The small art opening held in the back of the Bruckner Bar and Grill in the South Bronx last week was a just a little speck on a dizzying road map of artistic productions in this city.
Yet it had historical significance. Called “Obama!Reflections,” the show was probably the first formal gallery exhibition dedicated solely to art about President Barack Obama. On the surface it’s a clever and important idea: journalists have had a field day mining the social significance of the nation’s first black President; visual artists should have a chance to do it, too.
This art exhibit wasn’t supposed to be about Obama propaganda or tchochkes — that is, the sort of political iconography and memorabilia we saw during the campaign, much of it created by people who had no prior interest in politics or artists who never thought they’d have a reason to support the government until then. Sponsored by Art for Change, a Harlem-based collective with a political bent, it billed itself as visual interpretations of the significance of Obama’s presidency and of his campaign.
The title of the exhibition suggested that something other than devotion was going to be on display, though the exclamation point in the title should have given something away. It was worth a trek up the Bronx to see whether, with Obama now actually in office and having made actual decisions (not all of which have pleased liberals), the honeymoon is over and people’s critical faculties have returned.
The answer is, not really. (Guess eight years of Bush was too long.)
The tone of the works ranged from the comedic to the documentary to the downright worshipful. One artist had painted a portrait of Obama overlayed against what looked like a giant check marked ballot. Inside the check box was the word, “Hope.” The artist summed up his mood: “Obama inspired me to do things: 1) Vote for a major party nominee without holding my nose and 2) Make a piece of art that is not complaining about how messed up everything is. I’m still getting used to it.”
Meanwhile, a cartoonist designed a series of panels that depicted a street corner argument between a racist protester and some Obama supporters that occured on election day, while a Puerto Rican photojournalist documented goings-on in the neighborhood of East Harlem during the run-up to the election. And then there was Obama’s head stuck, the way tourists stick their heads on the cardboard cut-out bodies of historical figures at places like colonial Williamsburg, onto the bodies of the Mexican revolutionary figure Pancho Villa and of George Washington.
Finally, another artist had divided a canvas into four panels. On three panels she had painted opaque stained glass windows. On the fourth, there was a surreal version of President Obama with dark holes instead of eyes. “While painting this piece,” the artist wrote in explanatory blurb, “I envisioned Barack Obama leading us out of the darkness of oppression, discrimination, and other ills…”
Asked whether any of the artists attempted to take on some of the harder topics related to Obama — like his decision to seldom speak about race — members of the Art for Change collective said no. They did, however, make of point of telling people who expressed interest in submitting work to the exhibition that they were open to receiving artwork that was critical of the president.
“People asked us if they could submit anti-Obama art,” said Claudia Plaza, a member of the collective, “And we said sure.” But when the time came, Plaza said, no one ended up sending anything remotely critical. “It just so happened that it ended up being a celebration,” said another member, who seemed quite pleased.