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Detail of Aidah Muluneh, Sai Mado (The Distant Gaze), 2016

Exhibition Home

Backtalk: Artists on Native, African, and African American Stereotypes is part of a collaborative, broad-reaching examination on the persistence of racial and cultural stereotypes. Following the vision of Johnnetta Betsch Cole, director emerita, National Museum of African Art (NMAfA), to examine stereotypes across cultures, this online exhibition explores how select visual artists interrogate and engage racial and cultural stereotypes in their creative practice. The curatorial team chose to focus on a diverse group of artists from various backgrounds, geographies, and contexts who are represented in Smithsonian Institution collections and have addressed intersecting themes and subjects relevant to the impact of cultural and racial stereotypes. A by-product of the 2017 symposium “From Tarzan to Tonto: Stereotypes as Obstacles to Progress Toward a More Perfect Union,” sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museums of African Art, African American History and Culture, and the American Indian, Backtalk features works by nine 20th- and 21st-century artists who capture, reflect, and/or speak back to the stereotype.


Gender Exhibition Section

Mickalene Thomas, Portrait of Mnonja, 2010


Politics Exhibition Section

James Luna, Take a Picture With a Real Indian, 2010

Historical Narratives

Historical Narratives Exhibition Section

Mary Sibande, Sophie–Merica, 2009

The exhibition addresses three general themes—gender, politics, and historical narratives. We examine how the gendered spaces created by the artists engage issues of race and gender as they play out in the history of representation. These images contest racial essentialism and challenge expectations as well as longstanding ideas related to gender norms. Images of the political body reveal anxieties of being and belonging, allegories of liberty, and the ironies of citizenship in a nation fraught with racial tension. By considering historical narratives, we present works in which contemporary identities and histories collide. The artists challenge historical assumptions and destabilize Western power dynamics by unveiling the profound influence of colonization and racism on the writing of history. All of the works in Backtalk speak from the perspective of the “Other,” and invite us to rethink the impact of institutionalized racism and sexism on issues of individual identity, authenticity, and the history of representation.

Artists have long been at the center of the creative critical reactions and responses to the power of stereotypical narratives. The select artworks in Backtalk: Artists on Native, African, and African American Stereotypes reveal how art can confront the vagaries of history and memory through self-representation and in turn encourage greater human empathy and tolerance among our interconnected global community.

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