Thom Shaw, the great Cincinnati artist who died in 2010, has the last word in Beyond Emancipation at the Kennedy Heights Arts Center — and it’s not what you might think.
Shaw was known for his stark woodcuts, drawings and paintings that depicted drug use, urban violence and the personal hell of his diabetes and heart disease. These unflinching portrayals occupy the exhibit’s final room. His big, chilling “Street Madonna & Child,” in which an anguished mother witnesses a drive-by shooting, is the kind of “ripped from the headlines” image that sticks with us. It’s sad to think that this is the state of society nearly 150 years after the end of slavery.
But the true final word is Shaw’s small drawing of President Obama at the helm of a ship.
“Art can be big physically or big conceptually,” says painter Jimi Jones, one of the nine black artists in the show. A large work that riffs on stereotypes is “an easy concept,” explains Jones, intending no disrespect toward his late friend. It’s a theme that’s expected. But “Obama as president … that’s the last word,” Jones says. Without the changes of the last century-and-a-half that led to his election, “we’d still be slaves, physically and mentally.”
Study the steely resolve in Obama’s eyes, how he tilts his head to look beyond obstacles. He is president despite the problems depicted by Shaw and others. Jones compares persistent racial stereotypes and inner-city crime to a dieter’s stubborn last 10 pounds.
“Yes, there are problems, but they can be managed and worked on,” he believes. Things are “90-percent good,” he says.
As the nation observes Black History Month, Beyond Emancipation acknowledges that sometimes it’s tough to keep hope alive. But, even more, the show celebrates the fact that hope has always been there and always will be.
Melvin Grier, a Cincinnati Post photographer for 33 years, has seen black people find hope in music, church and children. Two fans with Afros, broad-rim hats, sunglasses and three-piece suits epitomize cool in a 1978 Jazz Festival photo. On at least this summer night, there is nothing for these dudes to sweat.
Grier’s “Into the Fellowship” is a happy scene of a baptism. Smiling leaders help a youngster out of the water in a storefront church where a handmade sign reads “Together We Can.”
Grier’s sole color photo, from his “Unfinished Lives Project” of 2005, shows a utility pole memorial for a young black man — maybe someone who died in the street violence Shaw often depicted. In the background, a small boy is walking from the camera. The composition feels a little clichéd. But prayers that this child doesn’t meet a violent end are as heartfelt as ever.
Robert Harris’ line drawing of a woman and infant, “You Are My Secret,” delivers a similar message of faith. The simple scene is so sweet that I hope — there’s that word again — that the title means the woman sees the child not as a reason for shame, but as someone with “secret powers” who’ll overcome whatever problems the mother has faced. (Another Obama, perhaps?)
It’s worth noting that the figures in Harris’ piece, as in some of Shaw’s art, are not readily identifiable as black or white. Throughout the show there are opportunities to remember that we are more alike than different. This is most clear when looking at historical family photos donated to the exhibit.
But Cincinnati’s racial tensions were at a high during the 2001 riots, and photographer Jymi Bolden’s best shot is from then. During a time with so many inflammatory scenes, Bolden turned his lens on the Rev. Damon Lynch III and a police commander speaking in front of a line of officers in riot gear. Lynch’s tie is loosened, his arm outstretched. The commander’s body language is also open. A genuine dialogue is taking place, with neither man wanting to see the police advance. The title is “The Leader,” which can refer to Lynch, the policeman or the Leader Furniture sign perfectly framed between the men.
Jones’ titles and layered works also open themselves up to several interpretations. He is a student of American history and art history. Not all his references are obvious. That might be frustrating, but it just might make you stop and study his work a little more.
“If your paradigms haven’t been shaken, you’re not going to get my work,” he admits. But if you don’t see all the references, that’s OK, too. Jones mostly wants to engage you.
“If I put too much in there, (viewers) don’t use their minds,” he says.
Jones’ “Crossing the Delaware,” a take on Grant Wood’s “Daughters of the Revolution” with Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, is a signature piece of the show. Like Shaw’s much smaller work, it celebrates Obama’s presidency. But, knowing Jones, there is more to the story. There are two versions of the American Dream depicted here. One is Palin’s. (“I don’t dislike her,” the artist says.) While Obama has the power of his office, the winking Palin is living the American Dream of making money from her own bully pulpit.
A display of photos from the family of a local Freedom Rider complements Jones’ historical references. Lil Wayne looms over Ronald Reagan and other Western stars in Jones’ “The Real Cowboy.” But it’s the students who rode buses through the South in ’61 that are the real-life heroes. They protected freedom, even if, 50 years later, that means you’re “free to destroy yourself,” like Lil Wayne and other gangsta rappers, Jones observes.
The exhibit’s themes of heroes, hopes and dreams merge in a sculpture by Kelly and Kyle Phelps. In their tribute to the working class, a graying black custodian sweeps up Obama’s iconic “Change” fliers. The piece could be viewed as a counterpoint to the celebratory works by Shaw and Jones — the janitor is tired, his shoulders slumped. Change may have come too late for him. Still, he has stuffed a flier into his back pocket.
There’s always hope. ©
BEYOND EMANCIPATION, presented in partnership with Juneteenth Cincinnati, runs through Feb. 25 at Kennedy Heights Arts Center (6546 Montgomery Road). 513-631-4278. www.kennedyarts.org