Skip to main content


Learn more about the exhibition Backtalk: Artists on Native, African, and African-American Stereotypes

Backtalk: Artists on Native, African, and African-American Stereotypes is an online exhibition featuring nine artists from the early 20th century to the present, whose works interrogate reflect and contest racial and cultural stereotypes. Addressing the themes of gender, politics, and historical narratives, Backtalk builds upon “From Tarzan to Tonto: Stereotypes as Obstacles to Progress Toward a More Perfect Union,” a 2017 symposium exploring the role of racial stereotypes in American culture, sponsored by the National Museum of African Art, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the National Museum of the American Indian. Backtalk is grounded in National Museum of African Art (NMAfA) director emerita Johnnetta Betsch Cole’s vision of examining stereotypes across cultures.

The project began as an examination of the ways in which artists are rewriting historical narratives that reinforce racial, cultural, and gender stereotypes through appropriation and subversion of the images traditionally used to stigmatize them. The pieces chosen are each in a Smithsonian collection and represent a range of strategies, including satire, parody, humor, and masking, in response to colonialist depictions of “the Other.” Audiences are invited to view the portrayals of race, gender, and culture in canonical Western paintings through a different lens—one in which the spectacle becomes the spectator and the passive subject becomes the agent. In the process, the power of artists to unveil and respond to social and cultural norms that perpetuate stereotypes is brought to life.

Curator biographies

Adrienne L. Childs is a curator and art historian specializing in race and representation in European art of the 18th and 19th centuries as well as African American art of the 20th century. A graduate of Georgetown and Howard Universities, she received her Ph.D. in the history of art from the University of Maryland. Childs is an associate of the W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute at the Hutchins Center at Harvard University and has written extensively on a wide range of topics, including Henry O. Tanner in North Africa, black bodies in Meissen porcelain, and the prints of David C. Driskell and Margo Humphrey. She is co-editor of Blacks and Blackness in European Art of the Long Nineteenth Century. Her current book project, Ornamental Blackness: The Black Body in European Decorative Arts, explores blacks in European luxury arts. A former curator at the David C. Driskell Center at the University of Maryland, her exhibitions include Her Story: Lithographs by Margo Humphrey and Creative Spirit: The Art of David C. Driskell.

Lanisa S. Kitchiner is an American arts administrator and academic with 20 years of leadership experience in developing innovative scholarly projects and educational outreach initiatives particularly relevant to Africa. She currently serves as director of education and scholarly initiatives at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art and as board member of the African Studies Center at Howard University. She previously served as associate director of Howard University’s International Affairs Center, as professorial lecturer at American University, and as a member of the executive council of the Modern Language Association. She holds an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in African studies and research, with a special concentration in women studies. Her research focuses on representations of black women in African literature, film, and visual art. She has published, lectured, and presented scholarly papers in her field. She has travelled to more that 40 countries throughout Europe, Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East. Her publications appear in the Journal of Pan African Studies, College Language Arts Journal, and under the imprints of the Smithsonian Institution and the American Anthropological Association.

Spencer Kuchle holds a postdoctoral academic appointment at the Smithsonian Museum of African Art. He received his Ph.D. in Afro-American studies from the University of Massachusetts–Amherst and his B.A. in black and Africana studies from Hampshire College. His scholarship focuses on “performing blackness” and the role of black vernacular and racial humor in shaping African-American identity and American culture. Kuchle was appointed as a fellow in the Experiential Training in Historic Information Resources (ETHIR) initiative of the Department of Special Collections and University Archives at the University of Massachusetts’ Du Bois Library, curating exhibitions, building digital corpora, and creating interpretive materials on underground radio station WBCN during the Black Power protest movement in Roxbury, Massachusetts, for a documentary film entitled The American Revolution. In addition, he was awarded a dissertation fellowship to conduct archival research in the Minstrel Show Collection at the University of Texas–Austin’s Harry Ransom Center, analyzing print media and visual representations to explore competing narratives regarding the role of minstrelsy in a nation divided by racial and class strife in the post-Reconstruction era. For five consecutive summers, Kuchle participated in an interdisciplinary, interinstitutional research team in Kenya’s West Lake District, partnering with communities to use the arts and humanities in communicating engineering solutions related to clean water, sustainable agriculture, and entrepreneurship.

Selected Bibliography

  • Amkpa, Awam, Museo Bardini, and Fondazione Biagiotti Cigna. ReSignifications: European Blackamoors, Africana Readings. Roma: PostcArt, 2016.
  • Blocker, Jane. “Ambivalent Entertainments: James Luna, Performance, and the Archive.” Grey Room, no. 37 (2009): 52–77.
  • Brielmaier, Isolde. “Re-Inventing the Spaces Within: The Images of Lalla Essaydi.” Aperture, no. 178 (2005): 20–25.
  • Carpenter, Jane H., and Betye Saar. Pomegranate Catalog; No. A656. San Francisco, Calif.: Pomegranate, 2003.
  • Dodd, Alexandra. “Dressed to Thrill: The Victorian Postmodern and Counter-archival Imaginings in the Work of Mary Sibande.” Critical Arts 24, no. 3 (2010): 467–74.
  • Essaydi, Lalla A. “Disrupting the Odalisque.” World Literature Today 87, no. 2 (2013): 62–67. Doi:10.7588/worllitetoda.87.2.0062.
  • Farber, Leora. “Parodying the Hysteric as a Form of Empowerment in Mary Sibande’s Exhibition The Purple Shall Govern.” TEXTILE 15, no. 4 (2017): 428–41.
  • Farrington, Lisa E. Creating Their Own Image: The History of African-American Women Artists. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • Fitz, Karsten. Visual Representations of Native Americans: Transnational Contexts and Perspectives. American Studies (Munich, Germany); v. 218. Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2012.
  • Golden, Thelma. Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1994.
  • Harris, Michael D. Colored Pictures: Race and Visual Representation. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.
  • Heister, Andrea, and Aida Muluneh. “It’s about Discussing Images! Aida Muluneh and Her Dedication for the Visual.” Savvy 1 (2010): 124–35.
  • Jayawardane, M. Neelika. “Between Nostalgia and Future Dreaming: Aida Muluneh’s Ethiopia.” Transition: An International Review, no. 120 (2016): 116.
  • Manchanda, Catharina, Lowery Sims Stokes, Jacqueline Francis, Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas, and Seattle Art Museum. Figuring History: Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas. New Haven: Published by the Seattle Art Museum, in association with Yale University Press, 2018.
  • Lubbers, Klaus. Born for the Shade: Stereotypes of the Native American in United States Literature and the Visual Arts, 1776–1894. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1994.
  • Luna, James. “I’ve Always Wanted To Be An American Indian.” Aperture, no. 139 (1995): 38–41.
  • Luna, James, Truman Lowe, Paul Chaat Smith, Daniel Davis, Kathy Suter, Fondazione Scientifica Querini Stampalia, National Museum of the American Indian, and Biennale Di Venezia. James Luna: Emendatio. Washington, D.C.: National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, 2005.
  • Mithlo, Nancy Marie. “Our Indian Princess”: Subverting the Stereotype. Santa Fe: School for Advanced Research, 2009.
  • Morgan, Jo-Ann. “Mammy the Huckster: Selling the Old South for the New Century.” American Art 9, no. 1 (1995): 86–109.
  • Nochlin, Linda. “The Imaginary Orient.” In The Politics of Vision: Essays on Nineteenth-Century Art and Society, 33–59. New York: Harper and Row 1989.
  • Pieterse, Jan Nederveen. White on Black: Images of Africa and Blacks in Western Popular Culture. Yale University Press, 1995.
  • Powell, Richard J. Cutting a Figure: Fashioning Black Portraiture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.
  • Rocca, Anna, and Lalla Essaydi. “In Search of Beauty in Space: Interview with Lalla Essaydi.” Dalhousie French Studies 103 (2014): 119–27.
  • Saar, Betye, James Christen Steward, and University of Michigan. Museum of Art. Betye Saar: Extending the Frozen Moment. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Museum of Art; Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.
  • Scholder, Fritz, Lowery Stokes Sims, Truman Lowe, Paul Chaat Smith, and National Museum of the American Indian. Fritz Scholder: Indian Not Indian. Munich, New York: Prestel, 2008.
  • Scholder, Fritz, John Lukavic, and Denver Art Museum. Super Indian: Fritz Scholder, 1967–1980. Denver: Denver Art Museum; Delmonico Books, Prestel, 2015.
  • Sibande, Mary. “Mary Sibande.” N.paradoxa, no. 31 (2013): 57.
  • Sims, Lowery Stokes, and Leslie King-Hammond. The Global Africa Project. New York, Munich: Prestel, 2010.
  • Tani, Ellen Y. “Keeping Time in the Hands of Betye Saar: Betye Saar.” American Quarterly 68, no. 4 (2016): 1081–109.
  • Thomas, Mickalene, Lisa Melandri, and Santa Monica Museum of Art. Mickalene Thomas: Origin of the Universe. Santa Monica, CA: Santa Monica Museum of Art, 2012.
  • Thomas, Mickalene, and Sean Landers. “Mickalene Thomas.” BOMB, no. 116 (2011): 30–38.
  • Thompson, Barbara, Ifi Amadiume, Hood Museum of Art, and Davis Museum Cultural Center. Black Womanhood: Images, Icons, and Ideologies of the African Body. Hanover, N.H.: Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, in association with University of Washington Press, 2008.
  • Murray, Derek Conrad. “Mickalene Thomas: Afro-Kitsch and the Queering of Blackness.” American Art 28, no. 1 (2014): 9–15. Doi:10.1086/676624.
  • Vickers, Scott B. Native American Identities: From Stereotype to Archetype in Art and Literature. 1st ed. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998.
  • Willis, Deborah, and Carla Williams. The Black Female Body: A Photographic History. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002.