Art Exhibit Confronts The N-Word

DAVID SEPULVEDA PHOTOSCareer High School student and New Haven Arts and Ideas fellow Taryn Joseph could not have been more animated and excited to share her reaction to a “painful” painting with its creator, artist Rhinold Ponder.

Joseph was among a group of students who happened upon the opening reception for Ponder’s “The Rise and Fail of the N-Word: Implicit Bias and the N-Word Living in Our Subconscious,” an exhibit at Westville’s Kehler Liddell Gallery on Whalley Avenue. The exhibition runs through March 18.

Ponder was happy to engage the group of students and wondered which works had connected with them. For Joseph, the connection to Keloids and Scars 1, a painting that is more representational than its abstract elements may suggest, was visceral: “The painting popped out — like a slave being whipped. The red representing blood, and the peeling is like skin. It’s a painful piece,” she said.

Next to Keloids and Scars 1, a fractured mirror faces the viewer with printed bold words: “Welcome Niggers.” A subtitle at the base of the mirror reads: “Enter post-Nigger America where ‘The N-word is dead’ and everyone or no one is a Nigger.”

During a conversation with the artist, moderated by clinical social worker and therapist Enroue Halfkenny before a standing-room-only audience, Ponder described his own visceral reaction in making the piece. The artist made Keloids by dipping a whip in paint, then snapping and slashing it on up-cycled leather remnants sewn together by the artist’s wife, Michele Ponder. During the act of creative if not therapeutic flagellation, Ponder acknowledged a sense of unexpected “power and exhilaration.” When painting the keloids, the raised “scars” bordering the original “wounds,” Ponder said he cried. “But when I was whipping it, it felt pretty good,” he said.

“The Rise and Fail of the N-Word” includes a large group of painted and mixed-media works by the artist, spanning a variety of techniques from the painterly to those more graphically oriented.

Ponder has degrees and varied careers in journalism, African-American studies, and law. He studied graphic design in his early years, developing an aesthetic that presents itself in his work today — both overtly, as in a piece depicting a hooded image of Trayvon Martin alternating with a hooded image of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. …

… and in Hands Up Don’t Shoot, Shot Damn ll.

Ponder’s design sensibility is suggested more subtly in Strange Fruit: High Tech Lynching or Suicide? This mixed-media painting uses a mash-up of techniques.

Ponder is aware of the critique that his paintings don’t settle on a singular, unified mode of expression, as is often expected of the “mature artist.” But Ponder is unapologetic. He sees every painting as a new opportunity to explore and express. “The image dictates the technique” he asserts. “Plus it’s more fun that way.”

To be sure, the n-word is explicitly portrayed in strong graphic terms throughout the exhibition, both in Ponder’s paintings and in a substantial group of paintings he commissioned as part of an experiment with a number of international and American artists. Ponder hypothesized that Americans would have a more difficult time graphically presenting the word “nigger” because of America’s history and sensitive association with the word. Anecdotally, we are told, Ponder’s theory proved correct. He said some Americans showed frustration in not follow directions or complying with requirements in not using black and white. “They had difficulty in seeing beyond black and white,” reads an informational panel.

The beautifully designed fonts and graphics presented in this series reinforce the notion of the word “nigger” as a kind of brand: “Nigger is nothing but a marketing tool to make one group that’s oppressed feel better than the other group that’s oppressed,” said Ponder. “The narrative I’m trying to get to is the narrative that we change how we treat each other, and we don’t do that without changing how we think about each other.”

“Not being a racist is not enough,” Ponder asserted during his talk, in which he called for a more proactive effort on everyone’s part in fighting racism and the paradigm that gives rise to demeaning and controlling words like the n-word.

Many of the works in the exhibit are accompanied by short narratives or poems, some written by Ponder and some by friends and acquaintances of the artist. In the poem “Power,” by Felix M. Hester, the poet writes:

In the beginning was a word,
And it was never good
Not then, not now, not tomorrow
No matter how many ways it’s uttered

It is a difficult lesson learned by many who have breached cultural mores regarding the n-word’s use — regardless of the word’s variants, which can end in er, ah, a, or simply repeated in song, as in the recent case of a Southern Connecticut State University adjunct professor who was suspended after students complained of his use of the n-word when he, reportedly, accompanied a rap song.

Last year comedian Bill Maher, who is known for an edgy and non-politically correct slant, came under fire from the right and the left after jokingly referring to himself as a “house nigger” on his HBO show Real Time. Many called for his show’s cancellation, but some gave him a pass after his immediate, and apparently heartfelt, apology.

The n-word is sprinkled throughout Collective Consciousness Theatre’s current production of Sunset Baby by African American playwright Dominique Morrisseau. Its repeated use singes the ears, but does not cause third-degree burns. The dialogue rings truthful and sounds appropriate in the context of the play.

Robert L. Pellegrino, New Haven attorney and author of the recently published I See Color: Identifying, Understanding and Reducing Our Hidden Racism: A White Perspective, explained that he personally would never use the n-word, suggesting that no white person ever should. “What other ethnic group would ever tolerate the use of ethnic slurs directed at their group?”

Toward the end of the artist’s Q and A with the audience at Kehler Liddell, one woman fought back tears as she sought answers about how we as individuals and society can begin to turn the tide against racism and its tools — like the n-word. The exhibit does not hold the answers, but it is effective in holding up a mirror. It provides a catalyst for self-examination and a long, overdue dialogue.

The exhibit runs through March 18 at the Kehler Liddell Gallery, 873 Whalley Ave. A performance and discussion hosted by Literary Happy Hour’s Hanifa Washington happens on Thursday, March 15, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. There will be a closing event and moderated roundtable discussion on Saturday, March 17, 6 to 9 p.m., with Enroue Halfkenny. The exhibit and upcoming events are sponsored by the William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund, whose stated mission is “to achieve equity in education by working with those affected and inspiring all to end racism and poverty.”

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