderly white woman who came up to him and said, “‘Please don’t make the Sambo ugly; I love little Sambo. I grew up with the Sambo; it’s so dear to me.’” As she started to cry, Charles was struck by how much she had invested in a the fictional character. “She went on to say that she’s not racist,” Charles continues. “That her children grew up around black people, they had black people over all the time, and she worked in a school in which she taught black students She began making a cradling gesture as if she was holding a little baby.” But Charles concluded that “she didn’t get it.” She did not see his painted interpretation of Sambo as anything but a black person, rather than a representation of attitudes. “That instance is one of the things that really motivates me to continue my exploration into these images and how they effect us. “

Michael Ray Charles’ paintings are tours de force that are formalist masterworks and discomforting messages. He understands the difficult line he’s toeing by reprising such charged images. Yet he insists that they deserve a certain respect that comes from more scrutiny. “I think about so many people whose lives these images have affected. A lot of Black people have died and many are dying under the weight of these images. That’s motivation enough for me to explore, and deal with, these things.”

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About Steven Heller

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →