A new University of Pennsylvania exhibit reveals the ironies embedded in heroic portrayals of Africans and African-Americans in mass propaganda over the years.
Steven Heller Jun 27 2013, 11:15 AM ET
"True Sons of Freedom," chromolithograph created by Charles Gustrine, United States, 1918.
Black people endured insulting caricatures and cartoons in the mainstream American press, advertisements, comics, and books for adults and children for centuries, continuing ( at least ) well into the second half of the 20th century. Heroic depiction was far more rare. But for certain cases, establishment artists found the image of black heroism useful, as evidenced in the exhibition Black Bodies in Propaganda: The Art of the War Poster currently on view at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology through March 2, 2014. Penn professor and PBS History Detectives host Tukufu Zuberi selected 33 posters that sparked patriotism and enthusiasm for war in people who otherwise suffered discrimination.
"Belgium Fights On," United States, 1939-1945. / "United We Win," United States, Washington D.C., 1942.
Interestingly, Zuberi chose only works that were made made by non-black designers, so as to examine how "difference" was expressed through mass art using what he calls "The Black Body," which he says is "is one of the most curious images in the modern mind. It conjures up images of enslavement, rebellion, heroism, brilliance, and savagery, all at the same time." The posters, which are not limited to ones produced in the United States, reveal various ways that race has been perceived and used. "In Africa we find black bodies being used to portray the exotic other in need of colonial domination," he says. Many of the posters that portray Africans and African Americans in heroic roles, he adds, were aimed at African and African American audiences.