From the moment that African slaves were first introduced to the American colonies to assist in the production of profitable cash crops and work new machinery essential for the economy’s well-being, racial discrimination has continued to plague the Americans, albeit in subtler ways today. Despite efforts throughout the 1900s to rid of racial oppression and violence in the United States, racism still thrives amid laws and regulations calling for its eradication. As a result, twentieth century artists, as well as those of more current times, have taken to art to address this imbalance of power according to race by manipulating color schemes, composition, and characters within their works.
A painting’s color scheme alone can speak volumes about its mood, theme, and source of inspiration. Artists utilize colors to relay a story; the colors of a landscape, of a man and his apparel, of a simple wall, and even of passing cars can all be integrated to detail an event, give insight to an artist’s political opinions, or inform viewers of a social injustice. Colors can also aid an artist in addressing an unfair imbalance of power, such as racism. Norman Rockwell’s iconic art piece, The Problem We All Live With , is a prime example of color scheme bringing understanding to an artwork’s overall theme and significance.
Inspired by the New Orleans school desegregation crisis of 1960, which saw severe backlash against introducing black students to traditionally white-only public schools, the 1964 painting displays a young black girl walking to school with notebooks and ruler in hand. Her white apparel provides a sharp contrast to her dull surroundings and dark skin, making her the centerpiece of the painting, and symbolizes an untainted innocence in an otherwise violent and loathing world. The yellow, aged wall to her right has been carved with derogatory slang and smeared with tomato. The wall represents the racist hatred black children endured through the process of desegregating public schools. The four men marching to the girl’s front and back all sport bright, yellow badges labeled ‘Deputy U.S. Marshall’. Their skin colors are considerably lighter than the girl’s, suggesting that the girl receives both protection and hate from the white community.
The composition of an artwork can reveal unexpected aspects of and break preconceived notions about a specific individual or group of people sharing a common identity: race, political affiliation, age, etc. Composition, likewise with color scheme, serves to create a story; a character’s size, position, and stance all greatly affect one’s understanding of a painting. Artists can manipulate this arrangement of people, animals, or objects within their work to tackle a societal imbalance of power, namely racial prejudice. Kerry James Marshall’s Still Life with Wedding Portrait (2015) exhibits a black couple, Harriet and John Tubman, in fancy, rich clothing on their wedding day. One may expect people of color who lived during an era of such rampant racism to have been completely devoid of real romance or healthy human emotion.
This is not an uncommon phenomenon, as we often ignorantly assume that people of past centuries lived in unemotional and mostly sexless societies. This explains the poignancy and shock we get from seeing old love letters and pornography. The average person would automatically first relate blacks of 19th century America to slavery and its struggles rather than consider their love lives and other relations. Still Life with Wedding Portrait’s composition, with John Tubman lovingly caressing Harriet Tubman from behind her, contradicts such mentioned stereotypes. John’s towering stature makes Harriet appear feminine and fragile; her calm smile only adds to her poise and grace. There is no background other than a weathered-down wall; nothing detracts from their love.
Michael D’Antuono’s A Tale of Two Hoodies (2012), inspired by the infamous Trayvon Martin case that led to Martin’s death by George Zimmerman, shows an overweight police officer wearing a Ku Klux Klan’s “glory suit” pointing his gun at a black boy in a white hoodie. The boy offers the man some Skittles, indicating the child’s innocence and good-will. The cop, however, intimidates and towers over the boy, signaling black youth’s fragility and vulnerability. He most likely has ill-founded, racist notions about the black community that has resulted in this violent confrontation. By exposing the baseless notions people have towards colored peoples of the past and present due to racism, composition in art addresses the imbalance of power between races.
Lastly, character manipulation allows artists to express their own views on particular instances of corruption or inequity. Over the past few decades, numerous artists have targeted in their artworks the issue of racism. Kerry James Marshall’s Past Times (1997) features a black family of 3 as its prime subjects, as well as other black people also engaging in “fun” activities. The daughter of the family is playing croquet while the son is listening to music. The mother is simply relaxing at the picnic. Despite the family’s pursuit of entertainment through recreation, none of them wear a happy expression. They all seem unfocused and distracted from the picnic; their lips stick out in a pout, their body language is stiff, and their eyes seem solemn and empty. Even the black dog by their side is hurled up and motionless. Their unhappiness stems from the mistaken, false portrayal of racial equality and increased black privilege by white youth in spite of continued racism and injustice.
With the advanced technology of today comes faster communication and spread of information. Artists can utilize this benefit to attract a larger audience for their works. With sensitive topics fueling more debates and controversy than ever before, now is the perfect time for artists to address a societal imbalance in power with character manipulation, varying color schemes, and effective composition. Kerry James Marshall’s Past Times and Still Life with Wedding Portrait and Michael D’Antuono’s A Tale of Two Hoodies expose a societal imbalance, racism, which must be contained and eradicated for the goodness of future generations. More frequent exposure of its devastating effects through various mediums is heavily encouraged and universally celebrated.
Dayeon Hwang, Grade 11
North Hollywood High School