Artist Jonathan Harris explains why his viral image ‘Critical Theory of Race’ struck chords around the world

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It is an image of haunting efficiency. A blonde figure stands with her back to the viewer and a paint roller in her hand, covering images of Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman and Malcolm X with strokes of white paint. Widely shared on social networks, Critical Race Theory (2021) has been embraced as a powerful reminder of the importance of teaching and preserving black history.

The canvas is the work of the Detroit artist Jonathan Harris, who, since he began painting full-time nearly two years ago, has been dedicated to creating works that express his lived experience as a black man in the United States. Critical Race Theory, which examines how racism is embedded in our country’s legal and political systems, has been circulating in academic circles since the 1970s. But it started making headlines, especially in the media conservatives last year as some local lawmakers sought to proactively ban his teaching.

“I was hearing black people wondering if our history was going to be in danger,” Harris told Artnet News. “We only know what we are taught. My mind wondered ‘how far can this really go?’

That’s when the idea came to him. Three of the most famous defenders of the rights of Black Americans, their contributions to the nation’s history have been literally wiped out – whitewashed with the ugliness inherent in our history of slavery, oppression and structural racism.

critical race theory (2021). Photo courtesy of Jonathan Harris. ” width=”1024″ height=”683″ srcset=”https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2022/01/1090FD6B-D322-4063-8EAB-C6E5FCD87DF2-1024×683.jpeg 1024w, https ://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2022/01/1090FD6B-D322-4063-8EAB-C6E5FCD87DF2-300×200.jpeg 300w, https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/ 2022/01/1090FD6B-D322-4063-8EAB-C6E5FCD87DF2-50×33.jpeg 50w” sizes=”(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px”/>

Jonathan Harris, Critical Race Theory (2021). Photo courtesy of Jonathan Harris.

The view may seem extreme, but as of January 2021, 35 states have proposed measures that would limit or ban the teaching of critical race theory, on the grounds that it is a “divisive issue”, according to Education Week. A group of Tennessee parents even protested their children reading an autobiography of Ruby Bridges, one of the first black students to enter an elementary school, because it documented the white community’s negative response to desegregation.

“If we don’t back down as these bills pass, this paint could be the future,” Harris said.

The artist texted himself the idea for the piece in the spring and began painting it over the summer, working on it for several months. But he never expected Critical Race Theory to strike such a chord with viewers.

The canvas debuted in November in a three-artist exhibition at Detroit’s Irwin House Gallery, where it was sold to a private collector on opening day for an undisclosed price. The exhibition ended on November 20, but the painting’s journey had only just begun. Two days later, the group of political activists “The other 98%” shared the image on his Facebook page, which has 6.5 million followers. Harris was quickly inundated with messages and comments from around the world.

“It’s really amazing how this piece touched so many people,” he said. “I have sold over 1,000 prints all over the world, in countries I’ve never heard of.

We spoke to Harris about her artistic journey, what inspires her work and why Critical Race Theory is such an important piece.

Jonathan Harris signant des copies de sa peinture <em>Critical Race Theory</em> (2021).  Photo courtesy of Jonathan Harris.  “width=”1024″ height=”576″  data-srcset=”https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2022/01/untitled-59-1024×576.jpg 1024w, https://news.artnet .com/app/news-upload/2022/01/untitled-59-300×169.jpg 300w, https://news.artnet.com/app/news-upload/2022/01/untitled-59-50×28.jpg 50w ” sizes=”(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px”/></p>
<p class=Jonathan Harris signing copies of his painting Critical Race Theory (2021). Photo courtesy of Jonathan Harris.

When did you start making art?

I have drawn all my life. As a child, I was in a gifted and talented group that met after school to draw. In college, I studied graphic design and studio art. But I had never painted anything. I was just drawing and doing graphic work.

One day in 2019, I saw my cousin painting a paint-by-numbers thing, and I wanted to try it. I started painting celebrities and stuff I saw on Instagram that I thought people would like, just to sell it or get some attention.

Then a friend of mine told me I should come to the Detroit Fine Arts Breakfast Club, where collectors from the state of Michigan meet every Monday. The guy who runs it, Henry Harper, took me under his wing. He saw something in me that I probably didn’t see in myself back then – my skills were pretty amateur then.

Henry explained to me the different types of art and how people want to buy art that tells the stories of life. It opened something in me, to look at life as a muse. I started painting more sincere, more honest things about how I felt and my life in America as a black man.

How did you get into making art full time?

I worked at Coca Cola in the marketing department and painted after work and on weekends. My job gave me two weeks off at the start of the pandemic so they could figure out how people were going to work from home. I saw how much work I was able to produce just in those two weeks. And I was afraid to be in the world. So I thought, “I can try that.

I had saved a little, not a lot, but I knew that if I devoted as much time and energy to my art as to this business which was not mine, I believed that it would work.

All that summer I did nothing but paint, sell a few works here and there to keep the light on and put some money in my pocket.

My first exhibition was a three-way show at the Irwin House Gallery in September 2020. It got a lot of attention. The works were all acrylic and charcoal drawings. But a friend of mine, Joshua Rainer, a fabulous artist, said, “If you can do that with acrylic, man, we don’t know what you could do with oil. So I bought oil paints and did it every day.

Jonathan Harris with his painting Critical Race Theory (2021).  Photo courtesy of Jonathan Harris.

Jonathan Harris with his painting Critical Race Theory (2021). Photo courtesy of Jonathan Harris.

Why do you think critical race theory has become such a flashpoint for conservative media and lawmakers?

We live in sensitive times. People think, “If I feel like something is making me uncomfortable, I’ll talk about it and let it be known. I think conservatives are trying to change it, like, “Even if our ancestors or our great-grandfathers caused this, it’s not us now. And we feel uncomfortable that you bring this up.

It’s not fair, because unless you work to make us feel comfortable, no one will feel comfortable. It’s just going to be a constant tussle.

How did you choose the three characters that appear in the work?

The images of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Harriet Tubman are undeniably familiar to all races – or so I thought. I thought everyone would recognize them. An older white lady I know who is part of the artistic group came to the show. When she looked at the piece, she said, “This piece is so powerful. I see Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, but why did you paint Aunt Jemima on it?

It wasn’t a joke, it was an honest question. It was really shocking. If you don’t know who Harriet Tubman is, do you know the stories of slavery and the stories of oppression?

Jonathan Harris.  Photo courtesy of Jonathan Harris.

Jonathan Harris. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Harris.

If critical race theory is about acknowledging and understanding how systematic racism is structurally embedded in our nation’s history, the risk is that to ignore the existence of racism is to perpetuate it.

Correct. It’s so deep. If you think black people who are in quotes chose this or did something to deserve it, that’s not true. In some places, blacks were unable to buy property. If you think of the end of segregation, not so long ago. My parents knew that if they went south, there are certain areas you can’t get to after dark or you can’t stop at certain places to refuel. My dad saw this when he was alive, and it’s scary. It’s a generation away. And then think two generations before that, what did his grandparents see? It’s not that far.

What if it gets to this point, 200 years from now, of “Oh, we don’t need to teach kids about Martin Luther King, Malcolm X or Harriet Tubman”? What if that was really the plan? That’s why I created the piece.

If we don’t back down while these bills are passed, this painting could be the future.

I went to therapy, and the first thing you do is talk about the past. I don’t think a therapist would say, “don’t talk about what makes you uncomfortable” or “let’s not talk about the past, let’s move on”. That’s not the way to heal. It will make things worse.

Why is it important for you to address these issues in your work?

It is extremely important. I am passionate about black people and I tell our story in a way that can be understood by people who are not like me, so that people who To do look like me have the opportunity to shine and be ourselves, and also to hold positions of power.

I tell people all the time that if I had the opportunity to paint pots and pans and beautiful landscapes, I would. But I have a responsibility as a black person in America who is aware and careful about things to do Following only that. So that’s what I’m going to do.

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