With Fresh Eyes

Beyond the Face

By Rich Nelson

16-year old Andrew Johnson is on the wrestling team at Buena High School in Atlantic County, New Jersey. During a December meet, he was ordered by the referee to cut his dreadlocks before competing, or he would forfeit his match. He grudgingly agreed, and his hair was cut in the middle of the gymnasium, in front of his teammates, the opposing team, and the spectators gathered for the meet. In front of everyone.

The referee never entertained the option of allowing Andrew to wear a cap attached to his headgear to cover the longer hair, an established policy previously employed at other meets. Andrew Johnson, who is African-American, was shamed by the white referee, who has a documented history of racial bias. Prejudice reared its ugly head once again at that wrestling meet last month. New Jersey Democratic Governor Phil Murphy issued a statement that read “No student should have to choose between his or her identity and playing sports.” The Superintendent of the Buena School District said “We are deeply troubled by the embarrassment and humiliation our young student athlete endured.”

Such episodes of injustice can be challenged in various ways. Artistic expression is one such way. Locally, the Muskegon Museum of Art has launched its winter exhibition “Sons: Seeing the Modern African American Male,” on display at the museum through March 10. Featured is the photography of nationally-renowned artist Jerry Taliaferro. His portraits in this exhibit include Muskegon residents of all ages and occupations and are designed to explore how African American men perceive themselves and are perceived by others. The artist’s statement reads, “The exhibition is both timely and relevant. Recent events point to the urgent need for conversations about the contemporary Black American male. Any effort, however humble, to foster an understanding of this largely misunderstood and often marginalized segment of the American population is of utmost importance.”

The museum visitor enters the exhibit to a set of images showing just the faces of the sitters, without disclosure of the men’s identities. One of the featured participants compares these photos to mug shots, with the implication being that black men, on first glance, are often viewed with suspicion. It is the intent, in this initial portion of the exhibit, to challenge the viewers’ assumptions based on first perceptions. The identities of these men are then revealed in a second set of photographs, viewed in full portrait with biographical narrative. It is there we discover their rich diversity, their commitment to family and community, their varied occupational paths. It is there where assumptions are shattered. It is there where we look beyond the face, and where understanding and empathy begin.

A full portrait reveals much. One participant, artist J. Arthur Sanders, is a gentle, quiet man. His portrait in this exhibit captures that reserved nature. Closer examination, though, disclosed in his eyes, tells of a man with a curiosity and zest for life that has defined his artistic accomplishments. As with all the men portrayed, we now see and understand in a clearer light.

The Muskegon Museum of Art has long championed diverse offerings, evident from its disparate exhibitions, programming and collections. Its permanent collection holds works by such prominent African American artists as Richard Hunt, Hughie Lee-Smith, Elizabeth Catlett, Romare Bearden, and Whitfield Lovell. The exhibition “Sons: Seeing the Modern African American Male” adds to the museum’s distinct achievements. It awaits your presence.

Contact Rich at richmskgn@gmail.com