Who Do You See When You Look at Me?

I am so passionate about art because it is a mirror and a crystal ball. It shows us who we are and at the same time who we could be. True creatives often use their craft to help us see, and hopefully, see beyond the lies and misrepresentations – we can really use that now.

The French artist, Edgar Degas, said, “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”  That is a powerful message and an even more powerful mission. A stellar example of that power is Sons: Seeing the Modern African American Male, a current exhibition at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum in Baltimore. It is the work of Charlotte-based photographer and filmmaker, Jerry Taliaferro who photographed 34 African American men and then challenges the viewer by asking, “Who do you see when you look at me?”

In his artist’s statement Taliaferro writes, “Recent events point to the urgent need for conversations about the contemporary black American male. Sons is a humble attempt to reveal how black American males see themselves while encouraging a thought-provoking examination of how they are perceived. Perhaps this project can be the start of a conversation.”

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Who do you see when you look at me?

When you enter the Sons exhibition gallery you start in a section called “Perceptions,” black and white photographs of just the faces of black men. The images are not identified, labels only ask Taliaferro’s provocative question. There are no clues or social cues to depend on for your answers; simply faces making your assumptions a testament to your experiences and beliefs.

As you move further into the gallery you enter the “Realities and Reconciliation,” area.  The same subjects from the previous section are named and identified through short bios as well as videos that are accessible using QR codes that you can scan with a smart phone or tablet. Once identified, you see men who run the gamut of the black experience. You can hear them talk about their experiences when others’ perceptions of them are inconsistent with who and what they really are. Dr. John T. Bullock, a Towson University professor and recently elected Baltimore City Councilman, talks in his video about what he and his wife, Jacquelyn, call the “Double oh!” When he introduces himself as a professor, or now as an elected city official, he often gets that surprised look and response, “Oh! Oohh! So, you’re a councilman?”

The video by comedian, Jason Weems, is a heartbreaking contrast to his occupation as he talks about having to keep his son from playing with a toy gun in the park fearing that a childish game of cops and robbers could lead to a real-life cop shooting first and asking questions later. Other subjects—all sons and fathers—include a hospital administrator, a county executive, a police officer, a disc jockey, a musician, a tech executive. community activists, educators, and attorneys; they demonstrate the diversity of black men, however, their experiences are strikingly similar.

Dr. John T. Bullock and his son, Thomas Joseph.
Dr. John T. Bullock and his son, Thomas Joseph.

During the preview, I had the opportunity to meet several of the men who are subjects in the exhibition. Many attended with their own sons and I was impressed by the confidence and optimism they exuded. Through Jerry Taliaferro lens these black men are now art, and to repeat the words of Degas, “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” Sons forces you beyond the perception to see, really see, fathers and sons—black men—as they are and as they hope to be—mirror and crystal ball.

Sons: Seeing the Modern African American Male is on view at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture through 2017. If you’re in or near the Baltimore area, please go. It will change the way you see.

You’ll find more information on the exhibition and there’s a short film featuring some of the men in the exhibition at, http://lewismuseum.org/special-exhibition/sons-seeing-the-modern-african-american-male

 

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