A Case of Black-on-Black Censorship of Art

Article excerpt

ROBERT Colescott likes to compare himself to Richard Pryor.

At first, you wonder what these men have in common, except they're both black.

Colescott is an internationally known artist, who studied in Paris. His work is in major museums from New York to San Francisco. His long list of honors includes two NEA grants and a Guggenheim fellowship.

But Colescott, like Pryor, has an outrageous sense of humor. His art hits hard at the establishment - black and white. His parodies can make whites uneasy and blacks angry.

Now Colescott has done it again. This time in St. Louis.

One of his paintings, on loan to the University of Missouri at St. Louis, has been yanked from display after complaints, mostly from blacks.

The university's Artwork Review Committee wrote a letter explaining why it should be taken down.

". . . We have received several compelling arguments for removing it from public display," the letter said, "based on the power the piece possesses to evoke negative and hurtful stereotypes of African Americans and of inter-racial relationships."

The letter had this stunning contradiction:

"From the feedback we have received, it is the consensus of the committee that despite the artistic and social importance of the piece, it serves little, if any, constructive educational function in its current context."

Colescott's artistic and socially important work was hustled off to a storeroom, where some 12,000 university students could not see it.

The work is "Natural Rhythm: Thank You Jan van Eyck." It's a parody of the Flemish master's "Marriage of Arnolfini." Van Eyck's painting created a nasty rumor for centuries. The way the bride's dress is bunched in front, you wonder if she's pregnant. (She's not.)

In Colescott's version, there's no doubt. The beautiful bride is robustly pregnant. She's also black. The groom is white and wimpy.

"What?!" said Colescott, when I broke the news. "I did that 18 or 19 years ago. St. Louis must be behind the times."

Colescott was surprised this work would stir up trouble.

"It's actually a very pretty painting," he said. "It's a gentle nudge at art history. African-Americans have been ignored in Eurocentric art history.

"The title is a pun. We've all got rhythm, and there's also the rhythm method, which doesn't always work. That's why she's pregnant."

If anyone should complain, he said, it's white men.

"I made the groom even uglier than in the original. The young lady in question is not stereotyped at all. She's just a young lady with a black skin and black features."

For black Americans, image is a sensitive issue, Colescott said.

"Some African-Americans want the image dark, but not too dark. To please that group, I should make her a suntanned white woman. Then they'd be happy. But I'd offend the other group, who'd ask why she doesn't have more African features.

"I get this all the time," he said. "What happens is this:

"Some African-Americans see my painting and get upset. Then the curators get nervous. We don't want to upset black folks, because then we'd be racist, and we're not racist even though we belong to a white club and live in a white neighborhood. So if a black person complains, we must take it down because we are good liberals.

"But it's still censorship. It's up to the university to educate people about that painting. If they take me down, then they'll take down someone else for some other excuse."

The university says your work enforces "negative and hurtful stereotypes."

"If they want to talk about negative stereotypes, my dad was a stereotype. He was a waiter on the railroad. Now I am a painter, who studied with a master in Paris. Tell them to bring something to art - don't just react."

But react - and quickly - is what the university did. …

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