MIAMI BEACH — If it’s the lure of controversy that gets your heart racing, check out “Freedom Fighters: American Legends Re-Imagined,’’ an exhibit on display at the ArtCenter/South Florida in South Beach through July 19.
Based on the ‘70s Blaxploitation film genre, the exhibit features surprising portrayals of black icons in a provocative fusion of the many dimensions of African-American history.
On one wall, armed and defiant black activist and escaped convict Assata Shakur holds a fist up in “Caught Me,” a mock poster of the movie Coffy, a 1973 film in which actress Pam Grier plays a nurse by day and vigilante by night who conducts a one-woman war on organized crime.
Another illustration portrays Harriet Tubman, iconic militant for black freedom and woman’s suffrage, as “Dirrrty Harriet Tubman,’’ a reference to the Clint Eastwood Dirty Harry movies of the ‘70s, in
which Eastwood played a tough, gun-toting cop.
And in a piece hanging across the room, Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, is re-cast as King Kong.
“These surprising images will move people away from museum and textbook characterization of icons,” said curator Roderic Southall of Obsidian Arts in Minneapolis. “The idea is to look at the exploitation of the black body and the era when it became consumable, easy to digest – the stereotypical mean black guy and the tough black woman devoid of any analysis.”
Born a few years after the civil rights movement, the Blaxploitation movie genre was the first to feature African-American casts. Movies such as Shaft, Foxy Brown, and Cleopatra Jones depicted the black community within their own cultural and musical context.
But while they are regarded by some as a kind of black strength, the movies did not portray an upright, triumphant hero. Ghetto footage prevailed, and black protagonists were often criminals and prostitutes. The genre bred a cultural debate that rages to this day.
Visitor Kathy Kissik said the exhibit sparks critical examination of black stereotypes.
“Like the icons portrayed, blacks in movies could have been heroes, but were also made villains,” said the French-Ukranian artist from Rhode Island. “This exhibit gets people thinking.”
Miami is the second stop to what will be a multicity event. Its 2005 debut took place at Rush Arts Gallery in New York. The show will travel next to Los Angeles. The work of local artists is incorporated at each destination.
“At the same time black exploitation was going on, so was the contribution of figures like Shakur,” said Miami artist Caiphus, the creator of “Caught Me.” “This is good for history….people will know both sides of that time period.”
The exhibit does not resonate with everybody.
Bridge Golde of South Beach was one of the visitors who found the art disturbing and detrimental to the black community.
“These posters connect our ‘freedom fighters without guns’ to bad portrayals,” said Golde. “I grew up idolizing icons such as Harriet Tubman; to see her depicted as menacing is quite disturbing.”
Southall said that the negative reaction to the satire was expected, as the show also aims to bring the folk heroes down from their idealized pedestals in order to humanize them.
‘There’s a mountain of mist we rest on as artists, the more we know the better art can be,” says Southall. “We must see all sides of things.”
IF YOU GO
What: “Freedom Fighters: American Legends Re-Imagined” art exhibit
When: Monday through Thursday through July 19, from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., and Friday through Sunday from 11 a.m. until 11 p.m.
Where: Art Center/South Florida, 800 Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach.
Contact: call 305-674-8278 or log onto www.artcentersf.org.