Curator's Corner

Confronting Racism with Art

By Karl Cole, posted on Sep 14, 2020

Unfortunately, African American artists in the 2000s continue to confront similar concerns that their forefathers addressed during the Harlem Renaissance. After nearly 100 years, issues of racism, job inequality, and repression of African American culture are ongoing, inspiring many Black artists to reflect these realities in their work. The history of that inequality is often the springboard for contemporary African American subject matter, including the work of artist Michael Ray Charles.

Michael Ray Charles (born 1967, U.S.), The Target of Opportunity Gameboard, 1995.
Michael Ray Charles (born 1967, U.S.), The Target of Opportunity Gameboard, 1995. Acrylic latex and copper penny on paper, 60" x 36" (152.4 x 91.4 cm). Image courtesy of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY. © 2020 Michael Ray Charles. (AK-135)


Charles uses standout examples of racist imagery in many of his works: the pickaninny, Aunt Jemima, little black Sambo, and minstrel shows in which white performers would wear black face. These entities are presented with flat patches of pure color in the standard palette of old-fashioned advertising. In The Target of Opportunity Gameboard, Charles uses his signature combination of phthalo blue under black with some highlights of red, emphasizing the darkest of Black skin tones, another feature of historical racist advertising.

The Target of Opportunity Gameboard is one example of Charles’s juxtaposition of the 1800s image of the “pickaninny” (children of Black descent, from the Creole English of Surinam for a child: pikin ningre) with the ages-old (i.e. still relevant) problem for African Americans, particularly men, of undue persecution by police. The artist has presented the subject in the guise of a sideshow shooting gallery game, where the highest score is not for shooting ducks in a row, but rather a bullet to the head of the African American male.

Charles was born in Lafayette, Louisiana. He received a BFA from McNeese University, Lake Charles in 1989, having studied advertising and graphic design. He received an MFA from the University of Houston in 1993. As a child he may have been exposed to remnants of vintage racist imagery in Louisiana, but he surely encountered the ugly stereotypes of Black people from the 1800s through the 1900s during his study of U.S. advertising history. Since 1993 he has created a body of work that highlights negative images of African Americans taken from vintage advertising, billboards, packaging, and television commercials that he then places in contemporary situations. 

The juxtaposition of old-fashioned racial stereotypes with contemporary situations encourages viewers, particularly white viewers, to reflect on the historic racism of the images and, in a contemporary context, to reflect on current stereotypes of African Americans in relation to sports “heroes,” music industry stars, and other Black celebrities. While some critics agree that Charles’s work points out the continual history of racism in American society, other critics believe that the images reinforce the old stereotypes so that the message eludes some non-Black viewers, no matter how blatant the mocking images can be.


Correlation to Davis programs: The Visual Experience 4E: 1.5