On Wednesday March 28th, I had a small group of students from City Inc, an alternative Minneapolis
High School, in the Art Lab. They came to see the exhibition Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love. High school teachers may ask how do we engage our students who are viewing this work for the first time?The show brings up a host of questions about racial stereotypes today. For a profound conversation about Kara Walker, I suggest that teachers consider doing this art activity Skin Deep before their tour of the exhibition. This has proven to be a good way for students to consider their own assumptions about color and race.
Skin Deep is a painting activity that explores color as a metaphor for racial stereotypes and classifications. I demonstrate how to mix a universal brown using the primary colors. Next, I add black and/or white to make a myriad of skin tones. Students then mix their own skin tones and collect samples of other people’s skin tones, paint them on canvas, and add a phrase that responds to their notions of black and white.
When the students from City Inc came to the Art Lab, we spent an absorbing hour previewing a few works from the show. Kara Walker has a series titled Do You Like Crème in Your Coffee and Chocolate in Your Milk? We looked at one of her watercolors that features a nude woman outlined in green with brown, black, ochre, and peach circles covering the upper torso and head of the figure. These samples refer to skin tones, and remind me of my own experience testing make-up.
Since the City Inc group had only women, we talked about this experience at the make-up counter. The way these products on the market try so hard to approximate our skin tones, and we realized how subtle our skin tones really are and how many variations exist. This theme of human variation is also current in the Science Museum of Minnesota’s Race: Are We So Different? http://www.smm.org/race/. By the way, the students from City Inc had viewed this exhibition before coming to the Walker Art Center. It was opportune to pair these two field trips.
Photo: Ilene K Mojsilov
If you get to the Science Museum for this show, don’t miss the label that introduces the artwork of Byron Kim. He did a project called Synecdoche that is composed of 400 smaller panels that match an actual person’s skin. Although I hadn’t heard of his project before, I think that it really gets at the important questions of racial politics and encourages a frank dialogue about stereotypes, classifications, and civil rights.
So, if you can take in both exhibitions, I encourage you to do so, and keep the activity Skin Deep in mind for your group here at the Walker Art Center.