Archive for March, 2015

So here’s this: Southern US strawberry festival sparks a race row

Okay so, in 2009 when Bill Hemmerling died Clancy DuBose wrote…

In 2009, Bill was successfully represented at ART EXPO in New York, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and FI-ART in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. He has been honored by the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Northshore Regional Endowment for the Arts, and the African-American Heritage Museum in Aurora, Illinois, which praised “Brother Hemmerling for his tireless effort of presenting a body of work with honor and dignity.” In addition to creating the 2005 New Orleans Jazz Fest poster, Bill also was the poster artist for the 2008 and the 2009 Strawberry Festival in Ponchatoula.

So, at various points in the past, festivals, art organizations, publications, museums and expos have held the art of Bill Hemmerling up and said that it was worthy of acclaim and should be celebrated. White organizations, black organizations, organizations of mixed races, they all said it. Galleries were started. Articles were written. Exhibits were opened. Hemmerling, inexplicably, just got a pass on the questionable imagery he used in his art. He did the same stuff that is on the Festival poster. He was white. He was from Ponchatoula…and he just got a pass.

So when it is said that the organizers of the Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival “should have known better” as I have read online, than to put a very similar painting by Kalle Siekkinen, who had been personally tutored by Hemmerling, I guess I have to ask. Should they have?

Maybe they looked at the acclaim heaped upon Hemmerling by ART EXPO in New York, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, FI-ART in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Northshore Regional Endowment for the Arts and the African-American Heritage Museum in Aurora, Illinois, and maybe they thought, “Well the images seem legit enough for them. They are renowned organizations. I guess we can put it on our Strawberry Festival poster.”

And the reaction on social media was, “No!!! Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival!!! You do not get a pass! You are dumb, country, white, racist people who offend and outrage us! We don’t exactly know if the people who organize the festival are but they MUST be! Only academics, curators, (big city) festival organizers and people who we generally consider (but don’t exactly know for sure) are NOT dumb, country, white, racist people can do it! We know they are doing it in a historical context and we know YOU ARE NOT!”

It would seem a more pointed and direct approach to address the concerns with the imagery with the organizations that legitimized it in the first place. The ones that essentially enabled the Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival. I’m talking specifically about ART EXPO in New York, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, FI-ART in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Northshore Regional Endowment for the Arts and the African-American Heritage Museum in Aurora, Illinois. I fully encourage people to do this if they find the images offensive.

Not gonna happen though.

Online outrage goes after low hanging fruit and that fruit is the Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival. Trying to explain how Hemmerling’s art was able to receive such attention in the first place is a harder nut to crack. Why did he get a pass? It probably has something to do with #standing. Ponchatoula Strawberry festival aint got none. ART EXPO in New York, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, FI-ART in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Northshore Regional Endowment for the Arts and the African-American Heritage Museum in Aurora, Illinois do.

Receiving far less publicity even though I think it addresses a more pressing and immediate social and racial concern is the artwork that was displayed in Oakwood Mall this week. This student’s artwork and the (much smaller) controversy surrounding it seems far less abstract and debatable than the Ponchatoula piece. Fear of police is a daily issue for us all. That there are police who do their best to serve and protect but are thought of as murderers is an issue. The huge rift of trust between this student and the police that have vowed to protect him perhaps represents the top social ill of our time. This student made a piece of political art and spoke his voice. This is important and it is critical to our freedom of expression.

But the story has seemed to have sputtered out while the festival poster has gone worldwide. Why? There are protests in Ferguson right now about police killings. Doesn’t this student’s art reflect how concerned he or she is about their future? Somewhere in the local area a student watched protests in Ferguson and was inspired to do something with his or her emotions on the matter and the story of it being pulled from an exhibit was just a blip on the media radar. Why was the Festival poster so sexy and this very relevant one not?

I guess because it’s an easier story to report: Small town white folks are ignorant and racist. Gets reported all the time in all sorts of ways.

Yet somehow RT EXPO in New York, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, FI-ART in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Northshore Regional Endowment for the Arts and the African-American Heritage Museum in Aurora, Illinois are not ignorant and racist despite doing the same shit.

Personally, I try not to communicate the African American experience in my art. I empathize with it but I don’t sympathize with it. I think I know it but I don’t actually know it. I have some depictions of African Americans themselves in my art. But, they aren’t meant to communicate anything about their experience in our Universe because I am not qualified to comment on it. It’s their story to tell. I wouldn’t have even tried it if I was Hemmerling. Maybe he felt stronger in his empathy than me. He went ahead and gave it a go and (for reasons I don’t agree with or even understand) was accepted for it. Looks like his pass has expired now. Or maybe his pass goes on and Kalle Siekkinen’s gets revoked.

On a side note, this week I have also heard some of the worst interpretations of art, on both sides of the debate, about this poster, about other works. Yes, art is subjective. Somehow, somewhere people became convinced that simply having an opinion or a feeling is enough. Validation of either was just not something they feel they need to present if asked. If someone sincerely wants to understand your emotions and opinions, “You just are never going to understand” or “It’s just how I feel” or “It’s just my opinion” is really upsetting. Someone is trying to relate to your opinions and feelings and it would help not to get defensive about it.