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Conversations with Visual Artists: H. Ike Okafor-Newsum (H. E. Newsum)
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_____________________________________________________________________ PHOTO ESSAY Conversations with Visual Artists: H. Ike Okafor-Newsum (H. E. Newsum) Joseph Kitchen H. Ike Okafor-Newsum (H. E. Newsum), chair of the Department of African American and African Studies at The Ohio State University, created this provocative mixed-media installation to capture two prevalent images of Black men in American popular culture: the yard jockey and the athlete. The symbolism of these representations goes far beyond surface appearances. In conversation , Newsum provided insight into the creation of this installation, its inspiration , and the consequences of this imagery. In explaining the dual imagery of Black men in American society, Newsum describes the yard jockey as reminiscent of the buffoon or sambo character , while the athlete performing a “slam dunk” represents Black men as “brutes.” In both cases, he feels that these representations of Black men prevail in popular culture. He renders the yard jockey, traditionally a vibrant figure, impotent by striping him of color and, by extension, power. The statue rests in a flowerbed, representing innocence, to suggest that this image of the buffoon or sambo character has been normalized in American culture. Furthermore, Newsum explains that the concept of Black men as brutes—represented by the slam dunk image—is a product of the American post-Civil War Reconstruction era, when Black men were deemed not useful to slavery. At that time, Black men were characterized as violent, brutish, and attracted to all White women— all attacks on their character meant to diminish their humanity. Photo essay 117 The artist explains that by characterizing Black men as brutes or buffoons , it becomes easy to criminalize them, to marginalize them in society, and to incarcerate them. There is very little space for Black male identities that deviate from one of these two stereotypical characters in the current American popular culture mindset. Newsum calls attention to media portrayals of Black male athletes and the violent behavior of a select few (such as Ron Artest’s role in the Pacers/Pistons brawl, colloquially referred to as the Malice at the Palace ) as well as popular images of Black men as buffoons in many recent television programs or movies to support this claim. In the case of The Two, the images may appear innocent on the surface, but their historical roots shed light on their symbolism. The perpetuation of such images may only serve to further denigrate the Black male character in the American psyche. 118 S P E C T R U M 2 . 1 H. Ike Okafor-Newsum (H. E. Newsum) The Two, 2010 Mixed-media installation Dimensions variable Photo essay 119 H. Ike Okafor-Newsum (H. E. Newsum) The Two (detail), 2010 Mixed-media installation Dimensions variable ...