Invisible minorities

A friend of mine came to town a few months ago, and we decided to visit the Vancouver Art Gallery. The featured exhibit was comprised of drawings by Renoir, Tolouse-Lautrec and Dégas, regarding the changing view of the modern woman through artistic expression in the early 20th century. I was delighted to see the drawings, because I love seeing how art intersects and fuels changes in the overall cultural understanding (there’s that zeitgeist word again). However, the thing that captivated my attention most was up on the third floor – a collection of works by American painter Kerry James Marshall:

Marshall’s paintings depict primarily African-American figures, using formally diverse art historical methods that speak to the visibility and invisibility of “blackness” in the history of western art.

My favourite painting in the collection was this one:

From far away, it looks like an all-black canvas, perhaps an abstract expressionist piece. However, closer inspection reveals this (click to enlarge):

It depicts a bedroom scene in which a couple lies together in bed. The walls and rest of the apartment are decorated with black nationalist trappings – there is a flag of the Black Panther Party on the wall, books by Angela Davis, a great number of other things that are completely invisible from the first cursory glance. The fascinating thing about this painting (the reason why it’s my favourite) is that it’s all done in shades of black. The people and the details of their lives are completely invisible unless you take care to look closely.

Such is the reality of race in North America – a casual glance completely neglects the richness and diversity of the populace and our history. We lose many things by failing to look closely, and in some cases it’s a bit more dire than a simple lack of understanding:

Exit 67, director Jepthé Bastien’s compassionate story of a young Haitian gangster, is a first for Quebec cinema: it features a predominantly black cast and is set in St. Michel, a poor, multi-ethnic neighbourhood in northeastern Montreal that is largely ignored by the mainstream media… “These kids are a product of their environment. Many are poor. They have been failed by family and the system,” says the director. “In Quebec, we don’t really like to acknowledge that [the Haitian offspring] were born here. They are the ‘other.’ But they are our children. We need to take care of them and we don’t. They are simply clientele for the penal system.”

I’m sorry that this movie is only screening in Quebec, since it does have application to many other communities we tend to overlook. The consequence of ignorance about something like race is that we fail to address it until it’s too obvious to ignore, at which point we treat it as a crime problem or a poverty problem or any number of other things that neglect the underlying issues. Once again, education can be used to raise our consciousness about a number of issues that we have no idea even exist. This time art is being used for its intended purpose – to hold a mirror up to society.

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