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Thursday, December 13, 2007

Reed's Sweet Struggle Confounds

By: Zoma Wallace

Sweet Struggle by Andrea Ellen Reed has finally come to a close at the Torpedo Factory Art Center. For the past six weeks, the photographic series has increasingly angered and confounded me. Her portraits of Black men, women, and children in Blackface beg for an explanation that neither I nor the artist can fully articulate. As gallery intern, most visitors assume that I have created the images and look to me for answers. For those who are not familiar with the Torpedo Factory, it is a highly regarded art center attracting visitors from all over the world. The VAST majority of them are not Black.

Reed paints her subjects in Blackface to capitalize on shock value and enhance her "message to Black people". At surface level, her work appears to challenge false and exaggerated stereotypes about the our community, using the makeup to indicate how the world views us as a people. But from her own mouth, the artist stated that she truly believes her portraits depict tragic conditions plaguing the Black community. In that case, the issues addressed are grossly oversimplified and obviously misunderstood by the artist. She uses the symbolic mask to connect Blacks who currently "misrepresent" themselves to the Black performers of the 19th and early 20th centuries who "misrepresented" themselves and their race on the minstrel stage. She chooses a poor example in Bert Williams to illustrate her point. She apparently is unaware that Bert Williams was a brilliant performer, lauded by people of all races for his wit, exceedingly high intellect, and ability to transcend race with comedy that touched his audience members on the human level. The black makeup he and others wore was simply a prerequisite for Blacks to get onto stage in that era. The invention of Blackface itsellf was an attempt of white performers to express and capitalize on the fascination with the communal rituals of Black Americans. Instantly, her Blackface symbolism breaks down upon examining historical truth. The work becomes a collection of misrepresentations and cliche generalizations that do more to reinforce negative perceptions about our people than to help us recover from them.

The work thoroughly disappoints me because it does not confront nor address the origins of these racial issues. The work does nothing to challenge the European originators of racism and the true source of the violence, drug abuse, broken family structure, and self hatred on which she blames Black people. Therefore, viewers are allowed to distance themselves from the acknowledgment of racism by declaring "I'm not racist so it's not my problem" or take pity on the Black community as a whole, still absolving themselves of any responsibility for these false perpetuations. The fact that the artist is Black gives more credence to the contrived statements of self-victimization.

Reactions to the work run the gamut from laughter to confusion to disgust. Most people are dumbfounded as they pretend to understand the material, furthermore the Black struggle (which is utterly impossible if you have not lived it). The most descriptive words they can muster before scurrying out of the door are "powerful" or "thought-provoking". Occasionally, I get an appreciative glance or "thank you" for somehow allowing them to discuss race while attempting to assure me that they are not racist. But for me, the wrong discussion is taking place with the wrong audience.

The most difficulty I have had is explaining the work to foreign patrons. Laughter precedes the first question which is usually "Why such red lips and black face paint?" They think the subjects are clowns of some sort. Children have had to translate to their parents concepts of racism and minstrelsy that have no parallel in their own culture. As they dialogue in other languages, I can only imagine what is being said and inevitably misunderstood.

My question for Andrea Ellen Reed is, "What next? Any positive suggestions for the future?" Or will Blackface remain a crutch on which to lean for visual impact?

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