- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 16, 2002

Visitors to a new exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art are greeted with a warning: "Due to the sensitive nature of 'Looking Forward/Looking Black,' we encourage parents, guardians and teachers to preview the exhibition before touring with young viewers."

The disclaimer, however, comes into view only after the centerpiece of the show has caught the viewer's eye. Three taut, confident action figures are superimposed on side-by-side images of products that have long influenced and reflected the perception of blacks in the national consciousness: Aunt Jemima waffle mix and Uncle Ben's rice.

With such a bold and exciting inversion of stereotype, how can a curious visitor resist?

The 1998 mixed-media piece by Renee Cox, "The Liberation of Lady J and U.B.," announces the show's intention of exploring and reworking the representation of blacks in art and commerce in the 20th century.

The exhibit "shows the persistence of stereotypical imagery of blacks in this country, and how stereotypes and a certain type of racism are communicated by images," says Helen Molesworth, who curated the traveling show for its stop at the museum. "Contemporary art, through its investment in these images, can work on this problem."

Ms. Molesworth stresses that the show, which runs through May 5, is not intended for a specialized audience.

"I hope people don't think it's only an exhibition for Black History Month or for an African-American audience. I think it's a pretty vibrant exhibition of contemporary art in general," she says.

In "The Liberation of Lady J and U.B.," the issue of mass-marketed black stereotypes is confronted by three young warriors, whose photographic images seem to burst through a large vinyl print of the waffle-mix and rice boxes still found at grocery stores everywhere. Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben occupy the upper left and right corners, with beatific, nonthreatening gazes.

Their liberators, on the other hand, are assertive and highly sexualized: two women in thigh-high leather boots, one wearing a black bikini and the other in a one-piece track suit that recalls the late Olympian Florence Griffith Joyner. The man is shirtless, with rippled muscles. Young, tough and virile, they are everything that Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben were never allowed to be.

"Looking Forward/Looking Black" also explores the subject of blackface, particularly in a series of self-portraits by Beverly McIver. In two works titled "Loving in Black and White," the artist depicts herself in blackface and period dress, as a caring and nurturing slave or servant. In one, she nurses a white baby; in the other, she lays her head in the lap of a white man.

Ms. McIver imbues scenes of tenderness with palpable racial tension, encouraging empathy while also acting as a provocateur. In the painting with the white man, a watermelon slice sits on a shelf above his head. By including the fruit used to mock blacks, Ms. McIver explores how the legacy of minstrelsy looms over contemporary interracial relationships.

Slavery is also addressed, never more starkly than in a series of photographs appropriated by Carrie Anne Weems. The mug shot-style daguerreotypes were taken in 1850 of slaves owned by a South Carolina man. Photographed frontally and in profile on each side, the woman included in the exhibit appears implicated in a crime.

But Miss Weems, in "Untitled From the Sea Island Series," gives the woman a nobility the picture-taker did not see by blowing up the photos and framing them like traditional portraits.

"It's an extraordinary work about the relationship of photography to history," Ms. Molesworth says.

In the final room of "Looking Forward/Looking Black," visitors get one last shock: an image, in stark silhouette, of a black girl stealing a chicken from a coop. She has ripped the bird's head off and is drinking the blood gushing out of its neck. Kara Walker's "The Keys to the Coop" is meant to represent the coop owner's worst nightmare.

WHAT: "Looking Forward/Looking Black"

WHERE: Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive, Baltimore

WHEN: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 5 to 8 p.m. the first Thursday of each month (free admission) and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekends, through May 5

TICKETS: $7 for adults, $5 for senior citizens and college students with IDs, free for those 18 and younger

PHONE: 410/396-7100 or online at www.artbma.org

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