A masterful achievement of Robert Colescott’s unique signature style, Cultural Exchange contains a tapestry of interlocking vignettes, floating together like dream clouds in a surrealist landscape. The artist packs these seemingly disparate objects and figures into a single canvas, sending the viewer on a visual game of hide-and-seek. In the lower left corner, a cartoonish depiction of the French artist Paul Gauguin marvels at his own work Manaò tupapaú (Spirit of the Dead Watching), painted in 1892 in Tahiti. Gauguin infamously left his family in Paris to live and work in Tahiti, controversially living with the population there and even taking up local lovers, one of whom being Teha’amana (called Tehura in his letters) who is shown nude in the painting. The message in the bottle in the center right could possibly reference Gauguin’s many letters to his wife Mette describing his life in Tahiti and famously neglecting to mention his relationship with Tehura. Scholars such as Stephen F. Eisenman have singled out Manaò tupapaú (Spirit of the Dead Watching) and its narrative as an encyclopedia of colonial racism and misogyny – making it a fitting reference for Colescott to include in the present work (S. P. Eisenman, Gauguin’s Skirt, London, 1997, pp. 119-135). Colescott’s identity, derived from a mixture of African American, Native American and European heritage, is a central tenet of his practice, and imbues his art with layered meanings rife for decoding. Employing bold color and expressive brushwork, Colescott fuses references to art history, pop culture and his own personal biography in Cultural Exchange. Upon close inspection, these appropriations lay bare the problematic stereotypes in art and culture with biting satire and dark humor. In Cultural Exchange, Colescott’s personal identity and international experience of the African diaspora is evident. The painting is a direct and overt commentary on colonization through history and was previously in the esteemed collection of African-American actor Paul Edward Winfield’s collection and estate.
Forever shunning convention and classification, Robert Colescott was born in Oakland, California in 1925 and from an early age dreamed of becoming an artist despite his humble background. After high school, Colescott served in the American army during World War II, stationed near Paris, which provided the artist with the opportunity to attend the University of California in Berkeley on financial aid from the G.I. Bill. Between receiving his M.F.A. in 1952 and 1968, Colescott traveled to Seattle, Portland, Egypt and briefly back to Paris, before returning home once again. His homecoming was a wake-up call. As Colescott described, “when I returned in 1968, I could see the change, I was overwhelmed. My experience had been that you came back from Europe and the only black people you would see in airports were people pushing a broom. Now they were demanding more, and that affected my painting. I felt like I had a lot to say” (R. Colescott quoted in H. Cotter, Unrepentant Offender of Almost Everyone, The New York Times, 1997, p. H35). It was then in the 1970s that Colescott developed his signature style of vibrant patchwork narratives and art appropriations filled with expressionistic, grotesque figures and bold racial imagery.
From Colescott’s time spent in Paris, he was all too aware of Europe’s complicated history of colonization and sought-after global dominion. Colescott continues the visual themes of colonization and primitivism through his depiction in the upper left corner of a Westernized warship heading towards a seaside town of “native” huts and boats. Colescott himself even makes a cameo in the upper left corner, in the guise of a “native” carving a head from a wooden log near the volcanic beach. Below the artist, a beautifully carved purple head of an ancient statue rests near a pile of rubbish, underscoring the fact that the idols of local populations are often discarded in favor of Western ones. Colescott cheekily shows us these Western “idols” in the upper right corner in the form of a hovering television, telephone, fast food and radio. In the center of the composition, the artist portrays a deeply problematic symptom of colonization—that of the colonizer taking up relations with the local population. In this case, this issue is shown by sailors embraced by black women in traditional pattered garb. The sailor in the center glances guiltily over to a floating vignette of a possible wife back home, making toast in the kitchen and sleeping alone tucked in her bed while he is unfaithful. These cultural interactions between the colonizer and the colonized are often viewed as one-sided within history, but Colescott shows that cultural exchange is in fact a two-way street. Colescott’s women are fully aware and all-knowing, taking control of the situation rather than letting it control them.
With a subversive palette, Colescott’s paintings demand that we confront the racial and cultural biases that have plagued our past, many of which continue to exist today. By producing riffs on major historical masterworks, Colescott set out to grasp the stereotypical representation of African Americans in high art and destabilize it through exposing these damaging stereotypes in a satirical light. His satirical depictions were often met with an ambivalent reaction in both black and white communities. Colescott quipped, “to make a statement about white perceptions of black people by redoing a stereotype, who ever thought such a thing could happen?” (R. Colescott quoted in H. Cotter, ibid, p. H35).
In 1997 Colescott was selected to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale, becoming the first African-American artist to represent the United States in a solo exhibition at the Venice Biennale. A forerunner of subversive art appropriation, the sabotage of stereotypes, and incorporating humor into his work, Robert Colescott’s legacy continues to inspire the current generation of contemporary black American artists as diverse as Kara Walker, Glenn Ligon, Kerry James Marshall, Lorna Simpson, and David Hammons, who lauded Colescott for his groundbreaking depictions: “Robert Colescott’s the force... He’s playing with all these things, using himself as a subject and getting mixed up in the art world” (D. Hammons quoted in M. Roberts, Robert Colescott: Recent Paintings, Santa Fe, 1997, p. 18). Colescott’s incorporation of identity into his works becomes importantly tied to his humor and gives him the comic license to reference hot-button racial issues. Then, as our counter-culture representative, he exposes tough narratives unmasking the foibles and weaknesses of society and encourages the audience to laugh at the absurdity of racial stereotypes and malaise in our culture. He acts as our comic spokesperson, as a mediator, an ‘articulator’ of our culture, and most importantly, as our contemporary anthropologist.