African Americans today are faced with centuries of myths and misguided perceptions perpetuated by the dominant cultural; to a point they have reached a fever pitch across the country. At times, the African American male is a prisoner within himself and trapped in his neighborhood usually because of his race or circumstance. One could argue that he was dead before birth.
I often return to my old neighborhood to record images of the people there. My figures are typically distorted to reflect the pressure and anxiety individuals feel inside and the perceptions and expectations imposed upon them by society. These images illustrate the most pressing issues of contemporary life.
Recent events of street demonstrations in Ferguson MO. and Baltimore MD, following the deaths of black individuals by law enforcement officers, are depicted with men that have cigarettes stuck in their noses to block inhalation of tear gas and older activists observing the strategy of the young millennials and figures entangled with hands bounded to illustrate the concept of black men trapped within their own circumstances.
Elmhurst Museum Biennial Panel
Since the 1980s, Jesse Howard’s socially-concerned drawings have focused on the plight of the homeless and the disenfranchised, particularly African Americans in urban environments. Informed by his own unsettling upbringing on Chicago’s West side and his lived experience as a black man, Howard is sensitive to the way these populations are viewed, treated and often dismissed. As the artist explains, “At times, [a black man] is a prisoner within himself and/or the neighborhood he’s trapped in, usually because of his race or circumstances; one could argue that he was dead before birth.” Produced in charcoal, watercolor and collage, his figures are typically distorted, reflecting the pressure and anxiety the individuals feel inside as well as the perceptions and expectations imposed upon them by society. In addition, the physical presence of urban life is often evident through bits of newspaper, receipts or various other scraps affixed to the surface of the portraits.
Howard’s recent source material has been media imagery surrounding the street demonstrations in Ferguson, New York and Baltimore, following the deaths of black individuals by law enforcement officers. Two portraits depict men with cigarettes stuck in their noses to block inhalation of tear gas; other figures are shown with hands bound or caution tape around the head, recalling Howard’s notion of black men trapped within their own circumstances; while a confrontational close-up of a face (the artist’s own) is simply titled Rage. Howard’s bold practice inserts black bodies into the context of contemporary art while, like the Black Lives Matter movement, speaks to broader issues of racial profiling, police brutality and racial inequality in the criminal justice system.