Black Collectibles (2004)

Black Collectibles represents an examination of black people as seen in cartoons, advertising and painting history from the 1800s to the present. Arvie Smith's use of imagery that stereotypes blacks as passive or happy characters with silly grins, bugging eyes, big teeth, and flaring nostrils could be seen as offensive. But in recent years, powerful entertainers and academics including Bill Cosby, Spike Lee, Oprah Winfrey, and Henry Louis Gates have built significant collections of similar cultural material (art, posters, cookie jars, salt & pepper shakers, etc) as a means of understanding and keeping a dialogue open about the history of their race. The ownership of such troubling images is complex, but no more complex than living with and trying to make sense of this history today.

Smith is clearly locating his work in this context, and by calling his show “Black Collectables” Smith, as a black artist, is insisting that his work can be consumed and critical at the same time. Smith, along with contemporaries including Fred Wilson, Robert Colescott, Michael Ray Charles, Glenn Ligon and Renee Green, are making significant art about the history of racist images, what they mean, and how they affect the present and future.

Smith says, “By reducing and enlarging these images, in fact by the sheer fact of painting these images, I am forcing the viewer to solidify the memory of these stereotypes. By NOT FORGETTING, I hope to facilitate the eradication of racism.”

Black Sambo