“Ain’t Yo Mama on the Pancake Box?” asks the title of a red-and-black satin wall hanging lined with gold-and-black print fabric from Senegal. Two tar-black “darkie” caricatures grin out from the middle of the piece, above a photo transfer of a 1920s Sunlight Soap ad with a black baby hovering over the phrase “so clean and white.”
“You try not to accept stereotypes, not to believe them, and that takes work,” says artist Venus Blue. “When I was growing up, that was the joke–“Ain’t that yo mama on the pancake box?”‘ Though making jokes may be one way of coping with negative images, Blue’s current exhibit, “Fact, Fallacy, and Illusion: Historical African-American Imagery,” takes a more direct approach by confronting the images. The exhibit includes various representations of African-American culture along with chilling depictions of slavery. “To understand how certain stereotypes developed, you have to go back in history where they started,” she says. “It helps to make the connections about why people expect certain people to act a certain way.”
The 45-year-old artist has always looked to her heritage for inspiration. She grew up in Chicago, but often visited her grandmother in North Carolina, and these trips became a strong influence on her art. In Separation Day at Auction, a wall hanging with photos of women and children being sold into slavery, cotton balls from a North Carolina plantation decorate the bottom along with Louisiana and Georgia Confederate dollars. “When I saw those photos in a book, I said, “I’ve got to put this in a quilt,”‘ says Blue. “I put myself in those women’s shoes. I know what they felt. The women could be sold one way and their children another. They were praying to God that they would be sold with their family intact.”
Blue entered the School of the Art Institute in 1977, focusing mostly on pottery and fiber arts. But, she says, “I don’t consider myself a quilt maker. I didn’t come by it traditionally.” After selling pottery and wall hangings, she got a job teaching art at Urban Gateways. Blue has been commissioned to create works for the Cultural Center and the Field Museum. In 1994 she was named artist of the year by the ETA Creative Arts Foundation and also won the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest arts fellowship to Australia, where she studied aboriginal culture and art making.
“Being in Australia has helped me transcend worlds. I have a stronger sense of the way oppressed people are able to survive despite the odds. From one generation to another, aborigines have been affected by negative images the same way we have.”
Blue says that stereotypical images of blacks will continue to show up in her work. “Some black people don’t know that these things existed. We have a way of sweeping things under the rug in this country. There’s a general lack of consciousness of man’s inhumanity to man. I want everybody to look at themselves. This show is a learning experience for everybody. I felt a need to show that some of the African-American images are not fact–some are illusion and some just fallacy.”
“Fact, Fallacy, and Illusion: Historical African-American Imagery” runs through March 10 at Satori Fine Art, 230 W. Superior, 11 to 6 Tuesday through Friday, 11 to 5 Saturday, and by appointment Sunday. Call 751-1883 for more info.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Alexander Newberry.