There must have been a thousand 35mm transparencies packed into the metal slide case I purchased long ago. Once used to illustrate a late 1960s Black History course, it seemed wrong to leave the box sitting outside in the hot flea market sun. I figured I’d find a home for it – maybe in a proper archive. There seemed to never be enough time to assess the entire set, so years passed and it moved around Los Angeles with me to 11 different apartments and houses over the course of 28 years.
When African Americans began to protest police violence all across the country a few years ago, I watched, horrified by the endless stream of police over-reaction killings of black people. A glaring light was shined on the deep, enduring racism I mistakenly hoped had diminished in America. Consequently, I felt the need to make a visual response to the ongoing systemic abuse.
After beginning work on The Republic, I recalled the rusting gray steel box on the shelf in the cellar. Its contents covered vast amounts of time, from slavery in ancient Nubia to segregation in the 1950s. Buried in the collection were many copy slides, all fading into pink, of antique news engravings depicting slavery in the American South. Since the visibility of white supremacy escalated during and since the presidential election, many of these images have been republished in the news, but in the early summer of 2016 these illustrations were unfamiliar to me.
Omitted from our history schoolbooks, the antique engravings reminded me of family china patterns of my youth, only replete with racists and slaves. Merging the illustrations into reconstructed presidential china patterns allowed me to navigate the difficult subject of slaveholding presidents, offering subtext to the supposed civilization and culture set around historic dining tables.
When I learned that President Woodrow Wilson’s second wife Edith Bolling Wilson created The China Room at The White House, a collection displaying all the dinnerware of prior presidencies, my interest peaked. I had recently read that Mrs. Wilson was potentially somewhere on my remote family tree and also that the Ku Klux Klan was particularly emboldened, if not enabled during Mr. Wilson’s time as head of state.
More recent presidencies are represented in this series, with plates depicting controversy or tragedy caused either by their leadership or during their terms. These works incorporate archival photographic imagery and I am indebted to The Library of Congress for use of their incredible collection.
As President Obama was about to leave office in 2016, there was a collective sense of doom felt by Liberals. Many of us worried that this incoming government would reverse the progress made under Mr. Obama’s leadership. My need to honor him resulted in a dinner plate turned backward with only its china label visible.
As we wrestle with corruption and the defiance of Democracy, I found myself bombarded by negative imagery and branched into a series of works based on souvenir flow blue dinnerware reflecting more heroic figures. I am especially including women here, as their exclusion from government and historic record has been profound, yet their contributions to life are vast.