15 February 2008

Barkley Hendricks and the White Imagination

Last night, in celebration of Valentine’s Day, my husband and I went to see an exhibit by Barkley L. Hendricks. Known for his life-size paintings of ordinary African Americans, Hendricks’ work is shockingly realistic. I spent about 45 minutes walking through the exhibit. Most museum exhibits that I have seen have focused on the novel and the unfamiliar. But
surrounded by more than fifty of Hendricks’ huge paintings, I felt at home. These were faces that I knew. The detail to clothing, posture, and emotional expression was so remarkable that I expected each painting to come to life and begin talking to me as I gazed at it.

Later, there was a dialogue about African American men and body image that was inspired by Hendricks’ work. Did I mention that there were more than fifty paintings depicting a diverse array of black women and men from across the diaspora? Well, the sponsors of the dialogue chose to focus on one painting – Hendricks’ Brilliantly Endowed, a self-portrait of the artist
wearing nothing but a fedora, wristband, tube socks and sneakers.

Because I’d stepped outside of the exhibit hall for a drink of water and had gotten waylaid by a conversation with a friend, I missed the first part of the discussion. When I returned, I found a group of mostly white (and some Asian) faces sitting and standing in front of Hendricks’ exposed
penis. On an easel at the front of the group there was a flipchart with these words:







hip hop











really nice guys




in control


in your face














As I stood looking at the chart, a few African American couples joined the crowd, including my friend and her companion. Each pair began murmuring among themselves. Finally, a young man leaned over and whispered, “Were you here when they put together that list?” None of us were.

And we were all wondering what question had led to that left side. Perhaps they had specifically asked for negative stereotypes about black men. That was my hope anyway, even though I suspected otherwise.

At one point my friends’ companion spoke to the group at large: “It’s disturbing to walk in here and to feel so good about being surrounded by paintings of people who look like men, and then to come over here and see how the artist’s work is being received. I suspect that it tells us less about the artist than it does about the audience.” A middle-aged white woman spoke up cheerily, trying to reassure: “I don’t think you were here when we did the exercise. The left side wasn’t actually in response to his work.” As if that made it better.

At the end of the dialogue, I asked one of the facilitators, a young Asian woman, about the question that had prompted the list. She responded brightly, “Oh, we didn’t have anything on the paper other than the two headings, Black Males Today and Black Males in His Art. We just
asked people to say what came to mind when they thought of black males today. It could have been from media, from perception, from anything. Then for the other side, we told them to say what comes to mind when they thought of black males in his art.”

Ironic. At a time when a black man has made history by becoming the first person of color to have a viable chance of becoming the presidential nominee for one of our major parties, it is the stereotyped representations of African American men that whites spontaneously report (and
yes, I’m ignoring the “really nice guys” given that it’s a pathetically absurd attempt to make up for what came before it). That this was supposedly the educated, progressive crowd made it even worse.

But perhaps the real tragedy is that there are some African Americans, including those in high-profile positions, who seek to capitalize off of and perpetuate this image. BET (aka Booties Every Time) comes to mind. Which image do you think a white cop is more likely to have in mind when he encounters a black man with a wallet in his hand? How about a white human resources manager when she receives an application from a black man? Based on the list above, it is certainly not Barack Obama’s “bright, clean, and articulate” self. Clearly, this is not just entertainment.

Directly across from Brilliantly Endowed was another image, Sweet Thang (Lynn Jenkins), a painting of one of Hendricks’ black female students from Connecticut College. Slumped on a sofa, hand up to her head, the sister has a look of resigned frustration that is reminiscent of Fanny
Lou Hamer’s, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” I’d been drawn to the painting my first time through the gallery. After the group discussion, it became my clear favorite. Looks like that sister had just been around a group of white folks having a discussion just like this one.