White People: A Retrospective

April 23rd, 2016  |  Published in April 2016

The exhibit, “White People: A Retrospective” which opened on March 25 and runs through May 13, at Art Beyond Boundaries Gallery, delivers a captivating glimpse through the lens of photojournalist, Melvin Grier. A compilation of photos spanning Mr. Grier’s 33 year career with the Cincinnati Post, as explained by curator and gallery director, Mr. Jymi Bolden, reflect Grier’s observations of often “finding himself the only person of color on the premises” in his journalistic life.
As one who does not gravitate toward photography in art and as a member of that “majority who don’t see what it is like” I was drawn – with trepidation — to complete this review, by the plainspoken, no-nonsense language in the title.  A bit intimidated by the unspoken elephant in the room, I asked Bolden, in a clumsily worded question, his motivation for choosing this particular set of images for the exhibit. Bolden, a formidable gentleman, wearing a bemused smile and possessing a distinctive, deep sultry voice (think Barry White, only better), answered simply: “Well, it’s about white people.” “Uh, yeah”, I say, laugh uncomfortably and fumble to find appropriate questions to pose about the controversial content of the show.  “Ask me a specific question and I’ll answer it”, he says. A series of equally inane questions flash through my mind…, “Tell me, just what is it like for you, Mr. Grier, and other black men to live in a white man’s world?”, or “What is it like to be the victim of discrimination?” “Is this how we actually appear to black people?” The absurdity fits well in the context of the images.  It seemed wise to shut up and look at the photographs again, and again.
A unifying feature of the work, and one highlighting Melvin Grier’s talent, is his skill in snapping a shot of human emotion conveyed by facial expression at precisely the correct time. The range and depth of feeling one can interpret from the faces in the pictures evoke a strong appreciation of Grier’s journalistic gift.
The subject matter in the photographs falls into a few categories. One theme is “white people (or any people, depending on one’s perspective) behaving stupidly”.  My favorite in this group is “Colonial Color Guard Parades in Downtown Cincinnati, 1985” (pictured). The sideways, “What the ….” glance of the African American woman peering at ridiculously silly colonially garbed characters caused me to laugh aloud and text the photo to about fifteen people. The “look” is a familiar one we have all worn at times.
Another group of photos depict human idiosyncrasy at its finest. “Dog Funeral” (pictured) could result in asking oneself, “Do black people conduct dog funerals….or does anyone…really?” Don’t get me wrong. I adore puppy-dogs as much as the next person. But herein lay Fido in casket, resting in his embalmed state, eyeball staring out from the beyond, while woman reaches tenderly to touch the deceased a final time. An imagined commentary ensues at dead doggie visitation, of the kind usually reserved for the human version of this peculiar ritual. Statements like, “But he was so young…” and “He looks good”, come to mind. Yes, as dead creatures often do…huh?  One can only suspect this sort of material is cross-cultural.
Abject grief, elation, emptiness, and reverence play across the facial screen of individuals in the series of images surrounding soldiers and veterans. The pictures include those of soldiers returning from war (alive) reuniting with loved ones in poignant displays of glee, such as when a small boy leaps into his father’s arms in “Soldier Returns Home from Middle East 2003.(pictured) Another photograph, “Funeral for Marine, Loveland, OH 2007”, shows pall bearers carrying an American flag- draped casket, while family and friends stand watching, one women appearing on the verge of collapse with sorrow. It gives one pause, wondering why the exhibit depicts war related scenes in a show about white people. This question I leave to the viewer to answer.
A final category of subject material in Grier’s exhibit is that of injustice. An exaggerated, unnecessary demonstration of force, all too common by police officers, in “Cincinnati Police Investigate Suspect, Walnut Hills” oddly has a white workman apprehended, already surrendered with hands up on the door of a building, hammer and tools on the ground, while two black children a few feet away witness the scene, obviously confused and afraid, the younger boy cowering against the older girl. Perhaps this image is one locked in their memories forever. As adult African Americans, they no doubt view this type of scene sickeningly often, and more typically with a black man as the presumed perpetrator.
If not for the title, it may not occur to a viewer that race has anything to do with the exhibit. Of course, that would be the case if the viewer happened to be white, wouldn’t it? The task then, is to see it as Grier has seen it. His vision is incisively clear.
–Laura Sams

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