Student’s artwork tackles racial stereotypes

By Adam Fotos

This past weekend many galleries in Chicago had their big openings for the season. One such venue was the ARC Gallery, 734 N. Milwaukee, which featured the work of University student, Nam Clark.

Clark, a second year graduate student in studio art painting, was awarded a solo show with the ARC Gallery after receiving “Best in Show” at a competition last spring.

Clark was listed as a young emerging artist with his show titled “Tales of the Checkered Rabbit.”

The artwork featured several large-scale charcoal drawings on paper. With the simple colors black and white, the drawings dominated the space and their size imposed the narratives of a single character, the Checkered Rabbit.

Clark said the idea for the drawings came from pop culture images of people wearing rabbit suits, like in “The Christmas Story” and “Donny Darko.” He said he liked the idea of a costume becoming a person’s identity.

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    “The rabbit is a person wearing a checkerboard rabbit suit,” Clark said. “The suit becomes a piece that cannot be taken off, similar to skin.”

    Like skin, race is another aspect of ourselves that cannot be changed. Clark emphasized this by having the rabbit also become a metaphor for the fluidity of race.

    “Rabbits are known for their speed,” he said. “So I thought of this character racing against time to take on stereotypes and racism, but he is stopped or constructed into stereotypes.”

    The Checkered Rabbit often sports an afro or chains of “bling.”

    Although Clark has been interested in the art of story telling since he was young, his drawings are not sequential. They still rely heavily on narrative.

    Like most children, Clark grew up watching cartoons and reading comic books. This fostered his interest in narrative painting and after going to art school and learning more about symbolism, he said he learned how many of them had deeper meanings.

    “I have been interested in the art of story telling since I was a child,” Clark said. “I see my work as individual stories at random points in time of the checkered rabbit’s life. A linear progression doesn’t interest me as mush as random points of a life.”

    While using a character of his own design, Clark’s work still intersects with other existing narratives in contemporary and historical culture. He said he likes his stories to depict how the past influences today.

    Clark researched the Br’er Rabbit stories of the early 20th century and found that the character was created in the image of an African-American man.

    “Br’er rabbit had white fur, but when he spoke he had the dialect of an African American,” he said. “The stories sent a mixed message. They show African-Americans getting over on the man, but they also are negative, because of the stereotypes of the African-American being simple with the symbol of the animal.”

    Clark’s work deals with racism on a larger social scale, but it also comes out of his personal life. He said he feels half of his work comes from his own experiences and other half are ideas he created.

    “The checkerboard suit comes from me being biracial,” he said. “I wanted to add something in for a biracial character (black and white ancestry), so I thought of a checkerboard pattern, since it’s made up of black and white squares.”

    He also uses pop culture images and weaves them together with his memories of racism and personal experiences.”

    Although it could be easy to label Clark as a “black artist,” he sees his work in a different light.

    “I see myself as an artist that creates work that is socially motivated,” he said. “If that fits into the category of the “black artist,” that’s fine with me. My work is almost a critique of society, through humor . which is just as critical on young black culture as it is on popular media. I miss hip hop from the early ’90s when it was about culture and identity and not about materialism. That stuff is great, but you can’t buy a house with rims . that sends a false message to kids that money is the key instead of education.”

    Though Clark is a second year graduate student, he said he still feels his main audience is young people.

    “Cartoons are a large part of our culture, so they can relate to the subject matter a little more,” he said. “I also would like my work to be appreciated by a diverse audience, because even though it has certain racial issues it deals with issues of humanity.”

    Currently Clark is working on large color paintings of the Checkered Rabbit being constructed – a kind of Genesis story. He is also doing some performance work and planning to make a Checkered Rabbit costume.

    Clark’s art keeps open the discussion of race with both a humorous and critical eye on the world around him. Here at the University, race has been a popular topic of debate relating to the University’s mascot the Chief.

    Clark said he envisions the Chief and the Checkered Rabbit seeing eye to eye, should they ever meet.

    “They both have issues with their representation,” Clark said. “I think they would be pals.”

    Clark’s show will be featured at the ARC gallery through Sept. 30. His work can also be seen in Champaign at the Springer Cultural Center, 301 N. Randolph St.