"I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me," says the nameless hero of Ralph Ellison's classic novel about race and identity in America.
Invisible Man, published in 1952, was a passionate cry from the heart expressing the terrible alienation African-Americans felt from a society that refused to recognize their humanity and that rendered them socially invisible.
In the decades since, a younger generation of artists has used Ellison's ideas to explore how stereotypical images that appear in the arts, the mass media and in 20th-century popular culture deny black people recognition as complex human beings with the same dreams, hopes and fears as other Americans.
Their work is the centerpiece of a powerful, thought-provoking new show at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Looking Forward/Looking Black.
The exhibit, which runs through May 5, presents 45 paintings, prints, photographs and sculpture by more than 20 artists engaged in reclaiming the African-American experience in all its richness and diversity.
The show's title is an obvious pun on the words "black" and "back"; the category "black" itself is a historical construct. It originally was invented during slavery to justify the exploitation of African peoples, and later to deny full legal and political rights to their descendants.
Since to be black was to be less than fully human, the images of blacks created by white artists were designed to reflect this disenfranchisement. The stereotype of the comical "darkie" - in reality a whole cast of characters that included mammies, picaninnies, the old slave, the young buck, the lusty wench, and Uncle Tom - arose as a convenient shorthand for blacks' political powerlessness and social inferiority.
Kara Walker, who is represented in the BMA show by her signature paper cutouts, is among the artists who have attempted to reclaim the humanity denied by these negative stereotypes. In such works as Salvation, her minstrel-show figures re-enact on the museum walls the tragedy of slavery, with its concomitant sex and violence. In doing so, she enlists the institutional space as a site for retelling a long-suppressed narrative in American history.
Similarly, Renee Cox reworks two stereotypical images of black servitude, Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima, by "liberating" them from their humiliating identification with rice and pancake mix. They emerge transformed into youthful racial warriors emphatically in command of their own destinies.
Some of the most touching works in the show are the self-portraits by painter Beverly McIver, who often depicts herself in the costume of a circus clown. McIver's images evoke the sadness that comes from constantly having to mask one's feelings, and the poignancy of what poet Langston Hughes called "laughing to keep from crying."
Though much of this show deals with the pernicious effect of negative stereotypes, it's difficult to appreciate how degrading they are without comparing them to images that use the full range of expressive possibilities to capture black people's humanity.
The intimate photographs of Gordon Parks and Roy DeCarava (represented here by an exquisite, rarely seen portrait of a mother and child), and the realistic drawings of Maria Howard Weedon, all on view in the small gallery at the entrance to the main exhibit, more than make up for their modest size by their richness of character and pictorial eloquence.
What: Looking Forward/Looking Black
Where: Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive
When: Wednesdays-Fridays 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday, Sunday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Admission: $7 adults, $5 senior citizens and students