Our trip to the Portland Art Museum (PAM) was both interesting and challenging. We spent quite a bit of time learning about American artist Robert Colescott.
Mr. Colescott was born in Oakland, California, in 1925. He studied at Berkeley and then traveled to Portland, Oregon. His work during World War II was abstract, like another artist we enjoy, Richard Diebencorn.
After the war, Mr. Colescott’s art changed and became more representational, using a new, brighter color palette. By the 1970s, he had found a new and controversial way to express his frustration with race relations in America.
He began doing parodies of famous art, replacing the original white subjects with cartoonish, grinning black people, in the style of “happy darkies” of old racist posters. Van Gogh’s “Potato Eaters” got a makeover as “Eat dem Taters”. This was his way, he said, of “interjecting blacks into art history.”
Another jarring image was his painting of a famous scene from “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm”, where he swapped the races of Shirley Temple and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. The ‘white’ Robinson’s exaggerated expression looks bizarre but is an accurate reflection of the photograph, shown alongside the painting.
This brings home how accustomed we all became, from the 1920s onward, to the idea that “black folks“ were happy with whatever they had, always grinning and dancing. This image became a justification of slavery and the segregation of Jim Crow laws, insisting that black people were better off under the ‘protection’ of their white ‘masters’.
This art show was entertaining, and a wonderful way to spend an hour. But more important, in the midst of our trying yet again to come to grips with racism, it was a good shake up for me.
Assumptions that I didn’t even know I had about the Black experience in America, and how white America responded to them, were challenged and are being re-examined. I am grateful for the late Mr. Colescott for his insights.