In a recently deleted Facebook post, North Carolina Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson posted a picture of a portrait from the North Carolina Museum of Art portraying a Black woman holding the severed head of a white man with the caption:
“Violent, racist, trash posing as ‘art’ at the North Carolina Museum of Art. This is a Critical Race Theory on canvas. Make no mistake, the leftist leaders and their stooges don’t want reconciliation, they want revenge. They don’t fight for justice, they fight for and agenda. And they don’t want to be equal…. they want to be elite.”
The piece garnered thousands of reactions and responses from conservatives across the state decrying the portrait, artist and museum for promoting “Black supremacy” and discussing what would happen “if the roles were reversed.”
Robinson and his commenters are being willfully ignorant of the painting’s story and message.
Most of the commenters, and Robinson himself, either did not know the title of the piece or the author or they just chose not to include them. The piece is titled “Judith and Holofernes” and is painted by Kehinde Wiley, the same artist who painted former President Obama’s presidential portrait and is known for his unique style of street-casted Black subjects on graphic floral backgrounds.
If Robinson and the commenters went far enough to read the title of the piece, they would know this painting is a recreation of a common artistic motif of the Biblical story of Judith and Holofernes. The story tells of Judith, a widow in a Jewish town under attack by the Assyrians, beheading the Assyrian general Holofernes in his sleep with his own sword.
The story has been depicted by artists time and time again since the 17th century. In every painting, Judith is seen holding the severed head of Holofernes, so why is this one different? Because this one depicts a Black Judith by a Black artist while conservatives look for any reason to decry the movement pushing for Black equity. Furthermore, Robinson and the commenters seemed to believe this piece was painted or bought in response to the racial justice movement of the summer. However, the piece was painted in 2012 and purchased by the museum shortly after.
It’s honestly embarrassing how little research I had to do to find this information. Researching any of Wiley’s previous works would show that Wiley is in no way promoting “Black supremacy” through his piece, and the museum is not promoting “Black supremacy” through its purchase and display of this piece.
If this piece had been just created out of the imagination of the artist with a Black woman beheading a white man, what would have been the problem with it anyway? Art is and has always been provocative. It’s always been political. Anyone who knows anything about art knows that it’s never been painting just to paint.
You can look within the same museum and see pieces that reflect other political works by Black artists that happen to be more esoteric. It’s not blatant enough that a politician is able to race-bait his audience just by looking at it.
Michael Richards’ “Tar Baby vs. St. Sebastian” is in the center of a room and is seven feet tall. It’s hard to miss. It tells the story of the Tuskegee Airmen who were only recognized for their contributions to World War II long after the war ended. Mickalene Thomas’ “Three Graces: Les Trois Femmes Noires” celebrates the beauty and femininity of Black women by juxtaposing them against the traditionally white Greek myth of the Graces. Simone Leigh’s “Corrugated” uses surrealist and abstract sculpture to create conversation around the idea of Black femininity.
All of these are equally as political as Wiley’s piece, but aren’t as easy for a politician to exploit to make his point. Robinson has since deleted the post, which I hope is due to him educating himself of the work, the artist and the history. I highly doubt it though, considering he hasn’t posted anything taking responsibility for lying about the piece.
The last piece that rubbed me the wrong way was commenters talking about the hypothetical role reversal. What if this was a white woman beheading a Black man, how would the cancel culture radical leftists react to that?
The thing is, the roles have been reversed in art. The only difference is the pieces you see with the roles reversed in museums aren’t imaginative. They’re historical.
William Blake’s “A Negro hung alive by the Ribs to a Gallows” depicts a the gruesome reality that the ancestors of these exact same artists and subjects the commenters are complaining about have gone through. Jacob Lawrence’s “Forward” depicts the historical account of Harriet Tubman risking her life to bring enslaved people in the South to their freedom in the North. Hank Willis Thomas’ “The Cotton Bowl” is from a series based on Abel Meeropol’s poem “Strange Fruit” discussing the South’s history of lynching Black people. The piece juxtaposes the position of an enslaved man picking cotton and a Black football player, commenting on how the United States has always viewed Black people as a source of capital.
Art is, has been and will always be political. If you’re going to be angry about it, at least educate yourself on its history before making unsubstantiated race-baiting claims, especially when you’re an elected official with a large following.