African-Americans have had a long history of struggle, and an equally long history of needing to legitimize that struggle to others. We see this today through social media, police reports and even on campus. Numerous people have tried to make this struggle visible through the use of video, hashtags and rallies. Some have turned to art to bring social injustices to light.
To make the invisible visible, artist Rick Lewis has brought his art exhibit (In)Visible Men to the Murphy Gallery of the University YMCA as part of the Art at the Y program. The exhibit displays portraits of young African-American male students from Illinois State University, drawn by Lewis. The portraits encourage viewers to examine what they are thinking about while in the exhibit.
“These paintings are forcing people to look at these individuals as humans,” Lewis said. “It’s really asking the viewer to ask themselves about the assumptions they are making about the person in the painting and why they are making those assumptions.”
Lewis attended Illinois State University and attained an MFA in 1987; he is currently the Associate Dean of Students there. He says he stopped painting in 1995 but started again two years ago after the stories he heard as an adviser for an ISU student organization, My Brotha’s Keeper.
“In this work I get the chance to be exposed to some of the issues and challenges our African-American males face here,” Lewis said. “You learn the stories about some of the discriminations and racism they experience in their home and on campus.”
Lewis said he wants to help bring these issues to light by using his art “to challenge students to not look at these figures through that lens of stereotypes or assumptions.”
Lewis said for his project he picked models whom he had connections with from My Brotha’s Keeper. He looked for characteristics that he thought would work for his painting. Things like “body posture, skin complexion, the person’s hair or something he’s wearing that day,” inspired him to challenge social norms surrounding these different characteristics. None of the models are wearing clothing with brands or symbols, and each portrait has a biography of the subject next to it.
Lewis’ goal is to complete 20 portraits of 20 young males to fill a space to make people constantly engaged in the process of viewing the subjects.
“We need to pay attention with how we engage with each other in real life… sometimes we don’t engage with each other because of our inability to have conversations, because we’re staring at our smartphones,” Lewis said. “So this is one of those opportunities where you’re asked to look up from your phone and look a person in the eye and think about who you’re looking at.”
Lewis said most of the subjects’ experiences have been that people don’t look them in the eye and don’t choose them for class projects. Lewis said those types of situations create an unfriendly and often oppressive environment for people of color, who are discouraged from expressing themselves or their opinions.
At his first showing of the exhibit, Lewis had the models stand next to their portraits to make the space interactive. Lewis said this allowed for meaningful dialogues between the viewer and the subject.
“It was interesting watching the dynamics of males from different urban environments engage in conversations with privileged populations,” Lewis said. “And how these two different social groups can have a dialogue that transcends some of the issues that we see across social media today in terms of how people see African-American males.”
So far Lewis has had his exhibit shown at four different locations and has received positive responses from his audience.
Lewis opened his exhibit at the YMCA on September 17 and talked to his audience about his idea of art being used as an educational tool in social justice issues.
“Most people can have some kind of engagement with art, and this exhibit lets people blend art with social justice issues with a basic understanding,” Lewis said.
(In)Visible Men will be on display at the University YMCA from now to October 31. The exhibit is free and open to the public.