A woman listens to music with her eyes closed. Sunlight touches her shoulder, and silver rings gleam in her dark braids like new moons.
Nearby a boy sits cross-legged sketching a bird on a branch outside his city window, and a man and woman are walking casually close together — he has a towel or a tee-shirt slung over his shoulder, and she is wearing a long golden sun dress. A song plays around them, Nina Simone singing Young, Gifted and Black.
A man and women stand close together in summer clothing, as though set for a warm night in the city, in Hollis King’s Couple in Harlem, and couple hold each other close near the Brooklyn Bridge in the sunlight in Kadir Nelson’s painting The Homecoming.
They gather together at the height of Imprinted, the summer show at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge — an upwelling of contemporary artists in an exhibit that considers representation of Black, Indigenous, people of color in America, and especially Black folk, across more than 400 years.
Noa Denmon’s affirming image of a woman at rest, confident and dreaming, joins Hollis King’s Couple in Harlem and Shadra Strickland’s Today a bird came to my window, and they share the galleries with images, past and present, that reveal histories of pain and strength, traumas and activism, stories of slavery, Reconstruction, Civil Rights and more to the present day.
“People who have gone to see the show have had various emotions, from lows to highs,” says guest curator Robyn Phillips-Pendleton, “… and we said that’s exactly the point. Why are there museums if you can’t evoke those kinds of emotions? That’s what stories are for.”
‘Why are there museums if you can’t evoke those kinds of emotions? That’s what stories are for.’ — Guest curator, artist and professor Robyn Phillips-Pendleton
An artist and illustrator herself and professor of visual communications at the University of Delaware and Interim Director of the MFA in Illustration Practice program at Maryland Institute College of Art, she has co-curated this broad exhibit with Stephanie Plunkett, deputy director and chief curator at the museum, out of many years of research.
Shaping stories across time
The curators have worked together through the pandemic with a community of artists and advisors, some with connections to the Rockwell — Rudy Gutierrez, whose brilliantly colorful artwork appeared here in a group show encouraging action around the last election — Kadir Nelson, whose artwork forms a companion show at the museum this summer — and nationally acclaimed artist Jerry Pinkney, well known at the museum over many years, and his son Brian and daugther-in-law Andrea Davis Pinkney.
They look to the future in an exhibit that moves across an expanse of time. Phillips-Pendleton looks back to the 200 years and more of contact between European, African Native peoples on this continent before this country formed, from the late 1400s to the late 1700s, and then moves forward.
She sets out printed images in newspapers and magazines, some realistic and many deliberately distorted, and she maps their relationships with social and political currents of of the time. She and Plunkett wanted to show these misrepresentations clearly, she said, to understand their origins and consequences, who has made and used them, and how, and why.
“We talked a lot about fact and truth,” she said, and that’s why we thought this was really important, because this is not a point of view. These were illustrations that were printed on these days, for these companies, for these reasons.
“We’re not curating fine art pieces and ordering them a certain way because this is the museum’s story. This is an American story. It’s everybody’s story. And we wanted as many people to see it as we can.”
‘This is an American story. It’s everybody’s story.’
She opens her exploration into a widening web of narratives, as BIPOC artists tell their own stories in print, in Black newspapers and artist studios, art courses with the Works Progress Administration, the intense energy of Harlem Renaissance.
As they form their own representations, they reclaim traditions of storytelling and art, and music and performance, political activism and community. And she moves with a new generation of artists into the contemporary world — as their images reach around the planet on new platforms, from the New Yorker to Instagram.
A woman holds a child and waters a green waterfall of plants in Nurture, and a woman braids her friend’s hair in Taking Care, in Loveis Wise’ artwork at the Norman Rockwell Museum.
Looking to the past for fission and fusion
Thinking back to the seeds of this show, Phillips-Pendleton remembers a love of shared histories of intelligence and courage and community that touch many of the artists she has brought together here.
“I had a cousin in Gloucester Va., and she passed away at 104, and she knew many of these people,” she said. “Her father was a professor at Tuskegee (University) in the late 1800s, and she had books and photographs of people who came to her home. It probably came from that — it probably was unearthed by loving to go through old photos and hear old stories.”
A young woman stands with her arms crossed, looking firmly out of Ernest Crichlow’s 1959 drawing, and women speak at a protest with their arms held high in Kadir Nelson’s contemporary painting, American Uprising.
Her cousin knew a richly intellectual community of Harlem Renaissance artists, like the internationally recognized sculptor Augusta Savage and the friends who gathered in her studio — and her cousin would have known the university when the Tuskegee Airmen trained there, Black fighter and bomber pilots who trained and fought in World War II, when the military was segregated.
This show also has roots more recently in her own artwork, Phillips-Pendleton said, and in talking with artists.
“I’m a working illustrator and an artist myself,” she said, “so I have a lot of friends who are illustrators and have been illustrators for 40 years.
In casual conversations, they shared experiences in their jobs and compared different fields within the industry of illustration, she said, from editorial to children’s books. And their experiences revealed patterns of thought, and embedded biases.
“Their experiences with different art directors,” she said, “and how they were treated by the staff — just dropping off work, the admins thinking they were the delivery person, or having them go through special tests to see if they could actually draw people … and I’m thinking, where did this start? Where did the images start — who drew Black people and who drew white people — how did this come to be?”
Just after one of those phone calls, she said, she opened an email from the Illustration Research Organization and found a call for papers. And so she turned those questions into a proposal and began researching the history of images in this country, and this land.
Popular illustration galvanizes the Americas
She began in 1590, she said, with some of the earliest printed images she could trace, as European colonists drew Native people and took the images back to Europe. They showed those drawings, and they bound books, and they came back to the Americas — and a cycle gained momentum.
The artists, mostly white and mostly men, were creating images for popular media, at a time when printing presses were making it possible to distribute pictures and stories to hundreds of thousands of people.
She followed one image to another in her research, she said, finding the artists and printers and editors who created them. She was tracing a web of illustrators and how they saw the world.
And so she was uncovering the narratives, and often the biases, they were incorporating into the work they made. Some of them obvious in their caricatures and exaggerations, and some more subtle.
“What newspapers did they work for, what the editors’ positions were … what was the political climate like?” she said. “The images always responded to what was going on in the country, and to this day that’s still happening. We never get off of that merry-go-round.
“… Illustration is part of our culture. It’s part of our thoughts, our feelings, for centuries. It immerses itself into all kinds of things — things we read, products, things we use every day.”
Getting at the roots of representation
In digging into the backstory of illustration, she began with her old hometown.
“I kept going back to Hampton, Va., which is where I’m from,” she said, “… the
Virginia Museum, Museum of History.”
In 2019, when the New York Times published the 1619 Project — looking to the first written record of enslaved Africans sold into a European colony in North America — she knew that ground intimately. She lived near Jamestown as a child.
“I grew up five minutes from that site,” she said. “My research was Port Comfort, Va.”
Growing up, she had often visited there, she said, and other historical sites — Williamsburg, Gettysburg — and she had never heard any discussion of Black history at any of them.
Here at the museum, those missing narratives emerge as artists of color tell their own stories. In Charles White’s Wanted Poster Series, a woman stands on an auction block, holding her young son close against her with her hands on his shoulders. Her eyes are dark, and she carries herself with an inheld strength. A sign above her head reads sold.
Tom Feeling has invoked men in chains, diving into the sea in the swirling currents of The Middle Passage.
“Of the more than 12 million enslaved people brought from Africa,” says the caption beside his charcoal drawing, “only 10.7 million survived the Atlantic crossing and the dire, inhuman conditions aboard cramped, disease-ridden ships.”
Daily acts reveal larger stories
Phillips-Pendleton opens the show with images made in the 1800s, at a point when printing technology in America was growing, and she examines narratives that she sees often put to use in reinforcing a society based on slavery.
In popular culture, commercial companies were manipulating emotion then as they do now, she said, and studying their brands and images can expose the fears and needs and cultural tides they were riding.
‘If we study advertising and culture, and even fashion, people always talk about the trends, but the trends also relate to race and politics and propaganda.’
“If we study advertising and culture,” she said, “and even fashion, people always talk about the trends, but the trends also relate to race and politics and propaganda. What was the trend that sold products in the 1800s?”
She considers advertisements of the day, popular books and popular entertainment. Minstrel shows appeared across the U.S. then as a genre of performance based in caricature and racial bias, and the characters they enacted give clear examples of stereotypes that consciously or unconsciously reinforced homophobia — the older Black man or woman who serves a White central character, the enslaved man supposedly happy with his lot, the free Black man man embarrassed or humiliated for comic relief, the teenage rebel the story will subdue.
“And then when you put emancipation and reconstruction in there,” she said. “If (people who have been enslaved) are emancipated, and they’re not working in the homes, how do we sell these products? They used the images of the mammy, the slave, oh it tastes just like — … that’s why Aunt Jemima’s so popular.”
‘They used the images of the mammy, the slave … That’s why Aunt Jemima’s so popular.’
Aunt Jemima quickly became a familiar household image, Phillips-Pendleton said. Advertisers printed her image for hundreds of thousands of people. Seen in this light, the image of a Black woman wearing a head scarf and serving pancakes holds layers of cultural messages.
So does the chef on a box of hot cereal, far more than a man smiling by the stove. Rastus, the advertising figure for Cream of Wheat, takes his name from a character in Joel Chandler Harris’ Song of the South — an enslaved man, an embodiment of the minstrel stereotype who would walk through a plantation singing zippedy-doo-dah.
The power of seeing those images repeated constantly could have life or death consequences, Phillips-Pendleton said — and it still can today. Within the show she offers examples of illustrations that have turned the tide of elections and led to violence.
“When tensions rose in Reconstruction,” she said, “and people were in polarized places, the North, the South, when people said) we’re not doing this, you can’t make us — the images were propaganda.”
Seeing them, people would lash out, she said — “We’re going to keep it that way — we’re going to make sure they will never be equal. And it’s still happening.”
As she traced these currents 200 years ago, she and Plunkett recognized the same kinds of patterns in popular culture and politics today.
“… While all of this was going on with the show, Stephanie and I would have these Zoom calls considering what’s going on in the country in the last year, 15 months, and we were thinking, how is this any different? It was amazing how similar it all was, and is.
“On any given day, something would happen in the news, and we were saying ‘this is like the 1800s’ — it was those kinds of revelations we were having on a regular basis.”
‘On any given day, something would happen in the news, and we were saying ‘this is like the 1800s’
The kinds of stereotypes she examines here in minstrel shows still carry forward, she said. They are still embedded in contemporary pop culture and film.
“When you have a saturation of it through generations,” she said, “it takes that much time to undo a lot of it, to bring it to light …
Artists represent their own stories
By the late 1800s, though, artists and writers of color were taking a stand in this space of popular media and speaking back, challenging these narratives and raising their own stories in their own images.
Black-owned newspapers and presses emerged in 1827, with the publication of Freedom’s Journal on the East coast, and grew with the support of journalists and leaders — Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells and many more. W.E.B. DuBois published The Crisis, the journal of the NAACP.
Among the artists on these walls, Phillips-Pendleton shows the ties of a growing community. Ernest Crichlow was teaching art classes with the Federal Arts Program in the 1930s and painting WPA murals, when he founded the Cinque Gallery with Romare Bearden, who would become one of America’s foremost painters.
Bearden took classes with Augusta Savage through the Harlem Artists Guild, and Crichlow too knew her met friends in her Harlem studio — a gathering point, the show says, for artists like Charles Alston and Norman Lewis. …
Finding works from their time could be a challenge, she said, and an excitement. At first, in the pandemic, borrowing from other museums proved difficult — so Plunkett and Phillips-Pendleton went questing.
“Because we were doing this in Covid, in lockdown, we couldn’t get many of the pieces we wanted,” Phillips-Pendleton said. “(We’re looking for) early 1900s, Harlem Renaissance, and many museums wouldn’t lend to us, because they were understaffed and had decided we’re closing down our lending right now.”
But she found people who shared her interest and her love for these artists.
“We met so many people who had work,” she said. “The showcase that’s in the historical gallery, most of that came from Leonard Davis — he had has that work in his apartment in Manhattan, and most of it’s never been outside the walls of his apartment. It was like mining for gold. …
“People had Charles White pieces just hanging on their walls … Oh, you want to show this? I have a piece of that — I have a Gary Kelly. I’m glad a lot of these pieces are seeing the light of day, because they should.”
Plunkett found a book dealer in New Jersey with material on his shelves.
“She was on her way out the door,” Phillips-Pendleton said, “and the bookseller says oh, I have this — and it’s E. Simms Campbell’s map of Harlem.”
His exuberant inside view of the city shows the nightclubs he knew well in 1933, gathering places pulsing with the energy of the Harlem Renaissance.
Redrawing the future
Phillips-Pendleton hopes to represent many different aspects of illustration in this show, she said — all kinds of expression, from comics to serious pieces to children’s books to music, to history.
“Illustration is so vast,” she said, “and it’s everywhere. People don’t realize that. You see it everywhere — it embeds itself in the culture.”
‘Illustration is so vast, and it’s everywhere. People don’t realize that. You see it everywhere — it embeds itself in the culture.’
And so, journeying through the past, however hard and bloody, she brings the show into the present with people living and touching, dancing, laughing, thinking quietly and with joy. Here are Loveis Wise’s loving images of women caring for plants, holding children and braiding each other’s hair. And here are children inventing games, reading, beating out rhythms on the front steps and the city streets — and exploring new planets.
“That expression (of playfulness), we thought it was really important,” she said, “because there is a lightness when you’re creating books and images for children, and everybody has a way of communicating and should be able to be expressed and seen. … We have connections with the past and how important that is presently and for the future, and I don’t think they’re separate things — they’re extentions.”
Rudy Gutierrez’ John Coltrane is pulsing in colors of paint, reds and golds and filaments of green, and the music Gutierrez has curated for this show spins around the room. Nina Simone is singing —
‘There’s a world waiting for you —
yours is the quest that’s just begun …’