Friday, March 22, 2013

The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, Smoking Sambo "A Wash in a Cultural Deluge"

  I attended my first Chicago art show in the 1990's, in a walk up loft. One artist, a short perky white women with spiky blond hair, a midwestern farmer's build, in overalls, approached me. Clearly I was spell-bound by one of her pieces, so she proudly and cagily introduced herself. The day was hot and I'm sure she could sniff the scent of a sale. It was a 1920's card board "Smoking Sambo" sign, she matted in a black frame. Classic Old Black Sambo dressed up to sell cigarettes, still rooted in racism and shame, which I thought was her idea behind it.

When I said something about, being deeply moved, she eyed me strangely throwing me off balance. This occurred long ago, but the conversation came down to her having no knowledge of Black minstrel entertainment and commercialism in America.  Smoking Sambo was just something  "cool" she found in her great aunt's Alabama home.  When I gave context she seemed put off, like I'd tainted a good memory.  In turn, I was floored that she'd completely white washed the representation of great suffering and oppression, replacing it with her sanitized version.

Out of both feelings, a sale was made. 

I "liberated" "Sambo" for 100 dollars, more than I'd ever spent on one item. I can still feel the tension, confusing, and bad feelings, -that continue to divide Black and white America-, as she carefully wrapped it and thanked me, clearly happy for the sale, yet confused and disturbed that I wanted it. As the other ship passing in the night, I want it, not in my home, but buried in sacred ground, after a Mambo or Bokor, performed rites of cleansing, removing evilness that created it

 and bad spirits in which it lived . Instead, I buried it in a closet. 

Three years ago a friend from New York sent me a book about an artist named Betye Saar entitled "Extending The Frozen Moment" 

I'm still mesmerized by her work including her a series, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima. 

In America the "formalities" of historical Black oppression are sometimes taught. Yet the deep psychological methods furthering white supremacy, get ignored, continuing to create, control, promulgate, and perpetuate, the negative cultural narratives of Black people. I'm always amazed at the amount of white women today, who still love Gone with The Wind, which perpetuates the happy, docile, and dumb slave myth, at the foundation of arguments still made, that slavery wasn't always a bad experience for Black people. 

The terms "aunt" "auntie" and "uncle"  were pejorative familial terms to address older Blacks by whites. Aunt Jemima, created in 1899 , off the violent reversal of the progressive Reconstruction Era, represented the return of the "happy Black slave" who gladly put the white master and his family, first.  

Betye Saar "liberates" Aunt Jemima, by making her bigger and "Blacker" ( considered negative), while replacing the white baby with a modern handgun and rifle.  Another image is  "Aunt Jemima" on a washboard holding a rifle. The "boxing glove" speaks for itself.

Smoking Joe now hangs at the end of my hallway. Now, as an amateur collector, of what I call "Black Holocaust Remembrance Art, I learned mine is an original.

Disturbingly, a small but growing population of white America, Europe and larger in Asia are

now "into" this art, including China which now mass producers fakes sold on eBay. The fake Smoking Joe  sells for up to 100 dollars.  It's impossible to tell new from old card board on eBay. Also on the back of the authentic ones are instructions in setting up the cigarette in the figure's mouth. The name of the company "United" is also printed.

I also collect old "race" post cards. It's amazing that images so hateful were purchased for messages so trite, which is what Hannah Arendt meant in "Banality of Evil". It's easy to find these originals on eBay although they're getting more expensive. Some I purchased for two dollars years ago now go for 30 dollars like the Black man (above) being eaten by the Alligator.  Alligators feasting on Black children are also popular as well as cartoonish images of wanton and highly sexualized Black women barely dressed. For over 200 years these cards traveled across American, celebrating holidays and birthday, etc, viewed by those who handled them along the way to their final destination for the intended audience, as part of the conditioning of white supremacy. Is it any wonder why American race relations are so toxic? 

These "Zulu-Lulu" drink sticks were a gift. Dating back to the 1950's "Mad 'white' Men" Era, representing among other ideals that Black female children " Nifty at 15" can be blatantly exploited for sexually for commercial gain.

Nola's French Market is where "all Louisiana", hot sauce , elaborate Mardi Gras beads, hunting knives, cook books, art, seasonings, plants, masks, cold beer, clothes, bags of ready to eat spicy craw fish, toys,  alligator friend on a stick, belt buckles, etc, etc, are sold. 

Pre Katrina, at the market's end, out of the shade, working poor vendors, mostly Black and African, participated for free on a first come basis, peddling all manner of Louisianan flotsam and jetsam. On my first trip I happened on (a sign labeled " Rich Caju-Creole State Sale") of boxes and crates that looked straight from NOLA's version of Fat Albert's Junk Yard. Sleeping in its mist, under a huge picnic table umbrella was a mid 60ish emaciated cadaverous looking white male in a dirty and tattered white suit. My then girl friend who use to live in NOLA, quickly tried to pull me away. There is a
strange kinetic energy between myself  and the strangest NOLA denizens, which meant numerous conversations and stories where ever I go.  Quickly he opened one eye and the rest was history. He had a thick Creole /Cajun Southern accent and claimed these remnants were the last of his families's estate. He said he moved out of their planation estate ( showing pictures of a large house half consumed between mold and swamp) and now lived in an SRO in Baton Rouge, an admitted chronic alcoholic on public aide.

 Over the next two hours, he described his mothers"famous" restaurant, that never obeyed prohibition, in a original creole colony, that soon thrived as a trading village along the Atchafalaya swamp, because of his father, the mayor, who died of a heart attack while eating at the restaurant.  His mother married the next mayor a Cajun who in one night gambled away the restaurant, and the village's finances the next, then disappeared forever into the swamp.  He cried when describing the ruined village with only 300 people left. I purchased beer and crawfish which we ate in three lawn chairs for sale. 
When my girl friend and I, went to get more beer and crawfish, she refused to go back, saying if she had to watch him eat any more, she'd throw up and the reason his skin and eyes where so yellow and runny with thick liquidness was because of jaundice. She told me to meet her in half hour at the bar across the street. I used the heat and humidity to explain her absence, but I think he knew. I went thought boxes of mostly junk, purchasing for twenty dollars (because my generosity with the food and beer) two cast iron skillets and the cast iron signs below from his mother's restaurant. I scrubbed away most of the rust and touched them up with white paint.  

What brought all this to mind, was an article in last Sunday's New York Times entitled  "A Wash in a Cultural Deluge, written by Roberta Smith. What really caught my attention was the first photo below of Black Americana Minstrel Art and the artist's Chinese name, Charles Wong. 

I was suspicious when I saw a Guggenheim award named  "The Hugo Boss Prize"  that actually went to Danh Vo, born in Vietnam and reared in Denmark, who "conceived" and "orchestrated"  Charles Wong's art for the exhibit.  The article stated that the award's overlap "with Asia Week is fortuitous".  Which I guess is why the museums associate curator, Katherine Brinson, who seems to have preformed the same job as Vo, only got a mention. But Smith meritoriously,writes  (by stringing together her own collection of unneeded fifty cent words) that presenting other people's art, as art, is now nouveau.

Wong, described in the article as "a denizen of the East Village during its art heyday of the 1980s and early ’90s", seems interesting enough, as other immigrant artists who adjust well to America.

Unfortunately, the article doesn't get into his life, tragically shortened by AIDS, that forced
 his return to  San Francisco to spend his last days with his parents. Equally notable is that Wong was primarily a painter, but the Guggenheim seems only concerned with his collection of ethnic figures, "Less well known is the fact that he seems to have been an obsessive accumulator, with an omnivorous, erudite eye; broad tastes; and a sharp sense of an object’s social and cultural connotations". 

But what does this mean? Because by themselves these figures are politically meaningless at best. The writer states that "One of the show’s many subtexts is the frequency of racial stereotypes — in this case African-American and Chinese — in popular culture. It also drives home a more diffuse point: Just about any small, mass-produced, glazed-ceramic animal or human is to some extent demeaning." 

This seems far more speculative platitudes, to head off any possible criticism of racial insensitivity about presenting the collection at the Guggenheim. And  as most of these figures are produced in China as Americana kitsch, I'd say Wong collected these figurines, not to liberate or present them as a cultural critique, but as a Chinese immigrant who adopted the playfully non political gay thespian white male kitsch culture that mirrored the non political considerations of the women who sold me Smoking Joe. Especially given, both 

the sheer amount and diversity of "stuff" collected( which negates any political  purpose or critique) and that as the article states, Wong was "aided and abetted" in a "lifelong buying spree by his mother" Florence Wong Fie. "Their acquisitions included everything from ancient jade or ivory archer rings to dusty campaign buttons; from Disney characters in various materials and scales to original cartoons by Clay Wilson and Victor Moscoso; from sheets of Chinese, Arabic and Tibetan calligraphy to numerous printed cards, booklets and books. There is a circular feng shui compass as well as Wong’s drawing of one; an ordinary lamp with a ceramic Chinese sage for a base that appears in a very early painting of Wong’s that is also on view; and a white-glazed porcelain figure of a many-armed Indian Hindu goddess, a Mother’s Day gift to Mrs. Wong Fie, still in its box, which her son inscribed to “A little lady that always has her hands full.”" 

Most certainly Asians, especially the Japanese during WWII transcended to a level where they became targets of commercial scorn, especially with Cartoons. 

However, it never approached the level or expanse of the "Black minstrel", existing on a level of "American stereo type hazing initiations" that all ethnic groups experienced as the price for their choice of leaving their motherland for American opportunity.  

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