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Transforming Anew: Artists Reinterpret Black Male Identity

Chanel Compton looks to the past to understand the present in her masterful collages.  Installation image courtesy of the Prince George's African American Museum and Cultural Center.

Chanel Compton looks to the past to understand the present in her masterful collages. Installation image courtesy of the Prince George’s African American Museum and Cultural Center.

At a time where tensions between African American men, in particular, and law enforcement are at an all time high, there is a hunger to consume the complexities of “black male identity” in the entirety of its spectrum.

The first exhibition of 2015 at the Prince George’s African American Museum and Cultural Center has garnered its largest opening as the works attempt to contextualize that need.

“I am an artist, an activist, a program director, a teacher, a citizen, a person with equal rights, a person with a voice, a person that is no different than any other person on the face of this planet,” says Nehemiah Dixon III, featured artist alongside Chanel Compton and David Ibata in the exhibit, Transforming Anew: Perspectives of Black Men at the cultural center’s art gallery.

In February 2012, 17-year-old African American Trayvon Martin was fatally shot by George Zimmerman, a then-28-year-old White Hispanic man. The high school junior and Miami Gardens, Fl. resident left a convenience store after purchasing a bag of skittles candy and an Arizona Iced Tea when he encountered his killer, a local neighborhood watchman.

At the time of his attack, Martin was clothed in a hoodie. In initial images of Martin distributed by the media after the incident, the teen was seen in a hoodie.

For decades, the hoodie has been associated with the young, urban individuals raised in impoverished neighborhoods ridden with crime and drug infestation– individuals who are often black men.

“There’s a difference between me wearing a hoodie and someone else from a more suburban neighborhood [wearing one],” says Dixon, who grew up in Washington, DC and Prince George’s County, MD. “I think its silly that certain articles of clothing are looked upon as negative, but it’s gotten to the point where schools are banning hoods from being worn in classrooms and it has become a sign of rebellion.”

When a Caucasian CEO wears a hoodie into a board room, he’s seen as hip, Dixon continues, “But when I wear it to a store, I’m followed around by a sales associate or I’m looked at like I’m about to do something.”

In the Martin case, where Zimmerman was eventually indicted, and later acquitted, the hoodie was used as a symbol of solidarity where everyday individuals and celebrities alike could be seen wearing the garment in protest. In Perceptions of Black Men, Dixon sculpted four black hoodies utilizing epoxy resin based products, bubble wrap and armature wire to create his piece, Suits of Armor.

Powerful-- Dixon's sculptural disembodied hoodies eerily haunt the gallery space.  Image courtesy of the Prince George's African American Museum and Cultural Center.

Powerful– Dixon’s disembodied hoodies eerily haunt the gallery space. Image courtesy of the Prince George’s African American Museum and Cultural Center.

As the eerily disembodied works of art hang in the gallery, so do the lives of young black men wearing hoodies that render them both vulnerable and protected.

“It could happen to one of my students, it could happen to me, it could happen to a neighbor,” says Dixon, who ultimately decided to provide this perception of the black male image because of his proximity to the Martin event. Unlike the riots of the ‘60s and years of black oppression beforehand, “this was eye opening and it felt important to speak about it in a very physical manifestation of how are you actually seeing me… are you seeing me for who I am or are you seeing me the way that you feel I should be looked at. It was important for me to express that.”

For Compton, who, as an African American woman, interacts with black masculinity on a different level, the past fuels the present in Perspectives of Black Men. Her contribution, two large-scale collage portraits, pay homage to an early wave of African American resistance in the stories of Charles Ball and Nat Turner.

Enslaved in Calvert County, Md., Ball escaped from slavery and enlisted in the War of 1812. “It’s a part of county history that not too many people know about,” says Compton who was inspired by Ball’s autobiography, Fifty Years in Chains; or, The Life of an American Slave.

A rebel in his own right, Nat Turner is most noted for organizing and leading of a slave uprising in Southampton County, Virginia in 1831.

In her pieces, Compton interprets each man in their youth, in a time where physical and emotional resistances were beginning to fester. Much like Ball and Turner’s 19th century struggles for freedom, a similar sentiment rings true today. “Young men of color are still being racially criminalized and there is definitely a strong sense of resistance because of that,” says Compton, education director of the museum’s Culture Keeper’s youth program.

In an artistic collaboration that left each artist in moments of solitude and discourse, the exhibit brings viewers one step closer to perceptions that widen and examine the expanse of the black male experience.


For more information about the Prince George’s African American Museum and Cultural Center go to www.pgaamcc.org

This exhibition will be open during the Gateway Open Studio Tour on May 9, 2015 and is stop #19 on the map for more information go to www.gatewayopenstudios.org

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Authored by: Christina Sturdivant

Christina Sturdivant is a Washington, DC native freelance writer who studied print journalism at Hampton University. Currently, she writes about national issues in higher education and local issues surrounding cultural, community and artistic development in the city. In her work, she most enjoys sharing the viewpoints of change-makers and implementing learned values into her daily life. She is also heavily involved in the Washington, DC non-profit sector and is the Founder of D.R.E.A.M. Life, Inc., an organization which provides mentorship and resources to young, single mothers in the DC metro area.