Prints Providing a Catalyst for Change: A Guest Post by Erin Hughes, MA Candidate

Cover image: The Black Panther Party Newspaper, March 9, 1969

“They are in effect still trapped in a history which they do not understand and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.”
James Baldwin
My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the
One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation, 1963


On June 2nd, two new exhibitions opened at USF’s Contemporary Art Museum, bringing with them a full schedule of events throughout their stay in Tampa. Black Pulp! and Woke! bring with them endless opportunities to engage with and discuss the current status of race relations in our nation. Black Pulp! contains over one hundred years of African-American representation in print works, while Woke! contains works by William Villalongo and Mark Thomas Gibson, the curators of Black Pulp!. Between the two galleries, all who enter are sure to be engaged by the striking works from over a century of print.

William Villalongo, You Matter, 2015

These exhibitions provide a unique venue enabling people of all ethnicities an avenue to learn. The importance and focus are African-American identity and representation. Visitors have the opportunity to engage with these historical and contemporary artworks, ideally making connections to the systemic race issues woven throughout society. The status of race relations in America cannot and will not improve until we engage with each other, conversing about our past and present. These works can provide the spark for such debates as each is deeply infused with some aspect of historical or contemporary racial issues, both personal and systemic. Often, systemic issues are easily overlooked because they are not happening directly to someone. Artworks can provide a bridge to a more personal meaning and understanding, leading to dialogue and engagement between viewers and members of the community who may not typically engage with each other.

Kara Walker, Alabama Loyalists Greeting the Federal Gun-Boats,
from Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated), 2005

Artists such as Kerry James Marshall and Kara Walker, both with works in Black Pulp!, have spent their careers bringing African-American identities into museums and the larger art world. Marshall interjects Black characters into a traditional comic book, placing representation where it has been lacking. Walker’s work in the exhibition also interjects the African-American image but in a much more jarring manner. Over an appropriated image from Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (1866), Walker places a screenprint of a Black silhouette, literally placing the image in a history that has ignored the presence of real-life African-Americans. Each artists’ work addresses the importance of representation and presence while challenging previous representations and caricatures. There is a vast history in this nation that many, regardless of ethnicity or upbringing, are unaware of, be it by ignorance or naiveté. Art may not solve this but the dialogue generated from exhibitions like Black Pulp! and Woke! can begin to open our eyes to the array of cultures that are present in this country. In turn, this may produce a better understanding of our history.

Wallace Thurman, The Blacker the Berry, 1929. Dust jacket by Aaron Douglas

In addition to contemporary works, Black Pulp! contains a rich selection of printed books, newspapers, and album covers that will be on display. Works representing Countee Cullen, Aaron Douglas, the Black Panther Party, and many more are on display. The richness of these items cannot be limited by mere words, or at least not with my own! Having artists from the Harlem Renaissance (1920s) represented in the same gallery as publications from the Black Panther Party (1966-), comic books along with copies of The Crisis (1910-), and all who attend will have a once in a lifetime experience. Not only will the strength and creativity of a vast population be presented, so will the inability to enclose this community into one box. The deep richness of people who have been knocked down, trampled, and forced to battle in ways others have not will be represented on the walls of CAM through July 20th. It is my hope that as many people, of every background, will pass through the doors to broaden their knowledge of our history as a nation. And may this gained knowledge of our history bring about changes for our future.

Erin Hughes
MA Candidate, Art History
School of Art & Art History
University of South Florida

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