“The Rise And Fail Of The N-Word”

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THE RISE AND FAIL OF THE N-WORD- A FINE ART EXHIBITION

“It is an exquisite, grotesque, moving case for reparations”

                                     -The Arts Paper, New Haven

“The Rise and Fail of the N-Word,” which presently consists of 33 – 37 beautiful and provocative mutli-media and acrylic paintings, mostly by artist Rhinold Lamar Ponder, addresses our collective inability to have honest and productive discussions about race, justice and inequality in America. Despite our society’s dysfunction, more and more people across races, ethnicities, religions, sexes and sexual preferences desire to have intersectional discussions about injustice and inequality centered around race.  The purpose of The Rise and Fail of the N-Word Traveling Art Exhibit and related programming is to serve as a prompt to facilitate those conversations and meaningful reflection on these issues: the exhibit does this by centering its creative expression around the word “Nigger” reflecting and exemplifying the complexity of 400 years of oppression, pain and resistance.

This critically acclaimed exhibition focuses on works by artist Rhinold Lamar Ponder and includes his groundbreaking project of logos, created using the word “nigger,” by hired designers from around the world through a common on-line marketplace.   Each of Rhinold’s stunning works is connected by issue-inspired series: this includes “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot, Shot Damn,” framed panels representing the tragic encounters between unarmed individuals and law enforcement officers; the “Maafa: Ghosts of the Atlantic” series  which drags the viewer into an ocean of black bodies; “Keloids and Scars,” black and brown leather canvases painted by whip; and large black and white “Nigger” paintings where literature, art history and ideas about race converge to disorient and provoke the viewer.

The project is accompanied by poetry, created specifically for this project, centered around the word “Nigger.”  The poems are mounted alongside the art work for consideration and reflection.

This exhibit, filled with narratives and emotional power, offers us all an opportunity to consider these issues from a creative perspective and gives us a chance to develop a common language so that we can gain a mutual understanding of the impact of racial injustice in America and all our lives.  This project is designed to serve as a healing force as it provokes us to collectively re-examine our environment and perceptions of the world and one another.

The “Rise and Fail of the N-Word” was first exhibited at Princeton University in 2014. In 2018, the project was exhibited, with the support of the William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund, at the Kehler Lidell Gallery in New Haven Connecticut. 

If you or your organization are interested in supporting or hosting this exhibition, please feel free to contact the artist by e-mail (rlponder@aol.com), Facebook (Rhinold Ponder) or fax 609.228.5851.

THE GALLERY

THE PURPOSE

Why are we focusing art on the word “Nigger?”

Despite the apparent rise in xenophobia and racism in America and abroad, there is a heightened desire in others to better understand and address centuries of division, mistreatment and injustice based on race, and by extension religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity and other immutable characteristics.  Our ability to communicate across differences is hampered by our differing perspectives, lack of empathy, poor listening skills and the absence of a common language. In order to find common ground, we must be able to communicate with one another.

Our collective dysfunction is most outwardly evident around the word “Nigger.” The word draws a societal range of emotions and actions that seem to be filled with more contradictions than rationality.  Our reactions to the word, collectively and individually, reflect the complex nature of racial relationships, the prevalence of white supremacy and the struggle for anti-racist resistance and reformation.  Addressing the word “Nigger,” and its various roles in our society, through art can create a “safe” environment for honest and productive discourse encouraging critical thinking and problem solving.

“The Rise and Fail of the N-Word” is designed to be more than an art show: it is a trans formative experience.

We believe that art, a healing force, may be the perfect way to jump-start a dialogue we have so much difficult entering into verbally. Art can challenge us to experience one another and ourselves beyond the literal and verbal.   For me, art (and this exhibit) is primarily an act of social action in favor of justice and equality for the disadvantaged and disenfranchised.  Central to the struggle for social justice in America and abroad, is addressing how Africans have been dehumanized and treated as commodities for centuries since the Atlantic slave trade.  Our focus on the word ”Nigger” through art challenges us to focus on improving a harmfully racialized society.

THE WORK

The project starts from the premise that the concept of “race” is a living fiction.  It was a lie created, perpetuated and expanded to rationalize the subjugation of one group of the human race over other members of the human race.  At the very core is the notion that one group of people is “inferior” to another group.  This notion of white supremacy and black inferiority is woven deep into the fabric of American life from the Constitution to our culture.

Still fictions can have real life implications.  Racial fiction is realized in daily life as “racism.” For many, the word “Nigger,” is  the lowest, most vile real life expression of the notion of racial inferiority that persists to this day.   Whether the word “Nigger” stands alone or is accompanied by death, terror or physical mutilation it is most often a weapon supporting white supremacy.  However, for others it is a word with a more complex history.  It is also a battleground of identity and anti-racist resistance.  It is a word that has become a popular term of endearment and power for others who refuse to cower to the word or allow it to be owned by oppressors and racial terrorists.  

“The Rise and Fail of the N-Word” attempts to contextualize the complex history of Africans in America and the diaspora.  Below are short descriptions of come of the work included in this exhibit. I offer some hints regarding the artist’s thoughts and intent behind the creation of the work.  But the artist does not offer this as the definitive meaning of the work.  If there is such thing as a “definitive meaning” it is developed in perpetuity in interaction with the viewer(s), collectively and individually.  


The exhibition consists of work from several series. 

Most of the work in “The Rise and Fail of the N-Word” exhibition currently is selected from the following series: 1) Maafa: Ghosts of the Atlantic; 2)Hands Up, Don’t Shoot, Shot Damn; 3) Nightshade, Optic and True White Series; 4) Abstract Nigger Series; 5)Trayvon-Martin Silk Screens; 6)Keloids and Scars and 7)The Nigger Logos by various anonymous artists.

The series are focused on specific themes but the works are interconnected through art and American history.  Or put another way, the works are connected through the history of America’s adjustment to the immoral, inequitable and unjust treatment of people of color.

The exhibit usually opens (or closes) with the Welcome Nigger Mirror (mixed media, including found and cut mirror, tape and frosted paint).  The mirror begins by inviting the viewer to be part of the exhibit.  It challenges the viewer to immediately consider what a “nigger” is within the context of being framed as one in a distorted image of oneself.  Are you a “nigger?” Is a “nigger” who you are?   


 

 

Optic White,  Nightshade and True White series are interrelated and inspired by Ralph Ellison’s book “Invisible Man” and the black on black and white on white modernist/expressionist work of artists such as Robert Raushenberg, Robert Ryman and Piero Manzinni.  The paintings address the theme of racial fiction and the creation of racial identity based upon that fiction. Collectively, they challenge the meaning of “white” and “black” as well as evoke the concept of human invisibility and lost identity on canvas.

For example “Optic White: Invisible Man,” the “Nigger” is barely distinguishable form its surroundings.  Here where the word “Nigger” assumes a physical form of its own personality, it is cloaked in a field of matte white.  It can be seen, but it is lost because the viewer must make an effort to see the design, details and the individuality of this particular “Nigger.” Of equal significance is the whiteness of the nigger, challenging the common notion of what the “nigger” really is? “Nightshade: Invisible Man” is the black on black response to Ralph Ellison’s literary depiction of the invisible man who is seen but not seen.

Yet, it is the “True White” series, which like Ellison, puts the common racial color narrative to the test. The True White paintings are variations of portrait pinks like the different skin pigmentation one might actually find on a so-called “white” human being. Not only are these paintings not the “optic white” for which the paint in Ellison’s tour de force is named, but hte works are not totally monochromatic. Each works reveal some part of the black under-painting, an allusions to the fact that all modern humans are descendants of Africans. In some of these works, the meaning is emphasized by selected text affixed to the revealed black sections of the True White works.

The “Nigger Rich” paintings have multiple meanings  like the word “Nigger” does.  Generally the paintings refer to the economic conditions dehumanized people face in America. “Nigger Rich” is a term which is most often a reference to the diminutive value of one’s wealth in relationship to the wealth of rich whites.  “Nigger Rich” refers to minor or fleeting wealth.  


Strange Fruit: High Tech Lynching or Suicide?
“Strange Fruit: High Tech Lynching or Suicide?: This multimedia painting is a reference to three of the most public trials in American history, all involving Black men and challenging the established media images of blacks. The televised Thomas hearings (October 1991) were probably a precursor to reality TV.  It was the first time America got an up-close view of the spectacularly bright black professionals in our society. It was also the event where Thomas, not known for caring much for black people in general, played his “race card” and called the hearings a “high tech lynching.”

The trial of the century (November 1994 to October 1995) featured O.J. Simpson, a black man, raised in the projects as a boy, who thought he had overcome race with his famed athleticism and personality.  Accused of murdering his white blond wife, his trial captured the attention and the ire of much of white America.  O.J. was found not guilty at the end of the 11 month trial but the verdict racially divided an already racially divided country.  Despite the verdict mainstream media and white America continued to treat him as though he were guilty.

Then there was the heavily publicized trial (2005) of iconic artist Michael Jackson who did “mutilated” to the concept of race — a not so subtle reference to the changes in his physical features, from African to categorized, over the years.  Although Michael was on trial like a black man, despite the weakness of the case against him and his universal gravitas,  his decision to pay the accuser’s parents made him an American pariah.  It was not until he died that his image was resurrected with love. The question not answered in this painting is was the “high tech lynching” of these prominent black men really a lynching or was it the fault of the victims. The lynched man on the other side of the tree, a body from long ago, was clearly a victim.


The Trayvon-Martin silk screens were hand drawn to pair Trayvon Martin, the young victim, with a ghostly, barely perceptible image of Dr. King in a hoodie. The tragic killing and aftermath  reflected and perpetuated the notion that a black boy ’s life is “inferior”to other lives. The shooter’s heightened sense of superiority during the encounter with Trayvon led him to a “heroism” that fit the fiction of race but not the reality of a young man enjoying life in his own neighborhood. Much of society also perpetuated the idea that the value of Trayvon’s life was decreased by the emotions his presence provoked from others.

This series of paintings also reflects upon Andy Warhol’s silk screen-work and speaks to how central race is to pop culture. While Warhol was a master at appropriating and re-purposing contemporary images and ideas, his understanding and contemplation of race was practically non-existent despite his few pieces silk screens of black celebrities and the famed “Race Riot” paintings.


The “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot, Shot Damn” series consists of multi-paneled paintings representative of the hundreds of unarmed people (mostly of color) killed by police annually. The work celebrates the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement while reminding the viewer that society has not progressed far enough in the perception and treatment of people of color.

Description of the “Nigger Logos”

I hired 20 people –10 international and 10 Americans– through an online service called Fiverr to create logos using the word “Nigger.” Given the negative impact that bias an racial prejudice have on creativity and American culture, I hypothesized that the Americans would generally have a more difficult time dealing with the assignment than the international designers. I had no idea how this d”difficulty” would manifest itself,  but I instructed all artist to avoid black and white logos.   In short, most of the International logos were very creative and half of the Americans could not follow the only real instruction I gave: “No black and white logos.” My take? Our dysfunction around race, racism and the N-word not only reflects our inability to collectively deal with nuance, it also shows how our creative energies are diminished because of this fiction called “race.” What do you think?

 

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