Change Come

Scars on my psyche: that’s the message scrawled onto the center of Stay Cool Br’er. It’s a vicious painting—full of ambiguity and a kind of horror that borders on the erotic—inspired, in part, by a true story about an uncle who was harassed by the Ku Klux Klan.

Michi and Dosa Kim call their recent collaboration at Beep Beep Gallery Br’er—an ambiguous homage to Br’er Rabbit and the stories of Uncle Remus, a figure that, today, recalls the history of Jim Crow and other racist traditions. A survey of these paintings reveals a handful of visual motifs: tar babies, barbed wire, and panicked handwriting in English and Korean script. The artists’ statement sums it up:

Br'er is the conflict of two artists from very different ethnic backgrounds, disciplines, and design philosophies collaborating in an obvious contrast and clash. Inspired by children's stories that have been appropriated and misused as propaganda to perpetuate cultural stereotypes or beliefs, robbing the original story of its youthful nature.

Dosa Kim, an ethnically Korean artist, and Michi, an African American, imbue their Br’er series with a playful yet sinister impression of that unique experience called “growing up in the South.”

Appropriating imagery from the tale of Little Black Sambo, Ghee from India attempts to reconcile two very different visual personalities. A massive, mythological tiger-snake coils about the image surface. The result is a little oppressive, leaving only a few closed-off circles of pastel blue, pink, and green. Of the three largest paintings, this one provides the most evidence of stylistic conflict. It seems like a brilliant concept that, sometime during its execution, ground to a halt before finally reaching a compromised solution. Between those serpentine loops, you can see pockets of Michi and pockets of Kim, each performing confidently in compartmentalized space. The sacrifice was the areas in between.

Compare that to Change Come, one of the other big paintings. Here, the two artists achieve a much more eloquent synthesis. Although it competes with the outrageous appeal of Stay Cool Br’er, this particular image—with its snarling hulk-of-a-rabbit and his stylish rooster companion—was probably the biggest visual success of the show. Br’er Rabbit is rendered in an opaque, greenish-black, applied distinctly by Kim. But what could have been solid areas of paint are reduced in size, strategically, leaving only these slashing tendrils of tar. The remedy allows you to see Michi’s abstract colors and patterns through the veins of Kim’s monster.

Although a little boring in other paintings, Michi’s signature diamond-shape motif serves a very clever purpose in this image. These diamond marks, suggestive of the patterning on folk art quilts, double here as the outline of a chain link fence. A hazy scene emerges from behind Br’er Rabbit, adding a bit of urban realism and poignant contrast to the cartoon figures in the foreground. A young black man is having a rather unhappy encounter with an Officer of the Law. The artists juxtapose the scene with an unexplained pink pistol, floating like a satirical icon of violence, and the equally unexplained message, “Change come!”

This is the sort of narrative content that made the Br’er show special. There’s a common argument—often cited in typical university lectures on modernism—against the overt use of text in a visual work of art. Words can sometimes have a negative effect by imposing a static meaning on the audience. But Kim and Michi avoid that pitfall by using phrases that slur and obscure their meaning. Statements like “Stay KKKOOL BR’ER TRUE,” “Asian teef,” and “self relexting” have very little regard for conventions of spelling or syntax.

The whole Br’er concept, it seems, was created to use these appropriated stories to literally invade the exhibition space. Take opening night for example, an event that featured a live storyteller who periodically yanked “volunteers” from the audience to play various Br’er Rabbit characters. And in the paintings, although the execution varied, the thematic logic remained consistent: the localization of those abstract concepts called “culture” and “history.” Even the scribbled message, “lunar eclipse 8:46 2/20/08,” spoke to an event I could see from my own backyard.

I had the chance to speak with the purchaser of Jockey Free, a painting that incorporates symbolism from the Underground Railroad. Apparently, what’s known today as a “lawn jockey” was originally a signpost to mark safe houses for runaway slaves. But what this particular spectator took away from the show was a mixture of scandal and a sincere, thoughtful appreciation for the stories of Uncle Remus.

Returning to those local, traditional stories makes a lot of sense. After all, Br’er Rabbit is a myth that originally, in its East African form, was a tale about the value of hard work. The title of that story was “Wakaima and the Clay Man”—a far cry from “Br’er Rabbit and the Tar Baby.”

And it’s precisely that calculated ambiguity—somewhere between nostalgia and suspicion—that gives Michi and Dosa Kim’s collaboration its depth. In order to grapple with the uglier heritage of the South, these two painters appropriate those old mythologies, and, in the style of a small-town, country preacher, perform an exorcism in paint.

2.23.08 - 3.23.08 Beep Beep Gallery

More reading on Uncle Remus and the history of Br’er Rabbit:

Uncle Remus: The Complete Tales, by Julius Lester, 1999. An updated, politically correct presentation of Uncle Remus.

Uncle Remus: His Songs & His Sayings, by Joel Chandler Harris, originally published 1880. The original Remus stories as told by Harris, writer for the Atlanta Constitution.

Wakaima and the Clay Man, by Ernest Balintuma Kalibala and Mary Gould Davis, 1946. Presenting the lesser known, East African version of Br’er Rabbit and other stories.