Lawrence Washington stood in front of the painting “The Mississippi” inside the St. Louis Art Museum. The 14-year-old didn’t say much, but the image of an African-American family atop the roof of their house as it is consumed by the churning waters of a flooded river stuck with Lawrence a month after the visit.
Seeing a Black family losing everything, their lives threatened, with no sign of help, was frustrating. And surprising.
“It was only Black people up there,” Lawrence said last week. “It made Black people look kind of bad.”
It was the first visit to the museum for Lawrence, who was among 12 eighth-graders from Brittany Woods Middle School in University City participating in a program that has helped nearly 9,000 students see art in terms of class, gender, and race.
“The docents aren’t getting into the history but the emotions (the works) evoke. The stereotypes,” said Tabari Coleman, project director for the A World of Difference Institute, a part of the Anti-Defamation League.
This is the 14th year the institute has worked with the art museum for the Concepts of Beauty and Bias program.
It has encouraged junior high and high school students from about 75 schools to discuss stereotypes, bias and discrimination through art. It also provides the framework for students with sometimes fragile self-images to see that what is considered attractive has varied greatly over the years through the eyes of artists.
“We try to create a safe environment, so the students bring all of themselves to the table,” Coleman said. Doing so, he said, allows the students to better understand who they are as well as those around them.
The painting Lawrence commented on was done by John Steuart Curry, a white Midwesterner, and completed in the mid-1930s, well before the Civil Rights movement took hold.
“At the time, there was a lot of prejudice toward Black people,” docent Gin Wachter told Lawrence and his classmates, all African-Americans. “This artist did not like this.”
At that time, she said, rescuers would assist White people first “and let Black people fend for themselves,” Wachter said. And while the painting is nearly 80 years old, Monica Black, a facilitator for the program, said the image was eerily similar to photos of Black families stranded in their homes during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The painting was used as a way to tie the past to the present and to make the students wonder if the imagery would have been different had a Black artist painted the scene.
A similar discussion was held in front of “The Captive Charger,” a 19th-century painting by Charles Ferdinand Wimar showing American Indians with a horse captured from a cavalry officer. The students said the painting cast the Indians in a negative light.
Student Jermarcus Perkins was convinced that “a Black person would have drew the Native Americans being good.”
Wachter explained that paintings were often commissioned by wealthy White people who wanted history captured in a particular way.